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Shawano taxpayers could fund $28 million ’Adult playground’

Empower Wisconsin | Oct. 9, 2019

By M.D. Kittle

What started out as an initiative to bulk up the Shawano High School weight room has “mushroomed into” what one resident in this northeast Wisconsin community described as an expensive “adult playground.”

Shawano’s city and school district governments are teaming up to push a new joint recreation center at the high school — a project that could top $28 million to build and $400,000 a year to maintain.

The proposed 100,000-square-foot Shawano Community Recreation Center would include a warm water pool, gym space for basketball, volleyball and tennis, a large fitness area, and an indoor track, among other amenities. It would be a shared facility, open to city and district residents.

As city officials await the results of a survey to gauge interest in the project, some Shawano residents are concerned about the price tag and whether this Northwoods community of 9,300 residents really needs a gilded fitness center.

“Some people say this all looks nice and all that other stuff, but in a community of a lot of retirees living on fixed incomes another tax increase might be enough to force them out of their house. That’s ridiculous,” said a Shawano business professional who asked not to be identified.

Randi Anderson, Shawano School District administrator, acknowledges that “in general, there would be a tax increase to the community.” Just how much, she could not say. It depends, the administrator told Empower Wisconsin, on the retirement of outstanding district debt.

Anderson said the district and the city are working together to “see if there is interest” in the project.

But it seems the process is on a fast track. Anderson said the city and school board will hold joint meeting next month on the survey’s findings. The question could go to voters in a referendum as soon as spring, according to the local newspaper, the Shawano Leader.

The rec center, estimated to cost somewhere between $24 million and $28 million, could come with some $12 million in interest payments over the life of the bonding.

“All of that for what I like to call an adult playground,” a Shawano community member told Empower Wisconsin.

The facility would be funded through the school district’s Fund 80 levy. While it’s authorized through the state Department of Public Instruction, the Fund 80 taxing mechanism is to be used for adult education, elderly food service programs, day care services, and community recreation programs, among other services.

Expenditures, including salaries, benefits, travel, and purchased services, must be included in this fund “to the extent feasible,” according to DPI.

Shawano’s school district has collected $185,000 annually from the levy for the past five years, according to the district’s annual report. It would go up should Shawano voters approve the project at a referendum.

Beyond the cost to build the recreation center, taxpayers could be looking at $400,000 or more annually to operate it. School Board member Mart Grams at a recent meeting questioned whether the facility would make money. It can’t, in accordance with the Fund 80 statute.

“I don’t know how many community services the taxpayers can provide,” Grams told the newspaper. He did not return Empower Wisconsin’s calls seeking comment.

Grams told fellow board members that community members had been down this road before. He noted how in 1997 when the new high school was built proponents of the project said the school’s recreational facilities would be open to the community. Ultimately, the fitness center was for students and staff only.

Other school board members did not return calls seeking comment. Nor did Shawano Parks and Recreation director Matt Hendricks or City Administrator Eddie Shephard. Despite its reservations the school board voted unanimously to enter into a memorandum of understanding with the city.

There’s another issue: Shawano already has at least three fitness centers and yoga studio in town.

“They are competing against the private sector,” the business professional said. “This would work against those private enterprises.”

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