By Shereen Siewert
Despite significant enthusiasm over building affordable single-family homes on remnant parcels on Thomas Street, Wausau’s rollout is raising questions with respect to the American Rescue Plan’s public participation guidelines.
The city will hold the first of two informational meetings on Monday, March 27 to gather input for homes to be built on lots left vacant by the Thomas Street road project with a “visual presence survey” on what the federally-funded development should look like. The meeting is set for 5:30 p.m. at G.D. Jones, 1018 S. 12th Ave., Wausau for the project, which will also include Community Development Block Grant and HUD HOME funds.
Earlier this month, Dist. 3 Alder Tom Kilian, who represents a swath of the neighborhood, was visibly emotional during an Economic Development Committee meeting in which the project was first discussed and said he saw it as a positive development for residents who have historically been marginalized.
“I am one hundred percent behind it,” Kilian said.
But the way city officials are presenting the idea is prompting questions about accessibility and federal requirements, an issue that was also central in Wausau’s Thomas Street expansion plan. Then, in 2012, the Federal Highway Administration notified Wausau about regulation violations between 2008 and 2011 that resulted in a multi-million dollar loss of funding in federal and state grants. The FHA found that Wausau failed to appraise homes before buying them, failed to inform some property owners of their rights and didn’t always offer to pay relocation costs. As a result, the city was no longer eligible for $2.7 million in grants for the project, a loss that set off an outcry over Wausau’s plan.
The use of ARPA funding for such projects is subject to a series of requirements that aim to ensure maximum public participation and public comment opportunities. But Monday’s meeting flyer is not translated into Hmong, despite a 12 percent linguistic isolation rate in the affected neighborhood, nor does the flyer contain language that complies with the American Disabilities Act. The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination and ensures that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.
On the city’s website, the “official notice and agenda” for Monday’s meeting reflects a potential quorum of the City Council, as required, but does not give details about the meeting, nor does it contain ADA language. Though most city meeting notices include the language, listed below, though some other meetings – including Monday’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee – do not. The ADA language allows residents who wish to request assistance or accommodations to participate in a meeting do so at least 72 hours before a meeting.
Dept. of Housing and Urban Development guidelines suggest several ways to broaden outreach, with best practices that include featuring the public meeting prominently online, sharing public notices on a variety of media platforms including newspapers, translating the notice into languages commonly spoken in the geographic area and asking service organizations to post the translated notice on their websites. But the only notice Wausau Pilot & Review could find on the city’s website is a possible quorum, with no translation and no ADA language. In addition, this newspaper did not receive a press release announcing the meeting but approached the city for more information after seeing the quorum notice on Wausau’s calendar.
Neighborhood meetings and city meetings can be treated differently, but this meeting is noticed in flyers as one that is “hosted by City of Wausau Economic Development Department.”
During the March 7 ED meeting, Economic Development Director Liz Brodek said city officials aim to hold a meeting that is as “inclusive as possible.” But in an email, Brodek said that although a Hmong interpreter will attend both meetings, city officials have determined that translating the written materials into Hmong “would be ineffective for a variety of reasons.”
Open meetings experts say that without translated materials, many residents cannot possibly even know that a meeting is taking place.
Dist. 3’s Kilian said in light of the questions surrounding the meeting, he will not attend on Monday.
Full details about the housing project being presented to residents Monday were not available on Thursday when Wausau Pilot & Review reached out to Brodek for information. Meeting materials were not yet complete, she said, adding that her department was working with Kilian and Alder Lou Larson to tweak the presentation materials to incorporate their feedback.
Brodek said the visual survey itself is “pictures only.” Those pictures will not, however, include actual renderings of possible homes for the sites, which stretch from near the edge of the Wisconsin River west toward Third Avenue. Notably, several of those properties have demonstrated environmental challenges and were previously sites in which homes were torn down to make way for the street expansion project.
Dist. 7 Alder Lisa Rasmussen on March 7 urged Brodek to bring drawings to public meetings so residents can weigh in on the design. But, Rasmussen said, even without the renderings, there is value to Monday’s meeting to get a general feel for what people want in terms of room capacity, parking, size and materials.
“Just something to get people thinking and talking while they listen and record the feedback,” Rasmussen told Wausau Pilot & Review. “Then, they need to take that feedback, and flesh out a few design options and go back to the group to see which is preferable, or if a mix of all the designs is perhaps what they want to see depending on how similar or different they are and the costs. That should guide what we build there. Since we have some time limits on ARPA funds, it would be helpful if these sessions happen before the end of the summer.”
Rasmussen said ultimately, the city needs to get feedback and get moving so homes are available for people who need them as quickly as possible. “The impact is reduced if it takes two years to figure it out and build,” she said.
Brodek said the city engaged a consultant from Green Bay, Christopher Naumann, to create, conduct and analyze the survey. His background is in architecture, urban design and Main Street work, she said. The cost of the consultant was not immediately disclosed.
In addition to federally-funded housing, Habitat for Humanity is also interested in constructing homes for some sites, according to city documents.
The city will host a second meeting on April 5. Wausau Pilot & Review has reached out to Mayor Katie Rosenberg, City Attorney Anne Jacobson, Brodek, Rasmussen and Kilian for additional information on how Wausau will address federal requirements.