Arts, Schools, Potawatomi Tower Come Up at Listening Session

State Sen. André Jacque held the first of the six listening sessions that he has planned for this month in the 1st Senate District on Monday at Sturgeon Bay City Hall. 

With the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee now beginning its deliberations on the 2023-25 biennial state budget, the De Pere Republican fielded questions during the midday session, which about 20 people attended.

Among those in the Community Room was former Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton, who, along with Brian Kelsey, Peninsula Players Theatre’s managing director, urged Jacque to support additional funding for the arts.

(From left) Former Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton and Brian Kelsey, Peninsula Players Theatre’s managing director, appear Monday at state Sen. André Jacque’s listening session at Sturgeon Bay City Hall to urge Jacque to support increased state funding for the arts. Photo by Kevin Boneske.

“The Wisconsin budget for the Arts Board hasn’t been increased since 1992 – I’m embarrassed to say not in my tenure in office [as lieutenant governor, 2003-11] either,” Lawton said. “So it’s a struggle in an industry that is a $9.6 billion industry in our state, employing over 80,000 workers.”

Lawton said Wisconsin’s per capita funding for the arts of 14 cents ranks 50th out of 50 states.

“I’m hoping that you would use your relationships and influence with the Joint Finance Committee to talk about how we can actually make an investment that’s going to have a huge economic input,” she said.

Jacque said he has been appointed to the Wisconsin Artistic Endowment Foundation, and as far as funding is concerned, with the state now having a budget surplus, “we’re looking at different pots of money, too, in terms of one-time funding versus ongoing expenses.”

“One of the reasons why the governor proposed spending Building Commission funding through cash rather than bonding is when you have one-time funding available, sometimes it is better to pay down [the debt], as opposed to putting it on the credit card for future debt,” Jacque said.

School Funding

Sevastopol School Board member Sue Todey expressed concerns about the state education budget, such as revenue limits not having increased for school districts, which face increased costs because of inflation.

“We are also concerned about special-education funding,” she said. “We spend a tremendous amount on special education in our little district, as do other districts.”

Todey said, “Because of the low reimbursement rate, that means we’re taking money away from other expenses in our district.” 

State Rep. Joel Kitchens discusses the Potawatomi State Park observation tower Monday during state Sen. André Jacque’s listening session at Sturgeon Bay City Hall. Photo by Kevin Boneske.

Potawatomi State Park Observation Tower

About one third of the 90-minute session was spent discussing the Potawatomi State Park observation tower. Jacque said he was pleased that the governor last month authorized up to $500,000 to make emergency repairs to the tower, and that he “did so with the mechanism that I suggested in the letter with Rep. [Joel] Kitchens to the governor.”

“He has [provided] quite a bit of relief to folks who have been concerned that it was going to essentially waste away to neglect that the tower is going to fall over,” Jacque said. 

The governor’s biennial budget includes funding for an estimated $6 million to restore the existing tower and attach a helical ramp for ADA accessibility. Jacque disagrees that the ramp is necessary.

“Having it placed on the National and State Historic Registers exempts you from those [Americans with Disabilities Act] requirements,” Jacque said. 

He also said the governor’s administration controls whether any structure is going to be reopened for public use, but there are ideas for alternative ADA-accessible views that his administration has rejected.

“We have to find a way to balance that, because the [DNR] was kind of persistently looking toward the destruction of this historic structure without ever consulting the [Wisconsin Historical Society], which is a requirement in state law when you’re dealing with a historically significant structure,” he said.

Kitchens, who was also present for the listening session, said the DNR didn’t request funding to repair the tower, which got it into its current state.

“It happened because they never asked for it, and frankly, I think there is a deliberate policy that the DNR is using to let those towers fall down,” he said. “There’s about 15 of them, I think, in the state. I think they want to be done with them. So that’s what I think we’re dealing with. They’re deliberately not repairing those, and then they wait until it’s too late.”

When Lawton questioned what evidence Kitchens had for making that claim, he said he got that impression from his discussions with the DNR when the Peninsula State Park observation tower was replaced.

“I don’t see any evidence counter to that,” Kitchens said.

Jacque said repairing the tower would be less expensive than the governor’s $6 million project.

“There should have been no question from the start that it would be cheaper to repair what we had, and the sooner we would have done that, the less we would be dealing with inflated costs over time,” he said.

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