Local lockbox ordinance decision pushed back

Ashley McCallum, Co-Editor in Chief

Whitewater business owners and community members will remain locked out of a decision on the Key Lock Box Ordinance after the Whitewater Common Council decided to defer final action until its Nov. 1 meeting.

A revised version of the ordinance was brought to the Council at the Oct. 4 meeting. The ordinance makes it mandatory for some local businesses and residences to install an external lock box. This box would hold a set of keys for their building, in which “qualified” members of the Whitewater Police Department and Whitewater Volunteer Fire Department would have access to in case an emergency occurred when owners or key holders cannot be reached.

The new version reduced the amount of buildings required to install a lockbox from 102 to 58.

The newest amendments to the ordinance proposed that the boxes only be mandatory in school buildings, multi-family residences with three or more units and new commercial structures. It also stated that boxes would be placed at a minimum of nine feet above the sidewalk, instead of the previously decided six feet, in an effort to prevent vandalism.

Fire Chief Don Gregoire said the goal is to keep the public safe while creating the least amount of damage to properties. The fire department encourages the ordinance, stating there are situations now where officers wait hours before they can access buildings.

Assistant Fire Chief Mike Higgins said 45 percent of their calls are alarm calls, some of which pose no immediate external threat or reason to use forced entry at the scene.

“We don’t wanna break a door down,” Gregoire said. “Life safety is a huge component of Knox Box [lockboxes] and to me a life is worth a lot
of money.”

Higgins explained that in 1989, a lock box program was put in place that put almost 275 lock boxes around the city, but no ordinance was proposed until 2015. Higgins said the fire department is encouraging an ordinance now because it would help cut down “man-power and time,” allowing the department to remain on a volunteer basis.

The fire chief already has the authority to require a lockbox, and that authority will remain regardless of the decision on the current ordinance. Gregoire said they will probably still require a lockbox for some structures if the ordinance is passed, even if they do not fall within the qualifications of the ordinance.

Council President Patrick Singer questioned the need for the ordinance if the fire chief has authority to require lockboxes despite the ordinance.

“Basically you are making us do the ordering and not the fire department,” Singer said.

Higgins said if they enforce the lockboxes, there would be a fine alongside it and additional costs to the fire department, including the need for a staff member to work only with the lockboxes.

Four members of the public spoke in regards to the ordinance including co-owner of GMA Printing, Blake Scharine, who spoke in opposition to
the ordinance.

“There’s bodily and physical danger and financial risk for each person that was forced to comply with this bad decision,” Scharine said.

Scharine said that moving forward with the ordinance would be a violation of citizens’ “constitutional right” to privacy and threatened the livelihood of community members. He brought attention to Councilperson Patrick Wellnitz, claiming Wellnitz’s position as a volunteer firefighter for the Whitewater Volunteer Fire Department creates a bias in favor of the ordinance and recommended he abstain from voting on the ordinance in the future.

Wellnitz voted in favor of the ordinance in September but was not present at the Oct. 4 meeting. Wellnitz was on vacation at
that time.

Also at the Oct. 4 meeting, City Manager Cameron Clapper presented the proposed 2017 Annual City Budget. The budget is currently balanced at $9,201,438, a 5.89 percent decrease from 2016. Clapper’s presentation also made note that Whitewater stands below average in government spending in comparison to Wisconsin cities with populations between 12,500 and 17,500, according to reports published by the Wisconsin
Taxpayers Alliance.

The Common Council meeting also included:

A presentation from the Whitewater Unified School District on its $23,500,000 facilities referendum, set to be on the ballot Nov. 8. The referendum would provide safety and security upgrades for all schools in the district. The proposed impact on taxes would be “$18 annually, or $1.50 monthly, for each $100,000 of property value,” according to the school district.

Discussion from Common Council in regards to changing the hours of the Whitewater Municipal Building in order to be more flexible for employees while also accommodating the public. No official action was taken on the subject.

A request for a $98,000 approval for the Whitewater Aquatics Center to buy equipment from Direct Fit, the same company used by the Williams Center on campus.