(First published in the March 12, 2020 issue of City Pages)
The race for Wausau mayor has become the hottest local election in the past decade, as a determined, experienced candidate challenges incumbent Mayor Robert Mielke
Wausau has been in the middle of a mayoral race for almost a year. That’s quite unusual, given that local candidates can’t begin official paperwork until December, in advance of an April election.
But Katie Rosenberg announced way back in May 2019 that she would be challenging incumbent Mayor Robert Mielke in the spring 2020 election. Rosenberg, 36, is a marketing manager at Eastbay, and is currently serving her second term on Marathon County Board representing the city’s southeast side district. She is not running for that seat in order to focus on the mayor’s race.
This is the second time that Robert Mielke, or Mayor Bob as many know him colloquially, has run against other candidates for mayor. He fended off three other candidates in a four-way open race for the mayor’s chair in 2016 after then-Mayor Jim Tipple announced he would not run for another four-year term. After that February primary, Mielke, 54, fended off attorney Jay Kronenwetter in the general election. Now, in 2020, he’s seeking his second term in office. Wausau voters will choose between Mielke and Rosenberg in the Tuesday, April 7 election.
Mielke’s four years have been a mixed bag. The mayor has plenty of achievements to suggest he’d deserve a second term.
The beautiful Riverlife area along the Wisconsin River near downtown was still mostly a dream when he started in office, and now includes a sprawling flagship park, a family entertainment restaurant, and new housing and commercial developments in the process of being built. City Hall infighting and conflicts have been tampered under his watch—or at least quieted enough that it hasn’t spilled out to the public eye and the courts as it did during Tipple’s administration.
The city has seen record-setting new growth during his term, even outpacing Wisconsin powerhouses like Madison. And after some failed plans for downtown’s Wausau Center Mall and the old Sears building attached to it, some progress looks forthcoming for the old retail complex through a new partnership with two area foundations, finalized earlier this year.
There have been foibles too. While Riverlife is chugging along now, that came after a few stumbles and two developer changes. The first developer, Mike Frantz, struggled to come up with the funds to finance the commercial building project, leading Riverlife to flounder with a partially built foundation while contractors went unpaid and put liens against the property. After Frantz, Gorman and Company was awarded the contract, then changed their minds and flipped it over to local developers Mitch Viegut, Fernando Riveron and Bob Ohde. Under them—the first local developers to be awarded the project—the first building is taking shape while another project has been approved further north on the site.
And while the kind of infighting common under Tipple has ceased, troubles still brewed as residents have complained of poor treatment and sitting council members were berated by staff. And city officials have been criticized for how they’ve handled issues of diversity.
Rosenberg says that one of her first tasks as mayor would be developing a strategic plan for Wausau
Rosenberg can’t claim to have official experience in city hall —although as a longtime active member of the community she was on the mayor’s youth council under Tipple as a teen—but no one could accuse her of not doing her research. She often attended city council and other committee meetings, even before she announced her candidacy. And she’s well versed on the issues. Rosenberg has taken leadership training courses though the Wisconsin Counties Association’s programs, and has a master’s degree from the George Washington University in Strategic Public Relations.
Both Rosenberg and Mielke have bachelor’s degrees from the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point and UW-Marathon County (now called UWSP at Wausau).
Rosenberg herself has gone through some controversial issues in her time on the county board. In her first term she was part of the board that worked through the crisis with North Central Health Care, when it faced criticism and possible dismantling over its handling of mental health in the jail population. She spoke up when Marathon County Administrator Brad Karger was suspended for marching with Hmong protestors to the courthouse, school district and police department. And she was one of many voicing support for the county’s Pride Month resolution, which drew heated controversy from both supporters and opponents.
Diversity and making Wausau welcoming to all are issues Rosenberg has always pushed for, and that can mean some tough conversations. “There’s something that happens when you hear you might be doing something wrong and there’s nothing you can do about it but be aware of it and not do it again,” Rosenberg says about confronting people about biases. “That kind of conversation is really hard.”
Something else Rosenberg wants to push for: Further consolidating services and costs with other municipalities. Rosenberg mentioned it at a mayoral forum last month and afterward heard from other community leaders in nearby municipalities who were interested in hearing more about saving taxpayer money by consolidating. “We have a lot to gain by partnering with our surrounding communities, especially the ones that are very close to us,” Rosenberg says. “I heard from Weston policy makers, they want to talk.”
One current practice that Rosenberg really wants to look at changing: The city’s development process.
Right now city council members approve projects based on term sheets listing the aspects of a deal and then the final development agreement is figured out behind the scenes. Often council members never see the final agreement. Rosenberg envisions that the process could change so that committees might approve term sheets but then developer’s agreements come back to the council for approval before they’re implemented.
And Rosenberg’s big push, mentioned in her announcement, is for the city to develop a strategic plan. Rosenberg sees that plan modeled similarly to the county’s in structure — a document that highlights the city’s key goals, lays out strategies to achieve those goals and includes metrics to measure progress by.
