Lending their ears

Area legislators address wide range of issues at listening session
by Jeff Pederson of The Review staff

9TH DISTRICT STATE SEN. Devin LeMahieu (left) and 26th Assembly District state Rep. Terry Katsma (right) took part in a fall state legislator listening session at the Sheboygan Falls Memorial Library Friday. — Review photo by Jeff Pederson 9TH DISTRICT STATE SEN. Devin LeMahieu (left) and 26th Assembly District state Rep. Terry Katsma (right) took part in a fall state legislator listening session at the Sheboygan Falls Memorial Library Friday. — Review photo by Jeff Pederson SHEBOYGAN FALLS — State Sen. Devin Le- Mahieu of Oostburg and state Rep. Terry Katsma of Oostburg touched on a variety of state, county and local issues, during a fall state legislator listening session Friday at the Sheboygan Falls Memorial Library.

The Republican state legislators, who are about to complete their first year in office, heard comments and fielded questions from a group of 14 community members during the one-hour listening session.

In response to inquiries from Daryl Ottman of The Sewing Machine Shop and Sheboygan Falls Chamber Main Street Executive Director Shirl Breunig, LeMahieu and Katsma spoke at length about the State 23 construction project, which has been delayed by a lawsuit originally filed by the 1000 Friends of Wisconsin environmental special interest group in June 2011.

The project, originally scheduled to begin in 2012, proposes to upgrade the 19-mile stretch of State 23 between Fond du Lac and Plymouth and increase the travel lanes from two to four.

State 23 was originally targeted for improvements in 1999 by the Wisconsin State Legislature, which developed the expansion project to add capacity and improve safety.

The lawsuit claims that the Wisconsin DOT violated the open meetings law on Jan. 5, 2005 when citizens were allowed to submit their comments on the project to a court reporter, but there was no opportunity for people to publicly express their opinions to the larger group at the meeting.

The state had received federal approval to complete the project, but an order issued by Federal Judge Lynn Adelman in late May voided the previous approval and forced the Wisconsin DOT to delay the project indefinitely.

“We are due to get a status update on the lawsuit from the judge on Dec. 12,” Katsma said. “Many of us in the assembly have been encouraging the DOT [Wisconsin Department of Transportation] to get all of their information to the judge well before the December hearing date, so this all gets settled in a timely manner.

“Hopefully, there is no proven legal theory to delay the project any further and everything can get back on track,” he said. “

Construction on a seven-mile stretch of the highway from Plymouth to the Sheboygan County line had been scheduled to begin on May 26.

“We’ve waited for decades to get this project going and I was very encouraged to see the barrels on the side of the road when I was driving to Fond du Lac,” Breunig said. “But then a few days later, I saw the barrels getting picked up. I’m wondering what is the plan now?”

LeMahieu, who represents the 9th Senate District including parts of Sheboygan, Manitowoc and Calumet Counties, said money designated for the State 23 project has since been directed to other road projects throughout the state.

“We had money in our last budget to start on the Highway 23 project, but since Judge Adelman made the order in May on the lawsuit, that money has been redirected,” LeMahieu said. “When this project was first proposed in 1999, the total cost estimate for the entire project [from Sheboygan to Fond du Lac] was approximately $42 million. Today, that estimate is $145 million, which works out to $18 million a year and is 345 percent of the original total, and now this additional delay will only cause that number to increase further.

“There was supposed to be a hearing with Judge Adelman in September, but a 90-day extension was requested, so the hearing date is now December 12th,” he said. “This is something the state has worked on for generations over a period of decades and it is frustrating to have these delays that cost the state more money. Highway 23 is very important for commerce between Sheboygan and Fond du Lac and this project is very important to the economic future of this entire area.”

In addition, LeMahieu expressed his displeasure with Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to borrow $1.3 billion for the state’s transportation fund.

“Originally Gov. Walker wanted to borrow $1.3 billion in the last budget, but that was reduced to $500 million and the Joint Finance Committee has the discretion of borrowing another $350,000 for transportation as needed,” LeMahieu said. “Gov. Walker’s original proposal would have required a 19 cent per gallon increase in the gas tax, which is just unacceptable.

