With the beginning of a new year, the Daily Union recently asked several community officials within the cities of Fort Atkinson, Jefferson and Whitewater to look ahead and tell us what they think the biggest challenges facing their cities and jurisdictions in 2021 will be.
We also asked them: What ideas and plans are being considered or developed to address those challenges?
The two questions were posed to representatives from within each municipality’s city government, including: Fort Atkinson City Council President Mason Becker, Jefferson Mayor Dale Oppermann and City Administrator Tim Freitag, and Whitewater City Manager Cameron Clapper.
We also asked the same questions of the police chiefs within the three cities and the superintendents from the School District of Fort Atkinson, the School District of Jefferson and the Whitewater Unified School District.
Responses from police chiefs and school district administrators will be discussed in future stories.
Responses from the city officials were as follows:
Responding to our question about challenges facing Fort Atkinson in 2021, Becker wrote: “Like most communities in Wisconsin, our city budget will continue to be a challenge. I can safely say that our current budget, which we passed while Matt Trebatoski was still our city manager, is very tight. Things could become more challenging if state aids decline due to falling revenues, or if we have a particularly bad winter.”
While Becker described area property taxes as “too high,” he also noted that municipal officials, given state-level restrictions, have limited tools available to address shifting costs within their budgets.
“Many folks have this idea that there is a lot of fat that can still be trimmed from municipal budgets,” Becker noted. “While I am all for finding efficiencies and making targeted cuts when logical, most of the fat was cut out 10 to 15 years ago. The city has 7.5 less full-time employees than we did 10 years ago. Shared revenues, a return of our tax dollars from the state, have also decreased over the last decade, especially when you account for inflation. This will continue to make things challenging when we consider our budget for next year.”
He pointed to economic development as another challenge facing the city, writing: “the Klement Business Park has been a challenging TIF (tax incremental financing) district for a long time. Fortunately, we have two businesses that have purchased land and will hopefully be moving forward with breaking ground in the park this year. I think our city’s Economic Development Commission can continue to work with the Fort Atkinson Area Chamber of Commerce and other entities to continue attracting business to Fort Atkinson.”
Becker called the city’s south side a “viable business area,” citing a recent investment made by Kwik Trip as evidence.
“There have been other businesses that have recently relocated along the Janesville Avenue corridor, such as Abilities and Carla’s Catering,” Becker said. “People know this is a good area for economic activity.”
The council president cited a need to attract retail businesses into the city.
“We lost Shopko, through no fault of anyone in our community,” Becker wrote. “The challenge for us is proximity to other major shopping hubs, like the north side of Janesville.
“I continue to believe that any new retail in Fort Atkinson will largely be driven by people and businesses that are already here,” he added. “That’s not to say another major retailer couldn’t come along eventually; we just need to have realistic expectations.”
Becker defined the city’s downtown area as “critically important,” noting further that it had “come a long way from where we were five or six years ago.
“We recently approved a license for a really unique new business that will be opening in the former Hijynx location, and the former Canton Restaurant location will soon have a new occupant,” he continued. “Obviously, many entrepreneurs still see Fort Atkinson’s downtown as a great place to be doing business.”
Becker pointed to housing as another challenge facing the city in 2021.
“A Realtor told me very recently that there are only four single-family homes for sale in the city that don’t already have accepted offers,” Becker said. “We also have an extremely low vacancy rate for rentals. That is where the city’s acquisition of 75 acres along Banker Road will come into play.
“We already have one developer interested in building apartment units in that area,” he added. “People want to live here, but we have to roll up our sleeves and create the housing so they can move here and stay here.”
Looking at solutions, Becker wrote: “I remain optimistic that as we come out of this pandemic, Fort Atkinson will continue to be a great community to live, work and play. I think our new city manager, Rebecca Houseman-Lemire, will be stepping into a situation where her talents and resume can really shine, as the city council works with her to address our challenges and opportunities.”
Oppermann indicated through email that in response to the Daily Union’s questions, both he and Freitag had collaborated to form responses, noting that in 2021 the city would face the following “challenges, goals and opportunities,” which he outlined as two issues.
