The City of Park Falls and the Chequamegon School District take pride in working under a very unusual cooperative umbrella to maintain and build a strong athletic complex for students and citizens.
Over the past few years there have been ambitious fundraising efforts to build a new ADA restroom facility at the Park Falls Athletic Complex. When those were completed there was another aggressive program to replace the substantially damaged an aging bleachers for the softball and hardball fields and to also make those stands ADA accessible. Those projects were completed last year.
Now, Chequamegon School District Administrator Mark Weddig has announced the finance committee has approved paying the balance of the cost of the football and track bleachers from the district funds.
Weddig stopped short at calling it a "loan" but noted that this second set of bleachers
would replace those already paid for by the last round of fundraising and this next goal of $87,000 by funding a remaining $51,000 so the project may move ahead and be ready to welcome the football team and fans for the first game in the fall.
"We are confident that the balance of the funds will be raised and this 'advance' will allow that to get it done," Weddig said. "The sooner this can be accomplished the better for the district and for the city."
He went on to say that the football/track bleachers are in very bad condition and are probably a liability to the community.
"We want parents, grandparents, or any others who are disabled, to be able to get onto the new section and watch their kids participate in these sports," he said. "We want to have a safe complex and we are sure that the PFACDC will be continuing to raise funds and we will be reimbursed by them."
The city owns the field and the bulk of the fundraising efforts have been guided by Park Falls Common Council President Mike Mader.
In a report on other expenses, the district received one sealed bid for the purchase of a new bus for $103,000. The bus met all specifications required and will again be a vehicle run on propane. Finance director Lexi Witt said the new bus will be ready for 2020 and will be a 71-passenger vehicle.
In other business, Weddig said he only recently became aware that the district did not have an emergency sick leave bank.
"What that does is allow staff members to contribute up to two days per year, which goes into a bank and may be used by another staff member who is experiencing special circumstances requiring them to be off work for medical reasons," Weddig said.
The "bank" will be monitored by Witt and a maximum of 200 days would be allowed to accumulate in the bank.
"If there is a staff member who has fallen on tough times this leave contributed by others can be a good way for others to lend a hand," Weddig said. "There will always be some of our staff who have accumulated many days and are able to share those sick days with others who are struggling."
He added that he has an attorney who will draft the language for the "bank" pro bono and the draft will come back for approval at the June meeting.
Weddig said he is encouraging the district to take part in an energy saving project via solar energy panels. He said he got the idea from the Wisconsin Association of School Boards convention, which later initiated the collecting of data to support the cost of and operation of the panels.
"I attended a presentation by the chamber of commerce and the Park Falls Area Community Development Corporation about Opportunity Zones," he said. "As it happens, Park Falls is one of the very few Opportunity Zones in the Northwoods."
The zones allow investors to invest in a zone project and then realize reduced capital gains taxes as well as reduced taxes on profits from their investments.
According to current energy use data and historic solar energy reception data, the investors could realize cash gained over the life of the 25-year project of $1,525,000. The carbon dioxide saved by the solar use would be around 14,000 tons.
"The energy savings to the district could be $75,000 average for 25 years which would total around $1,875,000," Weddig said.
He noted that the Opportunity Zone lines are actually just outside the district property lines and so he is checking to see if there would be some way to work around the permitting.
In other news, the district has decided to switch the MAP testing that has been used for student assessments.
Weddig said the district will begin using "AIMSWEB" testing.
After a year of investigation, he said that it was found that it would decrease testing time by more than seven hours per year, which results in seven more learning hours.
"And it will bring about $4,000 costs savings per year and we hope it will convert the data gathered into something more meaningful to teachers," he concluded.
This April meeting marked the first meeting for newly elected board member Ryan Kovarik.
Finally, for the fourth year in a row, the Park Falls Elementary School was recognized by the Wisconsin Department of Instruction as a Title I School of Recognition which identifies the school's success in educating students from economically disadvantaged families.
