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New Berlin, Muskego officials ask Madison lawmakers for relief from stormwater tax

Annexation to drainage district under dispute

The entire watershed that includes a southern portion of New Berlin (shaded) and much of Muskego could eventually be annexed into a drainage district and pay an additional property tax. Water drains into the Fox River through Wind Lake and the Wind Lake canal.

The entire watershed that includes a southern portion of New Berlin (shaded) and much of Muskego could eventually be annexed into a drainage district and pay an additional property tax. Water drains into the Fox River through Wind Lake and the Wind Lake canal.

April 7, 2014

With Wind Lake having been annexed into a Racine County drainage district just last fall and residents now paying its taxes, Muskego and New Berlin officials are trying to keep the same thing from happening to their communities.

More than 73 percent of Muskego and southwestern portions of New Berlin as far north as the City Center are in the watershed that empties into Wind Lake. The water then goes through an approximately nine-mile Wind Lake canal, a drainage ditch leading to the Fox River.

The Norway Dover Farm Drainage District maintains the canal that needs expensive dredging again after more than 50 years.

Although a drainage district official said the board hasn't talked about annexing parts of Muskego and New Berlin, the Common Councils in both communities have passed resolutions appealing to state legislators for help.

The cities are asking them to change state law. Muskego is asking that commissioners of the Racine County Board of Drainage be elected instead of court appointed.

"No tax should be collected and implemented without representation," said Muskego Mayor Kathy Chiaverotti.

The owner of a two-bedroom home in Wind Lake said her drainage district assessment is $46 per year through 2018. She has another two-bedroom home in Rochester where the yearly tab is $63 per year. Both homes are located in the Norway Dover district.

The tax isn't based on a property's assessed value, but on its drainage so two identical homes could have different special assessments.

The drainage district special assessments don't seem onerous compared with total property taxes, but Chiaverotti said that's what the assessments are now. They may go up.

Muskego's request to legislators also asks that the state require an intergovernmental agreement for any money to flow from the cities to the drainage district.

New Berlin is asking state legislators to exempt incorporated areas entirely.

New Berlin Mayor Dave Ament and Chiaverotti both said their communities have strong stormwater management regulations that keeps rain water from gushing into lakes and picking up sediment to collect downstream.

New Berlin residents and businesses have spent nearly $9 million on drainage and streambank stabilization projects, Ament said. That doesn't even count the stormwater management projects developers do to keep rainwater from washing off their properties, he said.

"We would be paying twice," with that proactive spending and then helping dredge the canal, Ament said. "We're already paying for that, so why pay them?"

But the commission doesn't see it that way.

"That area does put water into our system," said Alan Jasperson, a Racine County Drainage District commissioner. The Racine board oversees the Dover Norway District. "They release a lot of water through Big Muskego Lake, there's no question about that.

"We have to maintain that system and it is an expense. The cost is estimated at about $1 million for only the second section of the nine-mile dredging project, he said.

John Knuteson, attorney for the drainage district, said during the Wind Lake annexation debate that when one area of the system isn't working right, it affects all in the system.

"The question is who is contributing water, and people from the watershed are contributing water," he said.

State statutes allow the drainage district to recoup endpoint expenses from those upstream through annexation and taxation.

But local officials say the state statutes are outdated. They were written before communities such as New Berlin and Muskego had stormwater controls and facilities in place, Ament said.

"When the law was designed, they didn't have those facilities or designs," he said. The people at the mouth of the watershed were stuck with dealing with stormwater, so that law was drafted to help them do that, he said.

"It's not like we're trying to get out of an obligation," Ament said.

In any case, before there would be any talk of annexation, a line of communication would be opened with Muskego and New Berlin to explore options, Jasperson said.

As to electing commissioners, Jasperson who has served on the board for many years, was opposed.

"Having this as an elected position is a bad idea because it is a technical position and you need people who understand drainage," he said.

Similarly, attorney Knuteson added, "This is a narrow area of the law and few people understand and deal with that law."

The dredging project is a multiyear undertaking involving digging out six or seven feet of sediment. The first leg from the Wind Lake dam south for roughly three miles to Dover Line Road was dredged a few years ago. Permits are being awaited from the state Department of Natural Resources for the second section of the project from Dover Line Road to Highway 36. Commissioners hope that part of the dredging can start this winter.

No time frame is set for the final segment from Highway 36 to the Fox River, Jasperson said.

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