Empower Wisconsin | Dec. 9, 2020
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — It appears Kewaunee had the money to fix at least a portion of the water-logged city-owned marina all along.
But the $100,000 in grant funding the small Lake Michigan city received a few years ago came as news to some council members.
One thing’s for sure, completion of the project that would get the city’s broken boat launch operational — and bring a good portion of the idle marina back to life — has been stalled for two years and counting.
Some residents and council members have been critical of the city’s pursuit of a $3 million federal grant that would help fund the purchase of a private property— Salmon Harbor Marina — while the city-owned marina has languished in a state of disrepair since the destructive floods in the spring of 2019. Since then, the boat launch, the marina parking lot and an adjacent campsite have been lost to residents and to the many tourists who come to Kewaunee each season for some of the best fishing in the region.
As Empower Wisconsin reported last month, Kewaunee’s bid for the U.S. Economic Development Administration grant faltered. In its rejection letter, the EDA said the city’s proposal included limited private sector job creation and investment.
The purchase of Salmon Harbor for $1.8 million was contingent on the $3 million EDA grant, according to a purchase agreement Mayor Jason Jelinek signed without the knowledge of the Kewaunee Common Council.
In a surprise turn, to at least some council members, City Administrator Fred Schnook during last week’s budget session said there is about $100,000 in funding left in a grant the city received. The money is earmarked for the boat launch. Schnook said most of the work has been completed, but the final repairs were stalled by the flooding.
Alder Janita Zimmerman told Schnook and the council she was not aware of the funding. More so, why weren’t the funds brought up as council members and citizens sought to work with city officials to repair the marina in 2019 and again this year?
Jelinek told Zimmerman what he told Empower Wisconsin in an interview this week: that the council member should have known about the funding.
“I tried to respond to that at the meeting — I tried to be polite about it. I don’t ever want to be bashing my council or to make an example out of them, but, yes, that councilperson who is trying to say they were in the dark about it when they voted for the boat launch project … I have to call that out,” the mayor said. He added it’s Zimmerman’s duty to know the city’s financials.
Zimmerman could not be reached for comment.
Others told Empower Wisconsin Jelinek was condescending and disrespectful.
Zimmerman was not alone in feeling in the dark.
“The first I heard of (the funding) was at the budget meeting (last week),” said Alderman Jeff Vollenweider, who has raised concerns about transparency in Kewaunee city government.
Jelinek said the city received grant funding in 2018 specifically for renovations to the boat launch. The contractor was nearly finished when winter stopped the work. The project was further shut down by last year’s spring floods, he said.
Vollenweider and others want to know why the repairs weren’t completed this year, and why city officials never mentioned the money or the project as they focused their energy on the Salmon Harbor acquisition.
Jelinik said the city could do nothing while the boat ramp was under water. But the water levels have since receded. He said if the weather cooperates, the boat launch repairs could be completed by early next spring.
“I pray everyday that happens,” the mayor said.
The bigger problem, some residents say, has been a continued lack of transparency.
“Here again we have crucial information that was kept from the public, preventing a larger discussion on possible remedies to high water issues,” said one citizen who asked not to be identified for fear of government reprisal.
Meanwhile, the mayor said the Salmon Harbor acquisition may not be dead. The city still could borrow the money for the purchase, even though he acknowledges most residents supported aa project funded by outside sources. He said it’s a “viable option.”
Asked why the city administrator has not responded to Empower Wisconsin’s questions about the marina proposals and funding, Jelinek said Schnook is not authorized to do so. All city communications, he said, must go through his office because he is the “CEO and press editor” of the city.