UNION GROVE — A squabble involving a little-known government agency in Racine County is threatening to derail a $3 million flood-control effort, as Union Grove contests its obligation to help fund the project.
The dispute means taxpayers in neighboring Yorkville and Raymond could end up paying more for the project aimed at improving the flood-control capacity of the Root River in western Racine County.
How the unusual situation is resolved could set a precedent for similar disagreements in other Wisconsin communities where residential growth compels hefty investments to provide adequate drainage of wastewater and storm water.
Union Grove contends that the little-known government entity planning the Root River endeavor is overstepping its bounds by demanding more than $1 million from Union Grove for dredging and cleaning the nine-mile-long river channel.
Known as the Racine County Board of Drainage Commissioners, the independent agency oversees the maintenance of several waterways that contribute to drainage and flood prevention throughout the county.
Historically, the board has operated away from the spotlight, enjoying goodwill cooperation among neighboring communities that were happy to share in the cost of keeping the Root River moving.
Most previous investments, however, ran in the thousands of dollars — not millions.
With the agency now seeking $3.2 million for a much bigger undertaking, Union Grove is resisting and challenging the authority of the Board of Drainage Commissioners to assess fees on the village.
Officials on both sides of the standoff say the matter could end up in court, and it could have a statewide impact on flood-control districts operating elsewhere under the same state laws.
Meanwhile, the future of the Root River project remains uncertain, and the threat of flooding looms for nearby homes and businesses that depend on government to manage flood risks.
Julie Anderson, director of public works and development services for Racine County, said flood control is a challenge throughout the county. Success depends on cooperation among the public agencies currently fighting one another, she said.
Anderson expressed uncertainty about how to resolve the funding issue that has come between Union Grove and its neighbors.
“There’s a disconnect there,” she said. “Someone needs to step up.”
Tens of thousands of people are being urged to leave their California homes as rainstorms cause flooding.
The state agency responsible for refereeing Union Grove’s fight says no such disagreement in recent memory has reached this level before.
Barton Chapman, the state drainage engineer at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, said local communities traditionally have worked out funding questions among themselves within their local or regional drainage districts.
With more and more farmland being developed throughout the state, Chapman said he anticipates getting more requests in the future to mediate disagreements over who should foot the bill for flood control.
“This is something that is going to continue to happen,” he said. “It’s an important topic to get a handle on.”
The west branch of the Root River extends north and south through western Racine County, flowing north from Union Grove into Yorkville and Raymond. It is part of the larger Root River Watershed, which includes 117 miles of rivers and streams, all ultimately emptying into Lake Michigan in Racine.
Union Grove officials contend that they are not legally required to help fund Root River maintenance because their community lies outside the boundaries of the drainage district operated by the Racine County Board of Drainage Commissioners.
Although Union Grove discharges wastewater into the river and contributes storm water runoff, Union Grove Village President Steve Wicklund said his village is being unfairly pressured to pay for infrastructure improvements in other communities — Yorkville and Raymond.
The demand for $1.16 million for river drainage improvements equals about one-tenth of Union Grove’s total yearly budget.
Wicklund said it likely would require service cuts locally or higher taxes for property owners if the village has to pay the drainage district. He also questions the constitutionality of any state law that would allow an outside agency to collect taxes from Union Grove residents for a project in another municipality.
“We owe it to our village residents to challenge this,” he said. “We’re going to fight like hell.”
In appealing the matter to the state drainage engineer in Madison, Union Grove is asking that state regulators throw out the county drainage board’s assessment. A decision from the state is due by July.
Either party then could take the dispute to Racine County Circuit Court with a civil lawsuit.
Alan Jasperson, chairman of the county drainage district board, said not only is an appeal to the state drainage engineer rare, it is unusual for his organization even to have to impose an assessment on a community like Union Grove.
Usually, municipalities voluntarily contribute whatever is requested for flood-control maintenance in their parts of the county.
Flooding along the west branch of the Root River would threaten residents in Union Grove just as much as it would residents in Yorkville and Raymond, Jasperson said.
“It’s pretty obvious Union Grove has a need for this system to work,” he said. “Bad things happen if you don’t manage the system.”
The Yorkville-Raymond drainage district is one of five such geographic districts operated by the county drainage board. The five-member board, appointed by the circuit court, operates independent of the rest of county government, under state laws dating back to the early 1900s.
Each of the five districts is funded by local municipalities, some of which have created their own storm water management districts and collected taxes to fund flood-control efforts. The county also contributes funding to the districts.
Jasperson contends that although his board’s taxing authority applies most directly to Yorkville and Raymond, state law also allows the board to charge fees to Union Grove because of Union Grove’s wastewater and storm water flowing into the Root River.
Jasperson said he is confident that Union Grove is on the wrong side of the argument.
“If they’re going to fight us, we’re going to go to court,” he said.
Wicklund is equally adamant that Union Grove must stop unfair taxation for its residents and for other communities that might face the same situation in the future.
“We have a really good chance of winning this,” he said. “It’s a really big deal.”
The dispute began about a year and a half ago when the country drainage board told Yorkville, Raymond and Union Grove that the west branch of the Root River needed a major maintenance project.
Dredging, brush removal and other cleanup would enable the river channel to handle drainage needs for perhaps another 50 years.
The last time the river got such a significant upgrade was in the early 1980s.
Estimating the cost at $3.2 million, the drainage board proposed that Yorkville and Union Grove each pay $1.16 million and that Raymond pay about $800,000.
Wicklund said he and other village officials were stunned to receive such a large request.
Union Grove had been contributing $10,000 to $20,000 a year to the drainage district for smaller operational needs and routine maintenance work.
Wicklund described the previous allocations as “make-them-go-away” donations, referring to his contention that the district has no real authority to demand money from Union Grove.
