Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Reading the fine print: understanding your property tax bill

It's just an illustration but already my eyes
are getting hazy

In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Benjamin Franklin

The property tax bills have been sent out and by now you've probably have yours in hand. I'm sure we all wish it didn't come so close to Christmas (you can almost hear Ebenezer Scrooge, cane in hand, heartily 'bahumbugging' carolers at the door as we open up our tax bill). Some of us pay our taxes bi-annually – one installment at the end of January and the other by the end of July – but if you're like us, part of our monthly mortgage bill includes money put in escrow for taxes. Our tax bill came a week or so ago and our escrow check was a little bit light. Good thing for us that years ago we began the habit of setting a little aside each week for just that eventuality.

In the two and a half years I have served as mayor, I really don't get a lot of complaints. Honestly, I get more “attaboys” than anything else. But certainly one of the categories of complaints I do get – when I get them - is how high our taxes are in our town. Who am I to disagree with anyone? I, too, feel sometimes I pay through the wazoo for taxes but is there anyone who doesn't? Actually I'm wondering for the kinds of services we do receive is it really better in other places? I mean for the size municipality we do live in to boast a 24/7 police force, a municipal court, weekly garbage pick-up, an aging but functioning water and sewer system, fire and ambulance services provided by a dedicated group of volunteers, a wonderful public library, a beautiful community center, a crack public works department, a city clerk and her staff second to none. And if you read the fine print of your most recent tax bill do you realize that our levy did not go up one dime since last year? You know the old saying, 'There is no free lunch'? Based on what we get for our dollar our lunch may not be free around here but we get it at bargain prices.

The following document is something Carmen Newman, our ever so capable City Clerk, made up to try and break down just where our tax dollars go. 

Want a copy of your own? If you stop in at City Hall I'm sure Carmen would only be too happy
to print it off for you

It's fairly self-explanatory but here's some things to point out just so you don't miss it:

Everybody gets a piece of the “action”: the County, Chetek-Weyerhaeuser Area School district and WITC takes their cut as well as the city.

The CWAD levy changes frequently: if you notice, while the
Once upon a time maybe...
city's levy remained the same as last year's, the school's went up $71,500 (more than any other revenue collector). Why? Carmen shared with me an email she had received last year from CWAD's Business Manager Tammy Lenbom who explained school levies this way:

School districts have a revenue limit that we can levy up is not a set percentage and will vary based on the number of students and property valuation.

In our case, we are losing state aid at the rate of 15% per year (mainly due to high property values...lake property and sand plants). We are held harmless which means we cannot lose more than the 15% so we receive what is called special adjustment aid.

When we lose state aid it shifts the burden to the taxpayer resulting in a higher tax levy increase.
(November 2017)

I don't want to put words in Tammy's mouth but it sounds like if you want to know why the school's levy went up so much blame Madison. Otherwise, I guess it's the cost of doing business and the price of a good school.

Your city portion of your tax bill has remained fairly conservative. Since 2014, the levy has increased modestly. This year it did not go up at all. Zero. Nada. Some criticism has been raised over recent purchases the city made (e.g., the old Chetek Cafe building and the former Jennie O Breeder farm). Remember: no one was billed for these purchases. Outlay money was used to acquire these properties. Same goes for the $100K worth of new sidewalks that have gone in over the last two budget cycles courtesy of your city council.

Every year between September and November's council meeting, various hearings are held to determine the budget for the upcoming year. Police, Public Works, Public Library, and The Center all bring their individual budgets to the table while Carmen and Cassandra crunch numbers calculating potential wage increases for our people as well as the price of insurance. Understandably, every department head lobbies for the things they feel they “gotta have” for the upcoming year. On the main, however, there really aren't a lot of negotiations. What “needs to be done” is usually pretty obvious. For example, last year Public Works Director Dan Knapp “bankrolled” the State aids we usually receive for improving our streets. That's why no roads were resurfaced in 2018. In 2019, however, we'll use that money and this year's amount because as far as the State is concerned if you don't use it you lose it. So, we're gonna use it. That's pretty obvious.

