After hearing from a number of local business owners objecting to a proposed project that would have completely redone the sidewalks that run through downtown Phillips along State Highway 13, the city council unanimously voted to suspend any further action until a future state highway repair project is completed.
The sidewalks in question — which run from Maple Street to Elm Street on the west side, and Elm Street to Depot Road on the east side — were last replaced in 1994, and certain sections have seen considerable erosion over the years.
Due to safety concerns, the city council has been discussing potential options for addressing the sidewalks for over a year.
At their regular meetings in July, the city council discussed the possibility of using a special assessment process to fund the project, with the sidewalks being repaired by
one contractor and then the affected business owners being billed for the associated costs.
A public hearing held Oct. 15 drew a number of participants, several of which were dissatisfied both with the proposed overhaul of the entire sidewalk and the method by which the information was communicated to the community.
Some took issue with the estimated cost of the project — coming in at $2.53 per square foot — saying that it could be done at less cost. Others stated that their section of the sidewalk was largely undamaged and needed no repairs.
Several objected to the proposed removal of the step onto the sidewalk on the west side of the street. Removing the step would necessitate the installation of several ramps to provide accessible entrance to businesses, and would also expose about six inches of the buildings' foundations — both of which were seen as unattractive options.
Concerns were also voiced about limited visibility into business windows and complications in keeping ramps clear of snow and ice in the winter months.
Some business owners expressed their willingness to individually repair the cracks and holes in their sidewalks.
Following considerable discussion, a motion was unanimously passed by council members present, suspending the special assessment process until the State Highway 13 project has been completed. According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, the highway project is planned for March 2022. At that time, the issue of the sidewalks will be reconsidered.
Business owners were also invited to supply their email addresses to city clerk Shelby Prochnow in order to receive future agendas for the city council's public meetings.
The topic of economic development was front and center at the Oct. 14 meeting of the Park Falls Common Council.
Park Falls Area Community Development Corporation President Sam Pritzl kicked off the dialogue with a presentation of the group's annual report.
"This year has been a tumultuous year here in our community," Pritzl said, pointing to the closure of Shopko Hometown and Sears Hometown stores as well as the likely permanent shuttering of the Flambeau River Papers mill.
He stressed the importance of different local entities pulling together to promote the area's economic interests and see what they can do to fill the void left by those closures.
"What we expect to do is try to expand our current business base here for the businesses that are in the community, work with them to see if they can expand to take on some more employees that are displaced," he said.
Weather Shield and St. Croix Rods were two local businesses that are currently working hard to hire more job seekers, according to Pritzl.
He pointed to one change with how economics are going to be promoted locally, noting that Price County decided that they only wanted one economic development group and moved to eliminate the Price County Economic Development Association. Going forward, the Park Falls Area Community Development Corporation will be the economic development organization for the entire county, Pritzl said.
As explained by Pritzl, the group will still be called the Park Falls Area Community Development Corporation (PFACDC) due to the amount of funds that the City of Park Falls puts into the organization, though that could change if some of the southern communities begin making equal per capita financial contributions to the organization's efforts. He stated that the group's board would be expanded to include members from Phillips and Prentice along with alternates and possible accommodations, such as call-in meeting attendance, to make participation in the group's six meetings each year easier.
The body will continue to offer a mix of services, including help with finding a business site and funding options, for aspiring entrepreneurs from across the area. Pritzl noted that the development group's office currently sees about two people looking for assistance in starting a business each month.
Little will change with how the group's efforts are carried out on a day to day basis as the PFACDC already handles the administration of economic development support for all of Price County, Pritzl said, adding that this factored into the county's decision along with a realization of the progress that the organization has been making throughout its 14-year existence. The PFACDC was formed in response to the paper mill's last closure in 2006. "... And we're at that crossroads again," Pritzl stated.
Among other topics, Pritzl's annual update also touched on current availability of revolving loan funds for business development as well as projects completed with the help of community partners, for example, facility overhauls at the Athletic Complex.
