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Crumbling roads in the countryside PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 27 August 2014 18:49

Town governments are responsible for half the roads in the state; the Town of Grafton needs voters’ OK to finally meet its obligation

Town government is sometimes perceived as simple, even quaint, with governing boards as small as three members and, in a throwback to the early days of the American democracy, the use of town hall meetings at which residents gather each year to vote on the tax levy.

    The perception shortchanges the importance of towns. Nearly one-third of Wisconsin residents are governed by towns. More than 95% of the land in Wisconsin is located in the state’s 1,259 towns. Roughly half of the public roads in the state are maintained by towns.


    That town government is neither simple nor easy was demonstrated with considerable drama this year when the Town of Saukville government suffered an epic meltdown with the virtually simultaneous resignations of the town chairman, a supervisor and the town clerk.


    Order has been restored in rural Saukville; as of last week, all of the town government positions are filled. Meanwhile, the Town of Grafton, somewhat tardily, is facing up to one of the most vexing complications of town government—funding road maintenance.


    The Town Board on Aug. 13 voted to hold a referendum asking voters to approve increased spending for road repair. The move is overdue, for the Town of Grafton has the distinction of being responsible for several roads vying for the title of being in the worst state of disrepair of any in Ozaukee County. Falls Road is an outstanding example.


    Crumbling roads are not the sort of signs of neglect expected to be found in an area like the Town of Grafton. Its government has been effective in dealing with a number of challenges, including serial annexations of town land by the Village of Grafton. Its board and chairman have been leaders among local governments, municipal and town, in Ozaukee County on environmental issues.


    In other ways too, the Town of Grafton does not fit the image of a place where to drive can mean to run a gantlet of broken pavement, potholes and chassis-shuddering bumps. No longer an agricultural enclave, the town has replaced farms with upscale subdivisions. It’s ironic that the traffic generated by this high-valuation development travels on roads that are probably in worse shape than they were when they were used by tractors pulling manure spreaders and hay wagons.


    It’s come to this, of course, because the town doesn’t have the money to fix the roads. Critics might fault the Town Board’s spending priorities, but the main culprit here is the tax levy limits imposed by the state Legislature. The chest-thumping in Madison over the benefits of such tax freezes ignores the fact that they hamstring local governments such as the Town of Grafton in carrying out one of their fundamental responsibilities—the essential maintenance of public infrastructure, particularly roads.


    To fix its roads, the town will have to exceed the levy limit, which will require the OK of the voters in the November referendum. The question of whether the town should spend an additional $125,000 a year to catch up with years of deferred road maintenance deserves a yes from voters so their town government can meet its obligation to keep town roads safe to use.


    Come November, anyone driving to the polls on Falls Road is advised to use caution.


 
Save our Y PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 20 August 2014 16:23

A bankruptcy court has failed to recognize the stake held by contributors to the Saukville YMCA; now hope for keeping the institution open rests on fundraising

Bankruptcy courts are charged with the responsibility to balance the interests of creditors and debtors in distributing the assets of failed enterprises.

    Unfortunately the Ozaukee County residents who contributed millions of dollars in cash and valuable land to build the Feith Family Ozaukee YMCA in Saukville and provided financial and volunteer support for its operation for 15 years do not belong to either group and are facing the possibility of being left without the institution to which they’ve given so much when the bankruptcy of the YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee is settled.

    The U.S. Bankruptcy Court on Tuesday ordered the Saukville YMCA sold at auction to the highest bidder. Ozaukee Press sources indicate that as many as three companies operating for-profit fitness centers in the Milwaukee area may be among the bidders. If a private company is the successful bidder, the Saukville facility could be shut down before the end of September.

    That would be a profound injustice, one that could have been avoided if the court had accepted an offer made by the Kettle Moraine YMCA that would have provided $2 million for the Metropolitan YMCA’s creditors and ensured that the Saukville YMCA remained open.

    Selling the facility at auction is a cruel turn because it threatens the prospect of it going where it belongs, into the Kettle Moraine organization, where it would find not only rescue from the Metropolitan YMCA’s financial disaster, but an expectation of a secure future.

    Unlike the Metropolitan YMCA, which has imploded under the weight of an astonishing $30 million in debt, Kettle Moraine, based in nearby West Bend, is on firm financial footing, is currently debt free and owns first-rate facilities. What’s more, its board of directors has adopted a sound business plan for a merger with the Saukville YMCA that includes a role for representatives of the latter on the board that would guide the combined operation.


