When I began this column shortly after being elected mayor for the first time back in 2016, my intention was to make this a monthly one. And at first, it was, but between the demands, at times, of my “real” job (I serve as a pastor of one of the local Christian fellowships in town) and the often turtle-like pace of city business, these columns have become more infrequent.
If you’re a regular reader of The Chetek Alert you’re aware that they’re going through some staff changes of late. When one of the new guys, Jim Moran, called me up a few weeks ago and asked if I would be interested in beginning a monthly mayor’s column, I was reminded of just how infrequent these installments had become.
Small Towns Burn A Little Slower was the name of an indie band out of the Twin Cities that played together between 2002–2008. I think their name so aptly describes business in this small town. Now in my fifth year as mayor of our city, I think I can say on good authority that our habit is to smolder rather than to burn. That’s not intended as a criticism, merely as an observation. Whether you are serving as an elected official or as an employee, everyone wants to do the right thing for the place we call home. But when you are dealing with regular “big-ticket” items—new equipment, acquisitions and ventures or trying to solve issues on commissions jointly run by surrounding townships, it takes time to reach a sense of consensus necessary to move forward.
This past summer a stretch of new sidewalks in the business district were laid down once again as they have been laid down consistently every year since 2017. This year’s addition included the stretch from the bridge on Lakeview Drive all the way to Red’s, at a total cost of just shy of $25K. If that seems like a lot for something we walk on, it’s pennies compared to what we had to pony up for dealing with our trash. As luck would have it, this year we had to purchase two new-to-us garbage trucks (one for our residential routes and one for our commercial customers) at a cost of around half a million dollars. It all pays for itself—we wouldn’t go down that road if it didn’t—but that’s still a lot of zeroes to fit on a check.
At long last and after much conversation wherein it probably took at least a year and a half to work out all the details, the new city docks at Stout and Knapp streets finally are complete. We expanded the dock at Stout Street from a one-slip to a four-slip dock and installed a three-slip dock and ramp at the end of Knapp Street. Over $13K was raised by local individuals and businesses for this project, and the remaining ten thousand came from city outlay accounts. It took a while to get here but here we finally are.
But compared to sidewalks, docks and new equipment, the true “big ticket” expenses are yet to come. Among other things, the plans are now in the works for building a new wastewater treatment plant. The one we have is over 40 years old, making it increasingly difficult to find parts when something needs replacing. More significantly, the DNR has moved the goal post regarding the quality of the water returning to the Chetek River, essentially making our current plant defunct. That is, it works but it doesn’t nor can ever meet the current standards it needs to meet to pass muster. What’s more, our current plant is in a floodplain and way too close to a residential neighborhood. So, after a generation of treating our gray water, it’s time to build a new one. After researching area plants and processes, we have committed to building a plant, similar to one Bloomer operates, in our south industrial park at a price north of $23 million. Right now the engineers are at work on the design. It will take a year or so to build it, and sometime in 2023 the first spigot will be turned.
How can we afford it, you may ask? We have no choice but find a way to pay for it. It’s infrastructure. You can’t have a nice, decent town without it. But it’s in the new TID (tax increment district) so that will help. We also just learned that we qualified for a grant covering 50 percent of our costs. And, yes, increased sewer rates will be forthcoming as well, but we’ll find a way to make it work, both actually and financially.
In 2018, the city purchased 39 acres on the west side of town from Jennie-O for the purpose of addressing some of the city’s housing needs. As Barron County Economic Development Director and current 75th District representative for the State Assembly Dave Armstrong has repeatedly said, “You want people to move here, but they have no place to move to.” (A little fun fact: according to the U.S. Census, when the new city green sign goes up our population will be reduced by 70 people based on the latest census numbers). But we’re still a ways from turning dirt. After conducting appropriate research on the parcel and also following many conversations and meetings, the city has entered into negotiations with S.C. Swiderski to develop the site that will ultimately comprise a collection of single-family, twin home and apartment dwellings.
Along the way, however, we’ve hit a few speed bumps, the most significant to date was Swiderski’s insistence to not go forward with the project unless the city put up a new water tower. Their issue is the codes they live by among which is the need for a sprinkler system in their apartment buildings. Our current water system simply does not generate enough pressure to ensure that. It should be noted that what we currently have atop city hill is technically referred to as a standpipe—a holding tank, if you will. It certainly functions as a water tower, but during the winter months several hydrants have to be kept open and running in order to ensure that the standpipe does not freeze up. What’s more, several companies in the north industrial park use their own water pumps to conduct their operations on account of low water pressure.
As you would expect, a new water tower is an expensive thing, perhaps with a price tag of $2 million. But again, the fact that it will be built in the new TID will help, and we have plans to apply for a grant as well. Mind you, we’re not just doing this to appease a developer. This new water tower will help current businesses already established here and help this housing development move forward as new homes mean more tax revenue to help share the cost.
There are other matters we have been addressing lately but space here does not allow me to speak to them. Perhaps I’ll do that in next month’s column. In the meantime, we continue to smolder slowly but steadily. Every month the council seeks to tackle the various issues that are before us. I sincerely enjoy working with the aldermen on the council and the various department heads. While we don’t always see things the same way, we all care deeply for the town we call home.