County race draws candidates new to politics

Port residents Matera, Vander Velden support paramedic funding plan, nature preserve investment
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

Two political newcomers — Tony Matera and Peter Vander Velden — are vying to replace longtime Supr. Dan Becker as the Ozaukee County Board’s District 7 representative.

Both men, residents of Port Washington, say they are seeking office out of a longtime desire to serve others, and both see opportunity in the form of Becker’s decision to step down from the board after 18 years.

One of the major decisions facing the County Board is whether to spend $5 million to fund 18 full-time paramedic/firefighters for 30 months to help alleviate staffing shortages in departments throughout the county.

Vander Velden, 37, of 502 N. Montgomery St., said that he favors the idea.

“It’s something that is clearly needed, he said. “And it’s a service that’s going to be needed as the population matures.”

The volunteer depart-ments that have sustained the county for generations are falling by the wayside for lack of volunteers, Vander Velden noted.

“Since we’re not seeing that (volunteers), it presents an opportunity for the county to step up and fill this gap,” he said. “We’ve seen municipalities struggle with it, so let’s try something else.”

His biggest concern, Vander Velden said, is that the program be sustainable, especially since the county is talking about using pandemic relief funds to help pay for the staffing.

Part of the $5 million program would be incentives for municipalities that consolidate firefighting and EMS services with neighboring communities, as well as a study of county-funded EMS and fire services.

“I think it’s a great idea to centralize it,” Vander Velden said, especially since departments within the county are vying with one another to hire paramedics. “In this case, cooperation is probably more beneficial than competition.”

Matera, 45, of 764 N. Montgomery St., said the proposal is a good one, particularly since collaboration between the county and communities is required.

“It’s the role of county government to find efficiencies and solutions,” he said. “I think the county’s role is to be of assistance to municipalities.

“This answers a need, it’s bringing a solution forward and it’s an opportunity for municipalities.”

Municipalities would have to apply for grants to receive the county funding, which Matera said is something he likes about the plan since the county isn’t imposing its plan on anyone.

“It’s not the role of county government to be big brother,” he said. “If the county can offer a grant program with a bridge to sustainability, I am for the grant program for communities that ask for assistance.”

The county is also pondering whether to spend additional pandemic assistance funding to help the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust acquire the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs Nature Preserve on Port Washington’s far southeast side — a 131 acre parcel of environmentally sensitive land that the Land Trust would then turn over to the county in perpetuity. The Land Trust is counting on a $1.3 million Knowles-Nelson stewardship grant from the state to help buy the land, but the Joint Finance Committee has refused to approve the allocation.

“I think land conservation is important,” Matera said, especially as the county and Port Washington in particular have experienced significant development and growth.

“I know what makes this place great, and I want to make sure we don’t lose our identity with that growth,” he said — and that includes assess to parks and open land.

The county should do what it can to ensure the Land Trust can buy the gorge, Matera said, but only if it fits within the budget.

“I want to say yes,” he said. “But we don’t have an endless bucket of cash.”

The county also should work with its partners to help the Land Trust get the grant and “obtain this land as originally proposed,” Matera said.
Vander Velden, who is a volunteer with the Land Trust, said he believes spending county money to help with the purchase would be “well worth it.”

“It would be top of my list of things to figure out. I would love to see the county step up,” he said, noting  the Cedar Gorge property would compliment the nearby Lions Den Gorge Nature Preserve, which is popular with residents and visitors to the area.

“Not only is it good for the environment but it brings people and tourists to the area,” he said.

I would like to see more land in the county preserve,” Vander Velden said, noting that natural spaces will help as climate change affects the environment.

Vander Velden, a cyber-security engineer for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, noted that Ozaukee County officials are proud of the fact that the county has the lowest tax rate, but he said there are some things worth spending money on.

“It’s OK if property taxes don’t go down for the third year in a row or the fifth year or whatever it is,” he said. “I think there’s an opportunity to fill in some gaps in service. The pandemic has exacerbated some of these things and show us people falling through the cracks. This is why local government exists.”

He would like to see the county look at ways to increase the stock of affordable housing, noting that would also help businesses draw employees from the area.

“I don’t know what the answer is,” Vander Velden said, adding the county’s role in the issue could be as simple as bringing municipalities together to come up with a plan to bring this type of housing to the county.

He would also like to see the county make a greater investment in public transportation, particularly transportation that would take residents not only within Ozaukee County but also into surrounding counties.

And, he said, the county should look at developing a revolving loan fund to help small, locally owned businesses get established.

“We don’t always have to be chasing large businesses,” he said, adding that local businesses reinvest their profits in the area.

Matera, a commercial insurance advisor for Ansay, said he would bring a unique perspective to the County Board that draws on his 16 years on the United Way of Northern Ozaukee board and the six years he’s spend on the Port Plan Commission, four years on the Harbor Commission and two years on the Economic Development Committee.

“We need to make sure we don’t lose focus and continue to support our neighbors in need,” he said. “These next couple years  will be when we find out how the last three years (of the pandemic) have affected us (in terms of mental health),” he said. “We want to make sure we’re ready to respond and our departments have the tools, resources and personnel to assist our residents.”

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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