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Inspiration in a populist uprising PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 29 April 2015 16:21

Grafton’s riverwalk, a result of the save-the-dam crusade, shows what a motivated public can do to save waterfront aesthetics

Grafton is poised to create a riverwalk that will give the public new opportunities to derive enjoyment from the village’s fortunate place on the banks of the Milwaukee River. When the riverwalk opens in fall, every one of the 1,675 residents who voted to save the Bridge Street Dam can take some of the credit.

    Were it not for the voters who made an emphatic statement five years ago with a landslide vote, village officials would be looking for ways to mitigate the eyesore of a downtown mudflat instead of planning a new recreational amenity.

    That vote saved the 35-acre lake created by river water that backs up from the Bridge Street Dam—the body of water that has been referred to as the Grafton millpond for roughly a century. In 2010, village officials were intent on demolishing the dam because it required expensive repairs. Had that happened, the lake would be gone and the river would have been a narrow stream bordered by mudflats during much of the year.

    The riverwalk will be on the west side of the river, extending north from the Highway 60 bridge for the length of Veterans Park. It will have a launching place for canoes and kayaks, a beach, informational kiosks and spaces designed for relaxing and enjoying river views, including a so-called sitting wall.

    The save-the-dam crusade ranks as one of the more remarkable populist uprisings in recent Wisconsin history. Village officials were dead-set on getting rid of the dam and were not about to be persuaded by contrary views. A small group of citizens saw this as the serious
mistake it was. Their grass-roots protest grew by leaps and soon had managed to force a binding referendum and then to engage voters in the cause so effectively that an astonishing 75% of them voted to save the dam.

    Grafton’s riverwalk plan is significant for reasons beyond the fact that it’s a nice quality-of-life upgrade for village residents. Moving ahead with the riverwalk at a cost of just under half a million dollars is a clear sign that the village government now understands what the public’s priorities are when it comes to access to water and nature in other forms.

    While village officials justified demolishing the dam based on the high cost of restoring it, the voters said spend what it takes to save a valuable resource. Five years later, a substantial part of the cost of the riverwalk will be paid by local tax dollars, and it’s fair to assume a most of Grafton’s citizens approve of that.

    Almost half of the cost of the riverwalk will be paid by a grant from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, which demonstrates both the importance of that program and why it is popular among Wisconsin taxpayers. According to opinion polls, most state residents think Gov. Walker is wrong to want to shut down the stewardship fund.

    During the lead-up to the 2010 referendum, an editorial in this space supporting the save-the-dam campaign contended that “Grafton without the Milwaukee River would be like Port Washington without Lake Michigan.” The point was that life in both communities is enhanced immeasurably by the bodies of water they embrace.

    Port Washington, to the credit of several generations of city government officials, has brought those benefits to the public with visionary public lakefront development, especially in the downtown marina protected by peninsular Rotary Park. Now, unfortunately, some backsliding may be imminent in the plan to sell public lakefront land adjacent to the marina for private business use.

    Grafton’s experience in saving public property that was key to the beauty of its downtown river should be an inspiration to the Port Washington citizens who have been frustrated in their efforts to persuade officials to back off from their plans to sell public water views.

     The Grafton save-the-dam crusade is an example of how people who care about their community’s aesthetic gifts can marshal the power to protect them.

Why would legislators want to raise your utility bills? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 22 April 2015 15:47

The Joint Finance Committee’s decision to end funding of CUB will enrich utilities at the expense of electricity and gas ratepayers

Ask and you will receive. Who knew it would be that easy? The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce asked the state Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee to put the Citizens Utility Board out of business, and the eager-to-please majority of the committee said, “Sure, no problem.”

    Those might not have been the exact words, but the Republican-dominated committee made it clear that it was happy to accommodate the business group with a 12-4 vote along party lines to cut off ratepayer funding for the consumer group that advocates for lower electricity rates.

    Taking away ratepayer funding for the most effective advocate Wisconsin customers have in resisting rate increases by utilities seems indefensible, but committee members tried anyway. Their defense? A claim that eliminating CUB funding will save ratepayers $671,300 per year.

     Wisconsin electricity and natural gas customers paid utility companies about $9 billion last year. The “savings” resulting from the CUB funding cut amount to less than a penny for each $100 paid by ratepayers. An average ratepayer might save a dime a year.

    Even those few pennies are unlikely to materialize if the Legislature ratifies the committee’s decision, because that will be an invitation to higher energy bills. By CUB’s reckoning, it saved utility customers $161 million last year by fighting rate increases in some 25 Public Service Commission proceedings. Since 2008, it has been instrumental in preventing almost $3 billion in rate increases.

