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Oconto County Faces Jail Decision At Sept. 19 Meet

Oconto County Supervisors will be faced with a hard decision at their meeting on Thursday, Sept. 19 - whether to proceed with a $25 million bond issue to finance construction of a new Law Enforcement Center or begin collecting information to bring the decision to the public in a referendum vote that could be held in April, September or November of 2014.

The current jail is reported as overcrowded and the oldest in the state.

County Board Chair Leland T. Rymer told supervisors at their meeting on Thursday, Aug. 22 that they would be asked to vote on the issue in September. In the course of long discussion at that meeting he stressed the need for a new Law Enforcement Center, the dangers of over crowding and other problems at the existing 50-year-old jail, and the relatively low property tax impact of $2 a month ($24 a year) on a $100,000 home. “I don ‘t think $2 a month is a lot for a brand new Law Enforcement Center,” Rymer declared.

The center will cost an estimated $25 million, plus $450,000 to extend city utilities and probably $5 million to $7 million in interest over the 20-year life of the bond issue. Plans tentatively are to have half the money to replay the bond issue come from the property tax (with a 25 cent per $1,000 tax levy) and the other half from the county sales, after using the $2 million the county has already set aside for the project.

Option to going forward without a referendum was made possible by a state law which allows a long-term bond issue for the project without a referendum if 75 percent of the 31-member County Board votes in favor of an enabling resolution. A minimum of 24 votes in favor is needed, which means seven opposing votes could defeat the bond issue.

If the financing resolution is approved the county will have five years to gather all the needed information, settle on a location, and proceed with the project.

Site has not been entirely decided, but the preference is for a county-owned property in the Town of Little River, just north of the Oconto City Limits.

The county has a memorandum of understanding with the town that would allow construction of the new facility on the selected property, but with some restrictions, Among them is a stipulation that the agreement will not take effect until a majority of voters approve the project in a referendum election.

The county had asked the town to change the memorandum to allow construction if the bond issue is approved by the required 75 percent of the County Board, but at a meeting last month, the town board voted to not change the agreement. Town officials indicated they agree the jail is needed and want it near the City of Oconto, but felt in fairness to taxpayers the matter should be settled by referendum vote.

The County Board’s Law Enforcement Committee discussed the town’s Aug. 22 action at a meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 27 and as a result talked about some alternative locations and other options and authorized County Administrative Coordinator Kevin Hamann to contact neighboring land owners. At a meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 4 the Committee agreed to recommend that County Board approve an initial resolution authorizing the $25 million bond issue for the Law Enforcement Center project.

The county has been talking about a new jail for more than a decade. Everyone on the board appears convinced that it is needed, but there are differing opinions on where it should be located and how it should be paid for.

The City of Oconto Falls has offered a site for $1 if the county will build its jail there. Job creation is a consideration. However, opponents of that plan cite the difficulty and expense of transporting prisoners for court appearances. Early on, means were sought to attach the new and/or expanded jail to the existing facilities at the courthouse in the City of Oconto.

Meanwhile, overflow prisoners from the crowded existing jail are housed in Marinette County Jail and other counties when necessary. Marinette County Jail is having its own space problems more and more often Oconto prisoners are taken to more distant jails, in Forest and Shawano counties.

The issue of resolution versus referendum was discussed at great length at the County Board meeting on Thursday, Aug. 22.

Supervisor Gerald Beekman, who chairs the Law Enforcement Committee, reported there is an agreement with the City of Oconto regarding annexation and extending sewer and water service to the property. The Town of Little River was to meet that night, and in case they refused to change their requirements, the committee had already begun discussing alternate locations and funding, Beekman said.

Hamann said interest rate for bonds rose 1% in the past year and is expected to keep going up. Every 1% percent hike in interest adds $3 million to the total cost of a $25 million long-term loan, Hamann said.

“We need to decide now, if the county will fund it or if we must go to referendum. We need to know now, ‘are we doing this project or not?’” Hamann told the board.

“If we vote yes, let’s borrow the money, that’s a vote against having a referendum,” one supervisor objected. “The County Board knows we need a new jail, but we have said there will be a referendum, and now we are changing our mind.” Another asked, “Why aren’t we getting the information out to the people?” when there were concerns about a referendum voting the jail down.

