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Taking power from the people PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 08 June 2016 21:34

These are hard times for the Grafton School District. Some of its school buildings are in terrible shape. One of them is verging on being unfit to use. A referendum authorizing spending to fix the problems was defeated. In the aftermath, the school superintendent resigned.
    Hard times, indeed. Yet a reason for optimism exists amid the angst because there is a way out of this crisis, and the school board is already mapping a route. A reassessment of the most critical needs is underway in preparation for a new referendum presumably designed to be more palatable to voters. The vote could be held as early as November. If not then, it would likely be part of the spring election.
    A new referendum is the only means the school district has to raise money to deal with facilities that are so deteriorated parents and teachers have expressed worries about the safety of students. If State Sen. Duey Stroebel had his way, even those means would not be available.
    Stroebel (R-Saukville), whose district includes a part of the Grafton School District, sponsored a bill in the last session of the Legislature that would have banned school districts from holding a referendum for two years following a failed referendum.
     The bill, excoriated by school officials from across the state who predicted the very situation Grafton would face if the measure passed, is but one example of the efforts by the Wisconsin Legislature to undermine local control of local government.
    Fortunately, this one did not pass. The same cannot be said, however, about a bill intended to take away the power of local elected officials to enact ordinances in their communities to control a growing environmental nuisance.
    In March, Gov. Scott Walker signed into law a bill that prohibits communities from making their own rules regulating plastic bags and other plastic containers.
    No Wisconsin municipality was considering regulation of plastic bags when the law was enacted, but it is reasonable to assume that one day communities might want to apply a small fee for each bag used or even ban them. The bags are ubiquitous and so abundant they seem to be reproducing. As litter, they are unsightly. They last virtually forever and with an estimated 100 billion used in the U.S. every year are an expensive waste disposal problem. Only 12% of the bags are recycled
    Of more concern, they’ve been found to be a threat to marine life. In streams, lakes and oceans where windblown or other discarded bags and containers accumulate, the plastic leaches harmful chemicals into the water. Plastic bags and containers make up most the volume of the great garbage patches that plague the oceans and are even beginning to be seen on the Great Lakes.
    The cost of dealing with discarded plastic packaging, plus the cost derived from the greenhouse gases emitted in their production, is estimated at $40 billion a year by the World Economic Institute.
    None of this suggests that Wisconsin communities would be rushing to regulate plastic bags if they weren’t prevented from doing so by state law, but certainly local elected councils and boards should have the authority to apply such regulations in their cities, villages, towns and counties, as a number of municipalities in the United States have done.
    Why has the Wisconsin Legislature made it its business to use the power of state law to protect the commercial use of plastic bags? One answer is that such legislation is on the to-do list of the American Legislature Exchange Council (ALEC), the organization funded by business interests that has an especially avid following in the Republican majority of the Wisconsin Legislature. Beyond that, it fits a pattern of concerted effort to preempt local government, just as does the attempt to use the power of the state to shackle school districts trying to deal with their building needs through referendums.
     Some of the same state officials who push this agenda give lip service to a political philosophy based on shrinking the federal and state governments and transferring power to the people at local level.
    One word describes this better than any other: hypocrisy.

Get onboard the tourism train PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 01 June 2016 19:11

Tourism makes the world go ‘round.

That might be a bit of a stretch, but it is certainly safe to say that people who travel keep economies spinning.
    Tourism, in fact, is the biggest industry in the world, with the largest employment and largest contribution to gross national product of any category of business.
    Tourism generates more revenue in the United States than in any other nation. In 2014, it contributed more than $1.4 trillion to this country’s GDP.
    This isn’t your grandfather’s brand of tourism, the kind that back in the day meant a trip to the likes of Miami Beach, Las Vegas or Disneyland. Today in the U.S. almost any community can be a tourist destination. Americans are curious about their country and eager to get on the road to experience it in all of its manifestations.
    Communities that aren’t making an effort to attract visitors are missing an opportunity to grow their economies in ways that benefit all of their residents.
    Which is why a lot of head scratching is going on over a news story in last week’s Ozaukee Press reporting that  the Village of Belgium is considering abolishing its hotel room tax.
    When a representative of the Belgium Chamber of Commerce appeared before the village’s Finance and Personnel Committee to discuss plans to promote tourism, the committee chairman poured cold water on the Chamber’s initiative by casting doubt on the funding source.
    “I don’t think keeping a (room) tax in place is a good idea,” Andrew Ohlson said. “If it wasn’t there, would we go to the hotel and tax them for tourism? No.”
    Village President Vickie Boehnlein was of a like mind. She questioned the tax because it applies to only one business in Belgium, the Rodeway Inn, the village’s sole lodging establishment.
     Belgium officials seem to have a misconception of the room tax option provided by state law. They talk of it as though it is a punitive assessment that is an onerous requirement for lodging businesses. The reality is that the room tax is a boon that works to the advantage of these businesses while also benefiting the communities in which they are located.
    Room taxes, of course, are not paid by hotels (or motels or bed and breakfast places). They are paid by the establishments’ customers. The taxes added to lodging bills across the country are so common they are taken for granted by travelers.
    Room taxes directly benefit hotels and other tourism businesses. Under Wisconsin’s well-crafted law, the taxes are capped at 8% and starting next year a minimum of 70% of the revenue they produce for the municipality has to be spent to promote tourism—which generates more customers for the businesses that apply the taxes.
    The ultimate beneficiaries of the room tax are the residents of the communities that collect the taxes. The tourism promoted by this tax revenue strengthens local economies, attracts new businesses, creates jobs and supports stores and restaurants that are enjoyed by residents as much as by visitors.
    The City of Port Washington is a case in point. This year the Port Washington Tourism Council will spend $163,000 for tourism promotion, most of it for advertising the city’s offerings around the Midwest region. All of the money comes from the city room tax. Room tax revenues also fund grants made by the Tourism Council to support events and projects that contribute to the tourism economy.           
    The results speak to the program’s success: In 2015, based on state Department of Tourism estimates, visitors contributed $14.5 million to the Port Washington economy. Without these tourism dollars, Port Washington residents would not have the vibrant downtown they now enjoy as another benefit of room-tax funded tourism promotion.
    This is just part of the visitor surge in Ozaukee County. According to the Department of Tourism, direct spending by visitors in Ozaukee County totalled $92.5 million in 2015, a 3% increase over 2014. More than 2,000 people were employed in the tourism industry in the county last year.
    Tourism in Wisconsin is an express train carrying communities to a future of growth—in economic activity, tax bases and diversity of features enjoyed by residents and visitors alike. If Belgium officials don’t adjust their attitudes about promoting their community, that train is going to speed past the village without stopping.
    Sitting next to I-43 a scant mile from Harrington Beach State Park and astride the Ozaukee Interurban Trail and offering the unique features of the Luxembourg American Cultural Center and a European-themed residential and commercial development, Belgium is well positioned to develop its own tourism economy.
    The Village Board should encourage the Chamber of Commerce in its plans to get the word out about what Belgium has to offer. The best way to do that is to keep the room tax in place and direct that all of the revenue it generates be used for promotion. With that, Belgium will someday likely have more than one hotel to collect the room tax.   

