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From blight to beauty PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 21 March 2012 16:10

Once the source of environmental misery, the coal dock at the Port harbor is now part of one of the most remarkable expansions of lake access in the state

    When the wind breezed up from the southeast, it would lift soot from the mountainous coal pile and carry it into the downtown. The black, grainy smut was visible and palpable. You could see it on windows, store signs and cars. You could feel it on your skin and in your eyes. You could even taste it. You couldn’t see it in your lungs, but you were sure it was there because it was in the air you breathed.

    What may sound like a grim London suburb in a Charles Dickens novel was really Port Washington, and not that long ago. The conditions described above were a reality late in the 20th century, when the We Energies power plant was fired by coal, a fuel that dealt residents a double dose of pollution with the wind-blown coal dust and smokestack emissions from burned coal that fell from the sky.

    It is a measure of how much life has changed for the better in Port Washington that the source of that environmental misery is now a key part of what surely is one of the most remarkable expansions of public access to Lake Michigan in the state.

    The now vacant land that is still referred to as the coal dock is about to become a park that will almost double the amount of the Port Washington land available to the public for the enjoyment of the lake.

    The city’s plan for this land jutting into the lake east of the new gas-fired power plant received a ringing endorsement from the State of Wisconsin last week when the Department of Natural Resources announced it is giving Port Washington a $771,500 Stewardship grant to help carry it out.

    Such grants are not easy to get. Money from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund is spent only on land acquisitions and projects of undoubted environmental merit. Reclamation of a blighted lakefill area on the Port Washington waterfront to provide public lake access certainly meets that test. The state Legislature, whose approval is needed for grants this large, agreed.    

    Port was a good candidate too because it has the financing in place to fund the portion of the project not covered by grants. This is forward thinking that sets the city apart from municipalities that have diminished their futures by shelving worthy projects during times of diminished revenues.

    Buoyed by the total of $1.l million in grants the city has now received for the project, work is expected to be completed this year to make the site usable by the public, with a promenade along the dock where giant coal freighters once moored, walking paths and a bridge connecting the separated north and south parts of the property.

    Getting to this point has been a long, hard slog for the city, owing in large part to frustrations in dealing with We Energies. Achieving the milestone of getting a lease to the coal dock from the utility was a complex and costly process.

    That has been accomplished, but restoration of the former We Energies land south of the plant, part of what the utility promised the city when it signed off on a new plant, is lagging. Fill remains mounded on the land, blocking lake views from the new South Wisconsin Street portal to the city and causing occasional flooding of the road. The city needs to remind We Energies of its obligation to get this project done.

    Port Washington deserves an attractive entrance through the former We Energies land as well as the coal dock site as just recompence. The plain truth is that the power plant doesn’t belong here. After 70 years of putting up with a dirty lakefront plant to generate electricity for southeast Wisconsin, Port should have been excused from hosting its successor.

    It didn’t work out that way, but at least there can be some satisfaction in turning the land that was created to store the original power plant’s noxious fuel into a fresh, green place from where people can behold the beauty of Lake Michigan.

    The view to the east will be spectacular. To the west, where the power plant looms, not so much.

In the dam game, rules are stacked against Grafton PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 14 March 2012 14:38

Every move the village makes to comply with a state ultimatum is thwarted by a new DNR mandate

    The Green Bay Packers, in sudden-death overtime, drive the ball down the field repeatedly against a sturdy defense, but every time they get within kicker Mason Crosby’s 50-yard range for a game-winning field goal, the officials move the goal post back 10 yards.

    Can’t happen? Not in football, but in games managed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, it can and does. Just ask the Grafton Village Board.

    The village can win the game if it can rebuild the Bridge Street Dam to make this community asset safe and attractive and compliant with DNR rules. But whenever it gets close to accomplishing that, the DNR changes the rules.

    In 2009 the DNR declared the dam a “significant hazard” and ordered the village to either remove it or rebuild it to meet state regulations by 2019.

    After voters made it emphatically clear in a 2010 referendum that the dam should not be demolished, the Village Board voted to fix it and include a fish passage, a decision that should have pleased just about everyone—the dam would be retained to preserve the picturesque millpond that is part of Grafton’s identity, but valuable fish species would be able to migrate upstream to spawn.

    It was a winning move—until the DNR moved the goalpost. The same agency that said removing the dam was an option decided in 2011 that the structure was an essential block to the upstream movement of invasive species and diseased fish and the fishway would not be allowed unless it was of the trap-and-sort variety that required monitoring by trained personnel.

    That decision, issued after Ozaukee County had invested months of work and a vast sum of federal money in designing the fish passage, was another game-changer. It made the fishway so complicated that the Village Board ruled it out of the dam rehab plan.