Rosenberg says that, if she’s elected in April, her first order of business would be to get up to speed on all the city’s departments, as the budget process for the next year would start soon. Then the next order of business would be developing the strategic plan.
Mielke pushes back on several of Rosenberg’s points. He says that under the current plan, 85% of the city’s current debt will be paid off in 10 years.
Rosenberg pointed out at a recent forum that Madison Mayor Soglin was criticized for a city budget sending 17% of a resident’s tax dollars toward paying off debt service, when 12% is considered best practice. Wausau’s is more than 20%. Mielke says the high rate is because the city has taken an aggressive stance in paying off its debt, which is why 85% of it will be paid off in ten years.
But that’s existing debt. Anyone with a credit card knows that paying off a lot of your credit card debt doesn’t make much difference if you keep spending. And while a city can’t just stop spending money, Rosenberg says, she would like to see more scrutiny on some of the city’s deals to make sure the city is getting a good return on its investment. For example, if a developer gets land for $1, the real cost of that property should be included within the return on investment calculation.
And Mielke points to the city’s comprehensive plan he says “pretty much covers a strategic plan.”
But a comprehensive plan isn’t really the same as a strategic plan, which goes well beyond land use designations. The county’s strategic plan, for instance, includes goals such as ensure everyone has access to mental health, promote sound land uses and mitigate the impacts of heroin and meth addiction.
To Mielke’s credit, Wausau’s 2017 Comprehensive Plan does include more than just future land-use, such as encouraging cooperation between area governments, affordable housing and improving transportation.
In terms of tax incentive use, Mielke says some of the city’s districts will be closing down in the next couple of years, and that includes TIF District No. 5. Closing those districts will be a key to realizing the gains made on some of the city’s investments over the years. Mielke points to the growth those incentives have helped spark, such as at the city’s west side business park, where new increment from those developments will soon be realized. Those gains should help lower property taxes, Mielke says.
Mielke presents himself as a unifier. He points to the city facing 36 lawsuits when he was first elected, and says those are down to four now. One of the first things he did when taking office, Mielke says, was reaching out to surrounding communities to solidify partnerships with them. “We do get along and work well together now,” Mielke says of relationships with other municipalities. “I’ve been told repeatedly this is the best relationship, be it the county or whatever, with the city I’ve ever seen.”
Internally, he got rid of some people and made sure good workers are happy with their work environment.
Mielke pushes back on several of Rosenberg’s points. For example, he says 85% of the city’s current debt will be paid off in 10 years.
Whoever is elected April 7 will face two important challenges: Homelessness and transit.
On public transit, both Rosenberg and Mielke acknowledge there isn’t much hope for the bus system as it currently operates. Mielke emphasized that more work needs to be done with the surrounding communities. “A lot of people depend on those buses,” Mielke says. “That’s their only way of getting around.
Rosenberg points out that it might be time to relook at the way bus service is delivered. “We all seem to be stuck on this fixed route as the answer, and maybe it’s just not,” Rosenberg says, “but I don’t know that we have all the data to tell us whether it is or not. We have a certain duty to the people of this community to try and figure out this problem.”
Homelessness became a flash issue last year when the city introduced an ordinance aimed at curtailing people loitering in downtown parking ramps, which many felt were targeted at the homeless. Following the ordinance’s passage, two groups were formed to address homelessness, and one of the ideas was to build a non-profit center campus with a housing component for homeless individuals built into the design. The two groups were organized by Wausau Police Chief Ben Bliven. An email to Bliven asking about the status of those groups has gone unanswered.
Mielke defended the ordinance, saying that if the city hadn’t done something and someone was hurt in the parking ramps, the city could have been liable. And downtown employee interviewed by City Pages said women are being accosted in the parking ramps and feared their safety. The ordinance allowed police to remove problem individuals from the parking ramps, and isn’t targeted at random homeless people. But Mielke says he has made addressing homelessness a priority in his first term. “All these non-profit leaders have said the city has helped out more in the last couple of years, and made the problem more cognizant, if you will,” Mielke says. The parking ramp issue seemed to spark the most progress on addressing homelessness. “But what I thought would come true has. I said to the non-profit folks you’re going to get more money out of this, you’re going to get more volunteers, and that has happened.”
Rosenberg says she is glad those efforts are going on to address homelessness in Wausau, but is worried that they’re being worked on behind the scenes with little public input. She mentioned the possibility of the city changing its zoning ordinances to allow for tiny homes, which might be one potential solution to addressing homelessness in Wausau. And another challenge are all the overlapping issues that can go hand in hand with homelessness, like addiction and mental health.
Want to hear more? Listen to B.C. Kowalski sit down with each of the candidates on his podcast, Keep it Wausome! on Spotify or iTunes, or watch on YouTube. Whereas interviews for this story focused on policy, the podcast is more like sitting down and drinking a beer with each of the candidates… although Katie and Bob had tea and coffee, respectively.