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Referendum to be presented

Birchwood School will put a referendum before voters on April 7 that, if approved, would give the district a 5-year, $5.8 million non-recurring referendum for maintenance and operations, technology, and curricular needs for students.

Passage would add an estimated $3 to the property tax bill for each $100,000 of a property value, for a total of $15 per $100,000 over the 5 years.

Several informational sessions have been set up to introduce the referendum and answer question. The first was on Tuesday, Jan. 14, followed by one on Monday, Jan. 27. Upcoming sessions will be on:

• Monday, Feb. 10, at 6 p.m. at the Town of Birchwood Municipal Hall.

• Monday, Feb. 17, at 10 a.m. coffee and conversation in Middle School math room.

• Monday, March 16, at 2 p.m. cookies and conversation in the Middle School math room.

"A vast amount of time [last] summer involved analyzing the physical structure of each building and studying student

programming capabilities within the district," said Superintendent Diane Johnson. "With decreases in financial support for many school districts over many years, including Birchwood, projects and programming have been delayed and need to be addressed.

"Some of the challenges include repairing the Bobcat building, improving drainage along the south side of building, repairing and/or replacing sidewalks, repairing and replacing roof sections as needed, maintaining students' access to technology, and updating STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) areas, to name a few items."

The timing of the referendum will help keep the tax increase low: The current building debt (for energy-related improvements) is set to be paid off in 2020-21.

"Our goal is to keep school taxes as level as possible, with the understanding that many people who live in this community are on fixed incomes," Johnson said.

The district surveyed Birchwood residents, parents, and staff via email and mail this fall to gauge their reaction to what was then a potential referendum. Almost a quarter – 407, or 24% – of the surveys were returned.

Of those responses, three-quarters would definitely or probably support the referendum, at the stated tax level, for maintenance, technology access, and maintaining programs and services.

"The survey also indicated about 50% of respondents have an interest in the district exploring the idea of a library/meeting area available for school and community use," Johnson said. "Finally, survey results showed that people believe it is important or somewhat important for the school to explore expanding Fab Lab opportunities and partnerships with WITC."

Johnson said that the district has been planning for a potential referendum for 3 years and waited until the debt was paid before asking for support.

She noted that "the district would exceed the revenue limit by $530,000 in 2020-2021 and by $1,317,500 for the next 4 years. Even though the revenue in '20-'21 is less than the next 4 years, it is still an estimated $3 for each $100,000 of a home's value over those 5 years. The district will finish paying off the energy exemption loan in '20- '21 and so the number is lower."

One of the comments written on a returned survey was the referendum should invest in "areas of children and families rather than in existing assets."

"We completely understand that the school and its resources need to center around children and families," Johnson said. "The challenging part is the children need to have roofs that do not leak, locker room floors that are not bulging due to water entering the building, or trips in an unreliable van with 230,000 miles on it. If our current budget allowed for us to properly maintain the building, we would certainly do that.

"The district is zeroaided with consistently declining revenue [from the state], meaning, finances are tight. Over the years, the Building and Grounds Committee has made numerous decisions on projects/items that must be replaced in that year (like landscaping the west side so water would not run into the gym again) and items that could go on the 5-year plan. Not unlike making choices in your personal spending, district personnel make decisions on how to be the best steward of taxpayer dollars."

A survey respondent suggested the district merge with Shell Lake or Rice Lake.

Though an option, Johnson said that a merger would mean Birchwood taxpayers would pay the tax rate of the school that the district merges with. If Rice Lake, then Birchwood's mill rate would rise from 6.34, the 12th lowest in the state, to 10.4, a 71% hike. If Shell Lake, the increase would be 60% with a mill rate of 10.13.

Additionally, with the District asking for $5.8 million over 5 years, your school tax will go up minimally (about $3 per $100,000 each year for 5 years). Again, all things the same, the school will stay at about 6.34 mill rate over the next 5 years with the energy exemption debt dropping off completely in 2020-2021.

In response to a survey respondent saying parents and grandparents will be "looking for value, academic excellence and public/private partnerships to support the district," the district recently earned four out of five stars on the State Report Card, representing "exceeds expectations," which put it fifth out of 15 districts in the area.

