Oconto Falls passes 2024 city budget

Lifeguards, dock, raft at East Side Beach eliminated
Warren Bluhm
News Editor

The Oconto Falls City Council finalized its 2024 city budget Nov. 27, with several street projects dependent on whether state grants come through to support the work.

The city is looking to spend about $3.3 million in the coming year, with $1.5 million raised by local property taxes. That represents a 0.8% tax increase for city purposes.

City Administrator Peter Wills said the possible street projects include a $2.8 million reconstruction of Columbia Street, including sidewalks on the south side of the street, and reconstruction of Oakwood Court, a $532,120 project.

The work might be done using what remains of the city’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, which must be spent by the end of 2024. Wills said he wants to see what grants the city might receive before recommending a decision about the ARPA money.

“If we’re going to get Oakwood and we’re going to get Columbia, I’d schedule both of them and use the rest of the ARPA funds that we have to obligate by the end of 2024 and put it all in there,” Wills told the council.

The city also still has to finalize the 2024 police budget, as negotiations are still underway with the officers’ union.

“It won’t change our levy or our borrowing,” Wills said.

The city has applied for grants under the state Department of Transportation’s Local Road Improvements Program, he said. If approved the state funds would cover 50% to 80% of the cost, depending on which grant program is utilized.

“We won’t know until probably till March or April,” Wills said.

In addition to Columbia and Oakwood, the city also applied for West Highland Drive from North Main Street to its other intersection with state Highway 22, a $5.8 million project, but Wills said he doesn’t expect that project to clear the highly competitive grant application process.

Council members reluctantly approved eliminating lifeguards and the raft in the swimming area at East Side Beach because of ongoing staffing shortages.

“People should know there won’t be any lifeguards next year, no docks, no raft, because we can’t get enough people to fill the positions,” Alderperson Mat McDermid said.

Alderperson Marty Coopman said the float is badly deteriorated.

“The raft has seen the better part of its useful life,” Coopman said. “The raft needs either to be replaced or very highly refurbished.”

Wills said the city doesn’t have the means to compete with wages offered to lifeguards elsewhere in the area.

“In our 2023 season we were really short probably two more lifeguards than we wanted to, so we had a couple weekends when people weren’t available and we had to close the beach,” Wills said. “Only two lifeguards from that crew were going to return, and we’d have to compete with Bellin Health Bond Center in Oconto and other ones that are paying over $17 an hour. That would represent another 20% increase in costs, and the tax money just isn’t there.”