An order conditionally approving the sale of the Park Falls paper mill was signed by Price County Judge Kevin Klein following a hearing Sept. 19 at the Price County Courthouse.
The order contains a purchase agreement by newly formed company Element Ventures, LLC to acquire the assets of the paper mill for an undisclosed purchase price.
Element Ventures filed as a business with the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions Aug. 29, 2019. The registered agent for the business is William E. Johnson Jr., the son of Flambeau River Papers CEO William "Butch" Johnson, who fronted a group of investors to create Flambeau River Papers LLC and purchase the mill for $19 million in bankruptcy court in 2006.
The sale agreement comes with one contingency that has yet to be worked out between the purchaser and LignoTech USA, Inc., a specialty chemicals company. Should the two companies be unable to come to an agreement and the sale falls through, another hearing will be held Sept. 30.
According to testimony during the hearing, the mill was scheduled to cease paper production operations Sunday, Sept. 22 and phase down the number of employees this week, eventually leaving just a couple dozen people keeping the facility ready to resume operations under new owner ship.
It is expected that all workers will be paid for time worked, according to testimony by a financial consultant for the mill.
The mill was being marketed for sale at least six months before Flambeau River Papers entered receivership in May, resulting in 21 parties signing
non-disclosure agreements to gain access to business information, according to court documents. Since receivership began, 19 entities signed non-disclosure agreements, and five groups did on-site visits. Three parties took the sale process "to considerable lengths, including negotiating with various stakeholders," according to court documents filed by receiver Rebecca DeMarb.
In the end, just two bids were received during the auction, and neither of them met the full requirements to be considered qualified bids. The Element Ventures bid, despite offering only half of the required $1 million in cash, was accepted by the necessary consenting creditors DuPont, CellMark Paper, Johnson Timber, and Impact 7, as it accounted for treatment of secured debt.
"The buyer is buying the assets to operate the business," DeMarb explained. "That was key to my willingness to go forward at this point because it keeps the business operating in Park Falls."
"The court is confident that the proposed purchaser really is the only chance for the mill to be open and operating moving forward," said Klein in closing remarks, adding he thought the timeframe for a completed sale is "encouraging," with the closing date anticipated on or before Oct. 2.
"The other thing that's encouraging ... is that despite all of the complications that have been explained on the record ... a number of individuals representing a number of different entities with totally different interests have come together to say 'yes this is a plan that can work going forward,'" Klein commented.
The plant is expected to employ approximately 110 people after it reopens, according to testimony at the hearing.
Employees were informed in the days following the order that the new company would most likely not be producing paper, at least for the time being. Instead, efforts will be focused on the mill's other two reve nue streams: wet lap and lignin, a byproduct of the pulp-making process.
Members of the Johnson family did not respond to multiple calls and emails before press time Tuesday.
The 2020 budget for Price County continues to be under consideration as Administrator Nick Trimner said the numbers are falling in line and added that there is nothing jumping out which might indicate anything too far out of the ordinary.
He said he still struggles with health insurance costs for employees noting that the offers the county are making to potential new staff members are not being seen clearly.
"They don't realize the difference in the possible health insurance costs," Trimner said. "They just look at the dollar per hour and then find that their premiums are so high they make less. Some who have left have even asked to come back. But, this makes our recruiting efforts difficult."
Brentt Michalek, newly hired city administrator for Park Falls was in attendance to introduce himself to the county board and to let them know that Park Falls has a long list of things to do in the near future and he is excited to get things moving. He is the first city administrator in Park Falls history.
The board introduced a list of contributions made annually to area non-profit groups. The recipients include Embrace ($5,000), Friends of Fred Smith ($5,000), County Historical Society ($1,000), $4,500 to each airport in Prentice and Park Falls, $3,000 to Northwest ITBEC tourism group, $14,020 will go to Northwest Regional Planning, $20,000 to the Price County Fair and $30,000 to the Phillips and Park Falls Chambers.
This year the Park Falls Area Development Corporation will merge with the Price County Development Association with a total contribution of $15,000, an increase of $2,500.
The budget recommendations included the preliminary "net new construction" for 2019.
The total for all towns, villages, and cities is approximately $8,175,800. The municipality leading the new construction numbers was the Town of Worchester with $1,963,300, followed by the Town of Lake at $1,050,200.
Finally, citizen Ginny Strobl spoke up against the transition of the County Humane Officer from a single individual to a combined Sheriff's Deputy and designated humane officer.
"I'm an animal lover and personally I think it is sinful," Strobl said. "It is a terrible experience to lose a pet and then not feel comfortable about who, if anyone is looking for it or will be caring for it."
