(First published in the July 11, 2019 issue of City Pages)
Brokaw technically doesn’t exist anymore. But luckily for the residents of this former company town, state and federal aid has eased this unprecedented collapse
The Brokaw water tower still bears the former village’s name.
Consultants stood before a packed room in the Assembly Room at the Marathon County Courthouse in January 2015. Hired by Marathon County to answer a question that plagued everyone: What to do about Brokaw?
The village suffered greatly after the 2012 closing of Wausau Paper’s Brokaw mill. This small village north of Wausau was a quintessential company town. Most of its residents worked at the mill. Most of its taxes and water utility costs were paid by the mill.
So when that business closed, tax rates skyrocketed, and village government became mired in debt that equated to about $18,000 per resident (about 15 times the per capita debt load of Wausau, for comparison). The small community of only about 250 people lost not only its primary employer, but also lost its biggest water customer. That left everyone else struggling, and all in the wake of the Great Recession.
In 2015, the idea of dissolving Brokaw was almost out of the question, according to experts and local officials. A state law passed in 2005 allowed for a municipality to dissolve, at least in theory. But it had never happened. So what Brokaw’s collapse would look like—especially for residents in the surrounding towns who would shoulder the burden—was anyone’s guess.
One thing everyone was pretty sure of: If Brokaw went down, it would take the towns of Maine and Texas with it. Dissolution would saddle Maine and Texas with Brokaw’s debt, at the time about $4 million, largely for water and sewer expansions necessitated in part because the paper mill had contaminated one of the village wells.
But the village of Brokaw did dissolve, and with amazingly few negative repercussions.
Now, four years later, residents and businesses there are technically in the village of Maine, and paying lower taxes, thanks to consolidation and state and federal grants that helped bail out the former village.
Not that the road was easy. One of the options back in 2015 was for the city of Wausau to stretch its boundaries north along the Wisconsin River to annex Brokaw. There were several more meetings, among Wausau, Brokaw, Texas and Maine leaders. Things got heated. People pointed fingers at Wausau officials, accusing them of taking advantage of the situation for Wausau’s gain. Wausau leaders were baffled; did they want Wausau’s help or not?
Ultimately, Maine, Texas and Brokaw decided to go it alone. Through state and federal help, Maine became a village with a cooperative boundary plan and absorbed most of Brokaw. Today one might pass through what was once Brokaw and never know anything had been amiss.
A plan of action
U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin talks with Brokaw residents in 2015. Baldwin and state Rep. Jerry Petrowski helped secure grants for the village of Maine and Texas to help absorb Brokaw’s enormous debt after the paper mill closed.
The three municipalities formed a cooperative boundary plan ultimately approved by the state Department of Administration, with the town of Maine becoming a village in order to take advantage of grants available to that category of municipalities. Brokaw would become part of Maine and Texas (mostly Maine to offset the debt it was taking on).
Maine President Betsy Hoenisch chaired a three-person oversight committee formed in October 2016 that included representatives from all three municipalities. The village of Brokaw president at the time, Jeff Weisenberg, was a voting member. Andy Walters represented the town of Texas. “Every aspect of running a government was taken over by the oversight committee,” Hoenisch says.
Maine Clerk Cindy Bailey started taking over all the clerking duties for Brokaw. The oversight committee hired Duane Gau as an administrator, and he got the ball rolling on the changeover. He left after about six months. In Gau, Brokaw residents had someone to go to, since the Brokaw village clerk had died. Gau lived in the area and knew it well, which helped make a smooth transition. Contracted village attorney Dean Dietrich was nearly acting as a clerk for Brokaw, Hoenisch says, and as anyone could guess that meant legal fees were piling up fast.
The newly made village of Maine found a number of places to save money. Through consolidation, Bailey was able to accomplish for about $6,000 in clerk tasks, for example, that had cost Brokaw $30,000.
Maine and Texas in its 2016 and 2017 budget subsidized Brokaw’s operations, says Maine Board Member Tom Mullaley.
And in the end of that transition, Betty Hoenisch says the cost per resident for all of Maine’s operations came to only $10.50 per resident, versus $240 per resident under Brokaw’s leadership.
“We’ve come through with flying colors,” Mullaley says. “The cooperation between municipalities was unprecedented.”
Nothing like it had happened in Wisconsin history.
“From 1869 to 2005, this couldn’t have happened,” Hoenisch says, referring to the 2005 law allowing for municipal dissolution. “It feels like being a pioneer crossing the Appalachian Trail.”
U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin and state Rep. Jerry Petrowski “were great in understanding the dynamics of the situation to help us come out of this mess,” Hoenisch says. “Otherwise Maine would have gone down with Brokaw.”