Former Northway Motor Lodge and The Lanes may reopen
In other business-related agenda items, council members approved the transfer of the current liquor license pending the sale of property located at 1127 4th Ave. S. to BP Ventures LLC as well as a developer's agreement between the City of Park Falls and the business venture.
The agreement pertains to plans of Mercer Area business partners to take over ownership of the bowling alley and hotel complex that had moved from possession of its previous owner back into the hands of Forward Bank on the south end of Park Falls.
Park Falls Mayor Michael Bablick touched on some highlights of the agreement, noting that it includes an upfront developer's award of $100,000 to be paid back in approximately 10 to 15 years, according to the most conservative estimates reaching Bablick, who noted that the TIF district in which the project is located carries a lifespan of 27 years.
The agreement comes with a lot of contingencies, including the stipulation that it survive the transfer of ownership, and is binding throughout the property's ownership, according to Bablick. As explained by Bablick, the agreement is structured to minimize any harm to the district that could be presented by declining property values.
The only other offer for the property came in from Kwik Trip, which was offering $500,000 cash to buy the complex and demolish its structures in order to create a parking lot for semi trucks, according to Bablick.
"This TIF agreement is the only thing that stood between that happening and it being renovated into a much better hotel and the business being revamped and continuing to be an asset for this community," Bablick said, noting that significant conversation had taken place with the Park Falls Area Chamber of Commerce on the potential closure of the facility. "Losing 30 hotel rooms would've been devastating to our local tourism community."
One priority area as the new owners take the reigns at the complex aims at improving the condition of the hotel, to be known as the Northern Lights Inn, through renovation and replacement of such room features as appliances, mattresses, according to Mike Pares, registered agent for BP Ventures. "It'll be a nice place that people can stay at in Park Falls."
The business partners also have plans for the bowling and dining side of facilities, including a name change back to The Lanes, an overhaul of menu options and getting the bowling features of the facility fully operational again.
Their first major goal is getting hotel rooms renovated and ready to accommodate increased traffic seen during snowmobile season.
Council members also approved transferring $250,000 from the general fund balance to the TIF 5 account. Bablick explained that after creating TIF 5, the city had not yet put money into the account and needed to get some working capital in order to direct at projects in the district. "... We'll have to be doing the borrowing [for planned projects] against the TIF, and we will repay the fund balance at that time."
He pointed to the healthy nature of the city's fund balance, currently sitting at 37% when auditors recommend keeping a minimum fund balance of 30% of a municipality's operating costs in case a major unforeseen expense arises.
Council members also approved allowing a curb cut done up to city specs and the loss of three parking spaces as part of Hastings Construction LLC's planned project to convert the building at 239 2nd Ave. N., previously housing a pizzeria, into a facility to meet its winter equipment storage needs.
City reps noted that this was really the only possible use left for the badly deteriorated building and that construction business owners want to make the building aesthetically pleasing and keep it from simply looking like a garage.
Former mayor allegedly disorderly
During the communications portion of the meeting, Alderman Michael Mader read a letter addressed to former Park Falls Mayor and Police Commissioner Daniel Leitl from Price County Sheriff Brian Schmidt about an investigation underway into Leitl's alleged conduct at a July 8, 2019 meeting of the Park Falls Common Council.
According to details in the letter, Leitl is alleged to have become loud and used profane language when addressing the current mayor and council members. His alleged actions are said to have taken place in the presence of the 20 other people who attended the meeting, including a juvenile individual who was interning with the Park Falls city government at the time. A number of those at the meeting felt that Leitl's actions represented an act of misdemeanor disorderly conduct, based on info in the letter, dated July 24, 2019. As of that time, the investigation into the matter was still ongoing. The case will be referred to the District Attorney's office for review at the conclusion of the investigation, as stated in the letter, which informed Leitl that he was still welcome to attend city meetings, though he was cautioned that failure to maintain calm and professional decorum in the future could prompt law enforcement action.
