The city engineer is recommending that Wauwatosa look into turning over jurisdiction of one of its waterways to the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, and he says that could save the city millions of dollars in sewer repairs.
But a small group of irate citizens from one of Wauwatosa's more notable neighborhoods, the Washington Highlands, prompted aldermen to delay a vote on applying for the change, and that delay could put off for a full year any progress on the switchover and any work on the sewers.
It could also expose thousands of households thoughout East Tosa to another year of possible flooding.
The reason for the neighbors' anger? They weren't told the city was considering such a move nor consulted on it beforehand. They say they were "blind-sided" by the proposal, and even when told that merely putting in the application obligates the city to nothing, they demanded and got a Common Council committee to put off a vote for another month.
That slowdown could make an application too late to meet MMSD's next annual budget cycle, leading to a wait of another year to have it considered, and another year in which the rains may come again.
When a river runs through it
For most of its length, Schoonmaker Creek is a buried and forgotten stream. It surfaces only briefly as it runs through the Washington Highlands in its Depression-era Lannon stone channel, under arched bridges and past Wauwatosa's finest houses.
But Schoonmaker Creek is still there, too, under hundreds and hundreds of tightly packed bungalows and Colonials northwest of the Highlands all the way to and past the northern border of East Tosa.
Running in pipes under the most dense residential area in the city, Schoonmaker Creek is normally an unnoticed trickle. But when the big rains come, runoff from thousands of roofs, from driveways and streets and lawns, seeks the lowest point and pours into storm sewer grates faster than it can be carried off.
The lowest point, and the vectoring of those inadequate pipes, is the historic course of Schoonmaker Creek. Then it rises like a ghost out of the ground and swamps streets by the blocks and homes by the hundreds.
Sharing ownership of the problem
With that in mind, and with the city looking at probably $50 million in storm sewer improvements and another $50 million in sanitary fixes in East Tosa, City Engineer Bill Wehrley is proposing that Wauwatosa give up jurisdiction of the creek.
MMSD manages and regulates stormwater issues on all the larger, open watercourses in the Milwaukee area. In Wauwatosa, that includes the Menomonee River and Honey, Underwood and Grantosa creeks.
But under some little-known provisions of MMSD's charter and rules, municipalities can request that the district also take jurisdiction of smaller streams, including, under certain circumstances, those that are for the most part now underground.
If a combination of certain conditions are met – among them that it be a perennially running stream, that it not only causes local flooding but contributes to regional flooding, and that it crosses municipal boundaries – MMSD is obliged to take control.
In that case, Wehrley explained, MMSD would take on certain of the design and construction work associated with the stream and would pay for its part in managing flooding on it.
Schoonmaker appears to qualify on all counts, and Wehrley said that in preliminary discussions, MMSD had already agreed to the proposal. MMSD, Wauwatosa and the City of Milwaukee, where the headwaters of Schoonmaker rise, would form a joint full-watershed pact and contribute to planning and implementation of a flood management plan.
Time of the essence... but only to apply
Wehrley also explained that an application to MMSD for the jurisdictional change would have to be made in February if MMSD were to have time to fulfill mandatory consideration and public hearing periods before its June budget finalization.
Wehrley also said that the application process was just that – an application, with no obligation to enter into an agreement if the city decided it was not in its best interest.
Wehrley clearly believes it is in Wauwatosa's best interest, potentially "saving the city millions of dollars." It also would bring in MMSD's specialized large-scale hydraulic engineering expertise. Under the timetable he discussed with MMSD officials, it would also put the long-needed East Tosa Sewer Project, currently unplanned and unfunded, onto a schedule that would begin construction in 2016.
Highlands residents demand delay
But when Wehrley finished presenting that outline to the Budget and Finance Committee on Tuesday night, representatives of the Wauwatosa Homeowners Association, representing the Washington Highlands, took the floor and lambasted the city for failing to consult them on the plan.
Mike Anich of the WHA read a lengthy prepared statement, and Lisa Wood, president of WHA seconded him, both demanding the city put off for at least four weeks any further consideration of the proposal. That, they said, was the time it would take for them to meet and discuss the matter as a board and to inform and take feedback from WHA's 400-household membership.
Ald. Pete Donegan, who represents the Highlands as part of the 1st District, tried to reassure the residents that there was no risk involved at this point just in putting in the application, and that the possibility of saving millions of dollars and getting the project into planning was a boon to all of East Tosa and the entire city.
Donegan repeatedly questioned and requestioned Wehrley to make sure his understanding was correct – that the city was under no obligation in applying now, that public hearings would be held, and that it was important to make the application soon in the event that everybody should decide this was the right course.
But Ald. Jim Moldenhauer, Donegan's aldermanic partner in the 1st District, sided with the residents and said that he could not in conscience vote in favor of something that concerned them so much. He said he would support the four-week delay.
Compromise fails, postponement entails
With that split in the residents' home district, Ald. Joel Tilleson tried to reach a compromise. With some assurance from Wehrley that putting off a decision for two weeks would probably still give the city time to apply, Tilleson proposed tabling the item for the next Budget and Finance meeting.
Tilleson's 5th District is even more prone to flooding than the 1st, and he said that while he believed that applying to MMSD and proceeding was probably a good idea, he was willing to give Highlands residents that much time to digest the proposal, and to bring in a representative of MMSD to explain its part further.
But when the residents said they couldn't budge – they needed four weeks to consider it – Ald. Jill Organ of the 4th District moved to amend Tilleson's motion to tabling the matter for that long.
Donegan, recognizing that a delay of four weeks in committee meant another week before the full council could consider and approve the matter, did his best to sway enough members to defeat Organ's amendment.
He questioned Wehrley yet again about the timetable.
Wehrley said that nothing more would be known in two weeks or four weeks than is known now, and that the longer delay, taking the outcome into March, could very well cost the city a year in planning and implementation.
But only Tilleson and Ald. Craig Wilson voted with Donegan, and by the 5-3 vote, the motion to table went to four weeks.
'Can you live with this?'
Donegan, in one last attempt to move the matter forward now, was addressing his council colleagues as well, but he looked his three constituents directly in the eyes.
"Can you live with knowing that this may cause your neighbors to go through another year of flooding?" he asked.
They could, apparently, but answered only in repetition of what they had said before. The committee voted the four-week delay by a tally of 7-1, Donegan dissenting alone.