Supervisor: Gazette article on referendum inaccurate

By Brandi Makuski

A Portage Co. Board Supervisor is blasting a local publication for inaccurately reporting the details of a referendum question on the Nov. 6 ballot.

The story titled “County voters will deal with six referendum questions” ran in the Commentary section of the Oct. 19 issue of the Portage County Gazette. It incorrectly states the Portage Co. Health Care referendum question will ask voters to approve a $26.8 million levy increase to fund construction of a new health care center. No sources were cited in the article, which was written by Gene Kemmeter.

A request for comment from Gazette editor Joe Bachman on Saturday has not been returned.

Supervisor Meleesa Johnson, who chairs the Portage Co. Health Care Committee, released a statement on Oct. 20 saying the article’s information on the question is “wholly inaccurate and contains not one word of truth”.

“This article has the potential to so confuse [sic] the voter that it could kill any chances of success for the health care center referendum,” Johnson’s statement reads in part, adding she was “shocked that the writer of the article [sic] got it so wrong.”

“Either the writer was purposefully given misinformation or the writer himself was confused,” she said.

The actual referendum question, according to County Clerk Shirley Simonis, asks voters to approve a levy increase of $1.4 million annually over a period of four years; funds that will cover the health care center’s operating shortfalls until the county can create a long-term plan to sustain the center.

If approved, the increase would cost taxpayers $24.48 per $100,000 of assessed value annually for four years.

Johnson said the county has already approved policies that will “allow the facility to operate more efficiently”, and county officials are looking at several options to allow the center to operate sustainably.

The Portage Co. Health Care Center, 825 Whiting Ave., is a 100-bed skilled nursing facility, offering elderly residents long-term residential care and short-term rehabilitative services, and has been in operation since 1931.

More information on the Nov. 6 referendum can be found on the county’s website.

Johnson said she’s spoken with Bachman, and he’s agreed to pull the story from the publication’s website and run a retraction. As of Sunday morning, no retraction had been published.

“I am asking for a full-page ad,” Johnson said.

The Portage County Gazette was sold to Shawano-based Christensen Publishing in 2017, which in turn sold the publication to Multi Media Channels several months later. MMC, which has corporate offices in Waupaca and Green Bay, previously purchased the Stevens Point City Times in 2014, later eliminating its founding staff from the payroll last November.

Bachman is the editor, and produces a majority of the content, for both publications.

A public forum on the referendum question has been scheduled at 6 p.m. on Oct. 23 at the Portage Co. Library. The Portage Co. Health Care Center Committee next meets Oct. 31.

The full question will appear on the ballot as below:

Under state law, the increase in the levy of the County of Portage for the tax to be imposed for the next fiscal year, 2019, is limited to 1.806%, which results in a levy of $26,801,817. Shall the County of Portage be allowed to exceed this limit and increase the levy for the next fiscal year, 2019 through 2022, for the purpose of paying a portion of the cost to operate the Portage County Health Care Center, by a total of 5.224%, which results in a levy of $28,201,817?

*Editor’s Note: The story previously misidentified Bliss Communications as the company which purchased the Gazette in 2017. We have corrected the error.