Fate of growing center in jeopardy; mill update
In another communication item, Tony Thier announced that he will be stepping down as president of the Flam beau River Community Growing Center as a result of the non-profit program's likely end. He explained the factors pointing to this fate for the center, noting that there are no longer master gardeners to support its efforts due to defunding of the corresponding program area at the county level. Beyond that, Flambeau River Papers supplies the water, electricity and gas to heat the building — something that would end with the mill's permanent closure. "We can't operate like that," Thier said, stressing that the program is totally supported by volunteer efforts and donations.
Bablick wanted to be kept updated on when the next meeting would be held for the non-profit venture. As explained by Thier, he was waiting to schedule the next meeting until the fate of the paper mill is known in early November.
"It'd be a real shame to see that go," Bablick said, expressing hope that some community effort could still save the program.
In a discussion on the fate of the paper mill, it was noted that if no bids come in for purchasing the facilities as an operating business venture, mill assets would be lotted off individually, with the final decision set to be announced at a Nov. 4 hearing.
"So we're getting to the end of this, it appears," Bablick said.
Park Falls City Attorney Bryce Schoenborn said that the city's biggest concern relates to avoiding abandonment of facilities, which could potentially leave the city to deal with some lingering environmental issues. There's also a question of whether as a creditor the city ends up eating some of the remaining sum owed on utilities and personal property taxes, Schoenborn noted, explaining that the city is lower on the list of priorities for being paid back than some entities, though not as far down as others.
Additional council actions
In old business from a previous meeting, the council approved awarding a timber sale on airport property to the second highest qualifying bidder, R.M. Bay Logging, after the initial highest qualifying bidder to be awarded the project withdrew their offer.
When it came to other new business, the council approved setting 2019 trick or treat hours for 4 p.m.-6:30 p.m. Oct. 31. Fire department personnel and police officers will this year distribute glow sticks encouraging safety to trick-or-treaters.
The council also approved resolutions in support of a constitutional amendment to limit campaign spending and recognize only human beings as having constitutional rights and in support of creating a nonpartisan procedure for preparing a Legislative and Congressional redistricting plan in response to petitions gathering more than 100 signatures in Park Falls.
In financial business items, council members approved covering additional unforeseen costs arising in connection with lift station repairs and changing the city mileage reimbursement rate to match the standard rate set by the IRS.
The council also okayed a request by the Park Falls Area Chamber of Commerce to use a section of 5th Avenue S. running from Division Street up to the city and county border on County Trunk Highway E and back down Division Street to 5th Avenue S. again for the organization's Turkey Trot 5K Run/Walk held each year on Thanksgiving Day.
Later, council members approved spending $15,000 for a Local Roads Improvement Program grant project to repave a stretch of 7th Street N. running from 1st Avenue N. to 2nd Avenue, with the grant to reimburse $6,288 worth of project costs.
The council also accepted the resignation of James Koller from the role of Park Falls Fire Department lieutenant and appointing Rupert Smith into the post until June 2020. Additionally, they approved appointing Austin Mindock, Melanie Fullman, and Dylan Borne to the city fire department.
A proposed resolution that indicates the Price County Board of Supervisors' support for ending Wisconsin's personal conviction waiver for immunizations opened the Oct. 15 meeting.
The recommendation for passing the resolution came from the Price County Public Health Department, and the county's Public Health Officer Michelle Edwards was present to provide information to the county board.
The resolution calls for a change in Wisconsin law, ending the use of personal conviction waivers to opt out of the immunization requirements for schools and licensed daycare centers.
Edwards explained that when children are enrolled in schools or licensed daycares, parents are required to fill out paperwork that included details pertaining to their children's vaccine history. If their children do not meet the minimum immunization requirements, parents can submit waivers based on whether their children have health conditions, if there are religious reasons, or a personal conviction. Wisconsin is one of 16 states that allow parents the option of opting out based on personal convictions.
Edwards said that in order to achieve community immunity — where those vaccinated greatly outnumber the unvaccinated — between 80-90% of the population needs to be immunized.