"Our little school district continues to grow and flourish, even with many financial challenges, because we have supportive businesses, community members, and groups, like the Educational Foundation of Birchwood that provides support to both students and staff members," Johnson said.

5 years in, frac sand fund pays dividends

After 5 years of frac sand being mined and trucked out of the Town of Sumner, money continues to stream back in through a funding deal struck between the small township and an international company.

Since 2015, more than $1.2 million has been collected from Source Energy Services for Sumner Community Foundation, based on a rate of 20 cents per ton of sand mined from the ground.

"The sand company has been a great asset," said Jim Crotteau, one of five people on the community fund board of directors.

That board consists of one town board member, two citizens and two representatives of Source Energy Services.

Jim Pannier is a former Barron County board member and advisor to the committee.

"The philosophy is that this exists for the betterment of Town of Sumner citizens," he said.

The fund works to fulfill this mission in several ways.

"Number one is scholarships," said Crotteau.

In 2016, $16,000 in scholarships were awarded to children of the township. Grants are $1,000 per year split over two semesters for students who maintain certain academic criteria.

"That $1,000 a year is huge," said Crotteau, who himself has kids looking to further their education.

The fund has also helped purchase equipment for Blue Hills Search & Rescue, Cameron Volunteer Fire Department and the Barron County Sheriff's Department. Churches do not receive funds, except to help with utilities in those where 4-H and other community meetings are held.

A large chunk also goes to the township itself, helping to construct town buildings and fund road projects.

Crotteau said with monies supplemental to the general tax levy, the township is able to pay off debt on road projects sooner, such as 2019 upgrades to 17th Avenue.

Crotteau, who served many years on the town board, said the contributions from frac sand make a big difference for a town with lower property valuations than most in the county.

For example, Sumner's total valuation is about $62 million—a fraction of that of the neighboring Town of Prairie Lake, where waterfront properties boost the town's value to $173 million.

A perpetual pot

But the largest share of the frac sand contribution is not spent, but invested, to the tune of about 80%.

The goal is to build a $2 million endowment, which would provide annual dividends in perpetuity to be spent for the good of the town.

"That's what our whole goal was," said Crotteau. "To have a pot of money, even if the mine stops."

With more than $1.2 million contributed from the sand company, even after the other expenditures, the fund has a balance of $1.2 million-plus because the investment has paid dividends.

For a local non-profit to have a sum like that, raised from an international company, is a rare thing, said Crotteau.

The agreement is also unique in that the sand company's contributions do more than fund road maintenance, as is the case in other local townships.

The goal of the fund's performance is based on the S&P 500, but that standard can be reevaluated and changed as the pot grows, said Pannier.

Crotteau said the fund board's decisions are not easy, especially since many have voiced the opinion that more should be spent now rather than saved.

"We have to be very careful," said Crotteau.

There is also the complicated nature of the frac sand market, which rises and falls quickly based on the oil and gas prices.

After receiving $380,000 from Source Energy in 2018, the 2019 total dropped to $356,000. By the month, revenues dipped from $29,127 in April of 2019 to $7,733 in November, but recovered to $20,142 in December. That gives an improved outlook for the industry in 2020.

Source Energy, which is based in Calgary, has also maintained a good environmental record, with the exception of a discharge of sediment-laden water into a tributary of German Creek and Ojaski (Mud) Lake in September of 2015 and June of 2016. The company paid a total of paid a total $3,127 in fines.

Fund origins

The company itself, which was formerly know as Canadian Sand & Proppant, was originator of the community fund idea, said Crotteau.

Lawyers for the company and the Town of Sumner, and town chairman Steve Palmquist worked out the details to get it established in 2015.

Board members include Crotteau as president, Dave Mansfield as secretary treasurer, town board representative Steven Becker as vice president, and Source Energy reps Brett Walsh and Adam Grguric.

Board members serve 1to 5-year staggered terms, and may serve a maximum of two terms in succession. They must disclose possible conflicts of interest on an annual basis. Board members are volunteers and not compensated.

A newsletter is sent out with the town's tax bills to update the public on the state of community fund and request proposals for grants. Mansfield said the early part of the year is a busy time as the board looks at year-end tallies, plans the year ahead and disperses scholarships.

Mansfield said he looks at every sand truck driving down Hwy. 8 as about $4 more for the fund.

