City hall in Oshkosh has said they identified the needed $2.3 million to in funds for infrastructure near the new Oshkosh Arena. This development is without question one of the highest priorities for our municipal government and common council, and upon learning of a $2.3 million shortfall, city leaders worked quickly to identify strategies for keeping the project moving forward.
And they are correct – the transformation of the old Buckstaff site from a contaminated wasteland into a modern arena that houses the Milwaukee Buck’s sole minor league team the Wisconsin Herd, is a historic development. And if there is a legitimate way for the city to make this happen, they should get it done.
As reported by the Independent, the shortfall was filled with the following funding sources:
- Shifting $768,900 from the city’s water utility fund.
- Moving $65,300 from the wastewater utility fund.
- Taking advantage of $450,000 in savings in this year’s street and sidewalk projects.
- Cutting $749,800 from a wetlands bank that has been planned to aid future development projects.
- Accepting a $250,000 previously announced grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. grant, which would be used to improve pedestrian safety
In finding funds to close gaps, the common council needs ensure that all policies and established procedures are followed. The council also needs to ensure that a clear understanding is in place related to when and how city leaders can “find funds” for project gaps. If they do not, we risk a slippery slope of using dedicated funds for projects they weren’t dedicated to. We also risk a slippery slope of many worthy projects facing funding gaps having a precedent to base a request for funding gaps.
Slippery Slope 1: The city utilizes special tax assessments to raise funds for specific projects approved under state law. Utility services are one of the approved assessments. When funds are raised through special assessments, they must be utilized for that purpose.
The assessment rate generally should conform to planned projects. The city has been very proactive at planning upgrades to their utility systems. A citizen / staff advisory board reviews projects and recommends to the common council plans for future work and estimated costs. Extra funds generally should not be just floating around, and if they are, this would warrant a future reduction in the assessment taxpayers have to pay.
Yet, in the case of the arena shortfall, there were extra funds that either were floating around or were dedicated to another planned project. And here we are grabbing special assessment funds and shifting them over for activities that may not fall within the specific parameters utilized to generate those funds. It is also unclear if any of the advisory boards that supervise utility projects and their funding were involved in this funding shift, and if they were, pressuring them with a “support this or it is your fault the project doesn’t happen” would be unfair and inappropriate.
— Without clear guidance, we risk an environment in city hall in which city leaders can shift dedicated funds away from planned usage to expenses they deem necessary, including to move forward private projects.
Slippery Slope 2: The city was faced with arguably a fiscal emergency – funding was absolutely necessary to help move a project forward. This project, the Oshkosh Arena, is a private venture. So will the city be able to bring forward $2.3 million for other fiscal emergencies to help move projects forward?
The Oshkosh Parks Department is one of the most visible sectors of the city, with the park system serving as one of the most important quality of life facilitators in our community. Funding for maintaining the park’s infrastructure has long been a challenge, with many facilities approaching very poor condition before any maintenance or improvement resources are invested. How about the next time the parks department says they can only raise half the cost of maintaining their own infrastructure – can we ask for city hall to find some funds from other pots?
Children in Oshkosh continue to be exposed to poisonous lead levels. The primary cause is from failing lead paint surfaces in older Oshkosh homes. Will the city leadership consider this an emergency worthy finding some funds from other pots to help support initiatives that work to eliminate lead hazards?
The current state of homeless services in our community does not meet the needs of the homeless: extremely limited shelter options during spring and summer; significant gaps in supportive services during these warmer months; and almost non-existent avenues for many of the hardest to house to transition from shelter to stable housing. This costs taxpayers more than often realized, including paying for police, ambulance, emergency room, jail, court, and more. More than costs, we are failing to support the most vulnerable in our community. While the city does provide funding annually to support homeless initiatives, is this cause as important as to support the city funding funds from other pots to support new facilities that serve the homeless?
What about the next private development that comes up and faces a shortfall?
Final thought: The city should be commended for their quick work to help move the Oshkosh Arena forward. But without clear guidance and effective oversight from the common council, we face a slippery slope of the city using dedicated funds for alternative uses. We also face the slippery slope of the city being expected to contribute more to close gaps for all sorts of projects, many of which are arguable more important than a sports arena.
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