BURLINGTON – As a member of the Board of Directors for the Burlington Area School District, Jim Bousman experienced the heartache and glee that only local taxpayers can bring.
Bousman was a disappointed school board president in 2017 when taxpayers rejected a plan to spend $ 68 million to replace the original high school, which then operated as Karcher Middle School.
A year later, a similar proposal reduced to $ 43 million was approved by a 55% majority, in a fortuitous reversal that followed a determined campaign by the school district to win over the community.
Bousman attributes the turnaround to a “huge” effort by school district officials. The district persuaded taxpayers that by digging deeper into their pockets, he said, they could bring positive changes for Burlington.
“People have recognized the fact that, ‘OK, I guess there is a need,'” he said.
Over the past few years, Burlington taxpayers have built up a history of volatility when it comes to adopting or avoiding high value-added initiatives for public improvements.
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It is in this environment that city authorities plan to seek public support for the restoration of Echo Lake, a venture that could cost more than $ 5 million.
Authorities have released projections showing that Echo Lake restoration would raise property taxes by $ 68 per year for the average homeowner, or a total of $ 1,368 before the borrowed money is paid off in 20 years.
The alternative is emptying the lake, which would save money, but would eliminate a resource and convenience that many Burlington residents still appreciate.
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Mayor Jeannie Hefty, who is in favor of restoring the lake, said she hopes taxpayers and others will support the $ 5 million project. Echo Lake is a community landmark that people want to see preserved, Hefty said.
“I am ready to undertake this huge project, with the support of the community,” she said. “This is another huge project that Burlington needs to come together and get done. “
Burlington City Council is scheduled for February to decide the issue.
State environmental regulators have informed the city that the aging Echo Lake dam no longer meets safety standards. The dam either needs to be improved and fortified, or it needs to be removed, which would drain the lake and let the White River flow through the 70-acre site.
City engineers calculated that recovering the lake would require $ 2.6 million to rebuild the dam, plus an additional $ 2.5 million to dredge the bottom of the lake. Dismantling the dam and draining the lake would cost $ 1.1 million, or maybe $ 1.5 million if the city orders more engineering work and sets aside contingency funds.
City projections show that the cost of draining the lake would increase property taxes by about $ 20 per year for the average homeowner, or $ 409 in the long run, compared to $ 1,368 to save the lake.
Former Mayor Bob Miller said the issue should be put to a vote in a city-wide referendum.
Miller, who served as mayor from 2008 to 2016, said he believed public opinion was 50/50 split on the future of Echo Lake. He also suspects the cost will exceed $ 5 million, which he says makes taxpayer involvement imperative.
“You better have the support of the public behind you,” he said.
Miller was mayor in 2015 when city officials decided to hold a referendum on building a new public swimming pool. Burlington’s original community pool was 50 years old, and plans were to replace it with a $ 5 million aquatic center.
In November 2016, voters said ‘yes’ in a consultative referendum that was approved by a 70% majority.
When the city undertakes a project of this magnitude, it usually borrows money from the municipal bond market and then raises property taxes or other income to pay off the loan over many years.
With the new pool now complete and other bond issues still on the books, the city currently has around $ 36 million in long-term debt. Debt is repaid at the rate of $ 3.3 million per year from a municipal budget of $ 31 million.
The Burlington Public Library is currently preparing plans for a facility expansion – tentatively estimated at $ 9 million – that could soon create another significant spending proposal for public scrutiny.
However, not all major public improvements translate into higher property taxes.
In the late 1990s, the city approved a waterfront redevelopment with a budget of $ 48 million. Designed in large part to reduce congestion, the plan called for the realignment of roads, the reconstruction of a bridge and the erection of a new viaduct. The city center parking lot was also built as part of the multi-year effort.
The city borrowed the money, but rather than raising property taxes, authorities created a tax-raising finance district. In this arrangement, debts are repaid with tax revenue captured in a specific geographic area as improvements occur.
The $ 48 million was repaid as the waterfront effort brought new growth and prosperity to downtown Burlington, including a new Hampton Inn hotel.
Then-city administrator Mark Fitzgerald said that forgoing the city-wide property tax increase helped push the $ 48 million project forward with relatively little money. public opposition. If tax increases were needed, Fitzgerald doubts the project would have happened.
“There were concerns,” he said of the cost. “But there was more concern with the traffic jams. People really believed that the downtown redevelopment had to take place.
Unlike cities, Wisconsin school districts cannot borrow large sums of money without taxpayer approval.
The Burlington area school district has repeatedly experienced difficulty in obtaining public approval for construction projects and other major investments.
In 1995, the district was slaughtered by a nearly 60 percent majority asking for voters’ permission to borrow $ 32 million to build a new high school. Two years later, the district tried again and 58% of voters gave the green light for a new high school.
Bousman said a similar turnaround on the Karcher Middle School project was engineered through careful planning and behind-the-scenes research. The district hired a consultant to survey community members on how much they were willing to pay.
The former school board chair thinks people would be in favor of spending money to preserve Echo Lake as well. As a beloved community facility, the lake enjoys great emotional support, Bousman said.
“He’s an icon for the community,” he said.
Hefty agreed, referring to when the lake was in good repair and it was the site of boat races and other fun times.
“Bring back the fun we once had,” she said. “The citizens want this back.”
Miller, however, said the troubled state of the economy amid the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to set back many taxpayers at the cost of saving the lake.
Miller said residents of Burlington will typically only support a big project if officials make an effort to present a compelling case. Convincing people to accept higher taxes is a challenge, especially in tough economic times, he said.
“It’s not something that is easily done,” he said. “You have to come up with something that makes sense. “