The scene looked familiar as members of the Phillips School Board gathered Monday night to vote whether or not to send a resolution for a $9,860,000 referendum to the April 7 ballot, when citizens who live within the school district will have the opportunity to decide whether or not the district can move forward with a plan for redesigning their facilities to bring all students under one roof.
The familiarity was with good reason — this is the third time in three years that the school board has been faced with this decision.
In January 2018, the board voted to send a resolution for a $12.6 million referendum to the spring ballot, where it failed to pass by a significant margin (668 yes votes, 962 no votes).
In January 2019, the school board was faced with the choice again, but this time with a last-minute idea on the table to combine the district's
facilities into a single K-12 campus. With limited time and only a hastily drawn plan, the board voted unanimously to postpone the referendum for another year, allowing them the much needed time to craft a plan that has the potential to serve the district well into the future.
That plan, which has been the work of the past year, calls for expanding the middle/high school campus in order to create a single K-12 campus. In addition to a new elementary wing, the redesign would also expand and improve the technical education department, resolve water issues on that side of the building, and make improvements to rooms throughout the middle/high school campus. It is possible that if any funds are left over from the main project, they would go toward demolition of the 1958 and 1972 wings of the existing elementary school. It is also possible that the district office would be moved to the former elementary building in order to maximize classroom space on the main school campus.
When the board began their discussions on the night of Jan. 20, it was with board member Paula Houdek expressing a sense of unease.
"I just don't think there has been enough time engaging our public in these conversations," said Houdek, who said she was concerned that the referendum would not be approved by voters who are still uncertain and unwilling to be saddled with more tax burden.
She pointed to comments garnered through a community survey conducted last fall, saying that of the 193 comments received — both for and against the referendum — many pointed out issues. Houdek said that the most significant seemed to be a lack of communication in all parts of the district.
For board member Marty Krog, however, the decision is one that can no longer be postponed.
"This decision impacts every single person in the school district," said Krog, adding that the process of informing the community about the project will continue up until the vote. "We know we've got an issue. It's going to be up to this community to make a decision on what we're going to do and how we're going to solve it. To not move forward — it's just going to cost us more down the road, and perhaps put us in a more negative situation than we are now."
School board president Jon Pesko noted that the current option — which has been more than a year in the making — using the existing square footage wisely and creating a structure that will last well into the future. He commented that he believed in the strength of the community, saying that while he understood the tax would be a burden, it was a necessary one.
Following discussions, a roll call vote was taken, and the resolution to go to a referendum was passed seven to one. Houdek cast the sole dissenting vote. Board member Stephen Willett was absent from the meeting.
The community will have the opportunity to learn more about the proposed project at two upcoming open houses, planned for 6 p.m. on Wednesday, March 11 at the middle/high school, and 6 p.m. on Thursday, March 26 at the elementary.
Over 160 people showed up to Butternut Lake Jan. 18 for the annual Butternut/Schnur Lake Association Fisheree. Temperatures in the 20s made for a nice day out on the ice, despite the snowy conditions; a few fish were caught, too. See page 5B for winners.
With the enrollment deadline nearing for the most recent locally offered EMT basics course, the Prentice Ambulance Service was facing what Prentice Village President and Price County Supervisor Bruce Jilka identified as a critical shortage of EMTs.
The ambulance service oversees emergency medical response efforts for the southern third of Price County, a territory covering around 525 square miles, according to info shared by Jilka.
He places the number of personnel needed for adequate emergency response coverage of the area on a 24/7 schedule at 12 or more; the Prentice Ambulance Service has recently been operating at about half that staffing level. Compounding the coverage difficulties, a number of remaining EMTs are located in outlying areas, which Jilka noted greatly impacts the response time of the service.
"When we are short-staffed, we are forced to rely on mutual aid agreements with neighboring services to respond, causing even further delays and a burden for them," as explained by Jilka.
Eileen Kronberger, director of the Central Price County Ambulance Service (CPCAS), noted that all of the ambulance services in Price County maintain mutual aid agreements with other EMS providers, meaning they have a duty to assist other services when their help is needed. At this point, the Prentice Ambulance Service has been the only EMS
department to call upon CPCAS's help via the mutual aid agreements, according to Kronberger.
"Shortages have always been an issue. We all struggle to keep enough staff to cover a 24/7 schedule," Kronberger stated, adding that this being said, the Prentice Ambulance Service's need for help in meeting its EMT needs on emergency calls has been significant in the last two years.
She noted that shortages of EMTs affect everyone, from the patients who may face a lengthy wait time when they are in need of assistance to the active EMTs who can't get time off as their department struggles to meet the emergency needs of local communities. The shortages also, of course, impact neighboring services such as CPCAS when they're called upon to venture outside of their usual range of assistance, as explained by Kronberger.
