Felzkowski, Callahan discuss array of topics during Tomahawk listening session
By Sarah Greil
TOMAHAWK – Last month, State Senator Mary Felzkowski (R-Tomahawk) and State Representative Calvin Callahan (R-Tomahawk) held several listening sessions around the Northwoods.
During the listening session held at City Hall in Tomahawk on Saturday, March 25, area citizens were encouraged to bring their concerns and let their voices be heard.
Several citizens were wondering why our school district had to keep going back to referendums to fund our schools.
Felzkowski said that because our school system is funded by property taxes, and the Northwoods is a less densely populated area, the property taxes don’t always pay for what each child needs in the classroom. She is therefore in favor of periodically using referendums when more funds are needed.
Felzkowski said one of the most challenging aspects that we have in the northern districts is transportation. In rural areas, it costs hundreds more per child just to transport them to the classroom than it does in urban areas.
She said the funding formula just isn’t going to change, so we need to find ways to help districts like Tomahawk with these large costs, like transportation.
Governor Tony Evers’ proposed state budget
Felzkowski was asked if she agreed with Governor Evers’ proposed 2023-2025 state budget. She said she does not support the budget as it is because, “The northern region very much gets lost in Governor Evers’ budget.”
Felzkowski said she is not happy that most of the budget went to the urban areas, but has ideas how to make sure the Northwoods gets its fair share. One idea is that if money is put into things like special education and transportation funding, it will support every district in the state and will not get sucked up by larger urban districts.
Broadband expansion has been brought up in town hall meetings in the past.
Felzkowski pointed out that there are still grants available for expansion and encouraged individual towns and counties to apply for the grants. Unfortunately, it is still limited because of the limited number of companies who lay fiber for broadband.
One attendee voiced his opinion that state funding for roads is too restrictive.
He said that, in order to qualify for state funding for roads, a project has to be a total reconstruction, not just a short term fix.
S. Tomahawk Ave., Leather Ave. and County Rd. CC are in desperate need of repaving, but that is only considered maintenance and does not qualify for state funding.
He also said that with Tomahawk’s budget, it is difficult for the city to take care of the roads like these that are considered connecting highways and used for economic purposes, much less be able to take care of any neighborhood roads.
Felzkowski said a possible solution is to raise the local sales tax and use the extra money for the roads. She said she would like to learn more about the needs of Tomahawk in order to better help them come up with a solution.
Forest conservation easement
In October of 2022, the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board approved a 56,000-acre forest conservation easement, much of it covering land in Oneida, Langlade and Forest Counties. Those pushing for the easement argue that it would be a great way to conserve natural land and waterways in northern Wisconsin and provide land for the public to use.
Felzkowski, however, does not support the easement.
She pointed out that of the 5.8 million acres of Wisconsin’s public land, 95% is already in the northern half and 90% of that public land has minimal usage by the public. She has no problem with Wisconsin owning land and is not against people using the land to recreate, hunt and fish, but believes that it is disproportionate in northern Wisconsin.
Felzkowski further explained that if this project goes through, that land could never be developed into perpetuity. She noted that there is already a lack of housing and available land in northern Wisconsin, and if this land can never be owned by private individuals, it will take a toll on taxes and services will suffer in the Northwoods.
She further argued that with declining enrollment in our schools and other issues like funding our roads being dependent on property taxes, it will have a negative effect on our economy.
“When you continue to take land off of the property tax rolls and you continue to take land away from the ability for individuals to purchase it, you decline the economic ability for us to be independent,” Felzkowski stated. “And what is enough?”
Pine Crest Nursing Home
Lincoln County has operated Pine Crest Nursing Home in Merrill for about 60 years.
A couple years ago, when the Medicaid reimbursement rate went up, supplemental income was taken away from Pine Crest, leaving a $1.2 million hole in the budget.
Callahan said that he had talked to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS), since there were around 20 nursing homes that are about to go under because of the loss of income. He said the DHS said no, and that they can only change it through the budgeting process.
There are ongoing concerns about the future of Pine Crest.
An attendee brought up several instances where individuals or families were affected by illegal drug use and are now on state aid using taxpayer money. He said he is concerned that drug use is on the rise and costing taxpayers.
Prior to 2020, when Felzkowski talked to local sheriffs in the Northwoods, they felt that they were gaining on the drug issue. When the U.S. borders were reopened, they said within six months they started to lose the battle.
Langlade County Sheriff Mark B. Westen said that they can deal with the home-grown meth, but the meth that is coming in on the pipeline from California through I-80 is another issue. He said Wausau is a crossroads for meth up north and until we get a handle on it coming across the border, we will not be able to shut it down. Increasing penalties is not stopping it.
Childcare Counts has been part of COVID funding, and according to Becki Wagner, Director at Redeemer Learning Center in Tomahawk, it has been a lifesaver.
Wagner said that Redeemer is blessed to have a church that backs them up, but if they didn’t, they would not have been able to stay open last year.
She explained they were short $113,000.00 last year in operating costs. This in an ongoing problem. What they bring in for tuition only covers their staffing costs.
In order to cover the rest of their budget, they would have to raise their tuition rates by 75%, and already the weekly rate for an infant is $200.00 She says with the low salary that she is able to offer, it is very difficult to find employees.
Redeemer is not the only childcare center that has been affected by COVID. Since the pandemic, many childcare centers have been forced to close in Wisconsin, leaving many families without care, which leaves businesses without employees.
Right now, funding from Childcare Counts is in the state budget and greatly helps childcare centers, but it is up in the air whether it will stay in the budget. Wagner pointed out that the K-12 system is already funded, but early childhood feeds into that and she feels more funding or early childhood will help children get ready for kindergarten.
Furthermore, the Youth Apprenticeship Program, which allows high school students to use class time to get experience in the workforce, has no pathway for education.
“We are short teachers and childcare workers and yet we are not getting young people in,” Wagner stated.
Felzkowski said she was not aware that the Youth Apprenticeship Program did not have a pathway for education, and that she will look into it.
JFC listening session
Mary Felzkowski is one of the 16 members of the Joint Committee on Finance (JFC), which will be holding a listening session at Lakeland Union High School in Minocqua on Wednesday, April 26 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.