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A free speech Christmas wish PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 23 December 2015 19:19

Citizens have a First Amendment right to protest government action with lawn signs, and the city must respect it

Port Washington resident Fred Schaefer is no doubt sincere about the “Wishing you a Merry Christmas” message he is displaying on a sign on his Theis Street property, but he is also making a point about the treatment he received from his city government when he erected a sign with a different message in November.

That message was a mild protest against the planned narrowing of Theis Street, which Schaefer believes will make the street unsafe for children attending nearby schools. The message brought a swift rebuke from the city planning department saying the sign was not permitted and ordering Schaefer to remove it. 

Will the “Merry Christmas” sign get the same treatment? It hasn’t so far, which suggests that it was the criticism of a city project, and not the sign itself, that inspired the city’s blunt order.

That’s why there should be a city response to the new sign. The response should come from elected officials, who we would like to believe do not approve of the city staff’s attempt to silence a citizen. The response should be an apology, and it should be made public as, in effect, an apology to all of the citizens of Port Washington.

Protesting an act of government or making a political statement by non-violent means, including lawn signs, is a fundamental right of free speech protected by the First Amendment. 

Schaefer’s sign was entitled to the same exemption from city sign restrictions as the lawn signs that urged a yes vote on the recent school referendum, or the signs supporting various candidates for office, or the hundreds of signs currently displayed around the city protesting the sale of the north slip parking lot for commercial development.

Any ordinance cited by the city to justify denying citizens their right to express views about government action in signs on their property would surely fail a constitutional test.

Aside from its anti-democratic aspects, the city’s treatment of a citizen expressing disapproval of a municipal project was out of character for a friendly small town in which citizens meet their responsibilities and contribute to the strength of their community in many ways and whose interests—and rights as American citizens—in turn are respected by the government that serves them.

We think the elected representatives of Port Washington’s government believe that. It would be nice if they’d say so to Fred Schaefer. They could add, “Wishing you a Merry Christmas.”

The dark side of big boxes PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 16 December 2015 21:20

The Wisconsin Legislature should outlaw property valuation based on the tax loophole called the Dark Store Theory

Big boxes can become big blights.

When chain stores vacate buildings so sprawling they can be measured in acres rather than square feet, communities are left with abandoned big-boxes so unappealing they can stand empty for years while they disfigure the towns and usurp valuable commercial land.

That has long been the downside of opening communities to megastores. Now there’s another downside, one that threatens to deprive communities of significant amounts of the tax revenue they need to provide services to their citizens. It is the possibility that the chain stores will get out of paying their fair share of local taxes by forcing communities to drastically reduce the assessed value of the big-box buildings.

For many municipalities across the country, including a number in Michigan, it’s more than a possibility. It’s a fact of life forced on them by hardball-playing chain-store companies and blessed by the courts.

The threat is so real in Wisconsin that a number of municipalities, including the Village of Grafton, are banding together under the aegis of the Wisconsin League of Municipalities to urge Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature to pass legislation to protect them from property valuation abuses under what is called the “Dark Store Theory.”

The Dark Store Theory, promoted by the likes of Home Depot, Target, Meijer (all of which have stores in Grafton) and other giant retailing corporations, holds that for tax purposes their buildings should have assessed values based not on their construction cost but on their depressed values when they are left vacant by their original occupants.

It’s an audacious twist on logic: The chain retailers are acknowledging that when they vacate their big boxes they leave the communities in which they’re located with outsized buildings that are a drug on the market; and then they attempt to exploit this unfortunate state of affairs by claiming that when occupied, stuffed with merchandise and thriving they should be valued as though they were empty hulks.

When megastores get away with the Dark Store loophole, other taxpayers—citizens and independent stores that are taxed based on traditional valuation standards—pay the price in higher taxes to support municipal services or in diminished services.

This is especially unfair in that the megastores are prodigious consumers of such municipal services as police and fire protection and road maintenance, especially in small communities. Almost invariably, police and fire departments have to be beefed up when a big-box store arrives.

Reports from the Saukville police blotter published in Ozaukee Press reveal the extent to which the Walmart Supercenter, for example, keeps village police busy dealing with law enforcement problems, a fact that is reflected in the size of the police department budget.

When welcoming big-box stores and the undeniable benefits of the tax-base growth and economic development they bring, communities take the chance that they will eventually experience big-box blight. If the Dark Store Theory holds in Wisconsin, they will pay for the blight even before the big boxes go dark.

The Wisconsin Legislature should outlaw property valuation based on the Dark Store Theory.

The right place for a senior center PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 09 December 2015 16:03

A committee’s wise choice of a clinic building deserves the strong support of the Port Washington city government

Now we’re getting someplace. We’re getting closer to a new Port Washington senior citizens center. We’re getting there physically and politically.

The committee tasked with finding new quarters for a senior center has struck gold in its choice of a building currently housing a clinic on the west side of the city. The choice shines both in the suitability of the building and in the evident support for it by the city government.

As recently as last January the city administrator was saying it was unlikely the city would provide a senior citizen center after the lease expires on the current center and an alderman serving on the city’s Commission on Aging even questioned the need for a center.

Now that same alderman, Bill Driscoll, is praising the choice of the clinic, suggesting that the city would contribute money toward its purchase and assuring the public that the city government has no intention of “getting rid of the senior center.”

That is exactly what the senior citizens of Port Washington want to hear. It is, in fact, what every citizen should want to hear, because the clinic acquisition stands to benefit the entire community.

The building earmarked for the senior center is the farther west of two Aurora clinics in Port Washington that the health care provider plans to consolidate into one. A single-story structure on West Grand Avenue with more than 12,000 square feet of space and a large parking lot, the building is not only a good fit for the wellness and recreational programs for seniors, but has space for other city uses, possibly a community center or offices for the Parks and Recreation Department.

The priority, though, is the senior center. The remodeled church in a residential neighborhood in which it currently resides has proven unsatisfactory, and the city’s decision to leave that building when the lease ends is sound. So too is the realization by officials that going without a replacement is not an option.

Port Washington has provided a senior center for 43 years, and this certainly is no time to stop, with the ranks of seniors growing as never before. In Ozaukee County, the 65-and-older population today is more than 30% larger than it was in 2000. The merits of senior centers that keep older residents active and engaged in the community have been affirmed time and again.

The ad hoc strategic planning committee formed by the Commission on Aging has done yeoman service in doggedly investigating numerous possibilities for a new senior center in the face of many challenges, including daunting cost and, at times, flagging enthusiasm on the part of the city government. The committee’s arrival at the clinic choice puts an exclamation point on the kudos for its good work.

As part of the committee’s work, a survey sent to Port Washington residents showed support for private fundraising to help pay for a new center. This will certainly come into play in the clinic acquisition, but city funding will  be essential as well—justified for a senior center and all the more so if the building can serve another city need.

Among the manifold assets of the clinic as a senior center is its location on the west edge of Port Washington, which would make it convenient for Saukville seniors to join and help support the center.

The ad hoc planning committee’s stellar efforts deserve the strong support of the city government, which should make the healthy choice of the clinic to house the senior center.

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