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Editorials
The church on the hill PDF Print E-mail
News
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 30 December 2015 20:07

Fundraising support is warranted for work on the historic building that is the most dominant landmark in Ozaukee County

St. Mary’s Church, the soaring Gothic edifice on the hill in the heart of Port Washington, will soon get a new owner. In a legal sense, that is. By other measures, the church will remain in the possession of those who have “owned” it for more than a century, the people of Port Washington and the surrounding communities, regardless of their religious affiliation. More than a place of worship, it is the dominant landmark in Ozaukee County and perhaps the only manmade object in this area that truly inspires awe.

The official owner of the church will be the new Catholic parish to be created by the amalgamation of the two current Port Washington parishes and the Saukville parish. The move, which would have been considered radical a few years ago but is now common among Catholic communities, is necessitated by the inability of the church, constrained by gender and celibacy restrictions, to provide enough priests to serve all of its parishes.

One of the first challenges the new parish will face is the deferred maintenance of its marquee property; the church on the hill needs a new roof, and it’s likely to cost north of half a million dollars.

The parish doesn’t have that kind of money, so it will take a fundraising campaign to do what needs to be done to preserve the structural integrity of the building. That effort deserves broad support, for St. Mary’s Church represents a remarkable chapter in the county’s history.

The church has been listed on the National Register of Historic places since 1977. It deserves that distinction for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that a single small-town congregation found the courage and, somehow, the financial wherewithal to build what at the time might have been the most costly construction project ever attempted in the county. The fact that 134 years later the new three-parish organization is hard-pressed to find the funds to replace the roof puts that in telling context.

In 1882, the community contributed more than the funds needed to construct the building. It contributed manpower as well. Many local families can tell stories of ancestor-farmers who volunteered their wagons and horse teams to haul cut stone to the building site.

The church was built by professionals, of course, masons and carpenters mainly from Milwaukee, following plans drawn by Henry Messmer, a noted Milwaukee architect who was born in Switzerland.

The scale of the building was audacious, with a steeple that made the church the equivalent of 16 stories high. Viewed from Franklin Street beneath St. Mary’s Hill, the church was in effect a skyscraper.

There are older, larger and more elaborate churches in the world that were built before the invention of mechanized construction equipment, but still it is humbling to contemplate what those 19th-century workers accomplished on a hill in Port Washington without engine-driven cranes and electric elevators, raising and placing hundreds of tons of stone in walls reaching more than 100 feet from the ground.

What the church represents as a feat of human enterprise is part of its 21st-century appeal. Catholics have a special affinity for the church, but people of all religions, as well as those of no religious belief, can admire the building as a work of man that celebrates the faith of a community and the gift of nature that is the great hill overlooking Lake Michigan.

Now it’s time for some more human enterprise. A new roof made of steel could be installed for about $300,000. A roof made of slate like the one that has lasted more than a century would cost about $525,000. It would be, pardon the expression, a sin not to do it right and give this majestic structure the roof it was meant to have—a roof made of slate.

 
A free speech Christmas wish PDF Print E-mail
News
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 23 December 2015 19:19

Citizens have a First Amendment right to protest government action with lawn signs, and the city must respect it

Port Washington resident Fred Schaefer is no doubt sincere about the “Wishing you a Merry Christmas” message he is displaying on a sign on his Theis Street property, but he is also making a point about the treatment he received from his city government when he erected a sign with a different message in November.

That message was a mild protest against the planned narrowing of Theis Street, which Schaefer believes will make the street unsafe for children attending nearby schools. The message brought a swift rebuke from the city planning department saying the sign was not permitted and ordering Schaefer to remove it. 

Will the “Merry Christmas” sign get the same treatment? It hasn’t so far, which suggests that it was the criticism of a city project, and not the sign itself, that inspired the city’s blunt order.

That’s why there should be a city response to the new sign. The response should come from elected officials, who we would like to believe do not approve of the city staff’s attempt to silence a citizen. The response should be an apology, and it should be made public as, in effect, an apology to all of the citizens of Port Washington.

Protesting an act of government or making a political statement by non-violent means, including lawn signs, is a fundamental right of free speech protected by the First Amendment. 

Schaefer’s sign was entitled to the same exemption from city sign restrictions as the lawn signs that urged a yes vote on the recent school referendum, or the signs supporting various candidates for office, or the hundreds of signs currently displayed around the city protesting the sale of the north slip parking lot for commercial development.

Any ordinance cited by the city to justify denying citizens their right to express views about government action in signs on their property would surely fail a constitutional test.

Aside from its anti-democratic aspects, the city’s treatment of a citizen expressing disapproval of a municipal project was out of character for a friendly small town in which citizens meet their responsibilities and contribute to the strength of their community in many ways and whose interests—and rights as American citizens—in turn are respected by the government that serves them.

We think the elected representatives of Port Washington’s government believe that. It would be nice if they’d say so to Fred Schaefer. They could add, “Wishing you a Merry Christmas.”

 
The dark side of big boxes PDF Print E-mail
News
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 16 December 2015 21:20

The Wisconsin Legislature should outlaw property valuation based on the tax loophole called the Dark Store Theory

Big boxes can become big blights.

When chain stores vacate buildings so sprawling they can be measured in acres rather than square feet, communities are left with abandoned big-boxes so unappealing they can stand empty for years while they disfigure the towns and usurp valuable commercial land.

That has long been the downside of opening communities to megastores. Now there’s another downside, one that threatens to deprive communities of significant amounts of the tax revenue they need to provide services to their citizens. It is the possibility that the chain stores will get out of paying their fair share of local taxes by forcing communities to drastically reduce the assessed value of the big-box buildings.

For many municipalities across the country, including a number in Michigan, it’s more than a possibility. It’s a fact of life forced on them by hardball-playing chain-store companies and blessed by the courts.

The threat is so real in Wisconsin that a number of municipalities, including the Village of Grafton, are banding together under the aegis of the Wisconsin League of Municipalities to urge Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature to pass legislation to protect them from property valuation abuses under what is called the “Dark Store Theory.”

The Dark Store Theory, promoted by the likes of Home Depot, Target, Meijer (all of which have stores in Grafton) and other giant retailing corporations, holds that for tax purposes their buildings should have assessed values based not on their construction cost but on their depressed values when they are left vacant by their original occupants.

It’s an audacious twist on logic: The chain retailers are acknowledging that when they vacate their big boxes they leave the communities in which they’re located with outsized buildings that are a drug on the market; and then they attempt to exploit this unfortunate state of affairs by claiming that when occupied, stuffed with merchandise and thriving they should be valued as though they were empty hulks.

When megastores get away with the Dark Store loophole, other taxpayers—citizens and independent stores that are taxed based on traditional valuation standards—pay the price in higher taxes to support municipal services or in diminished services.

This is especially unfair in that the megastores are prodigious consumers of such municipal services as police and fire protection and road maintenance, especially in small communities. Almost invariably, police and fire departments have to be beefed up when a big-box store arrives.

Reports from the Saukville police blotter published in Ozaukee Press reveal the extent to which the Walmart Supercenter, for example, keeps village police busy dealing with law enforcement problems, a fact that is reflected in the size of the police department budget.

When welcoming big-box stores and the undeniable benefits of the tax-base growth and economic development they bring, communities take the chance that they will eventually experience big-box blight. If the Dark Store Theory holds in Wisconsin, they will pay for the blight even before the big boxes go dark.

The Wisconsin Legislature should outlaw property valuation based on the Dark Store Theory.

 
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