While CPCAS has been managing to meet its own needs as well as the needs of Prentice Ambulance through the more southerly EMS provider's recent staffing struggles, assisting the neighboring service has put a strain on CPCAS's resources and removes one of the CPCAS's ambulances from its regular service area, according to Kronberger.
She touched on some of the factors contributing to the widespread recruitment challenge when it comes to filling EMT posts, noting that the jobs are part-time, leaving most EMTs to seek out other additional employment. As explained by Kronberger, it's difficult to commit to work in an on-call structure when a person can't leave their day job for emergency response efforts. Then there's the fact that demands of the job pull service members away from their home and family life at a moment's notice, with emergency response needs of communities not resting for holidays or other special occasions.
In discussing potential solutions for the issue, Kronberger stated that the only thing EMS services can really do is always be on the lookout for new recruits. CPCAS and other services are continually seeking candidates interested in becoming EMTs, according to Kronberger.
In order to qualify for service as an EMT, prospective candidates must complete an EMS basics class; such courses typically involve about four months of classes, scheduled for two nights out of every week along with a few Saturdays in the classroom, as Kronberger explained.
EMT hopefuls also need to attain CPR certification and meet patient contact requirements, something that's usually achieved through ride alongs with an EMS service, according to Kronberger. She noted that after completion of the EMT basics course, students take the national registry exam as the last step on the road to securing their state license.
CPCAS and Prentice Am bulance Service both cover the cost of the EMT certification course for prospective employees, Kronberger stated, noting that the only requirement from CPCAS is that students provide the service with one year of employment upon successful completion of the national registry exam.
In recent weeks, Prentice village contacts expressed concerns that an EMS basics course set to be offered at the Phillips campus of Northcentral Technical College (NTC) starting Jan. 28 would be canceled due to low enrollment.
Kelsi Seubert, NTC marketing and public relations coordinator, said that normally, a minimum of six students need to enroll in an EMT class section in order for it to run at NTC.
"However, since many agencies around the state are experiencing EMT shortages, NTC had decided to run the class with as few as three students enrolled," Seubert explained.
As of college reps' last check the week of Jan. 13, four students were enrolled in the beginner's EMS course at the Phillips campus this spring semester, meaning it should be going ahead provided the student count doesn't drop below three, according to Seubert.
She noted that those at NTC would be reviewing enrollment data this week, but prospective students are able to sign up for the course right up until its start date on Tuesday, Jan. 28.
"NTC's School of Public Safety is dedicated to helping all of our local agencies in meeting their educational needs," Seubert stated.
With this in mind, NTC offers EMT classes each spring semester and at additional points in time to meet identified needs, according to Seubert.
In recent local class segments, she noted that NTC offered an EMT class to three students in Phillips last spring. Additionally, NTC held an extra class at the campus due to identified need in fall 2018, con necting seven students with EMS basics via the course section.
The college system also holds EMT courses rotating between its Medford and Spencer campus each semester in an effort to link up rural EMS departments with more training opportunities, according to Seubert.
For more information about EMT course offerings at NTC Phillips, call 715-339-4555.
Anyone interested in potentially serving as an EMT with the Prentice Ambulance Service is asked to call 715-820-2735.
Those interested in learning more about EMT opportunities with the Central Price County Ambulance Service can reach out to Kronberger at 715339-6298.
Contact information and other details for all local EMS providers can be found by visiting www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/ems/provider/wicounties.htm and selecting the reader's county of residence from listings.
Park Falls Common Council members are trying something new for the month of February — they'll meet the last Monday of the month, Feb. 24, instead of their regular second Monday, and they'll also hold all their committee meetings at once, as a committee of the whole. That second meeting will occur earlier in February, with the date yet to be set by the mayor, but likely Feb. 10.
The changes could become permanent down the road. Instead of individual committees meeting at different times throughout the month, finance, personnel, board of public works, and any ad hoc committees will meet with the full council in attendance to take up business as they normally would and forward their recommendations on to the common council meeting later in the month.
The change is one that was recommended to the city last summer by Public Administration Associates, who handled the search for the city administrator, according to Mayor Michael Bablick.
"The idea is popular throughout city governments," Bablick told council members at their meeting Jan. 13. "This way all items are discussed and reviewed before all members of the regular council. Instead of only four aldermen hearing the information ... all aldermen would be involved at the committee level for all topics."
The council approved the changes for next month. To make a permanent change to the meeting times, the council would have to pass a charter ordinance declaring a departure from State Chapter 62, which sets meeting standards, but allows for municipalities to make changes to the defaults through charter ordinance, according to city attorney Bryce Schoenborn.
Bablick also proposed the idea of changing the day of the week the council regularly meets. After several conflicts were listed by alderpersons and staff, no change was made on that front.