If you google anything on tax levies and mill rates you will find links to everything – and then some – on all the minutia of 'how it works' and 'where the money goes'. For the most part, it's pretty boring stuff if you ask me and it's almost impossible for short-and-to-the-point answers. For example, DPI tries to break down school spending but they lose me two-thirds down the page at “Tertiary Aid Tier” (“tertiary” is a word school administrators like to throw around; same goes for “pedagogical review”for that matter). But based on the chart Carmen has created it at least helps me understand what the fine print means and how we get those numbers. While we each still have to pay our tax bill maybe it helps knowing that that whatever is your bottom line wasn't conjured out of thin air. Nope. It's based on the value of your home and - this year - the rate of $25.87 per $1,000 of its value as well as a mindful city council who with a lot of help from Carmen generally stays on top of things. And that's a very good thing.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Unfinished business: a lot of moving parts

Old Cafe...
As we draw closer to the end of another year we have a lot of loose strings yet to tie up and hopefully in knots that won't slip. Among them:

The old Chetek Cafe building
Whether or not you agreed with the city purchasing this property, we feel it was a good investment in our community. A business owner who had his property up for sale for years (and years) was able to get out, another business owner whose business was expanding was able to move in and if nothing comes of the idea of a future governmental building at the corner of Stout and Second, at the very least we'll have a nice piece of real estate for a future business to locate to.

...and New

After we purchased the building, we were approached by a couple of local business owners about renting space to them until we had the structure razed. Admittedly, we were open to that possibility recognizing that the process of securing the grant money for demolishing an old structure might take some time. Until we inspected the place after Norbert and Patty had moved on down the street. The building was in worse shape than we could guess. There was no way the city was going to put so much as a dime into it to keep it viable for another season. So we informed the one tenant we inherited at purchase time that he had to vacate by October 1. After he moved out we had the place inspected for asbestos and given its age we were not surprised to learn that it was rife with it.

This past summer and fall, I had a few folks suggest to me that at the very least we paint the place given the eye sore that it was. But we're hoping it won't see the spring and that sometime this winter it will go the way of the dinosaur.

The old Jost Law Office building
Purchased in the fall of 2016, originally the idea of obtaining this piece of property was to raze this structure as well and create a parking lot for The Center. But due to its proximity to the Mosaic building and due to the fact that this old structure has been built upon several times over the years we have been unsuccessful (yet) in attracting anyone to tear it down. A year ago I reached out to Enosh Yoder, a local Amish man who has a knack for this sort of thing but the more he walked through the structure the bigger his eyes seemed to get. You have an old building with at least four roofs on it (shakes, two layers of shingles and metal sheeting to boot), interior walls that have been built out and ceilings that have been dropped down which all spell “buyer beware” to a prospective demolition man.

In the meantime, following some of the conversations that arose regarding property purchases in recent years the “Property Committee” was brought out of mothballs and re-started. While the council will still have the final word future purchases or major renovations will be vetted first by the Property Committee. So the thinking is before we tear down the old Jost building to make way for a future parking lot let's allow the Property Committee to weigh in on it. Of course, that slows the process down – or may gum it up entirely if the committee feels that the property would be better used in a different way. Personally, I still think The Center needs a parking lot but we'll wait and see what the others have to say about it. But just as it is with the old Cafe building, this propety, were we to tear it down, will have to be tested for abestos but we cannot do that until the two tenants presently renting there vacate. And of course we can't terminate their lease until we are in agreement that a parking lot is the best use for that piece of property. As they say, there's a lot of moving parts.

Sadly the eagle has landed...elsewhere (he just wore out)
Main Steet Park
Last year the city purchased the vacant lot on the east side of Ohde's from the Moulettes as an addition to Main Street Park. In the fall of 2017 our guys tore up the cement pavement that was buried under the grass, spread grass seed and kept the yard mowed this past year while the Parks Committee tried to hash out a re-design for the park. After the tragic loss of Natalie Turner last fall, originally the idea was to erect a small piece of artwork in her memory and build a low wall surrounding the small courtyard on Second Street. Some generous individuals from town contributed to this project or volunteered their labor when it was time to roll up our sleeves and begin the work. This past summer around Liberty Fest WEAU-TV 13 did a short interview with Parks Committee chair Donna Bachowski about these ideas. Unfortunately for reasons that were not communicated to me the major donor for this part of the renovations backed out. What's more, the school informed us that a memorial for Natalie was going to be erected somewhere on school grounds which made mute any further conversation about some kind of memorial to her at the park. In the meantime, the weather became colder and now we've pretty much lost our window for any kind of concrete work this year.

Before the crew dug up the old slab and planted grass seed
What of the $20,000 donated to the city this past September from the former tornado relief fund? It's still there and will be used for future improvements at Main Street Park. Hopefully over the winter the Parks Committee can pin down just where we want to start. The general schematics we're presently looking at keep the low retaining wall around the courtyard, involve pavers in the east yard and perhaps an elevated platform for future outdoor concerts and the like (the current pavilion cannot be added onto without endangering the integrity of the structure).