Campaign donations tripled in the race for state Sen. Janet Bewley's seat last year compared to the previous election in 2014, The Badger Project has found in an investigation of campaign finance records.
Bewley, 67, a Democrat from Mason, squeaked by her Republican challenger James Bolen, a tourism official and the owner/operator of Lake Owen Resort in Cable. The incumbent senator won about 51% of the vote in the State Senate's 25th, a huge, horseshoe-shaped district which covers all of Price County and portions of 12 other counties in the northwest corner of the state.
The position of state senator in Wisconsin is considered part-time and pays an annual salary of $52,999.
In the 2014 campaign, Bewley's first run for state Senate after two terms in the Assembly, she raised about $111,000. This time she pulled in nearly three times that amount — more than $316,000.
"This was my fourth race on the state level, and the hardest, without a doubt," Bewley said.
The senator lamented the ongoing realities of political campaigns: each election requires significantly more fundraising than the last. And, the more time an elected official devotes to raising money, the less time is available to interact with voters, understand their concerns and address the important issues, Bewley said.
Bolen actually outraised Bewley overall, bringing in about $340,000.
And the Virginia-based Republican State Leadership Committee flooded the TV airwaves in the district opposing Bewley with "issue ads," which urge voters to contact the candidate about a specific issue. The committee spent about $350,000, according to an estimate by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a Madison-based organization which tracks campaign spending in the state.
But the Republican lost in the voting booth. He earned 37,960 votes to Bewley's 39,624.
Bolen did not respond to several messages seeking comment. The Republican Party of Wisconsin also did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Changes at the top, more spending down the ballot
The election in the 25th State Senate District was the first since the Republican-controlled legislature and then-Gov. Scott Walker loosened campaign finance rules in 2015. Among many changes, the new rules allowed a doubling of direct donations to candidates and removed limits on donations to and from political parties.
Before those changes, Wisconsin restricted an individual's total political donations to $10,000 per year. After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down aggregate limits like those in 2014, the legislature went further by removing all limits on individuals donating to political parties, as well as on political parties donating to candidates.
Those changes create a path for ultrarich donors to send limitless amounts of money through the parties to candidates. While one person can only give a
maximum of $2,000 per campaign cycle to a candidate for state Senate like Bewley or Bolen, anyone can write a million dollar check to a political party. And a few did.
The Badger Project review of campaign donations found that Diane Hendricks, the Beloitarea owner of ABC Supply Co. gave more than $2 million to the Republican Party of Wisconsin in 2018. Marlene Ricketts, the matriarch of the billionaire family who owns the Chicago Cubs, and Liz Uihlein, one-half of a wealthy, Chicago couple who donate heavily to conservative candidates, each gave $1 million to the Wisconsin GOP in 2018.
On the Democrat side, former U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, donated nearly $450,000 to the state Democrats last year, The Badger Project found. Lynde Uihlein, a big liberal donor, an heir to the Schlitz beer fortune, and a distant relative to Liz Uihlein's husband Dick, gave $340,000.
The downstream effect of those unlimited donations to parties — and parties' new capacity to give unlimited amounts to individual candidates — played out in the State Senate 25th District race.
Sensing a vulnerable Democratic incumbent, Republican Party committees gave $240,000 to Bolen, which amounted to more than 70% of his entire campaign haul, The Badger Project found.
Democratic Party committees contributed nearly $125,000 to Bewley, about 40% of her total contributions.
'Buckets of money'
Heading into the 2018 election, Republicans in the State Assembly had a massive 64 to 35 majority over Democrats.
But Republicans held a narrow, 5-seat majority in the 33-member state Senate.
"The pressure on the Republicans to stand their ground — and/or brace for potential losses — encouraged aggressive campaigning in tight districts across the country, in the effort to limit" the "blue wave" of liberal voting many expected, said Alisa Von Hagel, an associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, in an email.