Hamann said if they go to referendum they will need to spend money and get all kinds of information to the people. “When this all started, we were not going to go for a referendum,” he reminded the board. “Our first thought was that County Board could vote on it and the referendum came up only when state law changed, and now we find we can do the bonding resolution by 75 percent vote.”

He asked the board to decide in September if they will go ahead and bond for the money or go to referendum.

“I don’t believe we can continue with the jail as it is,” Hamann declared.

“The public wants to know a dollar figure,” Supervisor Bill Grady declared.

“I’ve told you...if you want all that information, please spend $1.4 million to gather it,” Hamann responded.

Grady commented the land in Oconto Falls is available for $1, “and you can transport a lot of prisoners for $1.4 million...People can’t believe we’re going to put a law enforcement center on that property!”

“They also say “Not in Oconto Falls,’” Hamann shot back.

Rymer said there could be no vote until Little River decided what they were going to do, but beyond that, interest is already up 1.35% from its low point, and the costs will just keep going up. “If County Board is going to keep voting it down, the cost of the Law Enforcement Center will just keep going up,” he declared. He predicted if the issue goes to referendum it will get voted down, and delay things more.

Rymer said the state report issued last month warned about liability. “When you get prisoner occupancy to full capacity there is a greater chance something will happen,” he cautioned, adding that the cost of one law suit could have a greater impact than the cost of the new facility.

“I give credit to the committee,” Rymer declared. “We’re going to vote on this next month!” He said the press would help get the word out on the need for the new facility.

Supervisor Rose Stellmacher, noting that interest is rising, asked if they would freeze in an interest rate by approving the referendum in September.

Hamann said the interest rate would not be frozen until the construction documents are ready and the bond issue proceeds, which could be up to five years. “This resolution is just a notice that we plan to do it, and it’s good for five years,” he added.

Rymer added that interest and construction costs are not going to get cheaper. “Prices go up every year. That’s proven in black and white!” he declared.

“As long as I’ve been on this board I’ve said we need a jail, and for eight years I’ve told people there would be a referendum, ” Supervisor Guy Gooding declared. “Now we’re threatening our constituents, in my view, by saying we’re just going to tack this on to your tax rate.”

“I don’t want you ever saying we’re threatening our constituents, because it’s not true!” Rymer scolded. “I’ve said we’re going to let our constituents know the truth and I’ve said that many times. I don’t like the remark we’re threatening our constituents, because we’re not!”

“That’s how it’s viewed,” Gooding replied.

Stellmacher asked how soon they could go to referendum. County Clerk Kim Pytleski said the soonest legal date would be 70 days, but Hamann said that would not work. “We need to get people much more detailed information before we go to referendum.” Referendum votes can now only be held in conjunction with regularly scheduled elections, which would mean April, September or November of next year. He felt April would be too soon, which leaves September and November.

Supervisor Vernon Zoeller said people in his district don’t even want to talk about a new jail. He added that people are already hard pressed, “I hate to strap them any more with taxes.”

Rymer objected that they shouldn’t be saying, “jail,” they be saying, “Law Enforcement Center,” ...because that’s what it is. It’s for 911 and the sheriff and his staff.”

That said, moments later Rymer himself declared, “We all know the jail is going to cost us money,” and that slip was corrected by Hamann, who pointed out, tongue in cheek, that they were talking about a law enforcement center.

When the laughter died down the discussion continued.

“We’ve been looking at this Law Enforcement Center for well over 10 years,” Beekman declared. “We are convinced it is absolutely necessary...The site has been soil tested and evaluated and it’s sizable enough for our needs...We’ve been going at this long enough. Now is the time to decide what we’re going to do!”

“I’ve been talking it up,” Beekman said. “Everyone I talk to says we need one (a new jail). Now money is cheap...So let’s get going.” He said he has received no phone calls and heard no objections.

Zoeller said he was leaving it up to the people of his district to decide, “and that would be the referendum vote.”

“It’s better to go through life wanting something you don’t have than having something you don’t want,” Zoeller added.

“It isn’t that we want this new jail, we need it!” Supervisor Melissa Wellins declared. “If the referendum fails, what do we do then?”