The old Jennie O's breeder farm purchase
The other major property the city acquired this past year was the 39 acres where the old Jennie O's Breeder Farm used to stand. The former manager's home, presently vacant, came with the purchase. One of things we are trying to come to grasp with is what Dave Armstrong, Barron County Economic Development Executive Director, says about our community: “You want people to move to Chetek but they have no place to move to.” We have a dearth of both rental property and affordable housing. Note: when we say “affordable housing” we do not mean “low income housing”. We feel Chetek has plenty of that. No, we're talking starter homes, duplexes, and “twindos” (two homes side by side that share a common wall). We have no interest in developing this ourselves. So we've been listening to some proposals from various companies who might be interested in developing this property. One of the barriers in moving forward with any development is going to be infrastructure, specifically roads, sewer and water. Due to its proximity to Bailey Lake, not one drop of water from this future development can empty into it. Those kinds of things – water and sewer systems – come with big price tags that tend to scare developers away. The good news is one of our Tax Increment Districts (we have three) will be paid off early next year. At November's council meeting the council will vote on extending it one additional year (allowed by law) and use the tax dollars netted in this district toward building the infrastructure we need.

The manager's former home comes with the 39 acres

Lake View Cemetery
While I just wrote on this matter last week (see We may have inherited a cemetery), suffice to say an official arrangement with the Town of Chetek has yet to be brokered. Our current position is we will contribute to the mowing expenses as well as to the salary of the sexton. However, since the front part (on city land) is already full, we feel the Township should be the lead partner on this since the majority of it resides on Township land. Any future full burials will be done in that part. The council will weigh in on this at our next meeting.

So that's a lot of things up in the air that have yet to land or take full shape. I'd like to see some of them get pinned down sooner than later but often municipal government matters move at the pace that military ones do (or so I'm told) and 'hurry up and wait' is our watchword for the time being.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

We may have inherited a cemetery: the future of Lake View Cemetery

You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.” Benjamin Mee in We Bought A Zoo

The 2011 movie We Bought A Zoo which starred Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson is based on the 2008 book of the same name and is a dramatic retelling of the true story of Benjamin Mee, a Brit with little zoological background who bought a wildlife park in England. While I haven't seen the movie I take it that it's a story about serendipity, about seizing a crazy opportunity and discovering unlooked for happiness. Well, the city hasn't bought a zoo but we may have inherited a cemetery. Whether or not that's serendipitous remains to be seen.

For several years now the Lakeview Cemetery Association has been losing money. Certainly it hasn't been for any kind of malfeasance on their part. As a rule, cemeteries are funded by burials and frankly, people aren't getting buried very often any more. When I was a boy growing up in Milwaukee as far as I knew only Hindus cremated their dead. But over the last fifteen or more years cremation has ceased to be an odd or unusual practice and has seemed to have become the norm. In my early years of ministry in Chetek, I was frequently called upon by Burnham-Ours Funeral Home to preside at a funeral of a person I did not know. That hardly ever happens any more and I don't think it's because I've done a bad job of it. People do their own minister-less memorial gatherings these days and the cremains (I don't recall ever presiding at a funeral in the 90s where a body wasn't present) go either home with the family or are disposed of in a sentimental place. (According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, custodians at Walt Disney World and Disneyland are regularly called upon to vacuum up human remains that have been spread on the dearly departed's favorite ride. Really!)

In Wisconsin, it's entirely legal to place cremains in “any lawful manner” as long as the remains have been reduced to a particle size of one-eighth of an inch or less. So, that can be the woods, Lake Chetek or Lake Superior or wherever the deceased's favorite haunt may have been. (Let's hope it wasn't the Tilt-A-Whirl at the Barron County Fairgrounds). Fewer burials means fewer dollars for the association to work with to keep up with the mowing and the trimming to say nothing of the calls the sexton will get to locate either for a funeral or for people doing family research. Because of this for several years now both the Town and the City of Chetek have been subsidizing the cemetery annually in equal portions according to an agreement signed in 2012.

Year                                               Amount (both municipalities' contributions)

2012 $1,500.00
2013 $2,500.00
2014 $3,000.00
2015 $3,000.00
2016 $7,500.00
2017 $10,000.00*
* The LVCA purchased a new mower
2018* (estimated) $8,000.00
2019* (projected) $8,000.00

As you can tell, it's not that we didn't see this juncture coming. When I spoke informally the other day with former sexton Robert Lund off the top of his head he figured that there had only been seven full burials this past year. Seven! Of course, that doesn't count the placement of urns nor the unofficial spreading of ashes that he and the other former employees of the LVCA frequently find throughout the cemetery grounds. How can you stay financially fluid in conditions like these?

