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Mining, Load Limit Laws Major Topics For WTA

The wheels are again in motion toward opening the Akela Mine once known as The Back Forty Project, Marinette County Association For Business and Industry (MCABI) Director Ann Hartnell reported at the quarterly meeting of the Wisconsin Towns Association, Marinette County Unit on Thursday, March 20 at Wausaukee.

There were 20 town officials plus guests present for the meeting, representing 11 of the county’s 16 towns. Discussions centered on legislation affecting voting processes, mining, road maintenance, education for employment and more.

Marinette County Communications Administrator Kirsten Bellisle was on hand to ask town officials to spread the word that the county’s new Reverse 911 emergency communications system is up and running. Anyone wanting to receive notification of impending emergencies, for example an approaching tornado, can go to the county website to sign up for notification by a telephone call, e-mail or voice mail from the county’s 911 Dispatch Center.

Highway Commissioner Ray Palonen reported that weight restrictions on Marinette County roads would go into effect on Monday, March 24, and acknowledged that most towns follow the county’s lead on this. He noted this is one of the latest dates ever to start spring weight limits, but cautioned that frost is still 6’ to 7’ deep under roads, and they anticipate a lot more damage this year than most years.

Another piece of bad news was that the Federal Highway Administration has drastically increased requirements for bridge inspections, which need to be done every two years. He said last year cost of an inspection was $95, and this year it is about $175.

Dave Bedora, Beaver Town Chair and local WTA clerk/treasurer, asked Palonen to explain the $43 million you want for the roads.

My job is to explain to the administrator (Ellen Sorensen) what the needs are, and it’s up to her to figure out how to pay for it, he replied.

He said this year the county will do chip sealing for towns while they are out chip sealing on county roads. He said they used chip sealing on County C west of the Village of Wausaukee last year, and it worked well. Palonen said rutted roads can be repaired by smear patching, which involves filling in ruts and then chip sealing over the top.

Early in the meeting WTA District Directors Marilyn Bhend and Kevin Koth had reported on state level WTA activities and state legislation that affects towns.

Bhend was unhappy with several things, including some changes to the Board of Appeals rules that allows property owners to appeal by telephone, and another that allows election observers three to eight feet from election inspectors, which she feels is too close, and another that changes the rules for absentee voting in ways that disadvantage part time town clerks and people who work or go to school out of town and come home on weekends. As to limiting the number of absentee voters, the cat is out of the bag on that one, we’re not going back, she declared.

She said the legislators never checked with the Clerk’s Association, WTA or Government Accountability Board before approving the new voting laws of which she very strongly disapproves.

She said a bill that allows larger towns to establish Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts to help promote economic development had passed, but she doubted it would apply to any towns in Marinette County. To set up a TIF District, the town must have over $500 million assessed value and 3,500 population. Bhend described the legislation as a foot in the door to get towns on a more level playing field for economic growth.

Asked if the law allows a husband or wife to run for supervisor when the other is town chair, Bhend replied it’s up to the voters if they want that. A town chair present remarked that could cause a lot of divorces. To other questions, Bhend said you can run for town office at age 17, provided you turn 18 before the term begins, and an elected clerk/treasurer can vote for a replacement if a vacancy occurs on a 3-member board but an appointed clerk cannot.

Koth was critical of some of Sen. Tom Tiffany’s votes in the legislature, particularly on SB349, the mining bill, which was opposed by WTA. Tiffany defended some votes by saying he believed WTA Administrator Rick Stadleman had agreed to a compromise. Koth said Stadleman doesn’t make the decisions, it’s the 12 members of the WTA board. He’s the messenger, our lobbyist in Madison! He said towns have 65,000 miles of road to take care of, and they are not built for heavy vehicle travel. The WTA board had never taken a neutral position on that issue, Koth declared.

Tiffany acknowledged that they disagree, but defended his own position. He said some towns were going overboard in attempting to impose new environmental restrictions on existing businesses. Koth said that is done regularly in Madison and Washington, but Tiffany said at least to some extent those decisions are based on science, which the larger entities have the resources to investigate and smaller ones do not. He likened some town restrictions to having a local government tell a long existing paper mill that it could now only operate Monday through Friday, 9 to 5, without regard to people who would lose their jobs. He said businesses will not locate or expand in Wisconsin if they cannot depend on fair and reasonable laws.

Stadleman, long time Executive Director and legal advisor for WTA, is retiring effective April 31. Koth said a steering committee is putting together a job description, following a 2-day brainstorming session. They would like to interview on April 21 to allow time for the new person to work with Stadleman. One rule is that the new Executive Director must live in Shawano, where the WTA headquarters are located.