In other words, without the state and federal bailouts, everyone would have been in trouble.
The transition hasn’t been easy, Hoenisch says. Something new would pop up every day, she says, and it seemed never-ending for a while. Even something like a loan for a new fire truck caused confusion, since Maine transitioned to village status and then incorporated Brokaw into its fold. The unusual situation perplexed banks.
Paying down Brokaw’s $4.5 million debt required a lot of help— a $45,000 clean water loan through the Wisconsin DNR, and a $2.9 million grant from the USDA Rural Development fund, as well as a $1.173 million low-interest loan. Maine refinanced Brokaw’s Tax Increment Finance district loan, which had an “astronomical” interest rate because Brokaw was considered high risk—it had three times the debt it should have by state statute.
Maine officials now hope to start work soon on water and sewer upgrades, which will be paid for through some of USDA grant and loan, and from a Community Development Block Grant.
About those high taxes
The small post office serves less than 30 residents, who pick up their mail from the building regularly.
Brokaw had had some of the highest taxes in the state after the mill closed, with its village-only property tax rate more than doubling.
After Brokaw dissolved and became part of the new village of Maine, everyone’s property tax rate went down, says Maine Clerk Cindy Bailey.
Even before that official transition, between 2015 and 2017, the consolidation process reduced the overall property tax rate in Brokaw from $45.24 per $1,000 of assessed value, to $32.34 per $1,000, according to state records.
Now that everyone is in the village of Maine, former Brokaw residents are paying what Maine is paying — the 2018 tax rate is $20.69 per $1,000. That’s a slight drop from Maine’s rate in 2017, when it was $20.99. (These figures include state, county, school district and technical school taxes.)
“The village board took great pains to ensure that existing Maine residents didn’t see pain from Brokaw,” says Maine Village Administrator Keith Rusch. “We wanted to hold the tax rate as steady as possible.”
The trouble started when Wausau Paper announced in 2012 it was closing its mill — the mill essentially created Brokaw. Brokaw was a company town. Even someone wanting to buy a house, for example, had to talk to the mill’s main office because Wausau Paper owned most of the land. The mill’s closure had a devastating impact on the village. It not only lost major tax base but lost its biggest water customers. The hit was enormous, and the village continued to rack up debt as it struggled with what to do. Eventually People’s State Bank filed a lawsuit against Brokaw for unpaid debts.
Nobody at the time — including state officials — knew exactly what would happen if a village just stopped paying its bills. Under state law, the village’s assets — and much more concerning, its debts — would be divided between the towns of Maine and Texas, its neighbors. That meant a whole lot of debt to saddle on two small town governments. No one wanted that.
The cooperative boundary plan—in which Maine would become a village to give it more access to grants— was approved in September 2016.
As for the mill itself: a scrapyard, TerX Shredding and Recycling Company, is currently running scrapping operations on the site. From the main road of Brokaw, a passerby can see piled up cars and other vehicles on the site. Rusch and other Maine officials say the village hasn’t had much luck having contact with the company.
A Brokaw with no name
Rochelle Frank, with her late mother Ruthelle Frank, outside their home near the paper mill in 2015. “My heart is still in the village of Brokaw,” Rochelle says today.
What are things like for residents in the Brokaw section of town?
For one, taxes are a lot lower. The streets are still being plowed. Residents still get their mail from a Post Office with the words “Brokaw, Wisconsin” on its side. And Brokaw Credit Union still adorns the main thoroughfare in Brokaw.
Life doesn’t look much different for residents in the former Brokaw village, says resident Rochelle Frank, 58. Frank and her late mother, Ruthelle Frank, ran a GoFundMe campaign to save Brokaw. (Ruthelle Frank also was known as the lead plaintiff on case challenging the state’s voter ID laws.)
Frank says very little is different, other than needing to take their yard waste up to Maine’s site now, and the upcoming water and sewer upgrades the village is planning.
Frank, who works at Sun Printing, says the day the mill shut down is one she won’t forget. The sense of foreboding that everyone felt was palpable.
She knows her late mother, who died in June 2017, and her father, would have wanted their hamlet in the Wisconsin River valley to stay the village of Brokaw. One small comfort: Residents east of the river still maintain their own “Brokaw” zip code of 54417 (nearby locations in the Town of Texas use Wausau 54403), and their own post office to pick up mail and catch up on village news.
“My heart is still in the village of Brokaw,” Frank says at her kitchen table, at her house a stone’s throw from the old mill which still bears the name Wausau Paper in some spots on site as a reminder of a different time.