As the Chetek Alert reported just last week on September 25 (City, township to take over Lake View Cemetery) it became official: the Lake View Cemetery Association that has been in operation since 1882 voted to dissolve. So what happens next? Well, under Wisconsin law an “abandoned” cemetery ultimately becomes the responsibility of the municipality in which it is found. If we left it alone for one or more years the city – or, at least that part of the cemetery that resides within the city limits – could take it over if we chose to. However, after five years of being orphaned we must take it over, even if we'd rather not (this according to Section 157.115(1)(b). And if we don't take it over, a county circuit judge will order it to be done. So lump it or leave it, we got it (or at the very least that part that's on city land).

The newer part of Lake View is in the back and is where all the burials now take place

Interestingly enough in 2007, then Chetek Alert reporter Rachel Westberg did a story on this very eventuality with then LVCA sexton Bob Arneson (Future of Lake View Cemetery undecided). According to that article, Arneson said: "It's a lot a cheaper for us to run the cemetery than to let the city run it. If the city would take over, then they have to put someone on as a licensed salesman for plots, and someone to keep records, and they don't want that. They'd just rather have us continue to keep it going." Then President of the Lake View Cemetery Association Jim Fults added: "If the city took over the cemetery, it would go on the tax rolls and they would have to pay city workers nearly two times as much as what we're paying workers now.” This bridge was projected to go out way back then.

Lakeview Cemetery (front and back)
Back in September the members of the Chetek City Council and the Board of the Town of Chetek sat down in our council chambers to see if we could come to some agreement. Frankly, it reminded me of a lot of dances I attended during my middle school years – boys on the one side and girls on the other, with neither one willing to make the first move. For our part, we'd rather not run it as our current public works staff already struggles to get our own work done. What's more, people will be calling – and have been calling - City Hall – looking for where grandma is buried or wanting to purchase a plot. While it doesn't seem like a lot of extra work, I've been informed in no uncertain terms that it definitely will distract from the business that Carmen, Cassandra and Karen already have to tend to. Finally, two-fifths of the cemetery – essentially the front, older section that is practically full – is on city land while the three-fifths of the newer section in the back is on township land. With that math, the council is not in favor of simply a 50-50 financial split. We're we to take it over the council would pursue some equitable solution with the township.

I'm sure we're going to work something out even if it is ultimately us caring for our part and them caring for theirs. I don't think that's the best way to do it and neither do they but right now come December 24 (the end of the 90 day period at which time we have to inform the state cemetery board what our association will look like hereafter) if a better plan cannot be agreed upon that's exactly what's going to be. Depending on your perspective that may be a lump of coal in our stocking and not a gift worth unwrapping.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

A Glorious Mess: the Stout Street Public Dock

The path that heads to the lake at the corner of Stout & First Streets

A rain garden is a garden that is built to absorb rainfall and storm water runoff.  It is designed to look like an attractive garden and support the local habitat.  Plants with deep fibrous roots tend to work best because they can better clean and filter the water.  The gardens are located between a spot of high runoff and a protected area.  As the rainwater enters the garden it is cleaned, filtered and slowed to prevent erosion as well as any contaminants from proceeding through.  These gardens become even more important as development continues and eliminates lands natural ability to absorb water.  They are easy to create on your own land or area that you maintain near the Chetek Chain of Lakes.” from the Chetek Lakes Protection Association's website

A few weeks ago at the July city council meeting the Stout Street public dock was on the agenda due to some concern raised by a few neighbors of its overgrown appearance. You've heard of the saying, “It's a jungle out there”? Well, according to Dave and Kathy Ziarnik (who live right next door to the public dock) “the jungle”, as they refer to it, is right across the yard. To add insult to injury on occasion when boaters hook up to the dock, they pee in the bushes in plain sight (and, according to them, we're not just talking about the guys). They wondered if the city might do something about this matter and clean up this “mess”.

