aquatic facilities referendum

Since we’re all talking about swimming pools these days and I’ve already written several articles on the topic, I figure I’ll now share some thoughts about the referendum that will be on our November 6 ballot. I’ll start by talking about how we got here.

Decision To Rescind

At our August 21, 2018 city council meeting, we decided to rescind our previous decision about our direction and we decided to put a referendum on the ballot. During our discussion, I shared a concern about our decision to rescind which I’d like to explain. Almost two years ago, at our November 15, 2016 city council meeting, agenda item #13 said this:

Recommendation from the Board of Park Commissioners to consider replacing the two existing pools with one aquatic center with the location to be determined at a future time.

Upon viewing a presentation regarding our pools, the Board of Park Commissioners is recommending eliminating both pools and replace with one aquatic center.

The Director of Parks, Recreation and Forestry will be providing a presentation related to the pools.

Here’s the screen shot of that agenda item:

November 16, 2016 agenda itemWording is important, especially the verbs. The above language from 2016 used the words “eliminate” and “replace”. So in thinking about our decision as to whether we should rescind that, I did not want to rescind our decision to eliminate both pools. I still think to this day, even with all the input and feedback from the community, that that was a correct decision. We need to eliminate both pools; they’re old, deteriorating, and repairs are costing us too much. So as we were discussing this at our August 21 meeting, I quoted that 2nd sentence:

“recommending eliminating both pools and replace with one aquatic center”

To that, the city attorney told me, “the actions of the council were actually a little different than you’re characterizing them.” But I couldn’t disagree more. I did not characterize anything. I read it word for word from that memo. It’s not my opinion about what was on the agenda, it’s actually in there. You can see the text in the screen shot above. With that decision in 2016, we decided two things:

  • eliminate both pools
  • replace with one aquatic center

Nonetheless, we had a brief discussion about what those words meant. You can see this discussion at about 1:04 into the video. Suffice it to say that I did not (and still do not) want to rescind our decision to eliminate both pools. The pools need to go. Now, I was okay with rescinding our decision to move forward with a single aquatic center. But those are two separate things.

However, both of those decisions were packaged together in a single agenda item, so I voted “yes” to rescind, in order to allow the referendum to go forward. Since that vote passed (unanimously), this means that at some point, we’re going to have to start at the beginning, discuss the condition of the pools and all the repairs we’ve made, and decide if we want to eliminate both pools. I just didn’t want to have to do that part of the process all over again. And of course we’ll need to discuss the future, if we want one or two pools, what they should look like, etc.

Referendum Text

At that August 21 meeting, we also decided to put a referendum on the ballot. Now, there are many ways that this referendum question could have been worded. Ours was drafted based on ideas of Ald. Lueck. The decision to go with the referendum passed unanimously. Here’s the text:

“Under state law, the increase in the levy of the City of De Pere for the tax to be imposed for the next fiscal year, 2019, is limited to 1.98% which results in a levy of $12,442,502.00 Shall the City of De Pere be allowed to exceed this limit and increase the levy for the next fiscal year, 2019, and on an ongoing basis, for improving and transforming the pools located at VFW Park and at Legion Park into aquatic facilities and for operating those aquatic facilities, by a total of $900,000.00, which results in a levy of $13,342,502.00 A “YES” vote allows the Common Council to exceed the State imposed levy limits for improving and transforming the pools located at VFW Park and at Legion Park into aquatic facilities and for operating those aquatic facilities. A “NO” vote does not allow the Common Council to exceed the State imposed levy limits for improving and transforming the pools located at VFW Park and at Legion Park into aquatic facilities and for operating those aquatic facilities.”

Here’s how it will look on the ballot:

referendum question

You can see your own sample ballot on the Brown County Elections web site.

City’s Press Release

After we approved putting the referendum on the ballot, a number of news sources started reporting on the story and inaccurate info started surfacing. So I asked city staff to draft a memo or press release to hopefully clarify the facts. And it seems other aldermen made the same request. So, the city published a press release on August 28.

There are some statements in the press release that are still not as clear as they should be. For example, the last bullet point on page 2 says:

“If the referendum is not approved, the City’s Park Board and City Council will reconsider the pools and aquatic facility issue and determine what actions will be taken in the future.”

While that statement may be technically true, I hope you also understand that we have to reconsider everything, whether the referendum is approved or not. We rescinded all of our decisions. Nothing is decided now.

Inaccurate Reporting

As a neighbor and one who cares about you having the most accurate info, I have to warn you that you have to be careful who you believe. Here are some sources of information, along with my thoughts about each.

1) De Pere Voters to Decide Fate of Two Community Pools
WFRV TV Channel 5 news – August 22, 2018

WFRV story quote

  • The above quote from the story says that approving the referendum will: “increase levy limit by $900,000 a year for 15 years”. That’s not true. The referendum question makes no mention of how long the increase will last. I’ll talk more about this below.

