I was honored to speak along with Thiensville Village President Van Mobley and Mequon Thiensville School District Superintendent Matt Joynt today at the annual State of the Community luncheon. The luncheon is sponsored by the Mequon-Thiensville Chamber of Commerce. Here is the text of my comments:
STATE OF THE COMMUNITY
March 9, 2022
Thank you Chamber President Dean Rennicke, Vice President Michael McDonald and staff members Tina Schwantes and Gina Sotelo. This is a great event. And thank you to Tom Neiman for bringing this beautiful facility to Mequon.
The state of Mequon is STRONG.
There are a lot of people who should be acknowledged for assisting our community to be strong.
Joining me today from the City of Mequon are City Administrator Will Jones, Assistant City Administrator Justin Schoenemann, Director Development Kim Tollefson, Assistant City Engineer Cole McCraw, City Treasurer Jenn Engroff and Mequon Police Captain Mark Riley, as well Alderman Brian Parrish and future mayor Andy Nerbun. There has never been, at least in my three decades of paying attention to Mequon City Hall, a better set of hardworking professional city staff. We are very fortunate. They make our community a better place.
We also have a very good group of elected officials. I thank all of them for their hard work and the amount they care about our community.
The city staff reflects to some degree the quality of the elected officials and, at their best, elected officials are reflective of the community.
The strength of a community is not determined by its municipal staff or its elected officials. In fact, they can only supplement the quality of the community. The strength of our community is determined by its people. And the people make a community strong through their individual efforts – there are well over 100 volunteers on city committees – and their neighborhoods, houses of worship, service clubs and, yes, the community’s business community. You folks do a great job representing our business community.
Last, but certainly not least, Mequon is made a stronger community because of its relationship with great partners, the Village of Thiensville and the Mequon-Thiensville School District. We hope and trust that both of them are made better because of their relationship with Mequon.
I ask for another round of applause for Van Mobley and the Thiensville Village staff and officials.
And now for an excellent school administrator, Matt Joynt, the Mequon-Thiensville School Board the district’s employees. They have had a tough year.
When we met at this function a year ago, we were working our way out of a deadly pandemic, business closures, virtual meetings, mask requirements, unrest over police and a divisive presidential election.
About the very time we were starting to put all of this behind us, a group of residents decided that elections are inadequate to choose school board members. They wanted a do-over. In the process, our community was divided all over again. Signs were placed everywhere, and the city was threatened with a lawsuit over a sign ordinance that, in similar form, served the community well for decades. Through a large effort, we totally rewrote that portion of the sign code in time for this spring election.
But Mequon and Thiensville thrived despite all of the unfortunate division over the past two years. A challenge for the future will be to find ways to express our disagreements without being divisive. We need to find common ground where we can and, when we cannot, we must find ways to disagree without being disagreeable. We can and should be better than our national and state leaders who apparently believe that division can replace leadership.
On top of all that, this past year, the city successfully navigated some other unusual or unexpected challenges. Like many of you, the city has faced retirements, people changing jobs and a tight labor market. Through good management, the city has filled those vacancies with, may I say, often better people. Additionally, we completed a citywide property revaluation. Mequon held vaccine clinics, something that would have been unheard of a few years ago. We completed redistricting based on the new census. Those were all non-recurring challenges.
With that as backdrop, a great deal is being accomplished in Mequon. I will just touch on a few highlights of the past year.
Safety services are always of the highest importance in this community.
As Van discussed, Mequon and Thiensville individually, collectively, and as part of a county-wide effort, conducted an in depth review of our fire and ambulance services. We verified what far a while has been apparent – a department which is almost entirely volunteer or paid on call is no longer feasible. Not here. Not anywhere. However, the paid on call model can and will continue to be an important part of our services, keeping costs down and providing good service, if we manage and supplement it appropriately. To get there, this past year we altered our command staff model. More importantly, Mequon and Thiensville decided to work together to see if together we can provide better services and response times that, in the long-run, will be more efficient than continuing to provide those services individually, I expect that, in April, we will be rolling out a plan for a combined department. And we are starting to look at ways that we can bolt-on the City and Town of Cedarburg to make the department even more flexible, efficient and stronger. Van and the staff of both communities deserves a lot of credit.
Our communities will have to spend a bit more to provide adequate fire and emergency medical services. However, what we are doing will be a lot less expensive than the other alternatives available to us.