He said the $1.16 million assessment is “kind of an outrageous number.”
Yorkville and Raymond officials declined to comment.
Wicklund speculated that the other two municipalities are not happy about the situation, because if Union Grove does not have to pay, both of them could be forced to pay more.
Yorkville village records show that members of the Yorkville Storm Water Commission discussed the issue in September. The records show that both Yorkville and Raymond had taken the position that if Union Grove was not paying its share to the drainage district, both of them would withhold payment, too, until the infighting is resolved.
Yorkville commissioners said Union Grove was being “very uncooperative,” and that funding the Root River maintenance project was “imperative.”
“We will wait to see what happens,” the commissioners recorded in their minutes.
Before Union Grove filed its appeal with state regulators March 6, the village and the drainage district had for months engaged in a back-and-forth debate about the Root River project and the funding request.
Village officials insisted on seeing a detailed breakdown of past flood-control work to illustrate how the village’s portion of each expenditure was calculated.
Costs had historically been divided as 40% Union Grove, 40% Yorkville and 20% Raymond.
“The village remains interested in negotiating a voluntary cost-sharing agreement,” Union Grove village attorney Lawrie Kobza wrote. “It is unreasonable for the district to expect the village to negotiate a voluntary cost-sharing agreement in an information vacuum.”
But even after the drainage district presented 20 pages of records about past expenditures, the dispute continued.
Drainage board attorney Jane Landretti cited new residential developments in Union Grove — projects called Canopy Hills and Dunham Grove — and argued that “largely urbanized” Union Grove owed money for its increasing flow of wastewater and storm water into the Root River system.
“Runoff and other discharges from Union Grove drain into the Yorkville-Raymond drainage district at a growing rate,” Landretti wrote. “These costs have increased with the growth of Union Grove, and will continue to increase with additional growth.”
Young children enjoy a cold and snowy day listening to stories and working on a craft activity inside Union Grove's public library.
Operations at the embattled juvenile correctional facilities in northern Wisconsin are at the best they have been since a court-appointed monitor began reviewing them in 2018, but staff shortages continue to hamper further progress, according to the latest assessment of conditions at the schools.
In a report released last week, the monitor overseeing the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls in Irma noted that, like in past months, youths were sometimes confined to their rooms not because of their behavior but due to the lack of staff to supervise them elsewhere.
“Staffing shortages continue to exist with most days only having 50% of staff,” the court-appointed monitor, Teresa Abreu, said about the facilities, about 170 miles north of Madison, in a report covering their operations from November until the end of January.
Still, Abreu said the facilities’ situation had improved from the last three-month reporting period.
Certain demographics are more likely to be pulled over than others, and the consequences for drivers who are subject to a traffic stop vary si…
When there were adequate staffing levels, youths went to school, did recreation outside and spent more waking hours out of their room, Abreu said.
In her latest visit, Abreu said she “did not encounter a single staff or youth that did not have a positive attitude … Staff and leadership’s commitment to youth and to this reform effort is evident in every aspect of the operation.”
The monitor’s report, the 16th since 2019, was filed in U.S. District Court in Madison as part of the settlement of a class action lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Wisconsin, the Juvenile Law Center and Quarles & Brady law firm that highlighted dangerous conditions and abuse faced by teens at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake.
Under the court-approved settlement, there are 50 provisions of a consent decree that the Department of Corrections, which oversees the prison, must comply with, such as requiring youths to be out of their cells 30 hours per week, avoiding mechanical restraints and not strip-searching youths without probable cause.
In the latest reporting period, the agency doubled the number of provisions that were in “substantial compliance,” from 15 to 30. But it continues to be only in “partial compliance” with the other 20.
“Seeing such a big jump, to being in substantial compliance with 60% of the items in the consent decree, is affirmation of the work put in by our staff and a testament to the leadership in (the Division of Juvenile Corrections),” Department of Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr said.One provision the facilities continue to fall short on is making cells designated for youths confined to their rooms “suicide resistant and protrusion free.”
“The Monitor would not deem any room in any facility as being ‘suicide proof,’ however there are safety and security measures that can be put into place to reduce the risk of suicides and to make the rooms more suicide resistant,” Abreu said.
In interviews with youths, Abreu said their attitudes were “extremely positive.”
But one youth said a staff member used racist words against him, something Abreu said the Department of Corrections is investigating. A few youths complained about uses of force that they thought were excessive and one said staff grabbed youths by their necks, Abreu said.
Abreu noted she was happy to see more youths in class, but she said staffing shortages kept youths from attending class full time for much of the earlier part of the reporting period.
All youths except those who are in programs for high-risk individuals have received education every weekday since the close of the reporting period on Jan. 31, Department of Corrections spokesperson John Beard said.
The schools are slated to be closed and replaced by a facility in Milwaukee County under a bill signed into law in April by Gov. Tony Evers.
In January, the Milwaukee Common Council approved the rezoning of the proposed site for the facility on the city’s north side. But completion of the facility likely remains years away.
Abreu said in the latest monitor report that the Milwaukee facility will only be able to house about half the youth at the northern Wisconsin facilities, and that Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake won’t close “until all youth have been moved to an appropriate placement.”
Last week, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers proposed spending $83 million to build another juvenile facility in Dane County, near Oregon’s Grow Academy Juvenile Corrections facility, $25 million to expand the Grow Academy from a 6- to a 16-bed facility and $4 million to explore the option of building another facility in northern Wisconsin.
Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, who co-chairs the powerful budget committee, declined through a spokesperson to comment on Evers’ proposed juvenile facilities.
Over the next several months, the Republican-led Legislature and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers will battle their way through the the 2023-25 bien…