The percentage of vaccinated three-year-olds and kindergarteners in Price County has decreased in the last six years, according to Edwards.
In 2013, 83% of three-year-olds and 73% of kindergarteners met the minimum requirements to be admitted to
a licensed daycare or school.
By 2018, that percentage had declined to 75% of three-year-olds and 67% of kindergarteners.
"In public health, we look at the health and safety of individuals, but we also have to look at our community's health," said Edwards.
Eight people gave public comment at the meeting, seven in opposition of the proposed resolution, and one in support.
Kimberly Smith, a resident of Oregon, Wisconsin, said that vaccines were not one-size-fits-all, and removing the personal conviction waivers would limit parents' options to vaccinate on an alternative schedule or make other personal choices in their children's healthcare. She also said that making vaccines a requirement to entering school violates a child's right to an education.
Speaking in support of the resolution was Julia Ruff of the Town of Elk, who said that as a longtime pediatric healthcare worker, parents' concerns regarding vaccines could usually be resolved by working with them on an individual basis. She also pointed out that the percentage of adverse reactions to vaccines are not higher than adverse reactions to antibiotics or even certain foods.
Rilla and Arthur Rice, along with their mother Laura Rice, traveled from Freedom and Oostburg to share their personal stories with the board, urging them not to support the resolution. Both Rilla and Arthur Rice said that they have health-related autoimmune issues that will no longer allow them to be vaccinated.
Laura Rice stated that removing the personal conviction waiver discriminates against those who do not have a religious belief prohibiting vaccinations.
Kris Rankin of Winter said that as long as there is risk associated with immunizations, parents should be given the choice whether or not to vaccinate their children.
David Schmidt of the Town of Lake said that while he personally believed in the benefits of immunizations, he thinks that the decision should be made by parents and families. If the personal conviction waiver is to be removed, he said it should come from the state or federal level, not county government. He also questioned how the validity of waivers based on religious reasons would be decided.
Lori Wakefield of Park Falls spoke in opposition of the resolution, saying that the personal conviction waiver gives people the right to say they don't want particular vaccinations or want to follow a different immunization schedule.
Arlis Feidt of Fredonia asked the county to look further into the potential risks associated with vaccines, and asked that the resolution be tabled until further research was conducted.
A few county supervisors took the opportunity to comment as well.
Supervisor Sue Bocock said she opposed the resolution even though she supported immunizations because she believes parents should have the right to choose, and she believes removing the personal conviction will automatically remove the religious waiver as religion is also personal conviction.
Supervisor Paula Houdek commented in support, saying that while she believes in personal rights, there are a number of laws in place designed to protect the greater community.
Supervisor Bruce Jilka said that he believes the role of government is to educate people to make correct choices and not make choices for them, and said he opposed this resolution since it removes the rights of the individual.
Supervisor Bill Teeters said he appreciated the comments received, but said he believes immunization are scientifically sound and he trusts the judgement of people in health care to make the right decisions.
In a roll call vote, the resolution was passed with six votes in support, five against, and one abstaining vote from supervisor Larry Palecek.
Highway department approved to purchase three plow trucks
A special request was made by the county Highway Department, asking that they be allowed to exceed their budget for equipment funding in order to buy three used plow trucks to replace ones in the Price County fleet that are both outdated and structurally compromised due to extensive rust and corrosion.
According to highway commissioner Joe Baratka, some of the county's trucks can no longer reliably plow roads during the winter months — which could result in road closures due to snow accumulation.
Mark Kyle, who works as fleet superintendent for the highway department, explained that the Ashland Highway Department is selling three used plow trucks which are averaging 10-15 years newer than Price County's, are averaging 130,000 fewer miles, have new or newer tires, are DOT inspected and serviced, and are designed with a single-piece frame that will help protect them from rust.
The trucks also have mechanical controls that will help eliminate issues Price County is currently seeing with their electric controls. The vehicles will also be simpler to repair, according to Kyle.
The total cost for the three vehicles is $350,000.
"This is a rare opportunity for us to get into three trucks that can help us start to upgrade our fleet, and it's the fastest way to do it," said Kyle.