We continue to strengthen our police department and the tools available to it. You might have noticed the new license plate cameras along the roads. They already have helped solve a few crimes. Unfortunately, there is a crime epidemic to our south and it is spreading to suburban communities. That is not good for Milwaukee, and it is not good for us. We and other suburbs should care because Milwaukee is the economic hub of Southeastern Wisconsin, because the crime is spreading to us, and because it is right. Fortunately, although there are occasional spikes, contrary to the belief of some, our overall crime rate is not getting worse. Much of the credit is due to an excellent police department and expanding neighborhood patrols. We are not going to defund the police.
Mequon has continued its dedication to improve our roads. Just last night the common council approved over $3 million of road reconstruction and repairs this year, and we fit that in our existing budget structure. Moreover, the city is contributing toward the Highland Road Interchange.
We also continued to improve our parks. We expanded Settler’s Park by buying and demolishing two homes across from city hall, and we dedicated the new Town Center Gateway feature. There will be new fishing piers in Rotary Park and new baseball fencing in River Barn Park. We improved our policies for large events like Gathering on the Green in the hope that we can attract more community-building activities.
Interurban Trail Safety
Not everything works perfectly, but we ultimately get there. One of the most disappointing things in my tenure has been our inability to get timely required approvals from the DOT for much needed safety improvements to Mequon Road in the Town Center and the Interurban Trail. But through persistence, we now have most of our approvals, so the city should be able to get much of that work done yet this year.
Of course, in Mequon, much of our attention is devoted to economic development. And it is not just banks.
We have a variety of new development and redevelopment projects. The beautiful Foxtown development where we are holding this event is doing amazing things in this area. It continues to grow. There will be new townhouses south of here on Buntrock. The subdivisions along Wauwatosa Road in the Central Growth Area are expanding, and at least one new subdivision in that area is in process. The old yellow building on Port Washington Road has been redone. The Port Zedler Motel is gone, creating a new opportunity. The ICAP development across from Sendik’s is proceeding. And, yes, North Shore Bank and Landmark Credit Union have new buildings. There are several other new proposals in the works.
And I should not neglect the new tenants in Spur 16. All of the vacancies caused by the pandemic in the Public Market have been filled and, if anything, it is better than ever. Soon there will be two new drinking establishments in Spur 16.
However, I am most proud of some changes in our policies. Rather than making new, onerous rules, we have clarified many policies to make our processes fairer, more consistent and more transparent.
Along those lines, we have completed two major undertakings that the city has struggled with for at least 20 years.
First, we rezoned all of the land along Port Washington Road north of Highland Road. We did it responsibly to avoid sprawl and to ensure that the use of that land does not keep the areas south of there from redevelopment. But, the prior zoning essentially confiscated the value from those property owners by making it almost impossible to use their properties, and that wasn’t fair.
That effort is already paying dividends. There is a beautiful single-family residential proposal for the parcel on the southwest corner of Port Washington and Highland Roads.
Second, we created a conservation subdivision ordinance for residential developments in the unsewered parts of the city. This ordinance will allow Mequon to keep its low density and open feel while removing many of the bureaucratic and political barriers to using property. This might not have immediate apparent results, but it is great for Mequon’s long term.
We continue to work on other economic development efforts. The city is planning better branding and public space design standards for the rest of Port Washington Road, – that effort is nearing completion – and the city is in the process of modifying the tax incremental district standards for areas of Port Washington Road south of Mequon Road. The city is working on more consistent building approval standards and a more coherent water connection policy. The city has completed studies of the Economic Development Department and its processes, as well as the City’s Information Technology capacities. We are implementing those changes. This year there will be new permitting and inspections systems, and that’s just the beginning. These systems will improve the customer experience. Three years ago, inspections were a sore point for many building and business owners. Those complaints have largely disappeared. Finally, the city has approved $2.7 million of public space improvements for the Town Center, including the road improvements I mentioned earlier, the burying of electric lines, fencing around the cemetery and other improvements that will ensure that the Town Center continues to redevelop.
But we are also taking a long view. The city recently had a strategic planning retreat and will continue the strategic planning process. We are looking at plans for redevelopment of the civic campus and plans for building new safety buildings.
And we are doing all of this while keeping taxes among the lowest of any city or village in the state. It is a balancing act between needs, wants and being frugal.
There’s a lot that has been done, and a lot that still needs to be done. City government will be in good hands with new Mayor Andy Nerbun, the common council and staff.
The future is bright. Mequon and Thiensville are the best communities in which to live, work and play in Southeastern Wisconsin in large part because we have great people.
Thank you for this opportunity.