And there is a consistent stream of trucks from morning to mid-afternoon most days. From the mine at 2595 Hwy. 8, sand is hauled to a drying and transloading facility in Weyerhaeuser. From there, most is shipped by rail to oil and gas well sites in Canada. To them that sand is worth $50 a ton or more, depending on the market.

It's big business, and the Town of Sumner is getting a little piece of the pie.

"That's what our whole goal was— to have a pot of money, even if the mine stops."

—Jim Crotteau, fund president

Dakota Supply group moves

Dakota Supply Group has announced plans to move its branch in Rice Lake to a new facility in the first quarter of 2020.

The new facility will be located at 2118 19th Street, an easily accessible location very near the intersection of Hwy. 48 and Hwy. 53.

Dakota Supply Group provides products for the electrical; plumbing; HVAC; refrigeration; communications; utility; automation; waterworks; on-site sewer, water and well; filtration and metering technology industries.

Dakota Supply recently purchased property from W.A. Roosevelt Company on West Coleman Street, and quickly sold it to Rice Lake Weighing Systems.

According to a press release from Dakota Supply Group, "The new facility will provide a substantially larger and more efficient footprint, a larger sales counter area, plus a sizable customer training center. Additionally, the added space allows for expansion in depth and breadth of plumbing inventory, as well as the room to support moving into the electrical segment.

"This is a significant leap forward for our Rice Lake team and our existing group of customers. It allows us to provide greater service locally, as well as to customers across all of Northwestern Wisconsin," said Karl Wrobel, Wisconsin General Manager. "Our Rice Lake business has outgrown the capacity of our current building, and this new facility opens up a world of opportunities for DSG in this part of the state. I am excited to watch our Branch Manager, Randy Bailey, and his team set a new standard of customer service for this market."

ReStore closing soon

Barron County Habitat for Humanity is closing its ReStore, the organization announced in its January newsletter.

The newsletter states that the change reflects a tighter focus on the organization's core mission of building homes for those in need.

"We will be greatly discounting the inventory in the ReStore with a goal of clearing out most of the inventory by Saturday, Feb. 29. We will liquidate any remaining items the first 2 weeks of March," according to the newsletter.

"This decision has been discussed for many months as we are looking for ways to concentrate our time and resources more fully on our mission. We will have incredible deals over the next few weeks, so plan to visit the ReStore."

Habitat opened its first ReStore in Cameron in 2008 with the help of a Waste Reduction Grant from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

It remained there until 2017, when it moved to its current location at corner of Hwys. SS and O on Rice Lake's south side. But it struggled to stay viable while leasing the prime retail location. Among other issues, were the fact that multiple staff members were fired in 2018 on suspicion of theft.

For more information on donating or volunteering, email board@barroncountyhabitat.org.

Census workers needed

Barron County wants to count on you for help in the 2020 Census.

Nationwide, the U.S. Census Bureau is recruiting up to 500,000 temporary, part-time census takers.

The positions offer competitive pay, flexible hours, paid training, and weekly paychecks, according to a Census Bureau press release.

The Census website states that Barron County enumerators will make $19 an hour, and that field employees will be reimbursed for authorized work expenses such as mileage incurred while conducting census work.

Workforce turnout in Barron County has been good, but the Census had hit less than 75% of its County employee goal as of Jan. 27.

The selection process began in January, and paid training will occur in March and April. After training, most positions work between May and early July.

The U.S. Census Bureau is an

equal opportunity employer, and people 18 or over are encouraged to apply by visiting 2020Census.gov and hitting the green "Apply Now" button in the upperright corner.

Answering the Census

As to the Census itself, invitations and instructions on how to answer the survey will be mailed out beginning in March. This is the first year that the Census will be answerable online. In fact, the Census estimates that less than 1% of households will actually be physically counted by a Census taker.

People can still self-respond to the questionnaire by phone or by mail.

For non-English speakers: Spanish will be supported by phone and online, and Somali in the form of glossaries and language guides.

The 2020 Census will not contain a citizenship question.

The U.S. Census Bureau is required to keep personal information strictly confidential. Not doing so is a felony.

The information gathered is not shared with law enforcement or landlords.

(Copyright © 2020 APG Media)