Bhend said WTA did compromise by agreeing to allow overweight self propelled farm implements on town roads subject to issuance of no-cost permits that would be good for one year. She said in Oconto County six towns got together to pass the same permitting system, and they want to make it uniform for the entire county.

Tiffany described some features of Gov. Scott Walker’s recently approved $500 million tax bill. He said they changed the withholding table after realizing the state has been taking about 120 percent of anticipated taxes, which means citizens have been giving tax free loans to the state. In the new biennium, half a million will be in property tax relief, since about half the technical college support will be from the state rather than local property taxpayers. He expressed hope eventually the state will pay the entire NWTC bill as they do for the universities.

Tiffany noted this marks the third tax cut this term. He said the transportation budget now has a surplus, but they still are about $200 million of the amount needed to maintain infrastructure. He urged town officials to call his office and tell me what you want us to do.

Tiffany noted in the last decade the state stole a billion dollars from the transportation fund, and a constitutional amendment referendum will be on the ballot in November to make sure that fund can never be raided again.

Peshtigo Town Chair Herman Pottratz suggested taking a ride to Green Bay to see where all the money had been wasted - on mega-roundabouts that were not needed.

Pottratz said road aid for towns will be $2,100 per mile, and counties will get about the same, but said he believes this should double if towns and counties must build roads to state standards.

Bhend was upset that the managed Forest Law sought by WTA still has not been passed. She said they have been waiting for eight years for the legislation she described as is very critical for the towns.

You are absolutely correct, Tiffany told her. It’s a shame we were not able to get that done...I promise to make that a priority in the next session!

Hartnell said Akela Mine has merged with another mining company and are in the process of getting permits for the proposed mine near the banks of the Menominee River just north of Shakey Lakes in Menominee County. She also expressed belief the mining operation can be carried on without creating environmental havoc, and described Michigan as having some of the best mining laws in the country.

In a brief history of the project, Hartnell said Akela and Hud Bay had formed a consortium to develop the Back Forty project, but it broke up about six months ago. Since then, Akela, under new management, has merged with Red Gold and it sounds like they will get going on the project again, she said.

Hartnell said modern prospectors found rich gold, silver and other mineral deposits at the proposed mine site, which includes some of the richest gold ores in the northern hemisphere. She said the deposit is part of a whole arc through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Northern Wisconsin, but it does not appear to cross the river into Marinette County. However, jobs created by the mine will be filled by people from both sides of the river.

She has been told Akela Mine expects to actively mine the site for nine years once it is opened. They plan an open pit mine to a maximum depth of 2,500, but the main gold vein is nearest the surface. The operation is expected to cover 50 acres, with excavations of 1,500 by 1,500 feet and 400 feet deep. When operations start, sod will be removed and stockpiled until the time comes to reclaim that portion of the property. Water will be collected, treated and recycled on-site. The ore will be treated on-site and much of the excavated material will be returned to the mine. Once they are done mining the fill will be returned, the property will be recontoured and the original sod will be restored, Hartnell said.

I think this can be a successful mine without polluting the environment around it, Hartnell declared.

Peshtigo Town Chair Pottratz was a bit skeptical, but he commented that anyone who wants to get rich can buy Akela MIne shares for seven to 10 cents apiece.

Hartnell termed Marinette County very fortunate to have NWTC. She said the technical college helps Marinette Marine keep up with welders, and the excellent facility at the Wausaukee Cchool branch of NWTC is a major bonus. We need to get kids in high school interested in technical skills versus whatever job they can get without skills, she declared, adding that the unemployment rate in Marinette is typically 1.5 percent more than across the river in Menominee, Mich. She said the school districts are finally getting on board and realizing the value of technical education in a day when no good industrial job can be filled by someone with nothing more than a high school diploma.

WTA Marinette County Unit Chair Ron Holmes, of Amberg, asked if any schools in the county have a good machinist program. Hartnell wasn’t sure, but said a CNC program will probably start soon in Marinette.

Hartnell said she has been learning at recent business conferences that companies that are most involved in keeping their employees educated are also the companies that are most successful.

Tiffany said the legislature is trying to get more money into workforce development in order to bring the good paying jobs back to Wisconsin.

Before the meeting adjourned, Dave Pellman, Town of Pound supervisor, asked if any of the towns present would like to help pay to have an article published in the Peshtigo Times with guidelines for anyone who will drive heavy equipment and/or haul heavy loads on town roads. Every town representative present agreed that the local WTA treasury should foot the bill for the ad, up to a cost of $300.


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