Looking from the dock

If you have lived in Chetek for awhile you can recall when the only thing above the dock was a section of grass kept regularly mowed by the city. But then in 2013 the students and staff of what was then the Red Cedar Environmental Institute (now defunct) adopted that site and in cooperation with the city and the DNR created a rain garden. A rain garden is (to quote Google): “a garden of native shrubs, perennials, and flowers planted in a small depression, which is generally formed on a natural slope. It is designed to temporarily hold and soak in rain water runoff that flows from roofs, driveways, patios or lawns.” In the fall of 2013 they laid down permeable pavers and planted 1,500 native plants to help slow down rainwater that heads right to the lake as well as prevent foot traffic from eroding the ground. Five years later, the flowers have taken root, the dogwoods are blooming and yes, some weeds and other volunteers have sprung up but for all intents and purposes our rain garden is flourishing.

A week after the City Council meeting, members of the Parks Committee as well as Public Works Director Dan Knapp and City Inspector Joe Atwood sat down with Dave Blumer from LEAPS (Lake Education And Planning Services) for his assessment of the “mess” at the corner of Stout and First Street. Dave put together a very informative slide presentation about the general health of the Chain, how storm water runoff affects its health and the things we can do to prevent or slow the effects that runoff has on our waters.

What goes in...

...eventually pours out

The major take-away for me from Dave's talk is perhaps the biggest “duh”-statement that you've read recently: when it rains, it pours. What I mean by that is when it rains whatever makes it to the storm drains – cigarette butts, plastic bottles, doggy doo-doo, you name it – pours into the lake. Add that to the mix of leaves and grass clippings that naturally find their way to storm drains and you've essentially got yourself a recipe for algae growth – the very thing we're trying to slow in our perennial green lake system.

Beautiful lake shore home but no lake buffer
My father-in-law, now deceased, lived in the southern part of the state on a similar man-made body of water like Lake Chetek with a river running through it. He was one of those guys who would cut his grass right to the water's edge. Later he added riprap (basically loose stone to armor shorelines against erosion) but to his dying day he could not countenance anything beyond grass at the shore and that had to be no longer than 2.5 inches high. But as the folks at the Chetek Lakes Protection Association (CLPA) have been advocating for years, that may look neat and orderly but it only contributes to the problem of how green our lakes are. Thus the push for lakeowners and
municipalities with lake access to create rain gardens and lake buffers. In fact, the CLPA website ( has a very informative section on Healthy Lakes Projects that provides links to DNR publications to educate you further on how simple things like this can slow and filter the water that heads to the lakes.

According to Dave, it is his professional assessment that our rain garden is doing what it was designed to do: slow and filter runoff. The following morning, some of us from that same committee met at the boat dock with Amanda Kostner, a representative from the DNR, who after going through “the jungle” concurred with Dave's opinion: it's a wonderful rain garden that is helping filter the runoff that comes from the storm drain at the top of the hill. She pointed out to us some box elders and maples that had sprung up that could be removed but otherwise her counsel to us was to leave it alone.

Porta potty now available for your...inconvenience
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose. What some would call a mess or a jungle, others call a little patch of nature that is quite lovely to look at especially with the flowers in bloom. The council did approve putting a porta potty at the end of the dock and hopefully that will deter boaters and fishermen from alleviating themselves in plain sight. I think some signage as to what the purpose of this small section of growth is would be helpful too.

Maintaining and improving the health of the Chain should be a shared concern for all of us who live around here – not just for those who live on the lake or benefit from people who come to play here. I'm told that politicians and governmental bureaucrats in Madison want to point to that pipe that enters the Chetek River from the Waste Water Treatment Plant and tax and regulate that in order to “fix” what's wrong with Tainter Lake and Lake Menomin. But in my opinion there is no magic bullet that will enhance and improve the overall health of the Chain of Lakes. Rather, it will be the cumulative affect of little things like rain gardens, lake buffers, the work of the ecoharvester (aka, “the skimmer”) and other ventures that overtime will contribute to a healthier lake system. And our little “jungle” at the corner of First and Stout is part of the solution not part of the problem.

Cool machine but only one piece of a larger puzzle

Monday, July 2, 2018

Some thoughts on the things that go boom: Fireworks on the Fourth

I see fireworks! I see the pageant and
Pomp and parade
I hear the bells ringing out
I hear the cannons roar
I see Americans - all Americans
Free forever more”
Is Anybody There?

So much fun to light off
and so illegal
We're just a day away from Independence Day and though this year's celebration falls in the middle of the week, it's sure to draw crowds to town for the annual Liberty Fest parade and the fireworks finale over the lake at nightfall. Those will be the official fireworks that are permitted, sponsored and entirely legal. Everything else lit off, blown up or shot off, be it your bottle rocket, M-80, cherry bomb, or run-of-the-mill firecracker is...well...illegal (see Article III in the Municipal Code which covers everything you want to know about fireworks).