She spoke in favor of retaining last year's humane officer, Jay Janssen who she said has always been serious about the care of animals.
"He has always been kind and humane and I do not think we will benefit from having lost animals kept at Catkins, which is already crowded." she said.
The board approved the transition and a Sheriff's Deputy has been chosen to now go through training to prepare for taking on the role of County Humane Officer.
More than 75 people crowded into the Price County Boardroom last week, leading one supervisor to remark that he'd never seen so many attendants at one meeting and adding that he's been around for a long time.
The prickly issue that was up for discussion was a proposal to eliminate the University of Wisconsin-Extension service in Price County.
The 2020 budget recommendation came from the County Executive Committee, who voted unanimously Sept. 12 to eliminate the UW-Extension completely to save approximately $87,425 and recommended that the Extension budget be wiped clean.
As it turns out, it was not a popular decision.
The UW Extension offers many services to county residents of all ages, including the youth group that's been a mainstay for both rural and urban youth: 4-H. In an impassioned exercise in how government works, it was the young members who stood up to voice their opinions.
Zoey Peterson from Phillips said that 4-H has pushed her out of her comfort zone and has given her many new experiences.
"I have even raised sheep and learned how to care for them and keep them healthy. I spent my summers with 4-H opening doors and helping me make friends," Peterson said.
Lily Johnson said that she has been a 4-H member for ten years.
"I joined when I was five years old and I've learned so much about gardening and sewing and raising animals," she said. "I have learned how to save and I have a grand saved up for college. That might not have happened without 4-H."
Jackson Grendys told the board that he is now a high school freshman who has learned a great deal about leadership from his membership in 4-H.
He said he was chosen to take the "American Spirit" trip which allowed him to see the Statue of Liberty and learn about his heritage and even cross into Canada. He noted that he saw things that he will remember for the rest of his life.
"I don't think I would have those experiences without such a valuable group like 4-H to make it happen," he added.
Devya DeLaskey said she attended the 4-H Youth Conference where she learned so much and 4-H helped her get a scholarship. She also said she was so grateful for all that she's learned in 4-H over the years and it has served to put her on a steady course.
Elizabeth Hilgart said that working at the brat stand to raise funds at the Price
County Fair is one of her favorite 4-H memories.
"The 4-H can't run without the help of the Extension offices," she said. "That's where 4-H members and leaders go for answers."
Michelle Drebek from Kennan said that she is confident that 4-H has helped shape life skills for young people and taught them about civic engagement.
"4-H is about making the best better. I know this was an executive decision, but think about how it will punish these young people instead of teaching them how to make the best better," she said.
Annie Knudson said that there have been efforts to attract new people to Price County, but cutting the Extension is not going to help attract or retain people without the continued support of the UW services.
Lynn Ludwig of the Town of Worcester noted that Price is one of the fastest shrinking counties in the state. She added that the 4-H members are really "the cream of the crop" and has been the community grassroots drive that the county should not want to lose.
"The Extension has been part of raising up the community," Ludwig said.
There are three 4-H Clubs in the Prentice, Ogema, Spirit and Brantwood areas, three in the Phillips area, and one in each the Park Falls and Kennan, and Catawba area.
Some of the other programs supported by the involvement of the UW Extension, include the Master Gardening program, Girls on the Run, educational assistance to parents and ongoing work such as soil and water testing and help with other environmental and agricultural efforts.
Julia Ruff spoke for the Strong Bodies program that is in its 7th year.
"It is grant-funded and research-based group that offers weight training and places an emphasis on both mental and physical health," she said.
"Looking at preventative health, the Strong Bodies offers education on how to manage exercise and diet plans and has had numerous personal successes from those who participate. I would say that for $87,000 you are getting a bargain."
Price County splits 50-50 with UW and if it was eliminated the county would lose the UW's half of $87,000 in services.
Art Lesch, Area Extension Director said there are currently 135 county youth involved in the program along with 47 adult volunteers who contributed about $80,000 worth of community service in the past year.
The Strong Bodies program has had around 200 to 300 participants.
He added the "Parent Cafes" that had been requested by the county is only just beginning to teach parental support. There have been 35 Girls on the Run participants.
There were 285 youth participants and 517 adult participants in the FoodWise program. The Master Gardener program also falls under the Extension umbrella
While some supervisors said they were upset that the UW Extension altered their original agreement from a 40% (county) and 60% (UW) budget split to a 50-50 agreement without letting the county be a part of that decision.
But, not all supervisors were for the Extension budget cut.