The enemy below PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 25 May 2016 18:59

Don’t lose sleep over the Keystone pipeline. We have our own oil pipeline worries here in the Great Lakes watershed.

Keystone, the pipeline proposed to run beneath American soil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, is on hold because it has been declared an unacceptable threat to the environment by the Obama administration and some of the states through which it would pass.

But there is no hold up on pipelines that pose environmental threats to the Great Lakes, particularly Michigan and Huron. Expansion of pipelines carrying crude oil from Canada through Wisconsin and Michigan, under tributaries to the lakes and even in the lakes themselves, is advancing unabated.

This is worrisome for two reasons: The oil in these pipes is considered the nastiest, dirtiest and most destructive form of fossil fuel—tar sands oil; and the company pumping it, Enbridge, Inc., of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, is a serial violator of federal pipeline regulations that has been responsible for numerous pollution accidents, including one in 2010 in Michigan that has been called the worst inland oil spill ever in the United States.

The two U.S. senators from Michigan, Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow, put a needed spotlight on this danger to the Lakes last week when they sent the head of the U.S. Transportation Department a letter demanding that he classify underwater pipelines in the Great Lakes region as “offshore” facilities.

The designation is critical because federal law caps liability for pipeline spill cleanup costs at $634 million for onshore facilities, but requires companies operating offshore pipelines to pay all cleanup costs.

The catastrophic spill from an Enbridge pipeline in the Kalamazoo River in southwestern Michigan six years ago reveals the inadequacy of the federal liability limit. Cleaning up that disaster has cost $1.2 billion and the meter is still running.

The federal government needs to be pushed because its environmental regulators seems to have a blind spot where the Great Lakes are concerned. Besides having been slow to react to the devastation wrought by invasive species, they have failed to give the Lakes the level of protection from petroleum pollution they deserve.

Oil spills in Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coastal waters can do terrible damage to sea life and recreational economies, of course, but the stakes are even higher in the Great Lakes. Here, where there are no cleansing tides to abet the cleanup process, human health is at risk along with ecosystems and recreational use of the water. More than 30 million people get their drinking water from the Great Lakes. 

The Lakes are at risk at many points in Wisconsin and Michigan where Enbridge pipelines pass near waterways flowing into Lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron, but they are most vulnerable in the Straits of Mackinac, where two 20-inch pipelines cross a jagged underwater terrain, including a quarter-mile-wide spot where they are suspended over a canyon 300 feet under the surface.

The 63-year-old pipes carry tar sands oil in a raw form that requires high pressure pumping, increasing the likelihood of a weld or material failure.

Scientists predict that lake currents would carry substantial amounts of crude oil spilled in the Straits south into Lake Michigan to the waters around Beaver Island and Charlevoix, Mich., and east into Lake Huron, the pellucid water of Mackinac Island and even into Georgian Bay in the North Channel. These are some of the most pristine waters on earth. 

It is not far fetched to assume that the taint of such a spill could cover all of Lake Michigan, including the water along the Ozaukee County shore.

Enbridge, which has been the subject of more than 30 enforcement actions by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration in the last decade, has announced plans to increase the amount of oil pumped through the Straits of Mackinac pipeline, which is part of the company’s Lakehead system, one of the largest pipeline networks in the world.

Wisconsin’s members of Congress should join the Michigan senators in pushing the federal government to change its classification of Great Lakes pipelines to hold the owner responsible for all of the costs of mitigating damage of an oil spill. The point of this is not just to shield taxpayers from financial costs, but to give the pipeline operator a strong incentive to avoid poisoning our freshwater with tar sands oil.

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