All in good fun
Of course, we all light up or shoot off something on that night be it sparklers, smoke bombs or fountains (which quickly shoot off an array of colorful sparks). It is the 4th after all. I'm pretty sure that if you're supervising your children as they light up some spinners or sparklers you won't have any worry of Chetek PD pulling up at your house to issue you a citation. (Having said that, this past winter while making a presentation to a third grade class at Roselawn I was asked by a student if it was illegal to shoot off fireworks inside the city limits. I told her that while it is not permitted a lot of people do anyway with no interference by the police. At which point she informed me that last summer her parents were cited for doing just that thing. My guess it was either because it was a pretty big display or it happened in the middle of the night.)

Last week I received this note via Messenger at my Mayor's Facebook page:

Will there be a post about fireworks and the limitations within City Limits? And at what time they need to be done with them? Last year it was 1 in the morning and they were still lighting them off in the city limits. Frustrated about Fireworks in Chetek

When I was a kid growing up in Milwaukee every night at 10 p.m. a public service announcement would intone: “Parents, it's 10 p.m. Do you know where your children are?” That was curfew. If you were outside after 10 p.m. - with or without your parents' knowledge – chances are you were up to no good. While that message is no longer broadcasted on TV, in Chetek quiet hours begin at 10 p.m. So whether you got a late start cutting your lawn or you're having a karaoke night in your backyard, at 10 bells the mowing has to cease and the party's over. The same goes for fireworks. Realistically, by the time the Liberty Fest fireworks are over and you make your way home there's really no time left for shooting up your own display (even though by ordinance that is illegal within the city limits).

Frustrated about Fireworks, my guess is that the people who engage in this kind of obnoxious behavior are not likely to read mayor's blogs urging them to act responsibly. They're the same type who probably feel compelled to stack beer cans underneath the long bridge as they pass under it. But just in case by some wild happenstance they happen to come along this post, let me say it as simply as I can: please be considerate of your neighbors. You may have the rest of the week off but they may have an early start the following morning. They may have little kids they're trying to get to bed or a dog that has astraphobia (the fear of thunder or very loud noises). Fun is fun but don't abuse the privilege (and yes, if you're still lighting them off at 1 in the morning no one is amused any longer). Here's hoping you have a wonderful 4th celebrating with measured frivolity. Like the old saying goes, it's all fun and games until the cops show up. Don't give them cause to show up at your house.

Celebrate responsibily

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Funny you should ask: what are the rules about fencing around pools?

- Peeved About Pools in Chetek

That's what I was recently asked by an irate resident who called to ask me why they had to put a fence around their pool while others seem to get away without having one around theirs? Well, as I do with all questions I'm asked I usually go right to the source to get the low down. That usually means one of the following people: City Clerk Carmen Newman, Public Works Director Dan Knapp, Police Chief Ron Ambrozaitis or City Inspector Joe Atwood. If they don't know the answer (and one of them probably does) then there's no help for it. It has to be a theological conundrum of some sort or another. So after I concluded that conversation I spoke with Joe Atwood who was only too happy to inform me everything I need to know about swimming pools.

Just in case you were wondering, no fence needed here

Namely – and most importantly – if it's two feet deep or less then it does not need a protective fence around it. That means your basic “kiddie pool” that you can buy at Wal-Mart for $15-30 is fine without fencing. (This caller reminded me that you could drown in a bathtub just as well as in a kiddie pool. They're right of course. Our ordinances, however, don't cover such a scenario). When I 
The guy knows his stuff
asked Joe about the alleged “pool plague” presently afflicting Chetek, he informed me that most of the pools he has seen around town meet the two feet deep or less standard.

However, if the pool is deeper than two feet, it's just entered a whole new category of pool. A few weeks ago, Deputy City Clerk and Treasurer Cassandra Larson posted a very helpful graphic at the City of Chetek Facebook page, the information which I'll re-post here. Citing Section 118-257(f) (1):

All outdoor swimming pools having a depth capacity of two feet or more shall be completely enclosed by a fence prior to use of the swimming pool...Such fence shall be not less than four feet in height above the ground level immediately below. Such fence shall be of not less than 11.5 gauge chain link fencing or such other construction which will make access to the swimming pool area equally difficult.”

This family (not from Chetek) clearly knows the rules about fencing

When I asked Joe about the need for chain link fencing he said that he focuses on the phrase “...or such other construction which will make access to the swimming pool area equally difficult.” Personally, Joe disapproves of chain link fencing as its pretty easy for kids to climb over. The main thing is Joe has to see it and approve of the fencing before it goes up.