    The Feith Y had no such role under the ownership of the Metropolitan YMCA and is thus an innocent victim of the Milwaukee organization’s fiscal management failures.                     The court’s auction decision is a setback, but Kettle Moraine, with strong support from the Feith YMCA board of directors, is not giving up. It had planned to finance $1.5 million of the purchase price with bank loans and cover the remaining $500,000 through fundraising. Now it is mounting a desperate effort to raise $1 million to make an offer of as much as $2.5 million.

    It should not have come to this. The court should have recognized that the thousands of families that have memberships in the Saukville Y and the contributors who paid for most of its construction costs and generously supported its operation have a valid stake in the outcome of the bankruptcy proceedings and approved the initial Kettle Moraine offer to prevent the loss of the essential community asset the Feith YMCA has become.

    If the Saukville Y dies as a result of its owner’s bankruptcy, it can be chalked up as another failure of the Metropolitan organization to support this community’s YMCA. When the bankruptcy petition was filed, Metropolitan CEO Julie Tolan said that the Saukville facility and other suburban Ys earmarked for sale would be sold to “operators better positioned to continue those Ys and invest in those centers for the long term.”

    The Kettle Moraine YMCA fits the description of those operators. Private corporations that would operate the facilities as a for-profit fitness center without YMCA affiliation do not.

    The people of Ozaukee County served by the Saukville YMCA can help save their Y by supporting the fundraising effort with pledges that will be used by Kettle Moraine as collateral for increased borrowing.

    To reach $1 million, large gifts by corporations, foundations and wealthy individuals will be needed, but a strong response of small contributions will help the cause not only financially, but also by demonstrating that the people of Ozaukee want, need and deserve their YMCA.

    Which, of course, is absolutely true.



 
Do no aesthetic harm PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 13 August 2014 15:13

Port should get rid of the height limit on downtown buildings and concentrate on ensuring that developments exhibit gracious design and respect for the city’s visual character

The Port Washington Common Council should follow the Plan Commission’s recommendation and eliminate the 61-foot limit on the height of downtown buildings.

    The limit should go because it is meaningless; the council can grant developers exceptions at will.


    But the more important reason to take the height limit off the books is that doing so will clarify the fact that responsibility for the aesthetic future of the downtown area rests squarely on the shoulders of the elected and appointed officials of the Common Council, Plan Commission and Design Review Board.


    With a specific height limit in place, there is a temptation to give a green light to projects merely because they comply with the height restriction, without giving adequate attention to design shortcomings.


    The infamous poster building for that mistake is the Lighthouse Condominiums on Lake Street. The structure, which qualified for a permit because it complied with the 85-foot height limit then in effect, has been a giant piñata batted around by critics ever since it rose over the lakefront as a massive, towering rectangle.


    Put aesthetics aside, and it can be said that the Lighthouse condos have been a success for Port Washington, providing high-quality homes for a significant population that has added economic and cultural vigor to the downtown.


    The problem is, you can’t put aesthetics aside, which is why the building has joined two other structures as the subjects of one of the most frequently asked questions by visitors: “What were they thinking when they let that be built?” The other two edifices that provoke the question are the wastewater treatment at the entrance to the north beach and the power plant dominating the south side of the waterfront.

    In pre-Lighthouse condo days, whenever building height limits were discussed, a former Port Washington city planner would proclaim that no one can own a view. The statement was naive at best. Views are bought and sold everyday, sometimes even stolen. It is because buyers can own a view that lakeshore properties, even those on bluffs with only visual access to Lake Michigan, fetch such dear prices.

    The condo-townhouse-office development surrounding the west harbor slip, which is 61 feet high at its maximum and is the basis for the current city height limit, gives stunning  lake views to owners at the expense of a public view that was once one of the city’s prettiest maritime vistas, particularly at sunrise—looking out of the harbor from Wisconsin Street to the lighthouse and beyond.


    The standard rationale for that—that the loss of public views is a fair price to pay for beneficial economic development—will always be controversial.


    Because views are considered precious in a city with Port Washington’s natural gifts, building heights are a sensitive issue here, but height limits alone do little to ensure that developments don’t squander those gifts. More important is whether the design and overall size of the buildings are compatible with the community’s visual character.


    These are subjective judgments, of course, but they should also be informed judgments based on the best information available, and city officials have to be prepared to make them. This is not uncharted territory. A number of Lake Michigan towns, most notably on the eastern shore, have found ways to encourage the development of waterfront condos that offer amenities and views that attract buyers yet do not unreasonably block public vistas and, most important, exhibit gracious design.


    Eliminating Port’s building height limit would properly add weight to the onus on officials to, in a variation of the classic physicians’ imperative, approve only buildings that do no aesthetic harm.



 
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