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Open Letter: Reflections on my Anniversary

This letter was distributed internally through the Village of Weston agency officials and its employees.

Today, May 29th, marks my one year anniversary since I started as the Village Administrator here in Weston. I am a sentimental fellow, so I could not let the occasion pass without some reflection on events past and share comment about the direction of our future.

I want to publicly acknowledge the current members of the Board of Trustees (as well as former Trustee Mark Maloney) for their trust in giving me this opportunity to serve the citizens and taxpayers of the Village of Weston. Any success that a Local Government Manager may enjoy during their tenure is always predicated and rooted in the relationship that he enjoys with his elected officials. Having worked for two elected officials, six different local government agencies, two different state agencies, and a group of non-for-profits, I have seen my share of good and bad officials over the years. In contrast, I can say without hesitation that the Board of Trustees for the Village of Weston is among the best group of men and women that I have had the chance to work for. For this and other reasons, I want to say “Thank You!” to the Trustees.

I also want to acknowledge all of the employees of the Village, each of whom have assisted with my transition this past year. Together, we have endured a frenetic twelve months, including an operating budget deficit in excess of $800,000, as well as substantial cuts in state shared revenue. We have also seen significant public controversy regarding the availability of public transportation and historically-unprecedented changes in public sector labor relations. The focused effort needed to address these and other concerns has not yet provided me with the time required to acquaint myself with all of you at the level that I would have liked, but I do look forward to developing deeper, stronger relationships with this team in the coming year. I know that transitions in management and work expectations are hard even in the best of circumstances. Most have shown me their resilience and have weathered the recent challenges extremely well. Our citizens, the Board of Trustees, and I all benefit daily from a fantastic group of Department Chiefs/Directors. Looking to the future and considering further changes, this agency is fortunate to have so much talent and work ethic among its employees. What we accomplish going forward will be built on this foundation.

After adoption of the 2013 budget, I have spent the past six months reviewing Weston’s service portfolio, evaluating many of our procedures, assessing how we handle our business, and considering new options. As I have attempted to share throughout this past year, I believe that this decade faces different obstacles than the heady boom, borrow, and build days of yester-years and that this change is not a blip on the radar or a bump on the road. Last November’s tax levy referendum and the introduction of new fees-for-service have shown us that a stagnate economy has left our citizens with a limited ability to provide us with additional revenues. Despite significant efforts made last fall, I knew going into this year that the Board of Trustees would be facing choices that essentially boiled down to three categories: raise revenues, make cuts, or make changes.

In keeping with the progression of these discussions, I will soon be introducing to the Trustees, at their request, a series of proposals, some which will significantly adjust how Weston has previously gone about providing its services. I know that many of our employees were hopeful that we could find solutions that would be completely pain/change-free. I also know that there were still a few anticipating solutions that could allow us to perpetuate the familiar, address our ongoing financial needs, and minimize discomfort. Though I have not relished the responsibility, I continue to believe that all of you deserve to know that change, subject to the approval of the Board of Trustees, could be coming. It is very probable that the knowledge of these new changes will lead to some added workplace stress. Even so, I am confident that this team will face our challenges collaboratively and continue to conduct ourselves all in a manner consistent with the high levels of customer service and professionalism that I have seen in all of you. Throughout these discussions, my door remains open to all of you. I am happy to talk with anyone about the ‘hows’ and the ‘whys’ of the plans going forward as they continue to be confirmed.

Ultimately, the paths taken, choices made, decisions implemented, etc…, won’t be driven by just one person. Keeping people safe, providing them with services, building community, and fostering resident attachment has been and will continued to be a cooperative process between Village employees, citizen committee members, and our elected Board of Trustees. For the opportunity to contribute, serve, share and collaborate with all of you on this, my anniversary, I want to acknowledge all your contributions and express my gratitude for being part of this team. Thank you!

Opinion Editorial: Transit Proposal Should be Simpler

Appearing online in the Wausau Daily Herald

It is time for state policy-makers to think about taking bus service off the property tax rolls, and there is a simple way to do it.

To frame the issue, urban and rural areas offer different levels of service.  We accept that.  We assume people make choices about the trade-offs between the level of service they want and the level of taxation they are will to pay in choosing where to live.  In theory, everyone pays for the service level they chose to receive.

However, that is a bit of an oversimplification—especially when it comes to bus service.  For many citizens who are unable to drive or cannot afford a vehicle, living in a rural area is not an option.  As a result, the vast majority of people who need transit services from across the state end-up living in cities and villages.  Because the transit-dependent population is not evenly distributed, cities and villages bear a disproportionate share of the costs.

Policy-makers already understand that this migration pattern shifts the costs of supporting the transit-dependent population to urban property taxpayers.  In its January 2013 report, the Wisconsin Transportation Finance and Policy Commission noted that communities in most other states have given options besides property taxes to fund their local share of transit costs.

The commission went on to recommend state legislation authorizing the creation of Regional Transit Authorities (RTAs).  RTAs would be a new level of government.  A community would make a decision whether to join an RTA.  The RTA would have its own elected or appointed board and would take over the responsibility of making decision about transit services from the participating municipalities.  It would also be authorized to raise revenue by imposing up to a half cent sales tax on business conducted within its boundaries.

Politically, giving bus service its very own layer of government is asking for a lot—a lot more than is necessary.

State lawmakers should consider a more modest option.  Skip the RTAs and simply grant municipalities that offer transit services the ability to impose up to a quarter cent sales tax to displace local property taxes used for bus service.

How do the numbers work?  Right now, if you shop in Wausau or anywhere in Marathon County, you pay a 5.50% sales tax.   The 5.00% goes to the state, and the 0.5% goes to Marathon County, providing the county with about $10.1 million annually.  To fund the local share of transit costs in Wausau—roughly $680,000—we would need to add about 0.07% to that sales tax number in the city.

For the Village of Weston, the add-on would be between 0.01% and 0.02% to fund bus service.

Going back to Wausau, a sales tax of 5.57% in town versus 5.50% outside of town should not be a material incentive for shoppers to go elsewhere.  Meanwhile, shifting local transit to the sales tax would reduce property taxes by approximately 3% in the city.

Should we do it?  Maybe.

In any case, we should have the authority to debate and decide the issue at the local level without RTAs.

Funding for transit has been on the back-burner for too long.  This is a simple step that state lawmakers could take in the current budget to provide property tax relief and alleviate the financial stress on local transit systems.

Editors Note:  Keene Winters is an alderman in the City of Wausau and vice chairman of the Wausau Area Transit Commission. Daniel Guild is the administrator for the Village of Weston and is also a member of the Wausau Area Transit Commission.