Such fence or wall shall be constructed in such a design to resist climbing and as not to have voids, holes, or openings larger than four inches in one dimension. Any open space in the plane of the fence shall be equipped with a gate. Each gate shall have at least the minimum height required for the fence and shall be equipped with self-closing and self-latching devices placed at the top of the gate or at a place which is otherwise inaccessible to small children.”

My wife, Linda, has been wanting to put a pool up in our backyard for many summers running. It's that fence-requirement-thing that kills it for me. To buy any kind of fencing “in such a design to resist climbing” and one that has a gate in it prices me right out of that idea.

Last week, Joe actually had to stop at a residence that had a pool in their backyard and inform the owners that they, in fact, had to drain their pool by the next day as it was deep enough to require a fence around it which they didn't have. They were good sports about it and drained their pool as he requested but they're disappointed all the same. After all, if you spend several hundred dollars on a pool you hate to see your investment just laying on the ground.

Section 118-257(f)(3) does allow a temporary fix, however:

Prior to the initial filling with water, each such outdoor swimming pool shall be enclosed by either fencing as required in this section, or a temporary construction fence. Such temporary fence shall be a snow fence, or a fence of similar design, at least four feet in height and securely anchored in place. The fence shall be constructed with its base flush to the ground and shall have supportive posts placed no more than eight feet apart. The fence shall remain in place until such time as a permanent fence is installed as provided in this section. The installation of a permanent fence shall take place no later than 60 days after the initial filling of the swimming pool.”

If you're prone to look for loop-holes, I guess here's one for you.
This will do for two months
You can put snow fencing around your pool so long as that within 60 days you have a more permanent fence erected around it. If you bought one this weekend, two months from now it'll probably be too cold to go swimming (and if you haven't cleaned it out since you filled it up the first time it will definitely be too gross to do so). But if I were you, I'd call Joe
first before you invest any money in a pool or fencing materials. He's only too happy to talk you through what you need to know. You can reach him at 715-764-2948.

Like all municipal ordinances, these rules aren't personal. We're not picking on anyone. In this case, the heart of the matter is safety. Nobody wants to be that person who because they neglected to secure their pool a little child tragically drowned. So, do the right thing. If the lake is too green for your liking, then head to Barron's or Rice Lake's pool. Or, if you want your own pool just make sure you reference Section 118 of our Municipal Code and let Joe know what you're thinking.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Cats, dogs and the Golden Rule

"A dog doesn't care if you're rich or poor, educated or illiterate, clever or dull. Give him your heart and he will give you his."
Marley & Me

"No family or person shall own, harbor or keep in its possession more than two dogs or cats on any residentially zoned lot without the prior approval of the Common Council, which may be conditional, except that a litter of pups or kittens or a portion of a litter may be kept for not more than eight weeks from birth. If more than one family resides on a residential lot, then only a total of four dogs or cats shall be allowed on the residential lot unless prior approval is obtained from the Common Council."
Section 18-32 (c) of the City of Chetek Code of Ordinances

He was a great dog
Pets. They make our lives richer and fuller by having them. In our nearly twenty-seven years in Chetek we've been blessed with a number of them – a couple of dogs, a couple of cats, some goldfish, a guinea pig and a rabbit to boot. Our first dog, Buster, though he was a runner by inclination and we frequently were bailing him out of the pokey, was amazing. It broke our hearts the day he died. Jack, our other dog, well...not so much but that's another story.

More often than not lately, pets have been an agenda item at the city council meeting in the form of a pet waiver. Like so many other things in our lives as members of this community, even the number of pets we own is governed by the Code.

The physical Code of Ordinances is pretty thick. The on-line version is far more user-friendly

How many?
Two. That's what we're allowed. Not two cats and two dogs but a cat and a dog or two dogs and no cats or two cats and no dogs. However you do the math at the end of the day if you have more than two critters you are not legal.

Why only two?
Well, I think you can figure it out. Some of us are just bleeding hearts for our canine and feline friends and when no limits are enforced, we collect them out of compassion for their welfare. But what about your neighbors? People bristle at that question because frequently their first response to that question is that their neighbors “should mind their own beeswax”. But according to our Code,  

The keeping of a large number of dogs or cats within the City for a considerable period of time detracts from and, in many instances, is detrimental to, healthful and comfortable life in such areas. The keeping of a large number of dogs or cats is, therefore, declared a public nuisance. Sec 18-32(a)

The truth is we may live in a rural area but if you live in town you don't live in the country. We just live too close to each other to allow small packs of dogs or prides of cats to proliferate next door. So years ago the limit was set at two.

