By Shereen Siewert
City leaders in Wausau are renewing efforts to erect a fence beneath the Scott Street Bridge, despite the council’s rejection of a prior budget amendment to fund the project.
On Tuesday, Feb. 14, the Board of Public Works opened bids for the project, which received one response to a request for proposals issued in January. The sole bid, from Fortress Fence, is roughly $87,000, which is more than twice the amount initially budgeted as a capital improvement measure.
In September, a proposal to add an additional $18,000 to the $40,000 already budgeted failed to gain a required 2/3 majority, even with a 5-4 passing vote. The new price tag is considerably higher than the $58,000 discussed last year.
Public Works Director Eric Lindman said the fencing project is a joint venture with WPS “and they want to move ahead with their portion of the project.”
The move is taking some council members and advocates for the homeless population, who thought the project was rejected in September, by surprise. Though the Finance Committee in 2022 recommended approving the funding, the proposal drew pointed opposition from some members of the public and council members who saw the fence as yet another Wausau initiative to punish homeless residents.
During the September meeting, Sandi Kelch, of the Community Outreach Task Force, spoke to the consequences of blocking off access to the city’s bridges. That space, she said, provides a barrier from the wind and snow for people with nowhere to go. She reminded the Council that the Warming Center, while a tool to help serve the unhoused residents of Wausau, has limited room. Many more need shelter, she said.
In an email, Dist. 7 Alder Lisa Rasmussen pointed to efforts by the city to address homelessness and said the city should not consider the bridge a solution.
“In parallel, the city has approved and funded 24 hour shelter options, including a day center that is in the process of gathering itself to open soon, with low barriers to entry for those who need it,” Rasmussen said. “This should relieve pressure on the library and other structures, and offer an alternative to seeking the bridge area for shelter, given that area should not be considered an appropriate solution for our homeless population in general. It is unsafe and does nothing for the dignity of those in need or to mitigate prolonged suffering.”
Also in September, Wausau Police Chief Ben Bliven said the bridge effort was never conceived to solve the homeless issue but a safety measure to keep residents from falling into the river.
But even that assertion was met with some skepticism. Dist. 3 Alder Tom Kilian, who voted against the measure, openly asked in September just how much of Wausau’s sprawling riverfront the city plans to fence off if the project is truly about public safety.
Kelch, in a prepared statement to Wausau Pilot & Review on Thursday, said her organization understands the purpose of the fence but fears the consequences could be grave if built before permanent, compassionate alternatives are in place. She also pointed to the severe shortage of beds for people who need them, especially during harsh weather events.
“We are very concerned for the safety and and well being of the unhoused who depend on the shelter these bridges provide from dangerous elements our harsh winter brings,” Kelch said. “They are banned from the parking ramps and the shelters are unable to accommodate the current growing number of our unhoused. Additionally, we have a group who are unable to shelter due to trauma, mental illness and other issues. The numbers given by Tracy Reiger at the public Health and Safety committee show a shortage of at least 140 beds. The focus and funding would be better placed on finding permanent long term solutions for overflow and alternatives for those who can not use traditional shelters.”
Rasmussen said that the project could have gone forward if the cost remained within the $40,000 already allocated in the city’s budget. “If the bids remain high like they were before, absent approval of the added funds, the project would be stalled until either the cost comes down or the added money is approved,” she said.
Lindman said his department will be working with WPS and going over the bid received in the coming week or so.
“The previous bid was out of date and to consider moving this forward in 2023 we needed to rebid the project,” he said.
But city officials will likely see some pushback from the public and some council members. Kilian on Thursday told Wausau Pilot & Review his position is unlikely to change.
“If this item will be exactly the same as what came before us before, my perspective on the matter has not changed, and my position on the item will be the same as it was at the earlier date,” Kilian said.
Neither Mayor Katie Rosenberg nor City Council President Becky McElhaney responded to an email sent Wednesday requesting information for this story.