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.