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Phillips considers solutions to vandalism of public restroom

Several incidents of vandalism have occurred at the public restroom at Elk Lake Park over the summer months, according to City of Phillips Public Works director Jeff Williams, including human feces on the lawn outside the restroom and inside the restroom, the toilet paper and soap dispensers broken off the wall, and damage caused to the toilet and door. The locks on the sliding pavilion doors have also been broken.

While a security camera system is positioned outside the restroom, Chief of Police Michael Hauschild said it is a tremendous investment of officers' time to scroll through all the footage in order to determine the perpetrators. Additionally, Hauschild said it would be difficult to use the

footage to determine the individual or individuals responsible for the vandalism since it only shows people entering and leaving the restroom.

Williams informed the Phillips city council of the incidents at their Sept. 1 meeting, asking for direction on how to address the issue.

Williams suggested a possible solution might be to close and lock the restroom in the evening and unlock it the following morning. Another possibility considered was closing the restroom altogether for a period of time, although both Williams and the council were hesitant to remove access to the restroom for users of the splash pad, park, and boat landing.

City attorney Bruce Marshall suggested a motion-activated light could be installed above the bathroom doors in the hopes it would deter future vandalism.

The council decided to give the issue a week and reconsider the issue at their Sept. 8 meeting. As of that date, Williams reported there had been no further vandalism.

The Public Works Department was directed to continue monitoring the situation and further action may be taken in the future if the vandalism persists.

ATV club requests permission to establish a short route on State Highway 13

A request from the Northwoods Range Rovers ATV Club to leave open the section of Highway 13 between Fayette Street and County Highway F for ATV and UTV use has been postponed following discussion by the city council on Sept. 1.

The brief segment of highway was made accessible to ATV and UTV operators a few years ago when work was being done on the County Highway H bridge and again this year with the replacement of the County Highway W bridge. However, this was meant to be a temporary solution to the interruption in the normal ATV route.

Police chief Hauschild provided his input to the council, saying he was against keeping the route open longterm from a law enforcement perspective, citing the fact that it is a 40 mph zone with significant traffic. He also noted there has been an increase of complaints of ATVs and UTVs in the downtown area of Phillips, since operators believe the highway is open through town.

Alderman John Klimowski noted that in other parts of the state, there are stretches of state highway with even higher speed limits open to ATVs. He said he believed that if the route was well signed — telling ATV operators where they may and may not go — the majority of the issues could be curbed.

Mayor Charles Peterson suggested the ATV club might take on the financial burden of paying for signage to be installed.

Following discussion of what permissions the city can and cannot legally grant, the topic was postponed until the city attorney can investigate the legality of the request and return his findings to the council in October.

Citizen questions city's ordinance on mowing grass

The question of what is and what is not grass was brought to the city council on Sept. 1 by Phillips property owner Stephen Willett.

Specifically, Willett drew the council's attention to the city ordinance pertaining to private citizens' responsibility to maintain their properties — an ordinance Willett stated he himself had drafted 35 years ago when he worked as the city's attorney.

"I'm here to tell you it's inadequately drafted," he told the city council. "I'm requesting that you be a little more specific. It says the length of grass on privately owned property and boulevard properties surrounding a privately owned property should be no more than six inches. It doesn't say when it is necessary to have grass and what is grass and what is not grass. It says the property owner should maintain the property, but doesn't state when it should be grass or should not be grass."

Willett pointed to certain properties such as the Barry Wehmiller University located off County Highway F, which is surrounded by wild plants.

Willett was raising the issue and requesting the council revisit the ordinance as he had received a warning from the Phillips Police Department that his property at 301 Storms Road was out of compliance with the ordinance.

The property was later cut back by members of the city's Public Works Department.

The property is currently the site of five large garages with a wetland on the property. Willett told the council it was impossible to cut back the wetland vegetation in order to comply with the ordinance, and requested he be granted either an exception to the ordinance or that the council clarify their ordinance to allow for situations of this variety.

No formal action was taken by the council at the meeting.

The topic of mowing one's grass was raised a second time on Sept. 8, when Phillips citizen Waldemar Madsen ap proached the council during the public comment section of the meeting to protest a warning he had received from the Phillips Police Department.

Madsen asked the council to consider removing their ordinance regarding keeping the grass under six inches, saying he didn't understand how the city could order specific things done on private property.

"It's kind of like wearing a mask," he said. "If I pay to rent or own my house — I'll get to it when I get to it, I'm not going to let it grow 10 feet — but I don't want my door to be pounded on at 8:30 in the morning telling me I need to mow my grass ... or I'll get fined."

Mayer Petersen clarified that the ordinance is in place to keep the city beautiful and provide parameters for regulating how properties should look within the city.

Madsen was informed of the steps he would need to take if he wished to pursue removal of the ordinance. Those steps would include the issue becoming an actual agenda item for the city council, after which it would need to be referred to the planning commission to determine the zoning ordinance. A public hearing would likely be required as well.

No further action was taken at the meeting.

Historic clock to return for display in Phillips

The historic clock that long hung on the Wells Fargo Bank building in downtown Phillips will return to the city sometime in early 2021.

The approximately 700-pound, six-foot tall clock was originally created in Minneapolis in 1916 and installed in Phillips in 1918. It was removed from the Wells Fargo building in the summer of 2016 and saved from a near-fate of being scrapped by locals Lynne Bohn, her sister Davette Hrabak, and their mother Therese Trojak.

Since that time, the clock has been completely restored to its original state, and the three citizens responsible for saving it now wish to see it placed near Elk Lake Park where it can be seen from the highway.

The trio attended the Sept. 1 council meeting to express their wish to donate the clock to the city, with the agreement that it will return to the family if the city ever decided not to keep it.

