Property owners get OK to form district to better manage financial needs
by Todd S. Bergmann. Reprinted with permission from the 12-26-19 issue of the Valders Journal.
The Manitowoc County Board last week approved creation of a lake district for Bullhead Lake as a means to fund treatment of water quality issues.
The Rockland Town Board earlier approved the creation of the district, sending the matter on to county officials.
Like many others, the lake on the western edge of Manitowoc County is currently represented by a lake association, which is limited to assessing property owners only up to $50 a year.
With 33 property owners, that means the Bullhead Lake Association could collect only $1,650 a year, just a small share of a proposed $140,000 cost of alum treatment to suppress phosphorus in the lake.
Even with an anticipated state Department of Natural Resources grant for $105,000 toward that cost, lake property owners would still need to raise $35,000 to have the work done.
A lake district, however, may tax property owners on the lake to pay for projects to benefit the lake, according to association member Nick Dallmann.
“Fifty dollars a household does not get you very far,” he said.
The first major project would be funding the alum treatment, Dallmann said.
“It would tie up the phosphorous and cut down the algae growth on the lake,” he said. “We are looking at a way to raise more money.”
The state grant would represent a contribution from people who use the lake but do not own property on it, Dallmann said.
Instead of taxes based on property value, he said the tax would be one set amount for vacant land and another for land with homes or cottages.
To reduce property taxes, Dallmann said the lake district also would do fundraising.
“Several property owners said they would be willing to contribute the money to make the changes,” he said. “If we get this treatment done, property values will increase more than what they are paying.”
To reduce the burden of a large, one-time property tax, Dallmann said the district would likely borrow to pay for the treatment over six to eight years.
Following county board approval, Ron Gerrits, president of the Bullhead Lake group, said several steps must now follow, such as forming a board of commissioners, before the district starts to levy taxes.
The district board includes one county appointee and others elected by property owners.
Property owners do not vote for commissioners at the same time as they vote for other elected officials, Gerrits said. Those who live most of the time elsewhere may vote for lake district commissioners even though they vote in regular elections in their home community.
However, he said a majority of commissioners must live full time in the district.
The Bullhead Lake District is the third of its kind in Manitowoc County, ac-cording to Tom Ward, president of the Manitowoc County Lakes Association. The other two are at English and Cedar lakes.
The English Lake District has been involved in many activities to improve the lake, Commissioner Glenn Cummings said.
About 25 years ago, the district purchased property from a farmer and built a retention pond, Cummings said.
“All the runoff water that runs directly into the field does not run directly into the lake,” he said. “It settles out in a retention pond. Once it overflows over that, then it runs through a road ditch and through a culvert into the lake.”
About 12 to 15 years ago, the association bought property on the northeast end of the lake, with a sleep slant, Cummings said.
“Any time it would rain heavily…we would get a lot of manure and sediment running into the lake,” he said. “We created a buffer zone, a little prairie. We planted it full of wildflowers.”
The prairie filters water before it enters the lake, Cummings said.
Further, the district received grants to do alum treatments and invasive species cleanups of the lake, such as the destructive plant Eurasian milfoil.
“There are scuba divers that go out with nets and boats,” he said. “They actually pick invasive species off the bottom of the lake. They discard that in the proper way. We try to prevent the Eurasian milfoil from spreading.”
The association checks boats to prevent transport of invasive species between lakes and drops disks in the water designed to check the clarity four times a year, Cummings said.
“That report goes into the state to build a history of the lake,” he said. “If grants are available, you can apply for grants as long as you have your record keeping done.”
These projects have reduced phosphorous and improved water quality in English Lake, Cummings said.
The Town of Newton raises $10,000 a year in property tax revenue for the English Lake District, town Clerk Barb Pankratz said. She said lake property owners do not pay a higher tax rate than those elsewhere in the town.
Like English Lake once had, Bullhead Lake has a phosphorous problem, which has contributed to other problems, Ward said.
“The oxygen level has been really, really low,” he said, noting that has been inhibiting the fish population.
“Bullhead Lake becomes dead most of the year,” Ward said. “The water quality has gotten so bad that the sun can hardly penetrate.”
High phosphorous levels significantly decrease plant population, Dallmann added.
“Eventually, the fish population is going to decrease,” he said. “If we don’t do something soon, we might end up with fish kill.”
The lake has a history of phosphorous and alum treatments, Ward said.
“Bullhead Lake has been treated twice before,” he said. “These were about 15 or 20 years apart. It is one of the first lakes in Wisconsin to be treated with the alum treatment.
“The alum ties up the phosphorous and clears up the water,” he said. “It is a treatment that is very effective. It has gotten a little more expensive.”
Now, Ward said the lake needs a third alum treatment to seal phosphorous at the bottom of the lake.
The longer the alum treatment will last, the better the chances of getting a DNR grant, Gerrits said. He expects the Bullhead Lake District to show that the treatment will last 15 or 20 years and receive a grant.
After the district funds the alum treatment, Dallmann said the group will do other projects, as many districts have done.
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