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An affront to school district voters PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 11 November 2015 20:14

‘This is democracy in its purest form. One has to wonder what it is that Stroebel finds objectionable about that. Surely it isn’t that he regards voters as not smart enough to be trusted with school spending decisions.’

It’s hard to look at the intrusion into local control of education proposed by State Sen. Duey Stroebel without seeing it as yet another move by the Republican majority of the Legislature to undermine public education in Wisconsin.

In successive budgets, the Legislature has systematically reduced state aid to public schools already constrained by levy limits while increasing the amount of taxpayer money given to private schools.

Now comes Stroebel, whose district includes the northern half of Ozaukee County, with a bill that would restrict the ability of school districts to finance building projects and operating expenses through referendums.

The bill appears punitive—designed to punish public education—because it serves no other purpose. There is no evidence that school districts have abused the referendum process or have somehow taken advantage of voters.

Stroebel’s bill would prohibit districts from putting a new referendum on the ballot for two years after a referendum was rejected. It would require that school referendums be held only as part of general elections.

The referendum process was wisely institutionalized by the same Legislature that imposed levy limits on school districts. Its purpose is to give districts the ability to ask voters directly for permission to raise taxes above state levy limits if needed to pay for school buildings or to meet essential expenses that can’t be covered within levy limits.

In either case, school districts have to justify the spending to voters, and the voters, of course, are free to say no. 

This is democracy in its purest form. One has to wonder what it is that Stroebel finds objectionable about that. Surely it isn’t that he regards voters as not smart enough to be trusted with school spending decisions.

The bill exposes a political hypocrisy that is increasingly tarnishing state government in Wisconsin. Stroebel walks in step with legislators who profess to be champions of local control of government and then approve heavy-handed state mandates that usurp that control.

The same Duey Stroebel who has attacked Common Core educational standards approved by the U.S. Department of Education as a threat to local control of education now proposes to restrict control of school spending by local voters.

As Port Washington-Saukville School Supt. Michael Weber put it in an interview with Ozaukee Press, “We have a state system that calls for local control and local decision making. And we have legislators who profess to support that system, yet propose legislation that would do just the opposite.”

Weber added, “I’m struggling to figure out the purpose of this legislation.”

That is indeed a struggle. It is also a struggle not to conclude that Stroebel’s bill is one more sign of the animus the Legislature’s majority holds for public schools.

Stroebel can temper that perception by withdrawing his ill-conceived and utterly unnecessary bill.

Discovery: Lakefront needs parking PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 04 November 2015 20:11

With a looming parking deficit in the marina district, why would the city give up a parking lot for a building that increases the need for parking?

City of Port Washington officials want to designate part of the lakefront as a marina district and work with the design committee of Port Main Street to address parking problems in that area.

This is a very good idea. Too bad it comes after the decision that will have a profound impact on the future of the marina district has already been made.

That decision was the Common Council’s vote earlier this year to put the city-owned parking lot overlooking the marina’s north slip up for sale.

The decision was made without the benefit of a comprehensive plan for what is now being called the marina district. It was also made without consulting the Harbor Commission, the city government agency that manages the marina, arguably the city’s most valuable asset.

The potential buyer of the parking lot land plans to fill it with a development called the Blues Factory, which is expected to attract hundreds of vehicles to the marina district. The  business would eliminate an entire parking lot full of parking spaces while creating a need for many new parking spaces. 

The results of this exercise in subtraction and addition are becoming apparent. Harbor Commission members have now weighed in with serious concerns about the loss of parking affecting marina operations and the revenue they generate for the city. Their worries are exacerbated by the likelihood that a public parking area across the street from the Blues Factory site will also be transferred to a private developer.

Contrary to one of the rationales used by council members and other officials to justify the sale of the north slip land—that its parking spaces are not needed—it seems the lakefront is facing a parking deficit.

The solution to that problem ought to be obvious. The north slip parking lot development would decrease parking spaces while increasing the need for parking; therefore, don’t sell the parking lot.

That can be added to the list of reasons to reverse the decision to privatize the north slip land, which includes: (1) The lot should remain open space because it offers public water views that are integral to the beauty of the Port Washington lakefront; (2) the proposed Blues Factory, modeled after chair factory manufacturing buildings that were torn down 60 years ago, would be an inappropriate intrusion into lakefront aesthetics; and (3) a vast number of the citizens of Port Washington have made it clear they don’t want the publicly owned parking lot sold for development. 

