Written by KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Wednesday, 02 October 2013 18:10
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.”
Written by KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Wednesday, 25 September 2013 18:45
Mlada wants agreement on direction for groups after flap over Rock the Harbor festival’s financial shortfall
Port Washington Mayor Tom Mlada said Tuesday he plans to meet with officials from the city’s Business Improvement District and Port Washington Main Street Inc. as the city prepares to open its budget process next month.
“I view this as another opportunity to open dialogue, to sit together and see if we can reach consensus on the direction to take,” Mlada said.
It may take several meetings to reach a consensus, Mlada said. But if the groups can’t, the city may look at a range of options when it comes to funding Main Street.
“Where we go beyond next week is really an unwritten story. The options are all there,” he said.
Those options include dropping or trimming the Main Street contribution, limiting how it can be used or limiting how the BID tax can be used, he said.
The city has traditionally budgeted $25,000 annually for Main Street and levies a tax that brings in about $58,000 to finance the BID, which has also used the money to support Main Street.
While some people have suggested the city wean Main Street from the city’s annual contribution, Mlada said, he doesn’t believe the city will drop funding for the group.
“This has to be about a time of building rather than a time of turning back,” Mlada said. “The Main Street program has proven it can be very successful in mobilizing a number of volunteers, in organizing promotional events and in efforts to attract businesses to the city.
“I think we’ve shown you need to have some kind of strategic effort that’s really focused on bringing these to the downtown and to the city, and that’s largely been through Main Street.”
Tensions between the Common Council and the Main Street board were evident last week, as several aldermen called for the resignation of Main Street’s board of directors after the group lost as much as $15,000 on Rock the Harbor, a Harley-Davidson anniversary celebration, putting it in a financially precarious position.
Mlada, who is a member of the Main Street board, said he hopes the meeting marks a start in repairing the relationship between the city and Main Street — something that will be key if the city is to continue funding the organization.
“The council wants accountability. We have to be mindful of that,” Mlada said. “We have a responsibility to make sure we are the best stewards of the taxpayers’ money.”
Part of that, he said, will include expanding Main Street financing beyond the city contributions to an increased fundraising effort.
“We have a pretty significant gap in what we (the Main Street board) have budgeted for fundraising and what we actually raised,” Mlada said.
Last week, the Main Street board was told that although it budgeted $30,000 for fundraising contributions this year, it has only taken in $1,500.
The city’s Finance and License Committee will start reviewing departmental budgets the week of Oct. 7.
Written by KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Wednesday, 18 September 2013 18:30
Port group’s secret-ballot rejection of attempt to give ex officio members voting rights blasted by mayor, aldermen
Port Washington Main Street Inc. on Tuesday voted by secret ballot not to adopt a recommendation of the Common Council to allow the ex officio members of its board to become voting members.
The 7-2 vote angered city officials, who had lobbied for the recommendation.
“We weren’t even given the courtesy of an up-or-down vote,” Ald. Dan Becker said during the Common Council meeting that followed the Main Street board’s meeting. “It just shocked me.”
The council’s resolution called for the executive directors of Port Main Street, Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Council, as well as the city planner, to be full members of each other’s board of directors.
The Chamber has adopted the resolution, but the Tourism Council has not yet considered the matter.
After the vote, Main Street board member Harry Schaumburg said the ex officio members should not consider the vote a rejection of them or their work.
“The decision on this is in no way a reflection on the ex officio members, on their contributions,” he said. “I think we need to go on record and say this is not what we’re voting on.”
The ex officio members — Tourism Director Kathy Tank, Chamber Director Lisa Crivello and City Planner Randy Tetzlaff — have all been active on the Main Street board and as volunteers, board member Maria Kiesow noted.
Aldermen had lobbied hard for the recommendation to be adopted, appearing before the Main Street board in August to appeal for its approval.
Becker appeared at the Main Street board meeting Tuesday night to again lobby for its approval, saying, “It will only make this board stronger. The more people you have at the table, not just to express their opinion but to vote, the better. It’s great they all participate.”
Mayor Tom Mlada, a member of the Main Street board who was not present when the vote was taken, blasted the decision.
“It was an opportunity for the board to do the right thing, and it failed,” he said. “They took that opportunity tonight and flushed it down the toilet.”
