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Prairie du Chien offers annexation in wake of Bridgeport incorporation filing
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It’s all about the boundaries.

That is the reason behind a decision to pursue incorporation, according to Town of Bridgeport chairman John Karnopp. The township filed papers of incorporation to become a village with the Crawford County Circuit Court on April 20, 2015.

That filing has prompted the City of Prairie du Chien to action. The city has filed to intervene in the court hearing, giving them an opportunity to comment. The city council also passed a resolution expressing a willingness to annex the township.

The two supervisory groups have not had a formal meeting, though their attorneys are communicating, according to Prairie du Chien city administrator Aaron Kramer.

The hearing date in Crawford County Circuit Court is not set. Crawford County’s presiding judge, James Czajkowski, recused himself, as he is the father of Prairie du Chien’s city counsel, Lara Czajkowski Higgins, who is representing the city in this case. The case is currently assigned to Richland County Judge William Andrew Sharp.

Both Kramer and Karnopp describe their municipalities respective legal maneuvers as protecting the best interest of their residents.

“This has been an ongoing discussion (in the township) for quite some time,” explained Karnopp. “We tried this 10 or 11 years ago. We were denied then, but the rules were different.”

To begin the process of incorporation, the town of Bridgeport needed to accumulate a petition with at least 50 signatures. Those signatures were collected with ease, according to Karnopp, who said the petition was circulated at the polls during the November 2014 election.

With the petition filed with the courts, the town of Bridgeport must now meet minimum standards based upon population density, boundaries, and land area as delineated by Wisconsin statute 66.0205. If the circuit court determines that they have met these criteria, they then move on to the state Department of Administration’s Incorporation Review Board.

Once the Incorporation Review Board receives both the court-approved petition and a $25,000 non-refundable review fee from the township, they have six months to deliberate. During that time, they must determine if the township has met the far more stringent criteria relating to adequate tax revenues, ability to provide services, impacts on any portion of the township that may not be included in the petition, and impacts to the greater municipality.

They must also hold a public hearing to receive input prior to making their determination.

If the township meets these criteria, the board will approve the petition and send it back to the circuit court, which will then order a referendum for township voters to decide.

“We lost 104 acres when land was annexed for the hospital project by the city of Prairie du Chien,” Karnopp said. “We tried to make a boundary agreement with the city at the time, but they weren’t interested.”

City officials Kramer and Mayor Dave Hemmer remember things differently. Neither recollects there being a discussion about boundary agreements, according to Kramer and Hemmer.

“I would like to note the city did reach out to the town of Bridgeport on January 29, 2014 to meet and discuss a merger of the two water utilities serving their residents,” Kramer said. “On February 18th, the town's sanitary district rejected in writing any merger discussion unless preconditioned on the city of Prairie du Chien adopting an annexation moratorium, which would have been in perpetuity.”

 A meeting was subsequently scheduled to discuss the joint merger of sanitation districts, but was derailed after the meeting between the two districts and the Public Service Commission was posted as a public meeting by the town of Bridgeport, who intended to bring their full board of supervisors. PSC had not agreed to the meeting being a public meeting of the Bridgeport Town Board and cancelled it. It was not rescheduled.

“The annexation was no financial windfall for the city,” Kramer said.

It removed the property from the tax rolls while placing the parcels’ sanitation needs, and expenses, fully within the bounds of the city.

Still, Karnopp feels that incorporation would benefit the town by fixing its boundaries so there can be no additional inroads on their territory, while making it possible to form Tax Incremental Finance (TIF) districts.

Incorporating and being able to form TIF districts would help encourage business growth, according to Karnopp, since it would direct increased tax revenue based on improvements in specified areas to the village.

While the two may not agree on what conversations have occurred in the past, Kramer is clear that the city wants to engage in a positive conversation now.

“This (resolution) is not a hostile maneuver, it is the offer of an option,” Kramer said. “We are not going in and trying to take over. We are just making sure we represent the best interests of the residents of the city of Prairie du Chien.”

Incorporation and annexation can have advantages and disadvantages for both parties, Kramer noted. The only way to be clear about what they may be is to engage in communication, which is the reasoning behind both the resolution and the filing as an intervenor in the circuit court hearing.

“The only steps taken by the city of Prairie du Chien were the discussion and authorization to request to intervene, a right granted by state statute to any contiguous municipality in a case like this, and the passage of the resolution expressing the willingness to annex,” Czajkowski Higgins said.

Being an intervenor in the court hearing ensures the city stays abreast of the process and provides an opportunity to give input throughout the process of incorporation. It also alerts the Incorporation Review Board to ask if incorporation better serves the township than not, according to the city counselor.

“It’s also important to note that it is a willingness and not the intention to annex that has been expressed,” Czajkowski Higgins added.

The township’s attorney, James Hammes, of Cramer, Multhauf, and Hammes, LLP of Waukesha, expects to see the two municipalities sitting down at the table together to discuss boundaries fairly soon.

“What’s important, is that these types of incorporations involve border agreements,” Hammes explained. “I anticipate that before long, most likely before this has gone to the review board, we will be asking city officials to sit down at the table with the township to discuss the shared boundaries of the two.”

Both municipalities are still able to request a change of judge, Czajkowski Higgins explained. Should either do so, it could potentially further delay the initial circuit court hearing.