"Really all the decision making is going to be at that committee meeting," Bablick said. "That's going to be the big meeting. All those recommendations will go to the council [and] whatever problems there are to fix them will go to the council meeting so I think this is going to be a lot better process."
Hospital area utility reconstruction project
The council approved initial steps towards undertaking a major street and water reconstruction of 14 blocks near the Flambeau Hospital, approving $10,000 for a grant application for the potential project.
The project would include replacement of the sanitary sewer, water main, storm sewer, and entire street section along the following streets: Paddock Avenue, from Linden Street to Highway 182; Avery Street from Linden Street to Highway 182; Sherry Avenue, from Linden Street to Highway 182; Case Avenue from Linden Street to Highway 182; Spruce Street from Case Avenue to Paddock Avenue; and Linden Street from Case Avenue to Paddock Avenue.
The total projected cost is estimated at just over $3.2 million, according to the city's engineering firm, MSA Professional Services. The primary need for the project is aged and undersized water mains in the area, as well as some streets in very poor condition.
"There are issues with the sewer mains and laterals ... which are made of a very soft material piping, which is not used anymore and as time goes on they will eventually fail," explained Jeff Seamandel, liaison from MSA.
The area in question has also suffered from continued water main breaks, having infrastructure originally built in the 1950s and 1960s with substandard iron, according to Director of Public Works Scott Hilgart. "We've also put the hospital in harm's way many, many times with these water main breaks that we've had," Hilgart explained. "They don't have fire protection during these outages."
Old laterals to the houses are also frequently collapsing, necessitating replacement and the road surface being torn into once or twice a year.
By approving the grant application fee at the meeting, the council has given MSA the go-ahead to pursue up to $1 million in Community Development Block Grant dollars. The grant application is due in May, with the results available to the city in August.
An additional potential funding option is the Department of Natural Resource's Safe Drinking Water Loan Program and Clean Water Fund, with applications due in June and September respectively. These options could provide low interest loans or principal forgiveness after the project is complete, and MSA has already submitted paper work on the city's behalf to gauge the project's eligibility.
"If everything went right, this whole project might only cost the city $1.5 million, when it was a $3.2 million dollar project to begin with," Bablick commented.
Alderman Dennis Wartgow agreed the project is sorely needed, but questioned how borrowing money for the project would impact utility bills in the city.
City administrator Brentt Michalek reminded him the true cost would not be known until the grant came back in August.
Alderman Michael Madar asked if they could choose to do only a portion of the project to keep costs down. Seamandel said that was unlikely, since the whole project has already been sent to the Department of Administration to verify the community survey — conducted in 2016 to qualify the city as eligible for the CDBG — was still valid.
"If we start taking anything off," the project, the DOA may start to reduce what it offers, said Seamandel.
Alderman Daniel Greenwood questioned the ongoing spot repairs in the area, wondering if they would add up to $1 million in the future. Hilgart said it costs $10 to $15,000 each time the street has to be torn up to fix a break, with an average of two a year.
"Those roads, they're just bad," said Hilgart. "It's pretty hard to keep looking at the same people and saying 'we've got you in our minds.' It's time."
If the city doesn't receive any other grant funding outside the $1 million through CDBG, it would still have 29% of the total project cost covered by the state.
Should the project move forward, the existing curb, gutter, and sidewalk would also be replaced, but the estimate do not currently include new features.
Paper mill update
Bablick gave a brief update on what he has learned about Park Falls Development, LLC, the company that now owns the Park Falls paper mill.
"I think everybody is justifiably impatient ... about what's going on with the paper mill. I'll just say this: the people that have been working on the ground have been very decent with me."
He said the mere fact the company continues to heat the plant and has employees on the ground is a positive sign.
"They wouldn't be doing that if they didn't have at least the intent to operate the facility," he said. "There are some big decisions that have to be made soon, and I'm hoping that by our February Committee of the Whole meeting we will have some information and that [the company] will be the ones giving the information."
Bablick encouraged those in attendance to forgo engaging in rumors and gossip in the community.
"A lot of money has been spent to try to figure out how to get this place running, by this company. As information becomes public we will make sure everybody knows," he said.
* The council approved contract amendments and a slight increase to costs with its contracted appraisal service, Bowmar Appraisal Inc., which handles city assessments. The increased cost is due to the additional work the firm will handle after the city moved away from employing an assessor last year. The previous contract paid $8,500 annually, the new contract is set at $12,500 for 2020.
* The council passed resolution 20-001 in opposition to 2019 Senate Bill 560 and 2019 Assembly Bill 623 that, if enacted, would limit municipal TIF powers.
* The council approved a liquor license to Jack's Corner Bar.
* The council approved Susanne Dillon as a housing committee member.
* It was noted at the meeting that all five council incumbents had filed as registered candidates for reelection this spring, with no challengers turning in nomination papers by the deadline.