"I am extremely disappointed with the whole process," supervisor William Teeters said. "Here we were re-roofing all these buildings at the fairground all summer and this cut would for sure ruin the fair. The whole thing has been extremely short-sighted cutting these programs for kids. I think we should go back to the budget and find the funds to help them."
The 4-H can not exist without having a county partnership and that has always been the Extension office.
County Administrator Nick Trimner agreed that without the Extension the 4-H groups would have to partner with another county.
Supervisor Bruce Jilka said that he recognizes the value of having a strong 4-H program in place, but said that he is aware that there are less and less services.
"We aren't seeing good communications," Jilka said. "We are getting very little input and we are beginning to feel we are being held hostage by the UW," he said.
"We do know the participation numbers are down. There is less and less service and it is costing us more. But, I do understand the importance of 4-H and these other programs," he concluded.
Supervisor Sue Bocock said seeing the budget numbers all lumped in one figure makes it difficult.
"It is hard to extrapolate what program costs what," she said. "Besides 4-H, are we cutting the budget for the aging with the Strong Bodies program and how much?"
During the last year, there has been only a part-time 4-H director, which is shared with Taylor County. It was discussed that this has been a stretch considering the drive time and the fact that Taylor County is just starting a 4-H program and Price County's is well established. Oneida County is also considering cutting the Extension entirely.
Supervisor Jeff Halstrand said that without the Extension it would be even harder to attract young farmers, such as a beef farmer that he knows who wants to establish a beef spread in Kennan.
Supervisor Dennis Wartgow said that the discussion has been the best conversation he's been a part of.
"The real answer is our state legislators," he noted. "I don't agree with our state legislators and it all started with Scott Walker and all the cuts he made."
Supervisor Paula Houdek said sadly the state legislators are not likely to respond to the county's concerns.
"I have been the president of the fairs and I can tell you that there is no way we are going to cave in," she said "Look at the number of people who came in here today to speak out. They took time from their busy schedules to be here and not all these people are comfortable standing up and speaking before the county board, but they came — even our youngest citizens to stand up for what they believe in and I am very proud of some of these 4-H members who were once my students. They believe in 4-H and I believe in them."
Houdek received a round of applause along with others who spoke in support.
In defense of the cuts, Trimner said there has been a concentrated effort to budget for an additional social worker for Human Services because those currently working in that department are stretched thin and are having high turnover rates because of the stress. The opioid crisis has played havoc on many families and children who are now in need of high-cost care.
At that point, Wartgow made the motion to put the $87,425 back in the budget.
Trimner said the county is right at the state's requirement for social workers per caseload, but since there has been a vacancy for that position for the past six months, he said he might revisit those numbers to see if there was some wiggle room to retain the UW Extension.
Several other supervisors drew applause when they said they felt it was too early to eliminate Extension services as there are still unanswered questions in the budget about health insurance or for wage considerations.
Supervisor Larry Palecek said he supports adding the funding back in for the UW.
"This program is obviously near and dear to the hearts of all of these people young and old," he said. "I want to thank you or coming and for speaking out."
A vote was taken to rescind the elimination of the University Extension and retain those dollars in the budget.
All voted yes with the exception of Jilka casting the sole dissenting vote.
A community-wide survey, scheduled to be in mailboxes by Oct. 3 will seek feedback on a variety of proposed plans for the future of Phillips School District buildings.
The results of the survey will help the school board gauge whether there is enough support to pursue a referendum in the spring of 2020, and which option the community believes to be most viable.
The survey, which will need to be completed by Oct. 25, will need at least 400 respondents in order to be statistically valuable. Each survey will be numbered to prevent duplication, and households with more than one adult can request multiple survey forms from the district office.
The survey findings will be presented to the school board in a public meeting at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 6, in the middle school learning center.
A much smaller sampling of community feedback was provided to the school board at their regular meeting on Sept. 16.
Megan Prestebak of Miron Construction and Brad Simonson of HSR Associates were present at the meeting in order to break down the findings of two community listening sessions held in early September.
Approximately 40 people attended the two sessions, reviewed the options crafted by the facilities planning committee, and provided feedback.
The first option — which calls for adding classrooms for the elementary students on the current middle/high school campus and expanding and renovating the technical education space — was the preferred option of the community members in attendance, according to Prestebak. The main drawback to this option was the cost of the project, which was estimated at $10.27 million.
Advantages voiced by members of the public included the benefit to the community from expanding the tech department, and the fact that the layout creates separation between students in the elementary and those in the middle/high school. It was also seen as advantageous that water issues identified in the tech department could be addressed in such a redesign.
The second option — which calls for a more stripped back series of classroom additions at the middle/high school campus — comes in at a price tag of $6.99 million, which was seen as more palatable by the community members who attended the sessions.
