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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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Peshtigo To Keep Tax Rate Unchanged For 2022 Budget

Issue Date: November 4, 2021

After nearly nine hours of deliberation at meetings on Thursday, Oct. 28 and Monday, Nov. 1, Peshtigo City Council's Finance Committee approved a proposed budget that keeps the city's property tax rate unchanged for 2022 by using $44,669 of General Fund reserves rather than increased borrowing for long-term expenses, which is allowed under state levy limits. If approved as expected, the total tax rate will stay at $4.995 per $100,000, as it has been for several years.

The proposed budget was approved by Peshtigo City Council at its meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 2, and is scheduled for adoption after a public hearing and special City Council meeting at 6:45 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 22.

The Nov. 2 City Council meeting began with an exceedingly brief public hearing on redistricting in accord with new boundaries set by Marinette County as a result of the 2020 Census. Before the vote, Alderman Richard Berth asked how many voters would be affected, and Clerk Treasurer Tammy Kasal referred him to sheets in the packet showing the new boundaries. She said the only change was a slight variation in boundaries between two of the wards.

The only member of the public to say anything at the hearing was Supervisor Mike Behnke, who is a former City Alderman. When Mayor Cathi Malke asked for comments for or against the proposed new district boundaries, Behnke said he is for the lines as presented, and no one else expressed an opinion one way or the other.

Council vote in favor of adopting the new district lines as recommended by the county was unanimous, with Aldermen Brigitte Schmidt, John Berendt, Katie Berman, Keith Klimek and Rick Berth present. Alderman Debbie Sievert was excused.

In other action, City Council approved a resolution approving proposals for two projects for which funding is to be sought through the Wisconsin Department of Administration's Neighborhood Investment Fund program.

If approved, one of the projects would provide money for expansion of the city's two fire stations, located at 331 French Street and 800 Pine Street, to provide added space for firefighting equipment and enable the city to add EMS services to fire department responsibilities. Firefighters have already agreed to take the training necessary to deal with emergency medical responses, and Fire Chief Chuck Gardon supports the proposal. The changes at Municipal Building at 331 French Street would also provide added space for the library.

The other proposed project would redevelop a condemned blighted property - the old Landmark residential facility at 310 Oconto Ave. - into a new community green space and pavilion. There had been hopes of seeking funds to build a small business/office incubator there, but Mayor Cathi Malke said the Bay Lakes advisors had said that would not qualify for the green space portion of the grant.

The resolution states that site plans, justification and cost analyses for each proposal have been prepared by the City of Peshtigo, U.P. Engineers & Architects, inc., and the Bay Lake Regional Planning Commission and are being thoroughly reviewed by the city.

Malke said the news about the possible grants is even better than they had thought when approving the applications. She has been notified by the state that if they get the grants, 100 percent of the project costs will be covered, and if not, the only expense to the city will be the engineering fees to draw up the preliminary plans.

Berth asked to see the plans, and time was taken from the meeting to look them over.

It was explained at that meeting and at previous meetings that if the EMS project is approved, the Peshtigo Fire Department will eventually respond for medical emergencies along with Emergency Rescue Squad. The fire department expansion project would also use grant money to pay for re-paving of the parking lots at both buildings, which is needed anyway.

Malke explained plans for the old Landmark property include an enclosed brick and mortar building with restrooms and an enclosed kitchen that could be rented out for special events. She said maintenance on the building would be negligible.

Berman asked how much the city would lose in property tax base by taking over that property, which is now privately owned. No one had an immediate answer for that. Malke had previously said she expects the current owner will let it go for unpaid back taxes, and if that happens the city will be responsible for tearing it down, for which cost is estimated at over $400,000 and likely to keep rising.

Klimek wondered if the library gets enough use to justify adding on, and was told there is room in the grant, and the space has been same in the 41 years since the building was constructed. Malke said any time they can add space, they should. She said space for the fire department is badly needed, and in the fire station right now there is barely a foot and a half between the trucks and the equipment kept for use by firefighters.

Berman asked if the city could afford to maintain the new and larger spaces. Gardon agreed there is no doubt some costs will go up, but said the increases would be slight in return for the benefits.

The proposed Fire Department/EMS grant application is for over $3.2 million, and the "green space" Landmark project application is for $1.15 million. The grants are available only for projects costing between $1 and $15 million.

"After sitting through the budget process, I'm wondering if we can afford this?" Berman commented.

Malke said budgeting is as tight as it is because the city has not raised taxes in over 20 years. She said they provide some of the best services anywhere, and if they do not want to cut some of those services, sometime in the next few years they will need to look at raising taxes.

Klimek asked if income could be generated by the new building on the Landmark site, and Malke said it could be rented out. The restrooms will be open, but the kitchen will be locked and will not be opened unless it is rented out.

Berth commented they have been renting out the Drees Community Center for years, and asked how much money they have earned from that. Malke understood this year it was $8,000 in the red, but added use was down due to Covid, and the building provides space needed by various community organizations that help the city and the people who live in it. "We're all a team," she declared.

Berth said he is all in favor of getting rid of the Landmark, but not for building a pavilion there.

Schmidt asked if Council would get a look at the final plans before the projects go forward. Chief Gardon assured her and other aldermen that there will be ample opportunity for them to get involved in plan approval before anything is done.

