Damakant Jayshi

The Wausau City Council on Tuesday held off on a budget proposal for a bridge fencing project that has drawn criticism from advocates for the city’s homeless residents and will soon tour the area.

The proposal sought to carry over $40,000 in previously approved funding from 2022 into 2023 to fence in areas underneath the Scott Street Bridge where unhoused people frequently camp, seek shelter and store their possessions. Advocates and some community members are questioning the motive for the project and see it as yet another way the city is penalizing unhoused residents.

The fencing push to prevent “living and camping” under the bridge again stemmed from the Department of Public Works and Utilities and comes just months after the council rejected a similar request.

The city approved initial funding in 2022 to build the fence as part of a capital improvements request. But 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, and the project stalled. Some council members and homeless advocates assumed the project was dead, only to be taken by surprise when a request for proposals to complete the project was issued again in January.

Although safety concerns have been cited by both the Wausau Police Department and the DPW, advocates say the real reason is forcing people out from under the bridge.

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. 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.

Public Works Director Eric Lindman appears to contradict Bliven’s assertion.

In his March 14 memo to the Finance Committee and the City Council, Lindman wrote that “the city approved placing fencing in areas under the bridge to prevent people from using this area for living and camping.” The memo notes that “people are and have been camping, living and hanging out in the areas under the bridge.”

The memo does speak about the safety and public health issues as well. “The objective of the fence is to prohibit access to the areas under the bridge due to safety, personal belongings being stored, excessive trash and public health concerns.”

Lindman said that Wisconsin Public Service, a partner in the fencing project, indicated that they wish to complete the project at no extra cost to the city beyond the $40,000 already budgeted in 2022.

But the fencing is not a solution, advocates working on homelessness said.

Bruce Grau, of Wausau, questioned why the fencing project was still continuing to proceed after the City Council’s last decision. “Please step back and consider the ramifications of fencing a congregate living space,” he said Tuesday, during public comments.

Similarly, Community Outreach Task Force representative Amanda Ladecki told the council that the fencing might not keep unhoused people out of the area anway. If people have nowhere to go, they will jump the fence, she said. If you force them out, the people will move to downtown.

Amanda Ladecki speaks during a March 14, 2023 meeting of the Wausau City Council.

“They are going to find other structures, it’s going to be in parks and…schools,” Ladecki said.

Her colleague at the Task Force, which “serves lunches and provides survival items to the unhoused,” cast doubt on the stated objectives of the fencing project.

“We received multiple reasons for this fence and one of them is safety,” said Sandra Kelch, founder and executive director of the Community Outreach Task Force. “I can agree 100% with one area where there is accessibility to the dam and it does pose a danger. However, that’s where it begins and ends.”

But Kelch noted that more people have jumped off the Bridge Street Bridge and have fallen into the river than by the Scott Street Bridge, where the project is planned. If safety is the primary concern, Kelch said, then the Bridge Street Bridge should be included in the project.

Kelch also said that the fencing project would not solve any problems but rather create “more of a hazard and more deplorable conditions because where (homeless residents) are right now, they are surviving.”

Before public comments even began, the Council put the project on hold.

Mayor Katie Rosenberg, who pulled the item from the meeting agenda, said she had been asked to do so by the Finance Committee chair.

“If there is no opposition, I am going to pull that from our agenda and we can set up a tour (of the area under the Scott St. Bridge),” Rosenberg said. No one opposed the move.

Earlier, during the discussion at the Finance Committee that preceded the Common Council meeting, most alders agreed to move the amount from the 2022 budget to 2023, but indicated that they would oppose the fencing project.

Finance Committee Chair Lisa Rasmussen said it was only the council that could decide to pull the item from Tuesday’s discussion.

“What we have to decide here at the Finance Committee is only the money part of the issue,” she said. “We don’t decide the appropriateness or the popularity. That happens at the City Council.”

Committee member Doug Diny said he wouldn’t oppose moving the carryover funds but wanted the City Council to postpone taking any action on the matter until a Committee of the Whole discussed it.

A meeting of the Committee of the Whole has been scheduled for March 28 to discuss homelessness in the City of Wausau. The COW meeting was previously scheduled for Feb. 23 but postponed due to inclement weather.

The committee approved the carryover unanimously.

City Council approves additional funding for daytime shelter unhoused

Meanwhile, the Common Council approved the budget amendment related to a daytime shelter for the unhoused residents in Wausau to be operated by the Open Door. The council approved the additional amount $51,129 under the American Rescue Plan Act funds as recommended by the Wausau Finance Committee which acted on a recommendation by the police department to approve it.

On Feb. 28, the Wausau Finance Committee approved additional funding to support efforts to help the city’s unhoused population find shelter during daytime hours. The day center was initially supposed to be run by Catholic Charities which already runs the year-round warming center.

The alders budget approval was a demonstration that the City Council takes the homelessness seriously. Dist. 6 Alder and Common Council Becky McElhaney thanked Open Door for their work and suggested that they should submit periodic reports on the work. Representatives from the Open Door and Catholic Charities agreed to do so.