Mlada said approving the measure would have rewarded the ex officio members for their hard work and dedication, saying they play a vital role and bring a valuable perspective to the Main Street board as well as coordinate efforts between the agencies, something that should be rewarded with voting rights.
“I think the losers were not just the three individuals who have been pouring themselves into Main Street for years now and have set a bar for collaboration and cooperation,” he said.
It would have made the Main Street board a better board, Mlada said.
“When we don’t have the best board possible, we don’t have the best program possible,” he said.
“For me, it’s a defeat that’s hard to stomach.”
Written by KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Wednesday, 11 September 2013 20:38
Fire chief says yes, telling commission that department has outgrown current facility
It’s time the City of Port Washington considers building a second fire station on its west or south sides, where the community is experiencing the most growth, Fire Chief Mark Mitchell told the Police and Fire Commission Monday.
“We’ve really outgrown our current station,” he said. “I think the time has come where we need to seriously think about it.”
He suggested the city explore the former highways LL and 33 ramp land east of Eernisse Funeral Home on the city’s west side as a potential site for a new fire station.
It would provide easy access to highways, he said, and many department members live on that side of the community.
“The potential is there,” Mitchell said. “We need to look at this now while the land is still available.”
He considered locations in the former VK Homes property on the city’s southeast side, Mitchell said, but decided against recommending them.
“It’s too remote,” he said.
Space is at a premium in the fire station, Mitchell said. Since the current fire station at 104 W. Washington St. was built in 1968, he said, fire trucks have grown wider and longer.
Despite an addition built in 1995, he said, “The trucks are packed in there. You can’t open the door of one without hitting the side of the other.”
The training room is undersized for the current department, Mitchell said, and there aren’t designated restrooms for women.
“This was built back in the time when there weren’t female firefighters,” he said, noting the department has 20 to 25 women on its roster today.
In the future, the department is likely to need some sort of living space, particularly for paramedics, he said.
That space would also be needed when the city hires some full-time firefighters, Mitchell said.
“We’re heading in that direction,” he said, adding the department currently has about 70 staff members, including firefighters, EMTs, paramedics and divers.
The current fire station also lacks storage space and is not energy efficient, Mitchell said.
“There’s a lot a modern facility would do to make things more efficient,” he said.
Building a new station on the outskirts of the city would also trim the department’s response time, Mitchell said, noting firefighters would not have to fight traffic getting to the station and leaving in fire trucks. They would also be closer to some of the more remote portions of the department’s coverage area, he said.
“As the city grows, our response times are getting longer,” he said.
Mitchell said he envisions a new facility becoming the headquarters for the department, with administrative, training and storage facilities as well as operational space.
A larger training room could also be used as a community room for the city, he added.
The current station could then be used as a satellite station, Mitchell said, especially if the city made an investment in the building to increase energy efficiency.
The department has enough trucks to equip both facilities, he said.
Mitchell said he’s discussed the need for a new station with the city’s finance committee at budget time in recent years, but it’s time to make a concerted effort to jump-start talks.
Mitchell said he does not know how much land would be needed for a new station, nor does he have a cost estimate. Commission members suggested the city should consider a joint facility, noting the county Emergency Management Department is also in need of additional space.
“We’re all about trying to share things and cut costs,” Mitchell said. “I think there’s a lot of potential for shared services. It just depends on what everyone wants to put into it, or if there’s any interest at all.”
He told the commission that Cedarburg has the newest fire station in the county, and Saukville’s firehouse is among the best in the area.
Commission members agreed that it’s time to consider Mitchell’s proposal, but said more research is needed to make a case to the Common Council.
“I think you should pursue it,” Commission Chairman Rick Nelson told Mitchell.
Commission member Mike Mueller said Mitchell needs to compile statistics on what comparable departments have in terms of facilities and equipment.
“You have a case for it,” he said. “The need appears to be there. Now, you have to create a business case for it.”
Image Information: PORT WASHINGTON’S fire station is cramped and inefficient, Fire Chief Mark Mitchell said as he told the Police and Fire Commission it’s time to look for a location for a second firehouse. The current firehouse at 104 W. Washington St. was built in 1968, with an addition built in
1995. Photo by Bill Schanen IV