Other advantages were new classrooms for the youngest learners, and a better design within the existing building. Disadvantages including concerns about congestion, loss of the addition al technical education space, and the fact that the water issues would not be addressed.
After considerable discussion, the school board agreed that the price for the first option would have to be reduced below $10 million in order to be considered by the community.
Prestebak said that if the cost for adding equipment to the STEM classrooms and purchasing new playground equipment were removed from the option, the price could be reduced to $9.86 million. Grant funding could be sought to fund the STEM equipment, according to Prestebak.
Simonson added that there are other variations to the plan that could be explored to help reduce the cost.
The school board agreed dropping the price to $9.86 million would be the best option.
Update on the first weeks of school
District administration reported a busy first two weeks of school as students and staff settle into their roles for the year.
The layout of the classrooms in the elementary school have seen some changes, according to elementary principal Dave Scholz, with practically every square inch of space put to use.
The elementary building underwent some construction in order to accommodate the new four-day four-year-old kindergarten classes before the start of the school year, and Scholz commended the teachers who worked to help move items, paint walls, and generally preparing the classrooms.
Now that students are in the classroom, Scholz said that teachers have been teaching their young charges appropriate behaviors for different settings, whether it be in the classroom, the restroom, the hall, the bus, or on field trips. At the conclusion, kids then sign the Logger pledge to be respectful, responsible, and safe.
Students in grades third through fifth are now all equipped with chromebooks.
Elementary teachers have taken training on standards-based report cards, with the possibility of some grades piloting the new format this year.
Middle and high school students have a new schedule this year, with all students starting the day at 8:05 a.m., according to principal Colin Hoogland.
Student parking has been moved to the front of the school, and parents can now pick up their kids at the end of the lower lot, reducing the former traffic backup that sometimes spilled out onto Flambeau Avenue.
Students have a face-to-face Spanish teacher this year, and there are about 60 students enrolled in her classes. Hoogland said there has been discussion about offering an introduction to Spanish class for members of the community sometime in the future.
A new extracurricular offering is show choir, which was started by volunteers in May and is being directed by Pamela Knihtila. It will be considered a club event, and will receive some funding from a recent donation by the Loggers United booster club.
For grades six through 12, the levels of privilege card system have been expanded, according to Hoogland. This system is provided to all students in order to keep them informed about the effects of their effort and behavior in the classroom and school grounds.
The first level privilege card goes to students who maintain a Bor above in all their classes for a month, and do not have any office referrals or unexcused absences. This card allows them greater freedom during Logger Time and also grants them free access to athletic events.
The second level is for students who are meeting the minimum requirements, but are showing good work ethic in the classroom. These students can submit a request to advance to privilege card status, and if their teacher agrees, they can be approved.
There is a restricted level that would be applied to students that cause constant discipline issues and get poor grades, banning them from attending after school events without a teacher's or coach's pass.
The final level is suspended, when students are suspended, expelled, or banned from being on school grounds.
Vaping is once again proving to be a problem at the middle/high school, according to Hoogland, who reported there were a couple confirmed instances over the first few days of school — along with some other unverified reports.
"I think it's really important that we continue to educate parents about this," said Hoogland.
There are significant consequences for students caught vaping on school grounds, according to Hoogland. Students may be referred to law enforcement, they may be subject to a fine, they will have a one-day in-school suspension, and an AODA assessment. It is also a violation of the athletic code.
Policies reviewed and approved
Revisions to the district's school forest usage policy and the student immunization policy were unanimously approved by the school board after being presented for a second reading.
Language was added to the school forest policy, allowing members of the public to fish off the Elk River portion of the Worcester school forest. A paragraph added to the school's policy on student immunizations says that in the case of a vaccine preventable disease, unimmunized students may be excluded from the district's buildings until the outbreak subsides.
School board member Tracie Burkart noted that generally at least 90% of Phillips School District students are immunized, with that percentage sometimes rising to 100%.
Burkart reported that the policy committee had heard some interest in the possibility of exploring the legality of having a concealed carry policy in the district. The board directed administration to look into whether such a policy would comply with Wisconsin laws.
Following the meeting, it was reported to the Review that Wisconsin statutes prohibit the possession of firearms on the grounds of a K12 school. No further action will be taken at the school board level at this time.
Mental health and AODA grant
A new mental health initiative, tentatively titled Take 10, is underway with plans to role it out to staff, students, and parents in the near future.
Vicki Lemke, director of pupil services, provided the school board with a first glimpse of the initiative, and how it will be used in the district.
According to Lemke, Take 10 is designed to help support the daily mental health needs of students. There will be a