Democrats sensed an opportunity, and Republicans countered.
In the end, last year's spending spree brought a few thousand more voters to the polls in the 25th District, but Bewley's 51% to 49% victory margin remained almost the same from four years earlier.
That year, Bewley got 35,055 votes while Republican Dane Deutsch received 33,445.
Bewley slightly outraised Deutsch in that election about $111,000 to about $92,000.
This time the candidates had to spend more time fundraising to offset each other.
"I'm not going out there trying to raise buckets of money," Bewley said. "I'm trying to pay the bills. 'What do I need to do to get my message out, and how much is it going to cost?' I don't think 'if I had $500,000, I could crush him.'"
At the end of the campaign, Bewley said a burst of negative advertising forced her to go back to her supporters.
"The last couple days, we were literally in the car, driving, looking for money," she said.
The Democrat had strong support from organized labor, collecting tens of thousands from unions. She received $2,000 — the new, maximum donation for a state Senate candidate from the local and statewide teachers union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Plumbers & Gasfitters Local 75, among many others.
And a progressive group, the Greater Wisconsin Committee, unloaded more than $40,000 to run negative ads about Bolen. That group has spent more than $32 million in elections in the past decade, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. The Greater Wisconsin Committee is funded by traditional Democrat constituents, including unions and Lynde Uihlein.
Bolen raised about $100,00 from sources outside the Republican Party. He received the maximum donation of $2,000 from 11 individuals, and also from the campaign committees of state Sen. Terry Moulton (R-Chippewa Falls) and state Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst). Each gave Bolen the maximum $2,000.
The Democrat hangs on again; looks to the future
Bewley attributes her two tight victories to her consistency in Madison, and staying focused on "the basic expenses of life."
"I talk about meat and potato things that really affect the people in my district," she said, pointing to roads, schools, jobs, broadband internet and cell coverage.
She said she avoids "highly charged, really sexy issues" such as climate change and wolf hunts that engage hardcore liberals.
"I think I've been pretty true to my values," Bewley said. "I've been the same person now as when I got elected to the Assembly (in 2010), so people don't see me waffling on stuff.
Von Hagel noted that Superior and Douglas County, both left-leaning areas, have some of the largest populations in the very rural senate district, giving a slight edge to the Democrats.
Already sparsely populated, the district is still losing people, Bewley said.
After the 2020 Census, the political districts must be redrawn. That means the 25th State Senate District will get bigger, because they are based on population.
The senator plans to run for reelection in 2022. She said she's buoyed by having a Democrat in the governor's mansion for the first time in her state political career. That scenario has created momentum for her side.
The prospects of Bewley's district becoming larger, more rural and potentially harder for a Democrat to win don't phase her, she said.
"It's a competitive district, but I like that. It makes us all work harder and really listen to people," Bewley said. "They should all be competitive."
The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizensupported journalism nonprofit which investigates state government in Wisconsin. Visit the website at www.thebadgerproject.org. Peter Cameron can be contacted at email@example.com.
Newly-elected mayor Michael Bablick marked the beginning of his term by calling the Park Falls Common Council to order Monday, April 22.
All members of the council were present with the exception of James Corbett, who had been excused.
Also newly elected was Richard Scharp who took his seat representing the 3rd District, a seat previously held by David Dryer.
Council member Michael Mader was unanimously elected to serve as the council president to fill in for Bablick when needed.
Under agenda public comments, a citizen in attendance asked why the council had not opened bids from financial institutions at a previous meeting saying it could have been beneficial for the city to consider the bids for the city financial accounts instead of postponing it.
Alderman Dennis Wartgow said that the council decided to move the decision forward until the new Forward Bank could be opened and prepared to offer its bids.
"We wanted to keep the city's money local and we felt it was only fair to give them a chance to submit a bid," Wartgow said.
Forward Bank is expected to officially open on May 6.
