The Wisconsin Towns Association stays active year-round but the Fridays and Saturdays these past couple of months have been a bit busier.
Beginning this past January, the association has conducted its district meetings at various locations across the state.
The WTA has a membership of 1,252 towns, in addition to18 villages.
Friday, the District 4 meeting, the fourteenth of the 16 meetings, was held in the Reuland’s Conference Center in Minocqua.
Representatives from 23 towns attended Friday’s meeting, a total of about 70 people.
That 70 was a mix of town supervisors, town chairmen, town clerks and town treasurers.
The WTA’s executive director, Richard Stadelman, said this year, because the budget is out and there are many legislative issues pertaining to towns, time is spent in the morning focusing on those issues.
“Then we do training and updates on other issues, including some of the changes in laws and rules in the last year,” he said.
Stadelman said it isn’t the same every year.
“Every other year, we do board of review training for at least two hours,” he said. “That’s a requirement they have to comply with ... it’s a certification requirement for board of review members and so in the even numbered years we actually do spend time in the morning on board of review training and other training issues in the afternoon.”
The state budget, he said, falls on odd numbered years.
“It works out well in addressing legislative issues,” Stadelman said.
Legislators at Friday’s meeting were Wisconsin state Sen. Tom Tiffany and Assemblyman Rob Swearingen.
At some of the other meetings, Stadelman said there have been four or five Wisconsin legislators in attendance.
“We ask them to comment on the budget and other legislative issues,” he said.
Stadelman said there are unique changes for towns this year.
“Annual meetings have been moved from the second Tuesday of the month to the third Tuesday,” he said. “That’s because the certification requirements have to be done a little later as a result of provisional ballots for absentee ballots.”
He said if someone has an absentee ballot request out but doesn’t get it back to a town, city or village clerk by election day, that vote can’t be certified until the Friday after an election at 5 p.m.
“Once we certify, then we can give notice of election,” he said. “Previously, we usually gave notice of election on Tuesday night so this moves back both the term of office and the annual meeting date.”
Prior to the legislative change in the election process at the town level, the annual meeting for towns was conducted on the second Tuesday, while cities and towns held annual meetings on the third Tuesday.
“Our biggest issue, and it’s not unique to just this year, is how we’re going to fund and handle transportation needs,” Stadelman said. “Roads are one of the biggest responsibilities towns have and the state budget is something we always looked at because of state aid.”
He said the latest state budget submitted by Gov. Scott Walker doesn’t propose an increase in state transportation aid.
“The towns, as a whole, 1,230 of the 1,257, are on what’s called a ‘per mile,’ which means they’re eligible for $2,117 per mile [in state aid],” Stadelman said. “Now, you have some towns, some of them farther north, that have a lot of national forest or tax exempt land that don’t actually get the full $2,117 because they have to spend at least 15 percent over that on a three-year average to get it.”
If they don’t have a large enough tax base, he said, they have a difficult time actually meeting that average and received a little less.
The $2,117 figure has been the amount for the last three years and Stadelman said Walker is calling for it to stay at that level for the next two years.
“Our position is we want to see an increase of about $50 per mile each year [for the next two years] so we get from $2,117 to $2,167 and two years out, we’ll be at $2,217,” he said. “We think with $824 million of new money in the transportation portion of the state budget there ought to be more for local roads.”
Stadelman said larger vehicles are becoming more prevalent, especially in the northern part of the state.
“Forestry companies are among those that want to haul more and more, you have the Michigan competition where they can go over 130,000 to 140,000 pound loads, depending on the number of axles,” he said. “Our state is pretty much limited to 80,000 pounds on five axles and there’s a frozen ground exemption that allows it to go to 96,000 pounds.”
There are other exceptions as well for agricultural haulers at different times of the year.
“Our roads, our town roads and bridges, are having a real problem handling more and more weight,” Stadelman said. “And so one of the things the state is doing is looking at ag vehicles to see how we can handle them because they’re subject to weight limits, just like any other vehicle.”
He said there are more big farms, more big equipment.
“So a lot of things we hear in different parts of the state are how we’re going to keep the road up with limited dollars and still meet the needs of the industries we have,” he said.
The mining industry and its use of town roads is also part of the equation.
“One of the things about the whole thing, I think, when you get that big of an industry ... the big companies, they want a good road, they’re willing to come in and build a road for the local community to get it to the point it can carry that type of weight year-round,” he said. “The problem is with some other industries, like agriculture, and I’m sympathetic to it, they don’t have the margin that they can just go and build any road they need for awhile.”
Tiffany and mining
When the meeting got started and it came time for Tiffany – himself a recent member of the Little Rice town board – to speak, he talked about the iron ore mining bill he authored and passed by the state Legislature, and signed last week by Gov. Walker.
“The mining law in Wisconsin is comprehensive in terms of all types of mining are contained in one mining law,” he said. “We believed iron ore mining deserved having a separate statute, so that’s what we did.”
He said other types of mining were left under the current state statute.
“The bill that we wrote just affects iron ore mining and we did that because iron ore mining uses a mechanical process rather than using chemicals, like sulfide mining, which uses chemicals to separate the ore from rock,” Tiffany said. “So, we thought it merited a different statute.”
One of the richest deposits of taconite ore left now in the state of Wisconsin, Tiffany said, is in Ashland and Iron counties.
“The bill we wrote does not permit that mine,” he said. “The Department of Natural Resources and the federal agencies do that,” he said. “What our bill does is set in place the permitting process the DNR will use.”
Tiffany said if a person were to look at the ranking of Wisconsin in terms of governments, not just in the United States but all across the world, the state is ranked dead last in terms of certainty in being able to get a mining permit.
“What we wanted to do there was maintain Wisconsin’s high environmental standards ... we wanted to give certainty in the process,” he said. “If an applicant chooses to pursue iron mining in Wisconsin, they can get an answer and get it in a reasonable amount of time.”
That “reasonable amount of time,” he said by his definition, was about three years.
“If you look at the bill the way we wrote it, that’s about what it’s going to take, three, three and half years if there aren’t any delays, to be able to go about getting that permit,” Tiffany said. “I really would emphasize the DNR is the agency that would review this and there’s a number of different facets they have to review and there has to be a complete environmental study, a complete hydrological study and I would estimate it would cost $20 to $30 million for an applicant just to do the environmental studies up there to make sure we know what’s there.”
He said one of the critical parts of the studies is to know exactly what is in that rock.
“They’ll have to do hundreds of borings down into the rock and they sample it every five feet so they know what’s in there,” he said. “One of the problems they had in northern Minnesota a number of years ago is they had one mine that ended up running into a lot of sulfides and they ended up getting acid drainage into their rivers and it created a real problem.”
Tiffany told the audience the technology and know-how are there now to figure that out and avoid those types of problems.
“That’s one of the prime requirements put into this bill is they have to do a thorough process of what we call rock or waste characterization,” he said. “We will know when they get done what is exactly in that rock.”
Tiffany said the bill has its share of critics, with those opposed to it saying it will disturb and damage Lake Superior and the Bad River Watershed. He looks at it differently.
“I just think we’re in a different era compared to 50 years ago,” he said. “I think it proves we can have these industrial processes and yet keep them clean so that we can still have the industrial companies here in our state which are so important for people to be able to make their livlihoods and we can do that in concert with the environment and that’s exactly what this bill will do.”
Brian Jopek may be reached at email@example.com.