2) De Pere pool problem just got real: Westside VFW pool sustains bad break at season’s end
Green Bay Press-Gazette – September 10, 2018

  • A quote in this article says: “binding referendum, in which voters will be asked whether the city should be allowed to exceed state-imposed levy limits to pay for replacing its two aging pools with two mini aquatic centers”. The referendum question makes no mention of “mini aquatic centers”. We don’t yet know what our facilities will be or what they’ll look like. I have no idea where they got that.
  • Another quote says: “the City Council by then had already made up its mind to close both of its aging pools, the VFW one and east side Legion Park Pool, and give the entire city one big $9 million aquatic center to serve residents on both sides of the Fox River.” That statement couldn’t be more false. The Park Board approved the plan for the aquatic center, but the City Council never even considered it. It was never on our agenda. Please don’t let anyone try to tell you that the City Council approved that plan for the aquatic center. We never had the opportunity to discuss it or vote on it.
  • Another quote says: “Instead of one big aquatic center on one side of town, the city proposed two small aquatic centers, one for each side of town.” Again, that is not true. I have no idea where that came from. There has never been a plan for “two small aquatic centers”.
  • And yet another quote says: “the only way the city can provide new pools on each side of the river is to exceed a state-imposed cap on the taxes it can raise, which requires voter approval”. Again, that’s just not true. We rescinded our previous decision. We have to start all over on this now. Nothing is decided. We can have one aquatic facility or two aquatic facilities, no matter how the referendum goes.

I don’t know where they got their information, but that’s a lot of false information in one article.

3) De Pere Parks Committee tables decision for west side pool until November
FOX11 News – September 20, 2018

  • If you watch the video, you’ll hear the anchor toward the end of the story say: “De Pere’s city council agreed last month to let voters decide the futures of both the VFW and Legion pool. Residents will determine whether to keep both pools open, to close them both, or to build a new aquatic center at the VFW pool site.” Obviously that assessment of our referendum is so wrong. Our referendum does not have three options and it does not give voters the chance to decide what to keep open and what to build. Look at the screen shot I provided above. There are not three options.

What disturbs me most is that I see many people in the “Save De Pere Pools” Facebook group thanking these news outlets for covering our story. And if you’re believing them, well, just don’t do that.

What does the referendum mean?

In any referendum, the specific wording is very important, especially the verbs. Our referendum uses the verb “allow”. It does not use the verb “direct”. To illustrate the difference, these are two things that our referendum DOES NOT say:

  • “Shall the City of De Pere exceed this limit…”
  • “Shall the City of De Pere be directed to exceed this limit…”

Instead, it says:

  • “Shall the City of De Pere be allowed to exceed this limit…”

So if it passes, the city is “allowed” to increase taxes, etc. In other words, we don’t have to; we are not directed to. And even if we do raise taxes, we don’t have to raise them the full amount allowed.

The referendum text also specifically mentions VFW Park and Legion Park. This means that if we do increase the taxes as a result of the referendum, we must use the money for facilities at both VFW Park and Legion Park. We can’t use the money for only one of those parks, and we can’t use it for any other park. It must be both VFW and Legion.

What this all really means is that no matter how the referendum is voted, the city still has the flexibility to do what we want. In other words, even if the referendum passes, we could end up with one facility. And even if it fails, we could end up with two facilities.

Open Ended?

I’ve read concerns on Facebook about the fact that this referendum allows the city to increase our taxes indefinitely. There is no end date defined. So is this true? Yes indeed, it is true. If it passes, it will be up to the city council, and future city councils, to decide if and when it ends. It will also be up to future city councils to decide how much that increase is. We may start out with the full increase, and then in 10 years that city council decides to cut it in half. And then 10 years later that city council decides to end it. Or it could go on for decades. We don’t know. (I just made up those years for illustration.)

While that doesn’t sound ideal, let’s also talk about what we do know. If I have to say so myself, we have 8 aldermen and a mayor who care deeply about our city. And while we often disagree on matters, none of us is crooked. None of us is out to get someone or do harm to our community. So it will always be up to people who are elected by voters to make these decisions. And in case you didn’t notice, we also have a vocal and involved citizenry who will make sure our future city councils know their wishes.

So, I’m not worried about the future. If the referendum passes and taxes are raised, I’m sure the increase will only exist as long as it needs to.

My Own Opinion

While all of these technical facts may shock you, we should also talk about the realities.

As an alderman, what this referendum says to me is simple. If it passes, it tells me that residents are saying, “we want to keep our pools, we know we can’t afford it today, so here’s some more money, I hope this helps; and if you use my money, you have to use it for aquatic facilities at both VFW and Legion parks; you can’t use it for anything else.” And if the referendum fails, it tells me, “sorry, we just can’t afford to spend extra money on aquatic facilities.” When taken in the context of everything that’s happened, including the important “Save Legion Pool” effort, even a failure means to me that maybe we can still have two pools if they’re not so big and fancy as the aquatic facility that was proposed.

In other words, if you’re watching the election results on TV that night, and it fails, don’t take that to mean we’ll only have one aquatic facility. As I’ve said above, we have to start this process all over again, no matter what happens. And if it passes, don’t take that to mean that the aquatic facility that’s been discussed will actually happen. It may happen, but maybe it’ll actually be smaller. We don’t yet know.

But I’ll say it again, this is my opinion. It’s important to know the difference between fact and my opinion. And as always, I’m only one of eight alderman.

Summary

At the end of the day, this referendum will send a message to the city council. And I want to be clear about this now. If the referendum passes, I expect we’ll start to figure out design plans for two aquatic facilities. This may or may not include the plan that was already approved by the Park Board.

And if the referendum fails, I still want us to figure out how we can afford two aquatic facilities. Maybe we scale them down. Maybe instead of the real fancy facilities that many cities have, we won’t have a lazy river or all the curly slides, but the really cool feature we’ll have here in De Pere is that we’ll have two.

Lastly, I want to commend Ald. Lueck and our city attorney for the work they did in drafting the referendum. I like the wording. And while it does leave a lot of things open, it also gives us the most flexibility.

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