Are we taking this seriously?

On a scale of 1-10, how seriously are we taking the Covid-19 Pandemic? On Wednesday, a city administrator told me he went to pick up a to-go order at a local bar/restaurant the night before and found the bar open, with a crowd of folks lined up elbow to elbow. Meanwhile, three Wisconsin counties are reporting “community spread” cases of the illness. Community spread means so many people have the virus in one area that it is now spreading from people within the county; it was not brought in from Italy, China, or a cruise ship. No counties had community spread two days ago; there are three counties today. How many will there be in a week? Are we taking this seriously enough?

The League’s job is to help you do your job. To that end, we’re tracking down and cranking out as much information as we can find that is relevant to municipal responses to the Coronavirus. Our role is to listen to you and then find answers to your questions, particularly those questions that relate to state laws and regulations. If you haven’t done so recently, I recommend you check out the Coronavirus page on lwm-info.org. We’re updating it constantly and there’s some very useful, practical information there.

On St. Patrick’s Day the Governor issued Emergency Order Number Five. That order closes the taverns in Wisconsin (never thought I’d see that), limits restaurants to “carry out” and, most significantly, it places a moratorium on “mass gatherings” of ten people or more. The order echoes the latest recommendation from the world-renowned Centers for Disease Control (CDC) which were amplified by President Trump’s “15 Days to Slow the Spread” campaign.

The order exempts government offices from the crowd moratorium, allowing city councils, village boards, and the other instruments of government to continue. That’s necessary, good and helpful, but I’ll be honest with you; it’s also troubling. You now have the power to decide whether crowds may gather in municipal buildings. Use that power wisely.

The curveThe Governor’s order, President Trump’s campaign and your work at the local level are all targeted at the same goal: flattening the curve. “Flattening the curve” means slowing down the spread of the Coronavirus to a rate that our hospitals, doctors and clinics can handle. If we don’t slow it down, there will quickly come a point where there are more people who need to be in the hospital than there are hospital beds available. Italy found out to its horror what happens when you don’t flatten the curve. People die in the corridors of hospitals as they wait their turn for a ventilator or other critical care.

Flattening the curve happens by limiting person-to-person contact. It doesn’t make the virus go away, but it allows our health care providers to adequately treat those who are seriously ill. The alternative, people who need critical care but can’t get it, is something we should not even consider. Emergency Order Number Five was the most recent action taken to flatten that curve. But its success or failure will be determined locally.

The CDC is in Atlanta. President Trump is in the White House. Governor Evers is in the State Capitol building. You’re on the ground in your community. The success or failure of things like Executive Order Number Five is more in your power than that of the scientists at CDC, President Trump or Governor Evers. Are we planning to cancel large public hearings or use teleconference technology where possible, or will we maintain “business as usual”? How seriously are we taking this?

Numbers, numbers, numbers

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January always gets me thinking about numbers. Perhaps it’s from ytears of preparing and presenting year-end reports to radio listeners (in a younger life) or to boards of directors (in my..ahem..prime). When the calendar says it’s January, I automatically start to tally things up. You can learn a lot from numbers.

One very enlightening number that I heard this month is $1,466,370,391, followed by the number 1,596. $1.47 billion is the total amount needed to fund each of the 1,596 transportation projects that have been submitted by cities, villages, towns and counties in response to a one-time grant program created by the Wisconsin Legislature and managed by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. The “Multimodal Local Supplement” (MLS) grant was created by lawmakers who were being told that local transportation systems were in need of catching up after years of deferred repairs. It was funded with $75 million. Demand has exceeded available funding by over 1,800-percent.

As expected, roads make up the dominant share of the applications. Roads are at the top of most local priority lists, although there are also important harbor and bus-related requests. Bicycle and pedestrian applications account for roughly 3.5% of the total. It’s too soon to say what the final “mix” of projects actually funded by the department will look like.

