Wausau will buy two Grand Avenue properties to expand its central fire station, after a robust debate about due procedure and the role and jurisdiction of standing committees.
The purchase price for the properties, at 811 and 815 Grand Ave., is roughly $800K. Wausau’s Finance Committee on Sept. 12 recommended the purchase after a closed session, and the city made an offer one week later.
That offer was countered, and the Finance Committee met again Oct. 10, directing staff to negotiate further. One day later, the city accepted a counter-offer from the seller to make way for the expansion. The 64-year-old fire station is short on space for current fleet apparatus and lacks proper facilities and privacy for female firefighters, among other deficiencies. Incoming Fire Chief Jeremy Kopp told the City Council the department has been eyeing an expansion for a long time for Fire Station One, which shares a building with the Wausau Police Department on the corner of Grand Avenue and Thomas Street.
Procedural questions raised again
The vote approving the purchase, 9-2, was marked by vigorous debate about whether the matter was discussed in the appropriate committee. Alder Gary Gisselman offered an amendment to send the matter to the Capital Improvements and Street Maintenance Committee, saying the purchase should have been discussed there first, followed by a fiscal consultation in the Finance Committee. His suggestion was supported by Alder Lou Larson, who chairs the CISM Committee, and Alder Tom Kilian.
Alders Lisa Rasmussen, Michael Martens, Carol Lukens, Sarah Watson and Dawn Herbst objected to Gisselman’s motion and said the matter had been thoroughly discussed. Referring it to CISM, they said, would only delay the Nov. 15 closing.
Rasmussen said the purchase deal came to the Finance Committee as part of the Capital Improvements Plan project, with the amount earmarked. She also said that the members of CISM, all of whom were in attendance, could openly state whether they would make a different decision but if not, there was no point in holding the decision. The next CISM meeting isn’t happening until December, which would push the purchase to January if the decision was delayed.
Kilian objected to Rasmussen’s suggestion that CISM Committee members could provide input on the spot, saying that holding a CISM discussion within the City Council meeting would violate the Wisconsin Open Meetings law as it had not been agendized.
Alder Martens said the request from the Fire Department was made a year ago and every opportunity was looked at as to how to move forward on it. He added he found the request to send it to CISM “disingenuous” and another “11th hour request.” Alder Lukens said a delay would send a wrong message to the public that the committees and the council were not being transparent. Watson also objected to the timing of the suggestion to send the mater to CISM.
But Kilian said it was not about transparency as Lukens said, but following the proper rules, and in this instance, the city’s own rules had not been adhered to. Violating rules in the name of timeliness is not proper procedure and has happened quite a few times in the past, he added.
Larson also complained that proper procedures and protocols were not followed in this instance. Responding to Martens’ comments, Larson said the agenda for his committee was prepared by the engineering department and that the fire department’s request was not brought to his committee. He said this was not the first time his committee was bypassed.
Larson was likely referring to a decision related to closing the McClellan Street parking ramp in April and May this year. Then, the Department of Public Works and Engineering departments bypassed CISM, the committee with jurisdiction over the closure of the ramp, and went to Finance instead. Council members asked the Public Works Director and City Engineer Allen Wesolowski to follow proper procedures.
City Attorney Anne Jacobson said the sale of city property should first go to CISM but in this instance, it was a matter of a purchase, not a sale But, she added, the council could decide to send the matter to CISM if it wanted. As for the date of the closure, the council could amend the closing date, she said.
Gisselman’s amendment to send the purchase decision to CISM was defeated narrowly, 5-6.
Later, he asked Deputy Fire Chief Kopp his opinion on the location. Kopp, who is taking over the department as chief next month, said the location is ideal for the department to attend to the community’s and firefighters’ needs, and is close to the current department’s location.
When the vote on the purchase was taken, Gisselman supported it. The measure passed 9-2, with Kilian and Larson voting against it.