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Editorial: Residents failed by system built to protect them

By Brandi Makuski

The city government has drastically increased property maintenance oversight in the past few years.

Following a massive turnover in 2015—seven new city council members and a new mayor all at once—Stevens Point has made property maintenance a priority. Since then, many ordinances have been either introduced or reworded, with new positions created in the community development department to support their enforcement.

Community development’s inspection department saw a 16.29 percent increase in its budget for 2019. It is the single largest increase in any general government office budget this year. By comparison, the fire department saw a 3.96 percent increase, the parks department got a 3.50 percent increase, and the police department received a .10 percent bump.

Council members championed the increase in property maintenance oversight, with some regularly reporting to either police or the city’s inspection office complaints of improperly stored garbage, parking issues, peeling paint, or noisy air conditioners.

Yet no one on the city council filed any complaints, at least not under their own name, for the Four Seasons Mobile Home Community.

Four Seasons is a piece of Stevens Point often overlooked by those who serve city residents. Annexed into the city under the Scott Schultz administration (1987-94), one reason could be location: the park sits on the northeastern edge of the city, nestled right next to the Town of Hull boundary, tucked away off a bumpy rural road at 1430 Torun Rd., that few motorists travel unless they live nearby.

Another reason could be the makeup of its residents. Employees of city and county departments responsible for oversight of mobile home parks say they have no way to tell for sure, but there’s a widespread presumption that the 60 or so residents in Four Seasons are either transient, have criminal backgrounds, or lack financial stability.

The park certainly looks like it’s fallen into disrepair. Structural problems, boarded-up/broken windows, discarded appliances, and trash are clearly visible even by the casual passing motorist.

It’s just easier to believe the park isn’t the city’s problem.

The park continued to be swept aside by the city in April when residents received their first water disconnection notice. One resident reached out to WAOW Channel 9 in April with the story, and while Utilities Director Joel Lemke and Mayor Mike Wiza were aware of the issue, the pending water disconnection never came up for discussion by the council.

That disconnection was averted by the park owner, who is responsible for paying the park’s quarterly water bill, but three months later, residents in the park received another disconnection warning. This time, multiple residents of the park took to social media and reached out to several news outlets, resulting in extensive media coverage across Portage Co.

The issue has still not come up for discussion during any council meetings, though each month council members, as well as the public, have an opportunity to address any issue they please under the “non-agenda item” portion of council meetings.

The Stevens Point Water & Sewerage Commission holds public meetings each month. The Four Seasons water service was discussed in April.

Minutes to those meetings, along with any actions the commission may have taken, are approved by the city council each month, and April was no exception. While commissioners, too, could have publicly raised a red flag, none of them are elected to represent the city. Council members are, and their constituents deserve a reasonable expectation that alders are aware of what they’re approving before they vote.

So, was the council aware? The April 10 Water & Sewerage Commission meeting minutes, which were included in the April city council meeting packet, reference the issue with the following notes: “Joel [Lemke] discussed the situation at the Four Seasons mobile home park and stated we will be issuing a Commonly Asked Questions form to the residents and it will also appear on the city’s website.”

It was enough to know something wasn’t right at Four Seasons; enough to initiate even a basic inquiry by someone on the council. After all, this same body of city representatives spent four months debating how residents should store their garbage carts; the same body whose members regularly study ordinances in other cities for discussions on how Stevens Point can best implement bicycle lanes and road diets.

Yet not one minute of council time has been spent discussing the chronic maintenance issues at Four Seasons.

Wiza had more intimate knowledge of the problem due to his at-large position, and while he sought assistance from multiple resources in April, he did so privately from his office, never notifying the city council, or the media, that an entire neighborhood of the city he represents was at risk.

Four Seasons is inside the city’s 8th District, which is represented by Cathy Dugan, a second-term councilwoman who regularly injects off-topic concerns during council meetings about property maintenance violations and better living wages in Stevens Point. Yet during a June public discussion about installing a new fee for appealing property maintenance violations, Dugan said, “I am in a district without very many indigent people or people with money problems, and there are a number of property maintenance violations.”

In a June 26 email, Dugan told the Metro Wire she had “very little information about the Four Seasons water issue,” adding she “didn’t know about the problem” until she was contacted by the media last month.

Dugan said her role was “listen to the residents of the mobile home park if they want to talk about their circumstances,” adding she was available to assist if the city or county had any “appropriate ways to help them”.

While it’s easier to point a finger at Wiza for not keeping the council informed, or Dugan for not doing her job by informing herself, there are still 10 other members of the council who could have spearheaded a movement to address the problems at Four Seasons.

It’s disturbing that a property owner may have failed to maintain a property affecting so many people. It’s not uncommon for rental properties to fall into disrepair, but that’s why municipalities have ordinances to address them—and consequences for property owners who do not.

What’s so striking about this issue is the lack of awareness by the city council, which could have trigged some type of action well before a second water disconnection notice was issued, pressuring the park owner to make some positive changes.

It could have spurred representatives from CAP Services, Operation Bootstrap, the Salvation Army, local churches, or any number of community groups with resources to offer some measure of help.

What’s even more striking is the continued lack of conversation by the council since this issue gained local media traction. There’s been no discussion on whether a possible new ordinance aimed at mobile home communities could help; no call for a special task force/committee to oversee the Four Seasons issues; no resolutions about reaching out to the state agencies for assistance…no public remarks, period, on the issue.

It’s a failure on the most basic level to protect some of the most vulnerable citizens in the city. And it gives them no reason to trust local public services designed to serve city residents—or to expect they can rely on the city’s support if conditions don’t improve.

Send your open letters to brandi@spmetrowire.com

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this editorial incorrectly listed the city attorney and city treasurer as having been elected in 2015. The positions were elected in 2013. We regret the error and apologize for any confusion.