Review committees made up of local transportation experts are poring over the hundreds of requests now. They have the unenviable job of recommending which ones should be funded. Pity them. The reality is that there will be more applications rejected than will be funded. At most a few hundred projects will be funded out of the 1,596 requests. Good, necessary projects will be left behind.

Wisconsin has known that its transportation system had some cracks and was suffering deferred maintenance. In addition to providing a needed shot in the arm for local public works budgets, these January numbers give us a glimpse of just how far behind we are. Wisconsin now has a 1,596-page catalog of local transportation needs. We obviously still have some work to do.

I don’t want to close this column on a “downer.” The Governor and Legislature deserve credit for making a significant investment in transportation funding (for all modes) in the most recent state budget. The $75 million one-time MLS grants will provide very important relief. We can complain that it’s not enough, but let’s not forget that it’s not just about roads. It’s not easy to balance growing Medicaid, school aids, University and corrections needs with equally-important roads, bridges, harbors and transit needs. It’s all important to the citizens of Wisconsin and there’s just so much money available. Those are hard decisions and we thank our state elected leaders for making them.

But, most of all, I argue that this most recent crop of numbers is a testament to the people who drive snow plows and buses and those who do the thankless job of caring for the pavement beneath them. Local government workers across Wisconsin deserve a huge pat on the back for keeping those underfunded local systems operating as well as they have. The needs have been growing, and this grant program has shown just how big the need has become. But, in the meantime, men and women in high-visibility vests with shovels in their hands have been holding it together. In classic, pragmatic local government “can-do” fashion, you have been keeping Main Street plowed and paved, the bike paths open, the harbors deep and the buses running on time. Thank you. Stay safe.

Day 2, Flying Through

What a jam-packed day! Day two of the conference was a busy day full of information and great networking with others. I hope that you enjoyed all the break out sessions just as much as I did.We had such a wide range of topics covered today from PFAS, to Liquor Licencing, covering the importance of ethics and so much more. While these topics might seem like boring issues to the average person; I always digging in when discussing policy. As local leaders it is vital that we always continue to learn new ideas and share our experiences with others because this is how we are able to grow and make improvements. 

It was  great to hear from Tricia Braun during lunch. Tricia is the Chief Operating Officer at the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. She is charged with leading the organization’s efforts to promote Wisconsin and help foster a positive workforce environment all across Wisconsin. It was wonderful to hear all the great work that WEDC is doing to help promote Wisconsin and encourage people to relocate here. As local leaders we rely on our state partners to help promote and life up our communities. 

We also took time to recognize Appleton Mayor Tim Hanna for his many years of service to Appleton and the League. I know that we all wish him well in his retirement. Mayor Hanna is a shining example of what a local leader should do.

Congrats on the respective winners for the Local Spark and Arts in the Community Awards. It is important to recognize the great work that is being done around the state, and brightening up our communities whether big or small. Seeing the great work being done reminds me that no matter the size of the municipality, that we can all achieve creative and innovative projects. 

This conference is zipping by. We are in the home stretch. I am super excited to hear LeRoy Butler speak tomorrow!

First Day of #LeagueWI2019 Starts Strong

The first day of the 121st League Conference is off to a great start. It is always rejuvenating to see so many passionate local leaders that care about making their communities a better place. I know this will be a very successful conference because we have a great lineup of speakers and sessions. I hope that you will learn a lot and leave this conference with a great sense of commitment to your community.

This has been an exciting day so far. This morning started off with several informational deep dive sessions. I attend the session on innovative housing solutions. As local leaders we all know that housing is an issue that we all are trying to address and help meet the needs of our communities. As we all know, there is no single easy solution to addressing the housing issue. That is why Kurt Paulsen encouraged all of our cities and villages to develop a community housing plan. When we develop strong housing plans, only then can our cities and villages begin to move forward.

I don’t know about you but, I filled my bag with so much stuff from the vendor fair. I now have plenty of pens and note pans to make it through the next year. I always enjoy chatting with the vendors and learning about all the different partners that we have that help us by providing us with the tools to help see our projects through. I would like to give a shout out to all of those sponsors and vendors that participated during the vendor fair. Whenever I swing through the exhibit hall, I am always excited to hear what services that Sheboygan utilized and some successes that they have had. 