That said, Malke noted this is a fast moving plan. It was announced on Sept. 30, with the application deadline set for Nov. 4. That deadline since had been extended to Thursday, Nov. 11. Grant awards are to be announced some time in December, and they have until 2024 to finalize plans and spend the money.

At its last meeting Council had authorized spending money for the preliminary engineering work that made the grant application possible. There will be no more related costs, Malke said.

"We won't know unless we try," Schmidt commented before she and other aldermen all voted in favor of the grant resolution.

In other action, Council approved a recommendation allowing employees to carry over one week of paid vacation time each year, to be taken with department head approval. The carried over vacation time will be compensated at the new rate, and Berth took exception to that. He and Klimek voted against the 1-week vacation carryover, and Berendt, Schmidt, and Berman voted in favor.

Also approved was a $50 fee for individuals and businesses to rent a Badger Park campsite to decorate for the Christmas season. Lori Tonn, Park Director, said renters can start decorating their sites on Dec. 1, and she will set a date for taking down decorations based on weather. The decorations will be lighted only during the Christmas season.

On recommendation of the Fire, Lighting and Building Committee Council approved renewing leases for the Library, Berth Park and the Fire Museum and Cemetery. Renewal of the 5-year TOPS Dog Park lease had been overlooked by the committee and was brought directly to Council. It is located on property in the Town of Peshtigo that is owned by the city.

Speaking on behalf of the TOPS Dog Park, Justine Raygo said they have had phenomenal results and many, many new visitors. She said at this point there has been no talk of turning it over to the city, but that could happen in the future. Meanwhile, their organization has been looking for improvements and ways to keep improving the quality of life for the dogs that use it. Berman thanked the TOPS group for providing the dog park and said it is really nice for the animals to have a place where they can run free.

Before the meeting adjourned Malke apologized for neglecting to recognize new businesses and welcome new business owners in the city. She then saluted Jason and Joann Malke of Peshtigo Apparel Company; Nate and Kelly Gamelin, who have purchased the old Colonial Club building and will be refurbishing the building and locating their Big Woods Realty business there; Judy Schmidt and Kayla Steeber of Heartland Nutrition; Jeremy Sallgren and Zack Anderla of Driven Agriculture at 491 West Front Street; Edward and Noell Sakowick who have purchased the laundromat on West Front Street, and Kris and Jenny Charapata of Charapata Seeds and Sales at 731 French Street, who had an open house on Saturday for their newly expanded gift shop.

The meeting agenda had included approval of a $500,000 UDAG loan to CRM Corporation for improvements to be built on a site in the Industrial Park, but Malke said the loan had been removed from the Council agenda at the request of the business owners. She predicted it could be back on the agenda for the special Council meeting to be held after the Nov. 22 budget hearing.

The budget had been finalized at meetings of the Finance Committee and Council on Thursday, Oct. 28 and again on Monday, Nov. 1.

The Oct. 28 Finance Committee meeting began at 2:45 p.m. and ended at 9:30 p.m., with a directive for all department heads to find places to cut within their budgets.

However, Public works Director George Cowell was the only department head who came to Monday's meetings with places to trim costs for the various services his departments provide.

Parks and Recreation Director Lori Tonn said she had been told she could either find places to cut, or ways to increase revenues, and she came with recommendations to increase fees for camping, holding tank disposal at the dump station, pavilion rental, boat launch use, pavilion rental and more. Tonn said of the 10 sites set aside for seasonal camping, seven are already booked for next year.

Cowell objected that he hadn't been given the option of adding income, but discussion at the meeting included the possibility of increasing some rates, for example the price for disposing of wastes like TV sets, computers, tires and more. Mayor Cathi Malke said the TV disposal fee at the recycling center had been kept low to keep old sets from showing up in Town of Peshtigo ditches.

Clerk/Treasurer Tammy Kasal asked if they wanted to try again for a referendum to exceed the state levy limits, but everyone agreed there is no time for that, and no guarantee that it would pass. She said they could borrow the extra money they would need after implementing some of the changes. Borrowing an additional $50,000 and paying it back short term through the debt service levy would add $21 to the tax bill on a $100,000 property, and raise the total rate from $4.99 per $1,000 to $5.20 per $1,000.

"We can't keep providing the same level of services and keep paying fair wages for our employees without increasing taxes," Alderman Brigitte Schmidt commented. She was chairing Monday's meeting in the absence of Alderman Debbie Sievert who had made other plans long before the meeting date was set. Alderman Keith Klimek, the other committee member present, agreed.

Malke declared the City of Peshtigo provides better services than most other communities, and said she would hope to not change that. She said they need to show city employees their efforts are appreciated by paying fair wages and providing them with the equipment they need to do their jobs.

She said policemen and firefighters leave their homes and families to protect the lives and homes of others and those department budgets have been bare bones for far too long, and still are.

Kasal said they could borrow for capital outlay and raise the debt repayment tax levy, which would have raised the total city tax rate from $4.995 to $5.12 per $100,000. The decision ultimately was to leave the tax rate as it has been for several years and take the difference from General Fund reserves. Value of all taxable property in the city is appraised at $162,605,100.


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