“Do like the schools do,” Hamann replied. “Make changes you feel would make it more palatable and bring it back for another referendum, probably within six months.”

“A lot of people are not informed and they do not want to be informed,” Beekman declared. “They think if a referendum fails it will go away. It will not! The need is there!”

“Maybe the right question on a referendum would be how do you define our job,” commented Supervisor Paul Bednarik. “If we can’t make the tough decisions, maybe we should dissolve the County Board and let the people run it!” He said from day one, law enforcement people, the people who use the jail, have told them closer is best, ideally it should be attached to the courthouse. As to money and loss of the best interest rates, “I think the citizens should be drafting a plaque: ‘Thank you, County Board, for wasting $3 million!”

Changing the topic of discussion, Hamann reported that for the fifth year in a row equalized value of the county had gone down, marking the first time this has happened in the history of the county. This time the drop was $18.4 million. The one bright spot was that new construction was up 29.8 percent, an improvement over last year’s 23.5 percent. The big increase in new construction assessed value was the expansion of Belgiosio Cheese.

Storms the night of Wednesday, Sept. 21 had set sirens off in the City of Oconto. There was minor lightning damage to a home in Townsend, but firefighters saved it. Tornadoes were spotted in the southern parts of Shawano and Oconto counties, so the sirens there went off, but there was very little damage.

Hamann reported the clock tower on the Courthouse isn’t working, and repairs will be needed.

At the start of the meeting Rymer presented certificates of appreciation to Debbie Konitzer, Public Health Division Manager, on behalf of retiree Kerry Pranica, in appreciation of 22 years of outstanding service to the residents of Oconto County as a public health nurse, and to Sheriff Mike Jansen on behalf of Michael Hickey, in appreciation of 17 years of outstanding service to the residents of Oconto County. Jansen said Hickey had worked in Juvenile Detention from the time it started until the time it ended.

Konitzer announced that a few days after her retirement last month, Public Health Technician Judy Drews was honored at the Governor’s Conference as “Health Technician of the year.” She said Drews had started the “Safe Kids Coalition” a few years ago.

Jack Mlarik, City of Oconto Fire Chief, thanked the board for their support during the Spillman Software Upgrade. He said as a result of the $16,000 upgrade, they can now get dispatches directly through their telephones. Supervisor Wayne Sleeter said the Dispatch Center and many departments all worked together to make things work, “and it made a big difference.”

Despite a strong plea presented in person by property owner Frank Nowak, the board upheld a decision by Zoning Administrator Pat Virtues and the Planning and Zoning Department to deny a request to rezone his .58 acre lot in the Village of Sobieski, on which he has built three volleyball courts to be used for tournaments during church picnics on nearby property. Nowak sought to rezone his property from residential single family to neighborhood commercial.

The Little Suamico Town Board and the Little Suamico Plan Commission did not support the rezoning request for property they have in their plan as neighborhood mixed use. The town board cited parking problems, blowing sand, neighbors concerns about noise, and possible conflicts with church services as reasons for denial.

Supervisor Ron Korzeniewski gave Nowak permission to speak, and Rymer issued stern warnings about maintaining order, abiding by the 10-minute rule for speakers from the floor, and presenting only information that had been presented at the zoning hearing.

Nowak said his request for commercial zoning was denied despite the fact that in the immediate neighborhood there are four taverns, a blacktop construction company, railroad tracks, three rental units, a church parking lot, a cemetery and a trailer home.

Nowak said it would be used for tournaments only once or twice a year. He said there is a basic flaw in procedures for rezoning hearings. There were 27 letters sent to neighbors, and they included information that they did not need to attend unless they had objections. So only six neighbors were at the hearing, and they objected. Those who did not oppose his request stayed at home. Apparently Nowak runs the tournament in conjunction with the church picnic, but not in cooperation with it. He said he ran the church picnics for 30 years, and for 15 years was a member of the church, “and last year they kicked me out.” The church has opposed the rezone. Nowak said if he wanted structures there would be a problem because of the sewer district, “but that is a separate issue,” and he does not plan any structures.

Korzeniewski said he has been told by the church that they get no money from Nowak, but Nowak said his tournaments bring probably an additional 150 people to the picnic.