I also want to thank the outgoing League Board President Tammy Bockhorst on a great year with her at the helm. Tammy’s leadership will be missed, but I know that she will continue to be a strong municipal leader for years to come. I also want to congratulate Mayor Zach Vruwink on becoming the new League Board President. As another young elected official, it is inspiring to see another young leader that is passionate about his hometown and Wisconsin. I know that Zach will do a wonderful job as the new Board President. 

It was great to have Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson from Gary Indiana speak during the business meeting. Mayor Freeman-Wilson also serves as the President of the National League of Cities. She reminded all of us about the importance to love our communities and how fostering positive civic engagement is vital for our future. I know that we all love our communities and strive everyday to show off the hidden jewels that our communities have.

We are just getting started, and I know that the rest of the conference will be just as great and invigorating. 

Ryan Sorenson – Sheboygan City Council

Who is ready for #LWM2019

Hi everyone, I’m Ryan Sorenson. I am on the Sheboygan City Council. Jerry is letting me take over his blog for the next few days so I can share my perspective and thoughts about the upcoming League of Municipalities Conference. This will be the best and biggest conference so far. I hope that you are just as excited as I am!

I think it is very fitting that we are having the conference in Green Bay this year. So far the Packers are rocking, and finally have a defense! They also will hopefully continue to hold their 1st place status for the NFC North. Don’t get me wrong the Packer still have room for improvement, just like all of us. It is even more exciting that LeRoy Butler will be our closing speaker. LeRoy was the original Lambeau Leaper. Having LeRoy is only just one of the exciting things that will be at this year’s conference. This year at the conference there will be big trucks in the exhibit hall, ethics expert Michael Gillette will be back, and of course there will be many engaging breakout sessions.

Attending the annual conference is always invigorating and helpful for me. There is always so much that I learn when I attend the conference. When I leave the conference I feel like I have added more tools in my tool belt, which makes me a better local leader. When we all have the tools and learn new ideas, we are able to make all our communities a better place.

I am looking forward to meeting and connecting with many of you. If you see me, please stop by and say hi!

-Ryan

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Bonus round for potholes!

Eau Claire St. 4 2016 GailWisconsin’s long road back to a well-maintained transportation system has begun. Yesterday the Wisconsin Department of Transportation announced the details of a one-time grant competition to invest $75 million repairing, rebuilding and/or upgrading Wisconsin’s local roads, bridges, bike trails and transit systems. The grant program is one part of a state transportation budget that acknowledged the need to beef up our transportation system, especially (but not exclusively) the local part of our system.

The League has a simple message for Wisconsin’s cities and villages: APPLY! Come on, you know you have a road that’s long overdue for reconstruction, a bus stop that should have been bulldozed years ago, or a pedestrian trail nobody uses because it has more weeds, mud puddles and broken concrete than it has walkers. This is their chance; it’s the bonus round! As they say on the commercial: “Send it in!”

I give Transportation Secretary Craig Thompson, Governor Tony Evers and the Wisconsin Legislature a serious “tip of the hat” on this one. It’s flexible, it’s responsive and it lets YOU at the LOCAL level make the call. Projects can be everything from “shovel ready” (can we hate that term yet??) to a gleam in your Public Works Director’s eye. As long as the project can be completed within six years, it’s eligible. Minimum project size is $250,000, and the maximum size is $3.5 million. You must have something that fits in between those two numbers. Every city and village does.

We won’t regurgitate all of the rules and regulations here; you can read them at the WisDOT’s web site. Just remember the deadline: December 6.

We also have a request: Send us pictures. The League would love to see the critical projects that our members want to work on. Send us an ugly “before” picture.

Potholes, your days are numbered.