Waiver needed:
As someone who has run for public office twice now, I can verify this for certain: many individuals in our city do not comply with the two pet rule. I know. I've met several of their canine members of their households at more than a few homes as I have gone door to door. Now it could be that some of these individuals have waivers on file at city hall which allows them to have more than two pets at their home. My hunch is, however, that a lot of folk just don't bother to go through the relatively painless process of securing a waiver which would allow them to legally have more than two pets at their address.

It works like this. A certain household member who already has two pets suddenly has to take in two more as her son, who serves in the military, just was deployed overseas for the next year and has no where for his dogs to go. She fills out the waiver explaining what kind of dogs they are and how long she plans on holding them. It then goes before the council for approval. In every case thus far that I've been serving as mayor the council has never denied a reasonable request. They frequently set limits to the waiver (e.g., the mother may keep her sons' dogs until the son returns from his deployment overseas) but they usually accommodate the pet owner's request. The fee per waiver is $25.

License required.

If your pooch is five months old or older, he needs to have a license (per Sec 18-93(a)). That's not our rule. That's the State's. At the present time there are no licenses required for cats (but you still can only have two). As part of licensing you need to show proof that your dog has been immunized against rabies (18-93(d)). Licenses are good for a year. $6/if your dog is spayed or neutered. $12 if they're not fixed. Again, those fees are set by the State with which the city fully complies with.

But what about dogs running loose?
Well, of course, they're not supposed to be (18-25) but as an owner of a former “runner”, sometimes they break their leash while tied up in the back yard or pull out of their collar and go out on a lark. We don't have a city dog catcher so who do you call if a dog comes sniffing into your yard? As much as City Clerk-Treasurer Carmen Newman loves dogs, don't call her. Call the police. Through email, I asked Chief Ambrozaitis about this very thing and this is what he wrote back:

We handle all dog complaints on a call by call basis. We have a policy concerning dangerous dogs, and [we handle this] when receiving a call on them. As far as dogs at large we handle them the best way we can. We try to find the owners via social media, word of mouth, etc... If this does not work and if a county deputy is available they will transport to Happy Tails in Barronett. We no longer take them to Barron as the Humane Society does not have a contract with the county anymore. Handling animals in the city has become some what of a problem but so far we have been able to handle them without any issues.”

(Note: Chetek PD will not take any dogs to Happy Tails Pet Boarding & Daycare as Barronett is 38 miles away and that would mean the only officer on duty would be gone a couple of hours making sure Fido is taken care of. It's not a very good use of police resources.) I recently spoke with Officer Jessica Larson about this and she told me that when she gets a loose dog call she tries to coax the wandering pup into the back of her squad and take it to the shop. Then via Facebook the word gets out and soon after the owner usually stops by the PD to pick up their lost dog  - usually.

And what about other animals?
Well, in case you were wondering, if you live within the city limits you can't own a polar bear or an alligator let alone any other federally protected animals (18-213a). You can own a snake so long as its not poisonous but otherwise all dangerous critters such as cheetahs, elephants or hippos are verboten (18-213e) (see the extended list in the Code, if only for your own amusement). You can own bees (which, strictly speaking, are not animals) but if you do and you do not live in a neighborhood that is zoned agricultural you're going to need to obtain a conditional use permit which often includes a public hearing so your neighbors can weigh in on the matter (see 18-263 thru 18-265). And let me state for the record that you can't shoot those pesky squirrels that get into your bird feeder. They may deserve it but the Code deems that cruel and unusual punishment (see 18-184). Sorry, dear wife, but you can't do it.

For the time being
You can own rabbits but you can't raise them to sell them (18-214). And at the present time the City does not allow anyone to own chickens (although every year we are approached by individuals who query if the council will ever reconsider that position). Otherwise all other farm animals – pigs, cows, horses, goats - are not permitted within the city limits (see 118-84c). Again, if you want country air then maybe looking for property in the surrounding townships is your best option.

There are reasons that all these rules are on the books. Not only are they similar (or identical) to other communities like ours but they also generally govern our civil interaction with each other. If we lived in a more perfect world, “love thy neighbor” and “the golden rule” would suffice, regardless of your individual religious persuasion. But we don't. So in the interim we live by the laws set by the State and the Municipal Code. It helps keep our town from truly going to the dogs.