A $49.9 proposed million widening of the Kinnickinnic River to prevent flooding is drawing groans from a Milwaukee alderman who says the project would remove too many homes.
Fewer homes, he says, means less tax money.
“We’re trying to throw some light on this,” said Alderman Robert Bauman, “and maybe there’s another perspective on this, and that is: You can’t just keep taking tax base out of the city of Milwaukee.”
The Kinnickinnic River plan Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District commissioners will consider Monday would widen the waterway from 60 to 200 feet. The project includes removing crumbling concrete walls from a 12,000-foot stretch of the river and replacing nine bridges. The affected area along the river is roughly bordered by Chase Avenue on the east and 27th Street on the west.
But it also forces the district to acquire more than 80 properties that in 2008 generated $79,000 in property taxes for the city.
The plan emerged from many ideas MMSD engineers considered with representatives from the city, Milwaukee County, environmental organizations and project area nonprofit groups, including the Sixteenth Street Community Health Center.
“We share in those concerns,” said Peter McAvoy, the center’s vice president of environmental health. “But I think the alternative, as I understand it as being proposed for building another tunnel, is not going to work for a number of reasons, and cost is one of them.”
District planning team members considered building a large tunnel under Cleveland Avenue to divert water from the Kinnickinnic. The plan, which would require the removal of only 20 buildings, was rejected, primarily because water would have entered the tunnel in an area park and created a safety hazard, said David Fowler, MMSD senior project manager.
The tunnel would cost roughly $30 million more than widening the river, and Milwaukee taxpayers would shoulder half of that cost, said Steven Jacquart, MMSD intergovernmental relations coordinator. Even though the MMSD serves 28 communities in southeastern Wisconsin, the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin requires Milwaukee County pay for the flood-control project because the entire river is inside the county.
“To make taxpayers pay that added cost is just upside down,” Jacquart said.
Bauman said the project decision is up to MMSD commissioners, but he said they should consider other ideas that would not chip away at a city tax base that also has lost houses to highway projects.
“On the one hand,” he said, “the current, preferred plan is one that is essentially asking the city of Milwaukee to finance it through lost tax base.”
The planning team members also considered building concrete walls up to 14 feet high along the river, but that would have created more safety problems than the tunnel plan, McAvoy said. Storing water in retention ponds or green spaces will not work because there isn’t enough undeveloped land along the river, he said.
The multiyear project will take homes, but it also will increase the value of almost 200 other properties that will no longer be at risk of flooding, McAvoy said. If the project is approved, the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Milwaukee would work to acquire the properties for the district and relocate residents. McAvoy said the displaced people will be encouraged to move into other Milwaukee homes, perhaps putting vacant, foreclosed houses back on the tax rolls.
“Overall, it’s going to be a positive,” McAvoy said. “Right now, if we did nothing, we would have 250, 270 households at high risk of flooding. They could lose everything.”