The Thomas Street Plan: Four-Lane Road Into Two-Lane Bridge Based On Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Funding, Not Necessary Road or Traffic Improvement

  • Thomas Street North Side

Lost federal funding from breaking federal guidelines drives a costly Thomas Street plan that will impact the Wausau School District, Northcentral Technical College, and Marathon County

A careful review of information on the Thomas Street project, including local news coverage, reveals the answer to a question that has been frequently brought up by Wausau residents:  why would the city build a four-lane road on Thomas Street into a two-lane bridge? The City’s own research indicates a four-lane stretch of road on Thomas Street is both unnecessary and costly.

The City’s Own Research Indicates a Four-Lane Stretch of Road on Thomas Street is Both Unnecessary and Costly

“When the report came through from our consultants now that four lanes is not needed, a turn lane is required, all the ratings for the intersections are above what they should be.”
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- – Wausau City Councilman David Oberbeck
Wausau Daily Herald, Replay: Watch Wausau City Council candidates interview with the Editorial Board, Posted on March 14, 2014
“Even doubling state projections, they [GRAEF] said traffic would grow by just 1% per year, so there is no justification for more than two lanes.”
- – City Pages, Thomas street not that busy, city told, February 27-March 6, 2014

Obviously, opinions coming from the City Council and Graef Consulting of Milwaukee state that four lanes on Thomas Street are unnecessary from a traffic or road-improvement perspective.  Yet at more than $9 million dollars (City Pages, Thomas street not that busy, city told, February 27-March 6, 2014), acquisition of the properties required to implement the plan make up a huge portion of the total estimated costs. So the question remains: Why would the City spend millions of dollars on unnecessary property acquisition and road expansion costs?

Why Would the City Spend Millions of Dollars on Unnecessary Property Acquisition and Road Expansion Costs?

In 2012, the City of Wausau lost federal funding for the Thomas Street project by breaking federal regulations. While making property acquisitions on the street, the City did not properly inform residents of their rights, provide required relocation costs, or appraise homes before buying and demolishing.  Wausau became the only city in the state on the relevant federal watch list because of these actions.

“Potential outside funding sources for the project did not materialize, and the City moved ahead with plans through TIF to construct the street and spark economic development in the area.” - City of Wausau Request for Proposal (RFP), Consulting Services for a Thomas Street Corridor Master Plan

Loss of federal funding meant the city no longer had the resources to support the Thomas Street project.  In order to replace this funding, the city amended Tax Increment District 6 to include parts of Thomas Street as described in its Request for Proposal (RFP).  However, the use of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) requires that certain criteria be met. It now appears that the clearly unneeded four-lane section of the Thomas Street plan may be intended to satisfy these legal requirements.

“We’re going to be actually possibly pay for Thomas Street through development if it occurs on that street…a two lane with a turn lane goes all the way to third, and then goes to a four lane and then higher development occurs there.”
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- - Wausau City Councilman David Oberbeck
Wausau Daily Herald, Replay: Watch Wausau City Council candidates interview with the Editorial Board, Posted on March 14, 2014

We must all question the wisdom of moving hastily forward with the Thomas Street project. This has been an ongoing issue for over a decade and allowing citizens a little more time to thoughtfully consider recent developments seems only prudent. This is especially so given the ongoing investigations concerning the legalities related to issues with the Joint Review Board – including the Wausau School District, Northcentral Technical College (NTC), and Marathon County – on TIF funding aspects of the Thomas Street plan. As indicated by the following quotations from the Wausau Daily Herald, there are serious concerns that relevant legal information was deliberately withheld.

From the Wausau Daily Herald on March 24, 2014:

May 22, 2013: Jacobson receives legal opinion, which finds the city can amend the project plan to use TIF funds for Thomas Street, but that it should be approved by the Joint Review Board, Plan Commission and full council. It also suggests the city should make sure the district still is eligible for TIF funding by meeting several statutory requirements, such as having significant blight within its borders.

Sept. 12, 2013: City receives second legal opinion from Foley & Lardner law firm of Milwaukee, sought by Finance Director MaryAnne Groat, which finds the city would not have to alter its tax-district plan to redesign Thomas Street, or get it approved by the Joint Review Board, so long as the new plan did not affect project costs. The Joint Review Board includes representatives from entities that forgo property tax money in active TIF districts — in this case, the Wausau School District, Northcentral Technical College and Marathon County.

March 19: Loy sends council members memo informing them that the first legal opinion was compiled but never given to them, that Jacobson has filed a harassment complaint against unnamed coworkers, and that he had hired an investigator in February to begin an internal review of her complaint.

TIF funding for Thomas Street is not simply a City issue. The Wausau School District, NTC, and Marathon County itself will all forgo property tax revenues in the TIF district as long as it is active.  These funds will instead be used to subsidize large development corporations. This is of particular concern given that, as indicated on the chart below from a UW-Lacrosse policy study, Wausau has had one of the highest TIF utilization rates in the state among comparable cities. We already have a questionably large percentage of tax revenue being diverted from our educational institutions and the needs of our county.

TIF Utilization in Wisconsin

We Hope that the Council Will Return to Serving the Citizens of Our Community and Our County

The Wausau City Council has been the subject of extensive negative press as a result of recent no-bid energy contracts, no-bid TIF contracts, and the rejection of community input at committee meetings (such as the refusal to let citizens voice their concerns about the Thomas Street project at the March 24th, 2014 and at the April 8th, 2014 committee meetings). We hope that the Council will acknowledge this legitimate criticism and return to serving the citizens of our community and our county by postponing any decision on Thomas Street at the council meeting this evening.

This is the first part of a Middle Wisconsin series on The Thomas Street Project and the use of Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) in the Central Wisconsin area.