The County Board’s Anti-Environmental Boondoggle
Its Estabrook Dam decision will cost taxpayers millions and harm environment.
There’s a smell of hypocrisy emanating from the Milwaukee County Board and its decision to repair rather than tear down the Estabrook Dam. The decision will needlessly cost the taxpayers millions. It will also stand in the way of the remarkably successful, ongoing effort to return the Milwaukee River to its natural borders, which is broadly supported by the environmental community. Yet here is this liberal-leaning board, led the self-proclaimed “Queen of Green,” Board chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic voting for the un-green, un-environmental option. Why?
For Dimitrejivec, this may simply be a gift to her loyal lieutenant, Supervisor Theo Lipscomb, whose district includes Glendale residents who enjoy the artificial lake the dam creates which they can use for boating. For other board members, their vote may be about knee-jerk opposition to County Executive Chris Abele, who favors tearing down the dam, or they may not want to buck Lipscomb, who has his own power base as co-chair of the Finance Committee. But whatever their reasons, these supervisors are not serving the broad interests of the county.
For environmentalists, fishing advocacy groups and river enthusiasts, maintaining the dam makes no sense. Over the last few decades “two-thirds of the 15 dams on the main stem of the Milwaukee River have been removed or otherwise made passable to aquatic life,” as Urban Milwaukee contributor David Holmes has written. “Dams in Newburg, Campbellsport, and Grafton (were) removed during the past four years alone.” As a result, “native fish populations have rebounded and a large run of migratory trout and salmon are found in the river each year.” After the removal of the North Avenue dam, “the river went from four species to 44 species of fish,” notes Cheryl Nenn of Milwaukee Riverkeepers.
The reclamation of the river has also has a big economic impact, helping make the downtown RiverWalk a success, which has raised real estate values and helped city tourism efforts.
So who wants to save the dam? Residents in Lipscomb’s district, including those who enjoyed boating on the mini-lake it created above the dam. “It’s been an important issue in my last two elections, and was important to my predecessor as well,” Lipscomb says.
But not all the residents in that district support the dam, Nenn says, because it causes flooding upstream. “We hear from people living in Glendale who want it taken down because they pay more for flood control.”
The deteriorating dam, built in the late 1930s, has actually been open since 2009, which has turned the banks of the river upstream into mud flats, raising understandable concerns about its impact on real estate values along the river. But over time, as proven downstream, vegetation will grow and area will become green.
If the dam is maintained, the lake it re-creates will become “hot and nutrient rich and low in oxygen,” Nenn notes, which makes it less likely to support fish. “Removing the dam would yield the greatest positive impacts on river ecology, flood management, water quality, sediment management, fish and aquatic life, terrestrial wildlife, and recreation,” the Riverkeepers website notes. “Dam removal will help restore the natural and wild aspect of the Milwaukee River for current and future generations.”
In short, removal of the dam should be a natural for environmentally concerned board members, yet as Nenn notes, “the enviros on the Board have consistently voted to keep this dam with the exception of Gerry Broderick and Pat Jursik, who have been great supporters (of removal). We are largely being supported by fiscal conservatives that object to the costs involved,” she adds, including Deanna Alexander, Mark Borkowski, Steve Taylor and Anthony Staskunas. Meanwhile liberal “enviros” like Dimitrijevic, Lipscomb, Jason Haas, John Weishan, Peggy Romo West, Martin Weddle, Michael Mayo, Khalif Rainey, and Willie Johnson, Jr. have supported repair of the dam, Nenn notes.
Lipscomb’s latest move has been to include approval of Estabrook funding within a bill that included dozens of construction projects. “Lipscomb inserted the dam repair project into the list without public notice last week at a finance committee meeting,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Don Behm reported.
The bill was approved on a 15-1 vote because supervisors didn’t want to vote against all the other construction projects. Broderick described the dam as a costly albatross for county taxpayers, telling the JS it’s “throwing good money away.”
Abele has vetoed this bill and sent down a version with all the construction projects but the dam included, which supervisors could take up and approve instead. Will they?
Pension Vote Today
The board, as I’ve previously written, also supports spending an estimated $10 million to legalize pension boosts illegally given to about 200 county retirees who “bought back” past years of work (often for part-time or seasonal work done when in high school or college). That includes former county clerk Tom Zablocki, famous for working half days while drawing a full-time salary, who later bought back this time and since his retirement in 2004 has collected $714,276 in retiree payments, county statistics show.
Back in 2007, when it was discovered that many of these buybacks were done illegally, the board passed a unanimous resolution “to cease any prospective payment of a pension benefit related to a buy in or buy back that has been determined to be in violation of Milwaukee County Ordinance or Federal law.” But neither the board nor then-County Executive Scott Walker took action to make sure the County Pension Board stopped awarding these illegal payments.
Board members now point to legal advice saying the county can’t try to sue to recover any pension benefits that its own staff told retirees was legal. Straight-arrow county Corporation Counsel Paul Bargren has suggested it might be tough to win such a lawsuit, Dave Umhoefer of the JS has reported.
That certainly suggests the county should tread carefully here. But it doesn’t explain why the board has decided to give these retirees gilt-edged protection by passing a resolution legalizing these illegally granted benefits that supervisors once opposed. The justification is that they want to end any worries for these pensioners (including Zablocki, who has reportedly been heavily lobbying the board). The taxpayers apparently aren’t as important.