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April referendum will likely determine future Wausau government

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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAU) -- The future of Wausau's city government structure will be decided by a referendum, if the full city council takes the recommendation of the Finance Committee.

The Finance Committee voted Tuesday to recommend an April 2015 referendum as part of the regular spring election to let city residents decide if they want the present mayor and council system, a city manager, or a city administrator type of government.

Finance Chairman Keene Winters says having a referendum means planning for the cost of the election.  “We’re actually in the middle of our process for forming a 2015 budget, and referendums can cost money if we don’t do them at a time when we have another election, so we had to make that decision soon or it would essentially be made for us.”

Winters says holding a special election is expensive, so if the council goes forward with a referendum, he says it was important to make them aware of that expense.  “We didn’t want to do a stand-alone election. That would cost nearly ten thousand dollars to set up the polls just for that, and it’s also a hard thing to get voters to vote at an unusual time, June or May or something. People are used to voting in April and voting in November. Other times, it’s just hard to get turnout, and we certainly want good public input.”

Wausau could have a city manager, a city administrator, or the present council and mayor form of government. The choice could be made by the voters in a referendum, or by the existing city council. Winters says everyone on the committee would support a referendum for this important decision. “The council has full options, but it doesn’t seem like there’s anybody advocating for a council-only decision process.”

Several citizens and a few council members would like to have a referendum as soon as possible, but the Finance Committee ruled out the November election because of the large amount of time consuming tasks and community education that could not be finished in only a week before deadlines arrive.  “There was discussion about that. There (are) some people who are interested in a November election, but there’s some feeling that the time is short. It would be hard to get the word out, hard to get hearings out. It’s a gubernatorial election. There will be a lot of other people competing for our attention, and you have to worry whether the referendum would get a short shrift in the public’s mind or not.”

Mayor Jim Tipple says the Finance Committee was wise to put the referendum off until next spring. “We would have to turn in referendum stuff August 16th, and get it to the county by the 27th of August. It’s pretty hard to put it on the November ballot when you haven’t even analyzed the various stages of government that you’d want, so I think it was prudent to push it off to April so we don’t rush, so we do it right, and take the steps that are necessary to look at the best form of government for Wausau.”

Finance Committee members believe a lot of information about the three governmental choices needs to be brought to the public so they can make an informed decision. Along with media reports, the city will likely use their newsletter, city-controlled public access television, and their website.

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