 

A life or death conversation

One of my mentors is Clarence Anthony, the Executive Director of the National League of Cities. A week ago, Clarence posted this item as he reflected on the most recent round of pointless and tragic mass shootings. Like many of us, Clarence is struggling to understand why these things happen. But like many of us in the arena of local government, he asks an even more important and immediate question: What’s our role? What’s our role in response to tragedies such as those that have occurred in El Paso, Dayton, and Oak Creek? What’s our role in averting and avoiding these acts of deadly outrage? What’s our role as citizens?

Democracy in America is not a spectator sport. It is nothing more and nothing less than  every one of us acting together for the common good. What’s the role of democracy in the face of domestic terrorism? This will be a difficult conversation. It may be a painful conversation. But it’s a conversation we need to have if we are ever going to find a solution to this violence.

To quote Clarence Anthony: No more, no more, no more.

Another week, another Dark Store defeat

While the Wisconsin Legislature can’t seem to grasp it, members of the State Bar are beginning to get the idea: the Dark Store Loophole is a loser. This week the City of West Bend declared victory over a Dark Store play by Menards. The home improvement chain withdrew three year’s worth of Dark Store-based claims that it was being taxed too much. In a news release, City Administrator Jay Shambeau said the decision proves that his assessors, like many others in Wisconsin who face Dark Store claims, were doing it right all along.

“Our City Assessors take great pride in their work and establish fair and equitable assessed values,” stated City of West Bend Administrator, Jay Shambeau. The cancellation of this lawsuit affirms the fact that the City of West Bend assessments were proper and fair all along.  Shambeau also states, “The residents and property owners in West Bend should find peace in knowing that our city staff work hard to establish uniform and law-based assessments on all property assessments.”

We don’t have the exact numbers involved in this case, but similar claims from big box stores have called for cuts as large as half their tax bill, shifting tens of thousands of dollars in taxes onto homeowners, small independent businesses and manufacturers every year. In addition to shifting the tax burden to others, the cost of defending an assessment decision can easily exceed $50,000, forcing many cities and villages to make the hard choice and agree to a settlement. The Mayor of West Bend, Kraig Sadownikow, is pleased the city stuck to its guns and didn’t negotiate a settlement.

“West Bend has been a leader in combating the dark store theory,” states City of West Bend Mayor Kraig Sadownikow.  “I am proud of our city council and staff for their resistance to buckle to the big box pressure to accept a settlement offer. Any type of settlement would have caused a tax shift to other city property taxpayers. This was unacceptable in my opinion.”

Governor Tony Evers included language in his state budget bill that would have closed the Dark Store and Walgreens loopholes once and for all. On a party-line vote, Republican leaders in the Legislature removed that language from the bill. While the future of Dark Store legislation may be uncertain, the future of dark store arguments winning in Wisconsin court rooms looks even shakier. The good news is that, despite the significant legal costs, cities and villages that have stood up to the tax-shifting strategy have been succeeding lately. If this discourages enterprising tax lawyers for big box stores from using dark store strategies, it’s good news for taxpayers.

Way to go, West Bend!

Another assessment win

If you tell a bank that your property is worth $450 million, chances are you won’t win an argument claiming your property tax assessment of $400 million is too high. That’s one of the morals of this most recent property assessment story. On May 9 the City of Wauwatosa won the largest, most complicated retail property assessment challenges to date. By order of a judge, super-regional Mayfair Mall is worth what the assessor said it’s worth (and probably more), not what 20 less attractive malls are worth.

The Mayfair Mall property tax saga began in 2013 when the city of Wauwatosa pegged the property’s value at $400 million. The city’s data suggested the property was worth about ten-percent more than that amount, but the assessor went with the more conservative figure in part because he didn’t have access to income information that had been repeatedly requested from the owner. The assessment was the same for 2014 and raised by roughly 5-percent for 2015. The real estate investment trust that owned Mayfair sued, claiming the city assessments were in error.

