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Proposal to cede control of Wauwatosa's Schoonmacher Creek delayed

Jan. 30, 2013

A proposal to transfer jurisdiction of Schoonmacher Creek, which winds between stone walls through the Washington Highlands, to the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District was greeted with alarm Tuesday by Highlands residents, who, in the words of resident Mike Anich, felt "blindsided" by the request.

City Engineer Bill Wehrley, addressing the Budget and Finance Committee, proposed making application to MMSD to take control of the creek, which during heavy rains exceeds its banks, flooding basements and causing structural damage to homes and businesses.

Improvements to reduce structural and street flooding within the watershed are estimated to cost $50 million, Wehrley said. By transferring jurisdiction, some of that cost may be eligible for MMSD funding.

Committee members were tempted by the thought of savings, but in the end approved the homeowners' request for a four-week delay.

Lisa Wood, president of the Washington Homes Association, expressed outrage that this proposal had been sprung on residents and quizzed Wehrley on how long the transfer had been considered. He said it had been discussed internally, and he had "immediately" contacted David Laatsch, of the WHA, "to get residents relief as quickly as possible."

Wood said it may very well be that she would agree with the proposal, but she and other homeowners needed time to digest it, to understand it better.

"This hits home with me very deeply," said 1st District Alderman Jim Moldenhauer, who, along with Alderman Pete Donegan, represents the neighborhood. Like Anich, he said, "I feel totally blindsided by this." He said the proposal had lingered on the "docket" for two months and was not brought forth. He was harshly critical of the proposal itself, criticizing its "weak documentation" and its lack of spelled-out benefits.

"We need to have a better business case for this," he said.

Wehrley said waiting wouldn't help.

"In four weeks we won't know any more than we know now," he said.

Specific information about the benefits was best provided by the MMSD, he said, but they would only do a thorough study if they had jurisdiction.

Wehrley said a city solution to flooding problems would involve the installation of large pipes north of Lloyd Street and south of Milwaukee Avenue, and said, "there will be more water coming down the creek."

Wehrley made the point that in Wauwatosa, Grantosa Creek, Honey Creek, the Menomonee River, and Underwood Creek are all managed by MMSD, and that flooding problems would be better addressed if Schoonmacher was managed as part of the larger Menomonee River watershed.

Wehrley did acknowledge some downsides to MMSD jurisdiction, including the fact that any construction would take place on MMSD's timetable, and it would likely take several years to get to the construction stage, among other things.

Pete Donegan pointed out that what Wehrley was seeking was simply council blessing to apply for MMSD jurisdiction, and that it would be weeks before action was taken, and even then Wauwatosa wouldn't be obligated to sign on.

Committee Chairman Craig Wilson elicited from Wehrley that a contractual relationship could possibly be fashioned that might give the city some say in Schoonmacher management.

Through a convoluted process of amendments, the committee, on a divided vote, approved a four-week delay and to have an MMSD representative attend at that time to answer questions.

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