    The board then took the sensible, straight-forward approach of preparing to simply do whatever work is needed on the dam to make it comply with Wisconsin law regulating dams and flood control. The cost would be $410,000, of which about half would be covered by a DNR grant.

    Victory was in sight at last. Village officials were perhaps warming up for a Lambeau leap. Then the DNR moved the goalpost again by digging up an administrative rule that requires flood gates to be installed in the dam at a cost of $300,000 or more.

    So as things stand, it is not enough that the dam would satisfy the state law governing flood control. Now it must comply with an arcane administrative rule and be fitted with flood control gates so that, according to the DNR, the water level in the millpond can be lowered for dam inspection and maintenance and in emergencies.

    This determination was made in spite of the facts that: underwater inspection works fine; the dam that Grafton has had for roughly a century does not have floodgates and there has been no catastrophe; the DNR has said the dam is an essential impediment to invasive species but now says it’s OK to breach it with flood gates; the administrative rule does not need to be enforced.

    The DNR catches a lot of flak for its regulatory efforts. Much of this is undeserved. The agency has a crucial role to play in protecting Wisconsin’s natural resources, and it often has to step on toes to do it. But in its confounding performance in the Bridge Street Dam saga, it looks like an agency trying to justify its reputation as a bureaucracy that regulates in ways so illogical it seems to be doing it just for the sake of regulating.

    The next move is up to the Village Board. Whatever it is, it could trigger another goal post move. So with the deadline for improving the dam still seven years away, it might be a good time to call a time-out and wait a bit.

    Maybe there will be a different officiating crew for the next game.

Public education as a punching bag PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 07 March 2012 16:38

Once revered, the institution that helped transform an immigrant nation into an economic superpower is now denigrated as political sport

America is an unlikely country to be in the throes of a campaign against public education.

    In a nation founded on the principle engraved on history by its Declaration of Independence, that all people are created equal, public education has been the great equalizer.

    With education paid for by the public and available to all regardless of means, a nation of immigrants, many of them impoverished, became the greatest economic power on earth, and it remains so.

    Rick Santorum, a candidate for president who has ranked first or second in opinion polls of Republican voters, attacks American public schools as “big factories” that spend too much time on academics and too little on teaching morals. The father of seven children who are being home-schooled, he says education should be run by parents.

    Generations of Americans, including presidents, rocket scientists and business titans, are products of those “factories,” yet public education, once revered, is now disparaged as a symptom of something wrong with society.

    Santorum’s attack on public schools has   consisted only of words, but Wisconsin has been witness to actions that have the potential to cause lasting damage to public education.

    Wisconsin has cut aid to public schools more than any of 24 states studied by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. At the same time, the budget proposed by Gov. Scott Walker and passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature increased taxpayer spending in support of private schools.

    There is a whiff of that sentiment in the Port Washington-Saukville School Board election, in which three of the candidates are running on a single issue—cutting teacher compensation.

    They have criticized the School Board for agreeing to a contract with teachers before the state’s Act 10 limiting teacher benefits and collective bargaining took effect—even though the contract required greater teacher concessions than Act 10 and resulted in a decrease in the local property tax rate.

    With state tax revenue shrunken by the recession, increased teacher contributions toward their health and retirement benefits were needed, but to keep hammering on the issue is to say that teachers should be paid less. More so than in other occupations, benefits are part of teacher pay. The candidates should explain how they think education is served by further reducing that pay.

    Wisconsin ranks in the lower half of states in teacher compensation. Overall, its public employees, including teachers, earn 4.8% less in total compensation (salary plus benefits) than comparable private sector workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a non-partisan research organization.

    The U.S. ranks below most developed countries in teacher pay. American teachers earn less than 60% of the average pay for college-educated workers.

    American students are lagging in achievement behind those of a number of other countries. A common denominator in many of those countries is that teaching is an honored profession that demands more from its members than in the U.S., but more generously rewards its best practitioners.

    In the U.S., a presidential aspirant says public school teachers are essentially unnecessary; meanwhile local candidates promise to try to cut teacher pay if elected. If there’s a formula for improving education here, we’re missing it.

      Santorum’s backward ideas on education may soon be forgotten sound bites. But in the Port-Saukville School District, two of candidates campaigning to cut teacher benefits got the most votes in the primary election, suggesting that their chances of success in the general election are good.

    Surely, then, they owe the citizens who will vote in that election more than yet another attack on teacher benefits. Let voters hear what they propose to do to improve, or even maintain, the quality of education in Port-Saukville schools. If the cost of education is their issue, what is their plan for implementing merit pay that would help meet budget restraints but encourage and reward the best teachers? Or do they have a better idea?

    Are some constructive ideas about public education too much to ask?

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