    Without CUB’s advocacy on behalf of consumers at PSC hearings, it will be easier for utilities to make their case for rate increases. And to add insult, ratepayers will have to continue to fund the utilities’ lobbying for higher rates.

    While CUB would be cut off from its modest funding, the legislators put no limits on the amount ratepayers can be charged for the highly-paid lawyers and consultants marshaled by utilities in rate cases before the PSC.

    Wisconsin utility rates are the second highest in the Midwest. Electricity and gas increases here in recent years have exceeded the rate of inflation. This is no time to take away the public’s advocate.

    CUB is a small operation with a staff of four. It expects to have to shut down by the end of the year if the funding cut is approved.

    We Energies, the state’s biggest utility company, did not lobby for the defunding of CUB, according to a spokesman, nor apparently did any other utility. The fact that We Energies CEO Gale Klappa is vice-chairman of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce board of directors may or may not have had something to do with why the association pushed for the change, but it certainly doesn’t explain why the finance committee complied so readily.

    They might not have asked for it, but utility companies would get a benefit from crippling CUB. The individuals and businesses that pay for electricity and gas would not. What they would surely get is more expensive energy bills. Why would the Joint Finance Committee want that to happen?

    The measure is so obviously and foolishly contrary to the interests of the citizens of Wisconsin that it would be an embarrassment to the state if it became law. The Legislature must not let that happen.

Stormy seas for a worthy nautical event PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 15 April 2015 18:07

The cancellation of this year’s Maritime Heritage Festival should be a signal to the community to recharge the event with new energy

It has been more than a year and a half since the motorcycle-music bash called Rock the Harbor took over downtown Port Washington for a day in 2013, but the pernicious effect of the disastrous event lingers on.

    Rock the Harbor may have killed the Port Washington Maritime Heritage Festival. At the very least, it severely wounded it.

    The roots of last week’s announcement that for the first time in many years there will be no Maritime Heritage Festival this summer reach back to the motorcycle debacle.

    The misbegotten motorcycle event was intended to glom onto Harley Davidson’s 110th anniversary celebration and attract tens of thousands of Harley riders to a concert by expensive performers in downtown Port Washington.

    To put it mildly, it fell short of expectations.Then the dominoes fell one after the other: The big-budget extravaganza bankrupted its sponsor, Port Washington Main Street, which was partially funded by tax money. This infuriated the Common Council, which refused to provide further city funding for Main Street. Facing strict budget constraints, the Main Street board jettisoned a previously successful event it had sponsored for years—the Maritime Heritage Festival.

    The sad irony in this is that a one-time event that was totally out of character with Port Washington threatened the future of a celebration that for years had perfectly expressed the city’s character as a seaport with a past rich in seafaring history and a present marked by an appealing nautical culture.

    The former executive director of Port Main Street formed a group to organize last year’s maritime festival, but the event failed to break even. The organizers cited lagging fundraising in canceling the 2015 festival.

    The festival failed not only because of inadequate financial capital, but because of a dearth of human capital. Many members of the large corps of community volunteers that provided both the manpower to put on the ambitious three-day festival and the emotional energy that gave it its spirit did not participate in last year’s event.

    Make no mistake, the demise of the festival hurts Port Washington.

    It hurts because the community has invested generously in the event for many years in many ways—with the hard work and enthusiasm of all those volunteers, with the money and in-kind donations of numerous businesses, with the $169,000 in room-tax funds provided over a number of years by the Port Washington Tourism Council, and with the past funding and management by Port Main Street. These investments should not have to be written off.

    It hurts because the Maritime Heritage Festival is the quintessential Port Washington celebration.

    This takes nothing away from Port Fish Day, the celebration that was founded in recognition of the city’s fishing-village origins but evolved into a joyous, loud, music-filled summer party that delights many residents while bringing scads of one-day visitors and generating revenue that funds organizations and causes dear to the community.

    The maritime event is something else—a weekend that evokes seafaring history quietly but colorfully with tall ships and seafaring-related displays and activities on the Port’s downtown docks and lakefront parks. It brings visitors to support the local economy, pleases residents and syncs with the city’s burgeoning embrace of its maritime history, evident now in the opening of the Historical Society’s innovative Exploreum, with its strong nautical component, and the plans for the tall ship Denis Sullivan to make Port its part-time home port.

    Can the Maritime Heritage Festival be revived? The answer had better be yes, because Port Washington needs it. With new vision, new energy, new commitment and the return of disaffected volunteers, it can be reborn. The lack of a tall ship festival this summer will disappoint many, but if the hiatus provides the opportunity to recharge the festival, it will be worth it.

    It’s not too soon to start putting the pieces in place for a 2016 renaissance of the Maritime Heritage Festival.

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