Issue No. 1, he wrote, was a lack of affordable housing within the community, including both multi-family and single-family units.
“The lack of available housing options contributes to rapidly increasing housing prices, a lack of available workers for our commercial and manufacturing businesses, and concerns over stagnating or declining school enrollments,” Oppermann pointed out.
The city has a limited inventory of available lots for housing developments, he added.
“To address this concern, the city intends to acquire property located south of the Jefferson County Fair Park in early 2021, subdivide this property, and install the street and utility infrastructure in order to make residential lots available for sale to both developers and individuals,” Oppermann wrote. “This property is within easy walking distance of three schools and a grocery store. The goal is to create more affordable housing options for the local workforce, especially first-time home buyers.”
Further, the city will be purchasing “the original footprint of the former Meadow Springs Golf Course,” which, he said, is located west of the Jefferson Golf Course.
“Much of the property will be designated a nature conservancy with an approximately one-mile paved walking path complete with benches and birding stations throughout the property,” the mayor wrote. “The city plans to offer residential lots for sale adjacent to the conservancy along South Dewey Avenue and at the site of the former clubhouse, which will be razed.
“In this way, it is the city’s intent to fill a role that has not been filled by the private development community in recent years, and to encourage residential growth and development,” he added.
Issue No. 2, Oppermann noted, revolves around “furthering community development and reinvestment with a particular emphasis on the city’s historic central business core.”
A “significant” investment by the city in replacement of downtown infrastructure is planned in 2021 and 2022, according to the mayor.
In 2021, Oppermann wrote, “the City of Jefferson and Jefferson Utilities will begin to remove the overhead electrical system on Riverside Alley, from Dodge Street to Candise Street. These several blocks of alley will be reconstructed in 2022 along with the municipal parking lots behind Felton Appliance, located adjacent to the alley.”
In 2021, he continued, “the city will begin planning for the replacement of some of the downtown streetscape, scheduled for 2022, including the replacement of a portion of the sidewalk and brickwork, new street trees, and the placement of additional amenities such as benches and bike racks.”
Clapper outlined challenges under several headings, including municipal budgeting and financial management, community and economic development, civil unrest or deteriorating civility, and uncertainty.
Under municipal budgeting, Clapper wrote: “the challenge is maintaining healthy levels of debt and fund reserves when we are faced with levy limits and anticipated fallout from the negative economic impacts of COVID-19 in 2020 and early 2021.”
Looking at economic development, and especially with regard to home construction, he noted: “Housing is in short supply throughout the country, but the cost of building materials has increased significantly during COVID. We need to move all types of development forward to achieve our goals for a healthy and vibrant community, but there may be challenges so long as COVID is looming overhead. As a university community, we are also facing the negative impact of students learning remotely rather than coming to our community.”
Addressing civil unrest, Clapper wrote: “We have seen this problem gradually increasing over many months; last Wednesday was an example of how far it can go.”
He cited “uncertainty” as “self-explanatory.”
Looking at solutions with regard to budgeting, Clapper wrote that the city would “continue operating as lean as possible. Go the extra mile to be transparent in terms of communicating fiscal health and needs to the community as well as our plans.”
It terms of community development, he noted: “We are already doing what we can at this point, looking for ways to spur/incentivize/support housing development as well as other commercial and industrial development. When it comes to local business, we need to make sure everyone is diversifying their customer base and not just catering to our student population. This will help protect our businesses when enrollment or in-person attendance is down.”
Addressing civil unrest, Clapper wrote: “We in the public sector must be the example of civility for the communities we live and work in. Be mindful too of what we post on social media and how we communicate in that forum. Political rhetoric must also change — there may be little local governments can do, but one thing we can do is appeal to lawmakers and send a message that partisan politics and backbiting is not acceptable.”
When looking at uncertainty, he said: “Take nothing for granted. Identify what matters most and what is most essential for you individually as well as in your role within the community. These are the things to focus on. Learn to be flexible with the rest.”