Vote upholding denial of the rezoning Nowak requested was upheld by a vote of 26 to five. Opposing votes were cast by supervisors Beekman, Jim Lacourciere, Richard Nelson, Diane Nichols and Zoeller.

Five zoning changes were approved as requested. They were:

*Property of Sharon Payne, Town of Abrams, separate an 8-acre parcel from 40 acres and rezone from Agricultural to Rural Residential to build a house;

*Property of Steve and Manuel Elbe and Sarah Gerndt, Town of Breed, rezone portions of a 38.9 acre parcel from residential single family, forest and restricted commercial to rural residential and agricultural zoning to divide land between siblings The commercial use is no longer needed, Virtues said.

*Property of Edward Huberty, 0.106 of an acre, from agricultural to residential single family, to correct a problem because a portion of a lean-to on an adjoining property extends onto this property.

*Property of Gerald Kierman, 0.96 of an acre in the Town of Stiles, from agricultural to residential single family for potential rebuilding of a dwelling destroyed by fire.

*Property of Donna Campshure, on Forest Hill Drive in the Town of Townsend, from agricultural to rural residential. The 2.15-acre parcel on which there is no agricultural use is to be split from a 28-acre property. Seven resolutions were presented for adoption.

In other action, the board approved transfer of an additional $50,000 from the contingency fund to cover additional costs resulting from the resignation of Corporation Counsel Robert Mraz and his replacement by Cheryl Mick on a contracted basis for $125 per hour. Mraz was paid $6,475 for unpaid vacation and longevity. He has accepted a full time appointment as Assistant District Attorney, which makes him a state employee. Vote was 30 to one, with Zoeller casting the sole opposing vote.

An exchange of properties on the east and west boundaries of the North River Road Landing to correct an old survey problem that caused a 19-foot overlap/gap situation on the Steler Family Irrevocable Trust and Matravers Farms, Inc. properties was approved. The board was assured that everybody will stay exactly where they are, but this is being done to correct the titles and put ownership where it was assumed to be.

Purchase and Installation of four office cubicles not to exceed $15,000 for the Department of Health and Human Services was approved. The space is needed to accommodate the two new people hired due to the increased case load from the Affordable Health Care Plan (Obama Care). There will be alterations of other cubicles to provide more privacy for staff and clients. Cost is $11,488.50 plus $2,300 for installation. Panels from the old cubicles can be used to improve privacy of some of the other existing cubicles.

A lease between JMAKAS Enterprises, LLC “Landowner” and Oconto County “Tenant” for Aging and Disability Resource Center of the Wolf River Region as an Oconto County satellite office at 229 Van Buren Street, Oconto Falls, was approved. Cost is $1,760 per month, with no Oconto County tax money to be used.

The board approved redesign and development of the GIS Website SOLO at a total cost of $49,900, to be paid through the Land Records Modernization Fund.

Also approved was purchase of a Netapp SAN storage area network for $40,662, funded with capital projects dollars from the county sales tax to increase computer information storage capacity.

The board heard and approved the annual report from the Oconto County Economic Development Corporation, (OCEDC) with an update by Stellmacher, who represents the county on the OCEDC board.

Correspondence included:

*An e-mail dated July 31, addressed to Joy Hogan, Child Support Director, from Janet Nelson, of Milwaukee County Child Support Services, stating Governor Scott Walker had proclaimed August of 2013 to be Child Support Awareness Month in the State of Wisconsin. The letter was treated as information to the board.

*A letter dated July 19 to Rymer from State Representatives Jeff Mursau (36th District) and John Nygren (89th District) regarding benefits to counties in the 2013-2015 state budget was referred to the Finance/Insurance Committee. The letter mentioned that the state budget added half a million dollars a year for new drug courts and another million dollars a year for drug treatment. Rymer commented that in the last few weeks he and Hamann had been talking to Nygren and Mursau on various issues, and added, “They are good representatives. We should be proud of who we have working for us in Madison!”

*An agenda for the Wisconsin County Mutual Insurance Corporation Annual Representative Assembly to be held Friday, Sept. 13, 2013 in Stevens Point was treated as information to the board. Rymer noted he is president of that group, a position he said helps bring more recognition for Oconto from all parts of the state.




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