Insult to injury: Long-suffering Stevens Point property owners being forced to bail the city’s boat

Wait a minute.  So those are my trucks behind that seawall?  (Photo courtesy of Mike Richards)

Wait a minute. So those are my trucks behind that seawall? (Photo courtesy of Mike Richards)

Want to anger your neighbors? Invite them all to a party, then send the entire bill to just a few of them after the party is over, telling them they took two appetizers over the limit.

Now let’s take a step back and talk about flood insurance.

Unless it’s the IRS, there’s probably no federal agency more vilified than the Federal Emergency Management Agency — none I’d less like to work for, none that gets a worse rap, none that’s as underappreciated.  That’s unfair to FEMA, but it’s also fair to say that none deserves our money less, as federal flood insurance is a boondoggle of the highest order.

About 200 Stevens Point property owners are finally going to be out from under the yoke of a program that encourages those with money to build stuff where they shouldn’t, where floods destroy it and then let all of us pay for rebuilding it.   Except that I get to pay a whole lot more than most people do.

It’s a despicable political outcome to a well-intentioned but poorly executed effort, and as one of those unfortunate Point property owners, I say good riddance to the 100-year flood zone and its attendant insurance costs.

The city’s attempt to portray a few property owners as the sole beneficiaries of the seawall is a disingenous breach of trust and a violation of the most basic precepts of community.

For my family, the cost was scheduled to be more than $1,900 in 2015-16.  The City of Stevens Point apparently feels that, because I and my fellow residents east of downtown had to flush that money down the toilet for all these years, we should happily accept an assessment to pay for buildup of a seawall that has removed us from this burden.

Essentially, because we had to live with a problem of someone else’s creation for many years, we shouldn’t be angry about having to pay for work in someone else’s backyard that finally gets rid of the problem and brings a number of other community benefits along with it.

Nice try, but we’re not going down on this one without a fight.  The city’s attempt to portray a few property owners as the sole beneficiaries of the seawall is a disingenous breach of trust and a violation of the most basic precepts of community.

First, one only need to look at pictures of the seawall to understand who the primary beneficiary of this construction is.  It’s the multibillion dollar company that sits right behind the wall. NewPage/Verso/whatever corporate entity is in charge lately isn’t going to have to pay another dime for its increased protection, and it’s not worth fighting the battle to get the company to pick up its fair share.  There’s no way citizens beat the corporate world on this one.

That means the roughly $321,000 the city shelled out needs to be paid by someone else.  The dam and seawall are owned by Consolidated Water Power Company, a NewPage/Verso subsidiary, and the wall sits on company property.  That’s why it makes perfect sense for just a few citizens to pay for the wall, right?

seawall comp picture with fema map

Photos by Mike Richards. FEMA map supplemented with highlight of seawall and labels done on Microsoft Publisher by the author; map available here.

Wrong.  This one-time expenditure will return as cash, every year from now on, in a basically equivalent injection to the city and county economy.  That’s not my economy; that’s everyone’s economy. Instead of going to Washington every year to pay for homes destroyed on beaches in Texas or rivers in California, the money stays here.

It’s also everyone’s tax base.  The city makes a big deal out of the fact that if I “choose” to sell my home, the value will go up and I’ll make more money.  That’s a big if, and the city has conveniently neglected to mention the benefit that it gets when home prices go up: more tax income for the city.

The city also doesn’t talk about how it benefits from floods that don’t occur because of better protection.  It doesn’t have to pay emergency management personnel.  It doesn’t have to worry about backed-up sewers and water-filled basements (which, incidentally, will not be limited to the flood zone).  It doesn’t worry about street repairs, gas and power-line repairs, and other costs.

It hasn’t talked much about city bond ratings and how flood protection helps.

In addition, let’s think forward to other city or county projects.  What about the Hoover Road overpass/underpass?  I don’t drive over there very much at all.  Why should I pay for it?  Surely our Common Council members aren’t going to say, “If you don’t like the trains stopping at the crossings, either drive around, move, or pay for the overpass yourself.”

Public hearing at Common Council Chambers, 1516 Church St., Monday, July 20, 7 p.m.

How about all the improvements over in the Crossroads Commons area?  I don’t live there.  What about proposals for Division Street?  TIF Districts?  Who benefits and who pays?

I do, however, understand the basics of shared costs and economic growth.  Some projects return far more to the community than they take out, and shared investment is the basic premise of communities.  Schools, streets and infrastructure, and social agencies are all part of the approach. “The common good” is a simple and elegant notion that makes us what we are.

So let’s go through this again.  A company owns the seawall.  The city got to fix it.  The company now has better flood protection.  EVERYBODY benefits. Therefore, I and a very small number of other private citizens get to pay for it.

Uh-uh.

Yes, I’m out of the flood zone, and I’m going to be $1,900 “richer” this coming year.  Incidentally, my annual insurance has generally been between $900 and $1,300, but we had a huge jump this year because of FEMA’s increasing difficulty in treading water.  The increase would have been very difficult to handle.

This is relief my family urgently needs, which makes the city’s contention that we are the only beneficiaries of this doubly insulting.

You know where my flood-insurance savings will go?  Mostly to yet another round this year of increased benefit costs for me as a state employee — that’s money directly to our local medical providers.  (When I say “mostly,” I mean most of what I used to pay.  The 2015-16 flood-insurance increase is money I never had.)

Maybe there will be some money left over to put in my local credit union to help pay for my kids’ college education, which increasingly looks like it may HAVE to be at our local university, if I can afford to stay employed there.

Maybe a few bucks left over to eat at one of our downtown restaurants, which we can afford less each year as my salary erodes (no state raises, increasing benefits costs, growing kids, inflation).

Maybe I can buy a trifle at one of our downtown shops, supporting our local businesses and their owners — fellow citizens who understand better than anyone the impact of money leaking out of local economies and the need for sustainable economic and social structures.

Local bike shops, gas stations, tire shops, butcher shops, food growers … all get a little bit of my earnings.

Maybe their wares are a little more pricey than the stuff made in China or eastern Europe, or grown in Chile, that I can find at our local mega-chains.  But I’ll gladly support Point business for as long as I can.

For as long as I can.

In return, I need to know that Point business and community leaders are dedicated to supporting me.

But I sit right now in a place where I watch about half of my potential insurance gains already floating down the river.  This is thanks to our so-called leaders in Madison who believe that I, as a state-paid educator, don’t pull my share of the load and therefore have cut my real standard of living virtually every year I’ve been here.  That can’t go on; I simply won’t be able to afford it any more.

Sure, I'll pay for your seawall.

Sure, I’ll pay for your seawall.

That means, Stevens Point, that I won’t be able to afford your stores, your restaurants, your services.

And I can no longer afford to support — in any way — those who I cannot trust to vote in the best interest of all of us.

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