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    Wausau mayor’s veto upheld in contentious discussion

    By Shereen Siewert,

    Alders Victoria Tierney and Sarah Watson on June 12, 2024. Wausau Area Access Media screengrab

    Damakant Jayshi

    Wausau will not spend taxpayer money on a consultant to redevelop the city’s north riverfront, after a veto by the mayor was upheld amid a sharp debate on Tuesday.

    City planning staff asked to go ahead with a request for proposals seeking a consultant for future projects with a cap of $100,000. The cost is already in the 2024 budget, but no money would be spent if the council did not agree to move forward after reviewing responses. Mayor Doug Diny vetoed the City Council’s May 28 decision to issue the RFP. The measure needed a two-thirds majority – eight of the 11-member council – on Tuesday in order to move forward. That didn’t happen.

    The Wausau City Council voted exactly the same way it did two weeks ago, before the veto was announced. Alders Carol Lukens, Michael Martens, Tom Neal, Gary Gisselman, Lisa Rasmussen, Sarah Watson and Chad Henke voted in favor of issuing the RFP, while Alders Terry Kilian, Becky McElhaney, Victoria Tierney and Lou Larson voted against.

    Opening the debate, Mayor Diny again defended his veto and reiterated his rationale. But he also said he should have notified alders when he sent a news release announcing the veto. He also implied that he was unfairly portrayed by local press.

    Unlike “what was presented in the media,” he said this is not an “us against staff” scenario or some sort of nefarious act, and said it is fair to evaluate priorities at any time during the year on a budget.

    Reacting to the mayor’s veto before Tuesday’s meeting, some council members said the veto is premature and unnecessary, stoking division in the council and with city staff. Those opposed to the RFP call strongly supported him, in statements provided to Wausau Pilot & Review.

    Neal questions council’s relevance if veto stands

    Alder Neal criticized Diny’s veto and said the council on Tuesday was voting on more than just the RFP resolution. He said the vote also represented something more fundamental to the alders’ role altogether.

    “Now we need at least eight votes to not only release the RFP, but also to protect this body from being deemed irrelevant,” Neal said. “If this test rocket veto stands, then we can expect to see vetoes time and again.”

    He said in his previous eight years on the council, he saw hundreds of votes ranging on a whole array of issues – some hotly contested, some controversial, some unanimous, and some passing on a slim majority. But they always accepted the results and respected their roles as alders and moved on, Neal said.

    Vetoing the resolution basically says “we don’t want information,” he said.

    Neal said he was not just hoping for an eight-vote supermajority to override the veto but “looking for a statement that we won’t accept random attacks on this body’s authority and autonomy, regardless of how some may feel about this specific RFP resolution.”

    Dist. 7 Alder Lisa Rasmussen, who is also City Council President, reminded alders that no money would be spent by issuing the RFP.

    Through this process, getting proposals does not equate to spending dollars,” she said. “There is nothing that says we are required to spend that’s what we have in the budget.”

    She said approving the call keeps the promises the city made to residents when they began assembling riverfront parcels years ago with the idea of redeveloping land and returning them to taxable status. That would mean the public would see a return on its investment.

    Part of the discussion centered on the former Wausau Chemical property, which needs environmental cleanup that will take an estimated five to seven years to complete. That is just one of the parcels slated for redevelopment on the north end, though none of the properties are currently taxable. Rasmussen said the city cannot afford to wait for cleanup to be completed before planning begins.

    Some alders have questioned issuing the RFP call for a site with contaminated property, while others asked why planning could not be done in-house. But some council members supporting the consultant proposal, including Alder Henke, said sometimes third-party expertise is required for better results and to eliminate any potential bias.

    Henke also questioned the message the city is sending by appearing unwilling to even consider a plan.

    “I don’t think that’s a good image to project,” Henke said.

    City spending, revaluation at center of debate

    Diny said there are plenty of development opportunities that exist today and suggested that the city could sell the land it already owns for future projects. Even if city-owned property is sold at a discount, he said, getting that property back on the tax rolls is crucial.

    McElhaney, who voted against issuing the RFP, said she is not anti-development or anti-consultant but is looking at the issue from a “why now” lens. She agreed that the city needs to expand its tax base in the north riverfront and everywhere else it can, but said that people in her district are under a great deal of financial pressure, and are concerned about the city’s recent revaluation that sent property values soaring.

    “I don’t want to put money into consultancy and then come back and we’ll have to borrow money for any of these other projects,” McEhlaney said.

    Similarly, Alder Tierney reiterated the “why now?” point that almost everyone opposed to the RFP, including the mayor, raised. She said she is not opposed to looking at the riverfront development in the future. While the alders have a responsibility to grow the tax base for the community, she said, they also have a responsibility to their constituents to show some restraint. Tierney said many of her constituents have expressed concern about the city’s spending.

    But Lukens and others who pressed to move the RFP forward said prices are going up and the city cannot afford to wait any longer.

    In his news release announcing the veto, Mayor Diny cited the need for careful spending in light of a “double-digit property tax increase for many residents” prompted by the required city-wide revaluation.

    Alder Watson said that the rise in the property value does not necessarily mean that the taxes are going up as well.

    Speaking at the end of the debate, Mayor Diny denied the veto violated procedure or represented a random attack but a way to be more careful with spending.

    Larson said he does not consider the veto as divisive as he read in the media. He thanked the mayor for vetoing the RFP proposal, while Kilian said she did not consider it an attack on the council.

    Near the end of the debate, Alder Gisselman again asked his colleagues to vote in favor of the proposal because planning staff has already worked on it and they have the opportunity to “glance a little bit into the future…If not now, when will it be?”

    The proposal failed by a single vote.

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