Marshall requested that before any city council action be taken, he be allowed to do some research to ensure that the sign can be legally placed in that area.

A motion was made to generally approve accepting the clock, along with the agreement, and the placement of the clock pending further investigation into the details.

Park Falls Pulp and Paper starts production at paper mill

The 130-year-old Park Falls mill is operating once more.

On Tuesday, the pulp portion of the mill was scheduled to fill 16 semi-trucks with liquor — a valuable byproduct produced from pulping birch wood and used across several different industries.

The shipment was one of the first batches of product produced at the mill since it closed in October 2019 after enduring a six-month receivership saga, where it was sold at auction for the scrap price of $2.2 million.

Former owner, Flambeau River Papers, went into receivership in May 2019 with $40 million in outstanding debts. A series of starts and stops occurred over the summer that year as the receiver brought the plant to auction twice and entertained inquiries from over 300 buyer groups.

In November 2019, the Price County Review reported Niagara Worldwide had purchased the assets of the mill. In May of this year, the Review learned the principal owner of the mill is Yong Liu. Liu, who formed Park Falls Development, LLC — the parent company that owns the property and assets of the mill — is also a shareholder in Niagara Worldwide but owns the Park Falls mill separately from that group.

Once Liu's team was on the ground in Park Falls, it became clear the liquor byproduct the mill produces was a key revenue stream for the new company. The mill in Park Falls is one of the only plants in the country that produces this kind of liquor.

That exclusivity makes the mill a viable operation, according to Nick Ghere, managing director of Park Falls Industrial Management, the operations team that runs the mill, now called Park Falls Pulp and Paper.

"There were a lot of repairs that had to be done," Ghere said of restarting the plant. "We worked through those incrementally and here we are today, operating a pulp mill and we have intentions to get the paper machines up and running as well."

Despite the cost of heating the plant through the winter, the new company saw the value in restarting operations and was not seriously considering shutting the mill down permanently.

"We were a little unprepared at first, but took a step back once we had our feet on the ground, Ghere said. "I know there was some concern about demolition but we were never even looking at that. It was how can we get this mill started and operational and get people back to work and start making pulp and paper again."

The company hopes to start up one of its three paper machines sometime before Christmas, but for now, the 50-some employees on site are focused on repairs, maintenance, and keeping a steady stream of pulp and liquor flowing out of the pulp mill and into the market.

"Our short term plan is to get the No. 2 paper machine up and running ... then No. 1, and we'll probably take a look at No. 3 sometime next year," Ghere said. "We have multiple groups that are interested in various grades of paper. We haven't locked any of those down but we have enough interest to get that up and running."

Once the first paper

machine comes online, the mill will need to bring on at least four papermakers for four shifts, increasing the number of jobs at the plant. The company has committed to creating at least 100 full-time jobs in its first two years of operation.

The company has also committed to an agreement with the City of Park Falls to be billed for minimum water usage over the next few years, whether or not it uses the minimum amount. That agreement was key for the city agreeing to provide a $1 million short-term loan to restart operations at the mill this spring and patching up a major gap in the city's water and sewer fund.

"The mill reopening means our water utility will be sustainable and will prevent the city from having to massively increase water rates," said Park Falls Mayor Michael Bablick on Tuesday. "It's also extremely important as a tax base, not to mention the job creation and just the huge morale boost it provides for the city. We are very excited to have the mill running again and look forward to its future success in our community."

The Park Falls Area Chamber of Commerce scheduled a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 1 p.m. on Wednesday outside the historic administration building on First Avenue.

Price County receives COVID relief funding

Price County has received $21,000 in federal relief funding for costs that have been incured since the start of the coronavirus pandemic — the first of three planned requests for financial assistance for unbudgeted costs related to the pandemic.

The funding comes from the $200 million dollar Routes to Recovery program in Wisconsin, which is funded by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act and administered by the Department of Administration.

Through the Routes to Recovery program, Price County is eligible for up to $231,000 for unbudgeted COVID-19 related expenditures occurring between March 1 and Oct. 31.

Since the start of the pandemic, the county has accumulated a variety of unexpected expenses — including personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer, cleaning products, technology and equipment for county employees working from home and public meetings held remotely, overtime for public health nurses, additional absentee ballots for individuals voting remotely,

Hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, additional cleaning products and equipment, personal protective equipment (masks for county employee and public use, gloves and coveralls for correctional officers), equipment and technology for county employees to work remotely or to facilitate call-in meetings, costs from receiving assistance in emergency management mitigation and response, overtime pay for public health nurses, and election related costs from purchasing additional absentee voting ballot envelopes.

These expenses total approximately $66,655

according to information released to the Review by the county.

Broken down by category, the expenses total an estimated $23,910 in equipment and technology for county employees to work remotely or to facilitate call-in meetings; $13,542 for installing barriers or changing office layouts to accommodate for social distancing requirements; $10,898 in personal protective equipment; $4,236 for cleaning products and equipment; $2,538 in hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes; $2,222 in overtime pay for public health nurses; $1,978 for additional absentee ballot envelopes; $1,395 in emergency management mitigation and response assistance; and $1,038 in paid leave for an employee who had to temporarily leave to care for their child after school's early closure; and $942 in costs related to the two public testing events held in the county.

A second request for an additional $29,668 in CARES Act funding was submitted to the Department of Administration on Sept. 10. The county plans to request another $133,934 in November.

Additional expenses that have not yet accrued include a planned $82,000 project to install a video conferencing system in the courtroom and jail. There is also a potential $30,000 purchase of technology that will automate the process of conducting roll call in public meetings, documenting motions and seconds, calculate vote tallies, and document the results. There is also $4,545 for a desk for the assistant district attorney's office and $4,000 in new laptops.

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