A motion was passed by the board, allowing the Highway Department to exceed their 2019 equipment budget by $350,000. Supervisor John Vlach cast the solitary nay vote.
2020 budget to go to public hearing
A 2020 budget of $24,176,245 with a tax levy of $9,343,479 was approved by the county board, and will be sent to a public hearing at the next county board meeting Nov. 12.
For each $100,000 of assessed property value, homeowners will pay $54.83 per month.
Of that $54.83, $19.17 would go toward public safety including the sheriff's department, county jail, emergency manager, and humane officer. Transportation receives $6.96 to maintain 221 miles of county roads and 345 miles of state roads. Culture and recreation receives $2.41 to go toward the library books by mail program, tourism, the county fair, 4-H, and Strong Bones. Veterans services receives 50 cents. The airport receives 71 cents. The court system receives $2.28. Health and Human Services receives $16.11 to go toward heating assistance, the BART bus, children and youth services, senior services, public health, behavioral health, home delivered meals, and WIC. Capital debt service for building remodel and repairs, purchase of vehicles, and IT upgrades receives $9.39. General government departments and services, including the register of deeds, coroner, elections, attorney, boards and commissions, information technology, buildings and grounds, administrative services, finance and planning, website, surveyor, and child support receive $1.17.
The county's conservation and development programs — including county forest stumpage, four county parks, three campgrounds, seven dams, wetland restoration, farmland preservation, and revenues earned from building and sanitary permits — reduces the individual impact by $3.87.
There were also some changes to the annual contributions made by the county.
Embrace, a domestic violence and sexual assault non-profit organization that rents office space from the county, will end its rental lease Jan. 1, 2020. In the past, Embrace had paid the county $5,000 per year in rent and the county had made a contribution of $5,000 to offset program costs. At their Oct. 10 meeting, the county executive committee had made the decision to stop making the contribution since it was an in-kind contribution and would affect the budget if continued.
The chance to win a growing pot of cash has become the biggest weekly social event in Park Falls.
Each Wednesday, the American Legion Post 182 hosts a drawing in which the winner has the chance to walk away with half of the jackpot. The Oct. 23 jackpot was set at $109,956. The other half of the winnings stay with the Post to benefit charitable causes. If nobody wins, the pot increases and rolls into the next week, which is what has happened for several months.
The large sum of money is packing the hall to capacity and bringing people from far and wide to try their luck.
"The social aspect has been really something — people getting out, reconnecting. I've met so many different people," said Joseph Oskvarek, bar hall manager with the Post. "Also, that's what has helped to fund improvements at the hall."
Last Wednesday, when the jackpot was at $96,342, both the upstairs and downstairs were filled to capacity. Many people could only listen for their number to be called from the stairwell.
So how do you win?
The game is simple: participants buy raffle tickets; at 7:30 a single ticket is drawn and the person with the winning number comes to the stage; the winner draws a standard playing card from a dwindling deck; an event worker then draws a card from a separate dwindling deck in a locked box; if the two cards match, the person wins 50% of the jackpot; if the cards don't match, the cards on the table are flipped over, and the card matching the
one drawn from the box that night is thrown away; the card from the locked box is put on display with all the other cards that have been drawn to that point; the process repeats itself until someone wins, with the deck dwindling one card each drawing.
For the Wednesday, Oct. 23 drawing, only six cards remained.
"We started this round with under $1,000 and a group of about 25 people," said Oskvarek. "The only time we took off last year was Christmas."
Before the card game, which started just over a year ago, reduced attendance and rising costs at other Post fundraisers were limiting what the group could do. Now, the Post is donating to the high school band, instituting a scholarship fund, fixing the floor, and finding other ways to become more involved in the community.
"All the Legion family and friends are pitching in to run these things. It's amazing how word spreads ... a friend of a friend sees a posting about this, they find out about it ... we've got a group of people driving over from Rice Lake," Oskvarek said. "Nobody thought it was going to get this big."