“Right now, inflationary costs for transportation projects are going out of control, but yet we are putting up roundabouts everywhere while at the same time delaying big projects. As a steward of the taxpayers’ money, that is a problem to me.”

Kastma, who represents the 26th Assembly District including most of the city of Sheboygan, and all of Sheboygan Falls, Random Lake, Cedar Grove and Oostburg, indicated that legislators should not have influence over which road projects take precedence over others.

“We are seeing a lot of work done in urban areas, like the zoo interchange in Milwaukee, but our roads here are equally important,” Kastma said. “I don’t think legislators should be deciding this. I want the DOT, a neutral entity, prioritizing projects.”

During a discussion of construction costs, Meyer stated that the city of Sheboygan Falls is no longer allowed to include the Sheboygan County Highway Department in bidding for road construction projects, which has had an effect on the cost to taxpayers.

“Northeast Asphalt basically has a monopoly on road construction in the city of Falls,” Meyer said. “Since the state told us we can’t use Sheboygan County Highway Department we aren’t able to get a second bid, which has hurt us.”

Meyer also spoke about increasingly strict DNR regulations in regard to wetland delineations.

“We are looking at building a road out at Vision Business Park and we have been told that there are wetlands there that were not there 10 years ago,” Meyer said. “I’m not thrilled with the DNR wetland delineation process as it has put us behind with this road construction project.

“We mapped out this plan 10 years ago and now we have been told it won’t work,” he said. “To make it worse the DNR guy that is in charge of artificial wetlands has been on vacation for a month and no one else is apparently able to cover for him. I had been hoping to put this project out to bid in November, but now we are looking at December due to this delay.”

Katsma responded by stating that he understood Meyer’s point of view, but felt the DNR had become “friendlier” to work with in the past five or six years.

In response to a comment about decreased state funding and increased municipal government borrowing for road and maintenance projects from Sheboygan Falls Deputy Administrator Shad Tenpas, Kastma said a transportation tax has been established to provide assistance.

“Total borrowing across the state for road and maintenance projects is as low as it has been since 1980, so things may not be as bad as you think,” Katsma said. “However, a .5 percent county sales tax has been put in place to be designated for transportation projects. That will help out quite a bit.”

Breunig expressed concern about the high number of unfilled jobs in Sheboygan County and asked what could be done to attract additional workers to the area.

“The lack of employees in Sheboygan County is very alarming right now,” Breunig said. “Pine Haven just opened a new facility in Sheboygan Falls and they can’t fill their positions. Would it be possibly to make a more collaborative effort to get people to move here to fill those jobs?”

LeMahieu pointed to increased efforts to form school-business partnerships as a key step in filling the employee gap.

“The school-business partnerships that have been starting up in recent years are awesome to see,” LeMahieu said. “We need more of that for sure.

“When I speak to young people, I always tell them that if they are willing to work, they will have so many opportunities to work in really any field they choose,” he said. “As the baby boomers retire, employment opportunities are going to be everywhere for these young people. The world is really going to be their oyster.”

“I think we need better cooperation and communication among all sectors of our communities to fill the gap we are seeing in the workplace,” Katsma said. “It is a demographic problem. Younger people just don’t seem as ready to replace senior citizens as they could be.”

Community member Jack Lechler of Kiel called the large number of open jobs a social problem.

“The problem is we have people getting money not to work,” Lechler said. “They are getting money for pumping out babies. If the government keeps writing them checks, what’s the incentive to get a job?”

The Sheboygan Falls listening session was one of three sessions scheduled for the Sheboygan area Republican legislators on Oct. 16.

State Rep. Tyler Vorpagel joined LeMahieu and Katsma at the listening sessions held at Mead Public Library in Sheboygan and Grashorn Memorial Civic Center in Elkhart Lake later in the day.

Anybody who was unable to attend a listening session can reach each legislator in the following ways:

Sen. Devin LeMahieu: Tollfree at (888) 295-8750 or Sen.Le- Mahieu@legis.wi.gov.

Rep. Terry Katsma: Toll-free at (888) 529-0026 or Rep.Katsma@ legis.wi.us.

Rep. Tyler Vorpagel: Toll-free at (888) 529-0027 or Rep.Vorpagel@ legis.wi.gov.

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