Membership move by Port officials prompts organization’s vice president to say disbanding business district is an option
A move by Port Washington officials to control membership on the Business Improvement District board has so upset Jim Biever, the board’s vice president and president of Port Washington Main Street, that he has suggested the BID should dissolve.
That would effectively end Main Street, an organization credited with reinvigorating downtown Port, but one that has been the subject of controversy after its August Harley-Davidson anniversary celebration lost thousands of dollars and put the program in a precarious financial position.
That’s because the BID, which raises its money through a tax imposed on downtown property owners, provides the majority of funds — $58,000 annually — for the Main Street program.
Biever said that after watching the Common Council meeting on television Tuesday night, he wrote an e-mail to BID board members suggesting the move.
“I never thought I would say the following words: Before I see the mayor and council completely ruin the efforts of concerned business and property owners, I strongly suggest we take action to disband the Business Improvement District,” his e-mail read.
“All options are on the table,” Biever said in an interview Wednesday. “I was just making them aware of the options.”
The suggestion has prompted a significant amount of discussion already, Biever said.
“I wouldn’t say anybody’s embraced the idea yet,” he said, adding most board members are confused by the Common Council’s actions and motives.
“What happens is going to be determined by the direction the mayor and council want to see the downtown to go,” he added.
At Tuesday’s meeting, aldermen were told by City Administrator Mark Grams that appointments to the BID board had not been made in accordance with state statutes in recent years.
State statutes call for appointments to be made by the mayor and confirmed by the council.
“There is a process that must be followed,” Grams said.
But once the Main Street program was created, the city failed to follow the rules and make the appointments, Grams said. Instead, the BID board made its own appointments.
In addition, he said, city codes call for the board to have 11 members, including the alderman who represents the BID district.
Currently, there are eight board members, including Jim Vollmar, a former alderman who used to represent the district, Grams said. Some of the board members were approved by the council years ago, he said, while others were never approved by the city.
“We really do need to correct those things,” Grams said, adding the council will likely act on the matter at its Oct. 15 meeting.
But Biever, who has served on the BID board for all but a few of the 19 years it has existed, said the issue that he blamed Mayor Tom Mlada for caught the group off guard, causing confusion and frustration.
“I don’t consider it wise politics,” he said. “He should have come to the board and let us solve the problem or at least be part of the solution. We know downtown, what works and doesn’t.”
When the BID was started, he said, the only control the city had was to approve its operating plan.
Biever said the idea of dissolving the BID “is not the plan A, B or C. It’s the plan that’s way out there. But if the city were to cut the funding or the BID funding were to change, what’s the alternative?”
Dissolving the BID is a relatively simple process, he said, requiring the owners of properties that make up half the district’s assessed valuation to petition for dissolution.
“I’d hate to see it,” Biever said. “I think of the BID as good for downtown.”
But, he added, a new organization representing downtown business and property owners would likely take its place — albeit one without the roughly $60,000 in funding raised through the BID tax.
“I would think it would take maybe hours for people to step forward and form a new organization,” Biever said. “It’s just not going to be dropped.”
While a new board may not be able to offer the same variety of events that Main Street has, he said, it could provide the core offerings that draw people to downtown, such as the farmers market.
The BID board membership is likely to be just one of the topics tackled next week when city officials meet with members of the Main Street board.
Both Biever and Mlada said they hope the session will help the groups reach a consensus on the direction for Main Street and BID and set the basis for the Common Council’s budget talks later this month.
Aldermen recently expressed frustration with the Main Street board after learning the Rock the Harbor-Harley festival in August lose as much as $30,000, essentially draining the group’s reserves.
Former mayor Scott Huebner, who helped found the Main Street program, told the Common Council Tuesday that the city’s call for answers about the festival is important.
The city needs to be “the voice of reason and push for answers from our Main Street board,” Huebner said.
The group seems to have strayed somewhat from its initial focus on economic restructuring and downtown development to festivals, he said.
Huebner also said the council needs to ensure that Main Street remains open and transparent, especially since the city has traditionally contributed $25,000 annually to the group, making it the second largest funding source for the organization.
Main Street recently removed a clause from its bylaws requiring it to follow the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law, Huebner said in an interview, replacing it with a less restrictive clause that opens the door to “secret, back-door” meetings.
“As a taxpayer, I would highly recommend the city not work with an entity that is not transparent,” he told the council.
Biever said that the change was prompted by a desire simplify things for members unfamiliar with the state law.
The new bylaws call for most meetings to be open, he said, except when discussing personnel, contract negotiations, litigation or deliberations that could be detrimental to volunteers, building or business owners, board members or others affiliated with the group.
“Anyone’s welcome to attend our meetings,” Biever said. “I don’t envision having a closed session anytime soon. We have nothing to hide.”