A four-year court battle ensued. A year ago, both sides met in Milwaukee County Circuit Court for a six-week trial. The trial became a dense and complicated contest of competing experts. Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Marshall B. Murray issued his written decision in favor of the city this month. His 34-page written decision carefully details how Wauwatosa Assessors Steve Miner and (later) Shannon Krause repeatedly used correct data, scrupulously-followed the Wisconsin Property Assessment Manual and assigned values that were conservatively-beneath the actual value of the property.

On the other side, the experts hired by Mayfair to justify its claim that the assessment was wrong were repeatedly found to be “inconsistent and not credible” by the judge. In some instances, the judge’s decision points out that the owner’s experts contradicted their own previous work. Mayfair had an appraisal done to finance the mall, putting its value at about $460 million. One of the experts who challenged the $400 million assessment worked for the firm that had done the appraisal. (Just one of the facts that Judge Murray pointed out in his “inconsistent and not credible” finding.)

Although Mayfair’s challenge did not turn on the “dark store” theory directly, the decision is an important element in the ongoing legislative debate. It is unquestionably the largest, most complicated retail assessment challenge in the recent string of property tax decisions. Two of Wisconsin’s best municipal assessors, Miner and Krause, were central figures in assigning the values to the property and the case was defended by expert municipal tax attorneys Amy Seibel and Ryan Braithwaite. The other side brought its legal A-team as well, and both sides relied on leading national experts in assessment and appraisal. The case was as expertly-argued as an assessment case can be…and the municipal side won on all points.

Despite the importance of this win, the fight continues. In Wauwatosa, there are related cases from more recent tax years still under appeal, and this decision may be appealed to a higher court. Wauwatosa Mayor Kathy Ehley has said her city budgets more for assessment-related legal fees annually than it receives in shared revenue payments; more than a quarter of a million per year.

Ironically, the same week Judge Murray rejected Mayfair’s appeal the Wisconsin Legislature’s budget-writing committee rejected a proposal to clarify the law. The Joint Committee on Finance voted 11-3 against League-supported Dark Store language in the state budget. Apparently, legislation that would help Wauwatosa and other Wisconsin municipalities not spend $250,000 per year on legal fees is not “fiscal policy” suitable for a state budget.

Stay tuned.

212 Roads to Somewhere

The Wisconsin Legislature is deciding this spring whether or not to delay main street in 212 Wisconsin Cities, Villages and Towns. There are 212 state highway rehabilitation projects included in a $320 million state highway rehabilitation program budget request. The request is being considered this month by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance. Each of those projects is a vital piece of a community’s economic success. We hope the vote is “Green” for go.

We admit that the “State Highway Rehabilitation Program” is a name only a bureaucratic mother could love. And $320 million is a lot of money, even within a multi-billion dollar state budget. What’s the connection to downtown Wisconsin? It’s not local transportation aids. Why should we care?

We do care, because all roads in Wisconsin lead somewhere. For example, one of those 212 projects would resurface Highway 172 in the Green Bay Area; the highway that leads to the Brown County Airport. Another project would replace a critical bridge on Highways 59 and 18 in the City of Waukesha. One more resurfaces the road that runs through the Village of Athens in Marathon County. Project after project affects city after city, village after village and town after town. It’s all connected; connected to you and I.

State highways are the links between Wisconsin’s 602 cities and villages; they are also often the main thoroughfares through those communities. They carry farm products, manufacturing equipment, school buses, ambulances and the tens of thousands of family vehicles traveling back and forth every day. Without a quality network of these roads linking local roads and the highway system, it gets harder to get to work, to get to school, and to get emergency services to people who need them.

A few days ago, the Wisconsin DOT released the list of road rehabilitation projects that would be delayed or deferred (deferred is bureaucratic word that means something worse than delayed) if we cannot find consensus on how to pay for them. Take a look at the list; it’s long but organized by county. Chances are you’ll find a road that you drive on listed there. Think about that particular stretch of road. What happens to your village if that project doesn’t get done next year; or the year after; or maybe just doesn’t get done? Whose job is affected; whose school is affected; which ambulance has to be rerouted?

Think about that. Then call your area legislator. It’s all connected.