For its part, the Main Street design committee can’t do much about the number of lakefront parking places available, but the group has done good work elsewhere in the city and its contributions toward improving the design and appearance of the marina parking areas would certainly be welcome.

Inasmuch as the Main Street organization is not part of the city government and does not have to take direction from city officials, the design committee could show some independence and produce its design for parking in the marina district with the proposed Blue Factory site remaining a parking lot. It could to improve the aesthetics of this marvelously located piece of public land by adding some landscaping features and modest amenities for harbor viewers while retaining ample parking space.

That would be a significant public service.

Be careful with rescue boat funding PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 28 October 2015 18:49

City’s qualms about paying a share of Water Safety Patrol costs should not be allowed to compromise a service that is essential to the county’s only lake port

The adage recommending that sleeping dogs not be disturbed can apply to boats. The Port Washington Harbor Commission woke up the issue of funding the county rescue boat at a recent meeting, and it could come back to bite.

Funding the Ozaukee County Water Safety Patrol and its rescue vessel has been the subject of a controversy so heated it threatened the very existence of the service a number of times. That settled down after the City of Port Washington agreed to contribute $10,000 a year toward rescue boat operation costs.

Now it seems the city is experiencing some buyer’s remorse, aggravated by financial challenges that are said to be making budgeting for the coming year particularly difficult. There was talk at a recent Harbor Commission meeting of reducing or ending the rescue boat subsidy.

If this leads to renegotiation of the rescue boat funding arrangement, it should be with the understanding by everyone involved that this is an essential life-saving service, not some sort of government-funded amenity or convenience that could be sacrificed to balance a budget.

The rescue boat is stationed in Port Washington. Unlike the two nearest Lake Michigan ports, Milwaukee and Sheboygan, there is no U.S. Coast Guard presence in Port Washington. People in trouble on the water often don’t have the option of waiting for a Coast Guard vessel to traverse the 25 miles from its nearest base. They need the Ozaukee County rescue boat. Sometimes their lives depend on it.

The Water Safety Patrol, whose proficiency is widely respected by the boating public, has numerous rescues to its credit. One of the most dramatic occurred in 2011 when the rescue boat and its crew, in extremely threatening conditions, saved two men who were clinging for their lives to the Port Washington lighthouse under a furious assault of gale-driven waves. The rescue boat was their last hope. They would surely have perished without it.

The Water Safety Patrol operates under the aegis of the Ozaukee County Sheriff’s Department division of emergency management, and it is a logical association. People from all over the county who access Lake Michigan at Port Washington, the county’s only port, stand to benefit from the rescue service. The County Board supervisors who for several years in succession tried to strip rescue boat funding from the county budget apparently missed that.

The city’s offer then of a cash contribution, in addition to in-kind support consisting of docking space and $1,500 worth of fuel for the rescue boat each season, was key to resolving the issue, but beyond that it was the right thing to do. Port Washington is a direct beneficiary of the rescue boat service.

The city, with help from the federal and state governments, provides the splendid facilities available to boaters in the county’s lake port, but it also reaps big rewards from them. The lakefront is the city’s biggest tourist attraction. The boat owners who launch their boats or rent slips in Port every year and the customers of the Port Washington charter boat fleet, one of the biggest on Lake Michigan, altogether pump millions into the city economy with their spending for food, lodging and retail purchases. The rescue boat is an essential element of the boating facilities that drive this business.

The marina itself is a profit maker for the city, and it is fitting that the rescue boat stipend comes from its revenues.

It was suggested at the Harbor Commission meeting that the city contribution to the rescue boat is questionable because some of the people rescued by the service are not city taxpayers.

There is no merit to that surprisingly pinched view. Most people understand that life-saving services don’t work that way. When lives are at risk, the addresses of those needing rescue don’t matter.  

The Harbor Commission’s misgivings came too late to affect 2016 rescue boat funding. If the issue is raised for subsequent years, city and county officials should by all means talk about it with a view toward settling on an equitable long-term rescue boat funding arrangement. But failing to fund the service cannot be an option.

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