Council member Dina Boukachek speaking as a citizen asked if there were plans to put a retaining guard rail on the south-east side of the Hwy. 182 bridge.
"It just looks to me like it could be a real hazard because it just drops right off," Boukachek said. "Wasn't the state concerned about having a guard rail there?"
Park Falls Public Works Director Scott Hilgart said that the state had looked at it following the construction of the new bridge, but did not feel that it warranted a guard rail in that location.
"But, I will raise the question with them again," Hilgart said.
Boukachek also asked that the trash containers in downtown that disappeared over the winter be replaced.
"There are some pretty bad trash problems down there and
broken beer bottles are the worst," she said. "It doesn't make a very good impression on our visitors."
Hilgart said he would make a note to get those cans replaced.
A request to accept a bid for removing timber from the Park Falls Airport was delayed. Woody Brothers LLC had submitted a bid for the work. Bablick explained it was suggested the city hire a forester to look over the trees on the fence line before awarding the logging bid.
Bablick said the forester would like to get the lay of the land and he felt the city should use due diligence by bringing in a professional to look at how the fencing had grown into the tree line resulting in a more complicated removal of the trees.
The council went through a lengthy list of street closures and permits for the Flambeau Rama weekend as requested by the Park Falls Area Chamber of Commerce. From a Pooch Pageant to Cardboard Regatta Boat races at the pool, the permits were approved as they stood from last year with the only new request being the extending the location of the Arts and Crafts booths in downtown.
After a long discussion about how opening the one-way alley near the mill to a two-way for that day only, might only confuse motorists later when it went back to one-way.
City considers intern administrator/clerk
In other business, Bablick told the council that the hiring of an Administrator/Clerk is a pressing decision that should be made as soon as possible to help the transition of duties from Clerk Arla Homann to the new employee.
Bablick said that an interim candidate should be selected so that there might be a smoother transition as Homann is retiring in June.
The council agreed that finding an interim administrator is a good decision at this juncture.
"There are a lot of issues and I think it would be a good idea to perhaps find some experienced person who can serve in the interim," Wartgow said.
Bablick said that he believes that the city is in good hands with Dr. Hintz from the professional development firm being used by the city and that he is confident that firm has many good contacts to choose from to put forward.
"I'd like to see a twoweek overlap," Bablick said.
First District seat vacancy
The council decided to move forward on filling the First District Alderman's seat previously held by Bablick.
Attorney Brice Schoenbeck said that since Bablick was running for the mayor's position and his First District seat was unopposed it created a vacancy that the council would have to fill by appointment.
The city placed an advertisement in the Price County Review and also on the radio and the city's website asking for a candidate to step forward and produce a letter of interest by the end of the day on May 3.
Bablick said the candidate would be interviewed by the Personnel Committee before coming to the board.
Schoenbeck said if there were no interested candidates the seat could sit vacant, but he would recommend that the council try hard to recruit interested applicants.
Shift in pool duties
In other job shifts, Bablick has been serving as the city's pool director but feels that with his new mayoral responsibilities he'd like to split the salary and split the duties with another person.
"I'd like to create a "Head Lifeguard Manager" position and they could look after the hiring, certifications, schedules etc., and I would take care of the testing and the daily chemical balancing of the pool's water." Bablick said.
The total summer wages of $6,500 would be split to $3,250 each.
City water tech out of date
An update on the city's SCADA system — a technical connection between the city's pumps and wells and how they "talk" to each other was discouraging at best.
Hilgart said that the systems used by the city's control systems in the past are working only on a very primitive basis and added that he has been researching some way for the city to get a new system that would serve for many years.
"We have been told that our former company is no longer able to provide service to the city and in fact, they aren't really in business anymore," Hilgart said. "We have to make a very difficult decision — but this has to be done."
Hilgart said the cost of a new system may range around $241,000.
"We're at a point where we have to look at how long we can keep our systems running," Hilgart said.
The cost of a new SCADA system would have to come from the Public Works budget.