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Residents look to joint committee for Apple River relief

Cans and bottles litter the bottom of the Apple River following a weekend of tubing. Submitted photo 1 / 4
Community members arrived early Wednesday, July 25 at Somerset Village Hall anticipating a heated discussion regarding clean-up of the Apple River and solutions to a number of other increasingly troubling issues including the impact excessive of drinking and substance abuse on river safety and in Village Park. Tom Lindfors / RiverTown Multimedia 2 / 4
An Apple River resident shared photos of cans and bottles littering the bottom of the Apple River following a weekend of tubing. Submitted photo3 / 4
Cans, bottles, articles of clothing and other debris litter the Apple River after a weekend of tubing. Submitted photo4 / 4

Community members arrived early Wednesday, July 25 at Somerset Village Hall anticipating what could have been a heated discussion.

Agenda items numbers two and three were the main attractions regarding clean-up of the Apple River and the potential formation of a joint committee to address a number of other increasingly troubling issues, including the impact excessive drinking and substance abuse is having on river safety and in Village Park.

Resident Tabatha Hansen owns property along the Apple River located just beyond where people tubing on the river are supposed to get off.

"First concern is safety. If the tubers forget to get off, think it's fun to go past, whatever the reason may be, they most likely get off at our dock or one of our neighbor's docks. They wander up to our yard where sometimes my small children are out playing. Suddenly we have strangers in the yard. Sometimes they come to our front door. Last year we had to call the police due to theft and attempted theft and damage that occurred to our boat. We've had to clean up articles of clothing, but the main concern is safety. They're not getting off where they should," explained Hansen.

Hansen said she has had to call the various tubing companies on numerous occasions to come pick up lost tubers and that the companies have been very responsive. She emphasized that people trespassing on her property are frequently intoxicated or abusing other substances and that fuels her concern for her family's safety.

Hansen explained her additional concern is with the health of the river itself which is constantly being polluted with cans, bottles and other debris left behind by tubers.

"We have this beautiful, natural body of water. We only get it once. I plan to pass my house and my location on to my children, but given its current state if things continue, it's going to be destroyed. There is a lot of surface garbage but what some of my photos show you is underneath the water, thousands of sunken cans. One of the photos shows a trailer and some tubes, that's two kayaking trips worth of garbage clean up. We put gloves on and we have pickers we use to try to pick up the garbage because I feel like, as a member of this society, it's part of our job to do river clean up. But unlike when we first moved up here in 2012 when we did see boats on a regular basis doing river clean up, we've seen none in the last few years," said Hansen.

Hansen was joined by a number of her neighbors who reinforced her concerns and added some of their own.

Representatives of the four tubing businesses listened to the stories along with members of the Village and Town of Somerset boards as well as the Town of Star Prairie Board.

Security on the river currently consists of a single six-hour shift filled by a Village of Somerset officer on Saturdays. As to what happened with the previous arrangement where the tubing companies would pay for coverage from the County Sheriff's Department, that appears to be in dispute, according to John Montpetit, owner of Float-Rite Park, and Mike Kappers, owner of Apple River Hideaway.

Kappers contended the Sheriff Department's assistance has not been required.

"There just hasn't been the need for the calls of service. There haven't been the problems with the flashing on the river, there haven't been the fights, there just hasn't been the need for it anymore. They just take care of it with the people they have on duty. Sirovatka (Somerset Police Chief) can tell you. The calls for service out at the Village Park are next to nothing compared with what they used to be 15 years ago," said Kappers.

"The reason the county is not patrolling the river no more is because the people that own the campgrounds will not pay them to patrol the river. That's when that stopped," said Montpetit.

"That's not true. I pay them every year when they ask for it," responded Mike Kappers.

Village President John Melvin confirmed the county had not received any requests for patrols so far this season. Melvin questioned whether or not there is a formal tubing association at this time.

According to the tubing companies, until 2005 all of the parks cleaned a particular section of the river. Going forward from 2005, Float-Rite took over cleaning operations of all sections on behalf of all four companies until 2016. Since then, it appears to have loosely returned to more of an each company cleans a section of the river arrangement where River's Edge cleans the upper right, Hideaway cleans the upper left, Float-Rite cleans the lower left and Apple River Campground cleans the lower right.

Montpetit made it clear from his perspective, that where once there was a formal agreement between the tubing businesses which then shared in the maintenance and security of the river, that association no longer exists.

"That's not true. I believe the Village and the Township got emails from me four years ago when Mr. Kappers wasn't paying for clean up for four years consecutively. That's when Float-Rite opted out. That lower river hasn't been cleaned in four years since you and Mike Kappers and Apple River Campgrounds started cleaning that river and those people are suffering from living down there," said Montpetit.

It appears that a lack of communication and cooperation between the existing owners has at least contributed to the current decline of safety and clean up on the river.

The river discussion concluded with plans to form a committee consisting of representatives from each of the three governing boards as well as input from the four tubing companies. The sole purpose of the committee will be to resolve the existing issues on the river in as expeditious a manner as possible. Whether or not specific restrictions and responsibilities might be tied to the conditional use permits issued to the tubing companies remains a less desirable option. Melvin encouraged the companies to meet on their own to start addressing the issues and to bring forward ideas to the new committee.

School district strategic plan

Somerset School District Superintendent Mark Bezek took advantage of the large audience to bring board and community members up-to-date on the strategic plan on which he has been working with various groups over the last two years. Bezek reported the district is currently undertaking a facilities and needs analysis in anticipation of a referendum next spring. Results of the analysis are due in August. Bezek noted that district-wide neglect since the last financial "election" in 1993 has contributed to the deteriorating condition of the physical campus as well the district's declining ability to compete with surrounding districts when it comes to paying top talent competitive wages.

"It's beyond me how we've been able to manage that long without an infusion of money. Two things usually happen when you do that. You don't keep up with your facilities and you're not compensating people with the market value or you are cutting programs or staff. I can see over the couple years that I've been here some of that throughout the system here," said Bezek.

Bezek plans to convene a community planning team in August to asses wants and needs and look at tax impacts. Bezek stated preliminary analysis of tax impacts taking into consideration the district's declining debt, indicates the district could run a $20 million facility referendum with no impact on taxes.

"For finance election of what we're projecting we may need, would be about $20 per month on an average house,. The board's got some big decision to make over the next couple months," said Bezek.