Veterans housing planned

A vacant building on East Washington Avenue near Baldwin Street would be razed to make way for a five-story apartment building offering low-cost housing for veterans and their families. The County Board will decide Thursday whether to approve the partnership with developer Gorman and Company despite not having seen the other proposals.

The Dane County Board will decide Thursday whether to approve a proposed low-cost housing development on the Near East Side aimed at veterans’ families, but neither board members nor the public have seen the six other proposals by companies not picked for the project.

A team of four county staffers and one neighborhood representative selected the plan by Gorman and Co. to redevelop the former Messner property, 1326 E. Washington Ave., beginning in mid-2019. Last week, the county’s Personnel and Finance Committee unanimously endorsed signing a contract with the company.

The members of that committee also have not seen the competing proposals. In addition to Gorman, the county received proposals from Stone House Development, Movin’ Out Inc., KCG Development, Horizon Development Group, Sherman Associates and Common Wealth Development.

A request by the Wisconsin State Journal to see the other proposals under the state’s open records law was denied Monday. Risk manager Dan Lowndes said Wisconsin law allows the state Department of Administration not to reveal the terms of competing proposals before state contracts are finalized because revealing competing proposals could affect the negotiation process. Lowndes said the reasoning for the county is the same.

In interviews with the State Journal, some County Board members said they had confidence in the process.

Chairwoman Sharon Corrigan said relying on a committee of non-elected staff and a member of the Tenney-Lapham Neighborhood Association using an objective score sheet takes politics out of the process.

“We’ve really tried to design a process to depoliticize (the decision) and have criteria that we’re basing things on and to score proposals on criteria and be objective on that criteria,” Corrigan said. “It’s how the county has done its business.”

Corrigan, who is also on the Personnel and Finance Committee, said the county met with residents of the neighborhood to set priorities for the development before requesting proposals.

Others expressed a desire to at least know what they’re not voting on.

“I don’t see any reason why it has to be that way,” said Sup. Heidi Wegleitner, whose district includes the property. “With city funding and city and county (Community Development Block Grant) funding ... the proposals are out there, they’re presented to the committee, the committee votes, they take public input ... That’s the way it should work. That’s the way you get the best projects.”

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said the board and the public should have access to the proposals before a final decision is made.

“I don’t know why they would tolerate that,” Lueders said. “Someone on the County Board should have the gumption to insist on seeing what the alternative options are.”

Gorman’s proposal, called “Valor on Washington,” includes a partnership with the peer-support organization Dryhootch, which would operate from the first floor of the building.

The project would include 64 two- and three-bedroom apartments with all but 10 of those units reserved for people making between 30 percent and 60 percent of the county median income. The remaining units would sell at market rates.

Valor map

Nicole Solheim, a development manager for Gorman, said there are about 8,000 veteran households with children in the county. The median income of individual veterans is between $36,000 and $46,000 a year, which is about 56 percent to 71 percent of the county median income of $64,773.

It’s not clear how much demand there might be for such a project.

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If there are not enough veterans to apply for the specified units, other families could qualify.

While she said she doesn’t oppose Gorman’s proposal, Wegleitner said the project doesn’t fit with the county’s established goals to reduce homelessness.

She said she hoped eight units could be designated for homeless families regardless of their veteran status.

“It would make me feel like this project was really connecting to our concerted effort to house homeless people and prioritize our resources to serve those who have the most barriers,” Wegleitner said.

Corrigan and Sup. Jeff Pertl said that other projects in Dane County — such as Rethke Terrace Apartments on Madison’s East Side and the soon-to-open Tree Lane Family Apartments on the Far West Side, both by Heartland Housing — provide housing and services for homeless individuals and families. Rethke has 25 units slated for single veterans.

“Affordable housing is a much bigger umbrella, which we also have to deal with,” Pertl said, adding that many people who need subsidized housing are not homeless.

The other proposals for the Messner property will be made public but only after a contract with Gorman is signed, said Stephanie Miller, spokeswoman for County Executive Joe Parisi.

The city of Madison regularly releases proposals shortly after the deadline for them to be filed, although some details might be redacted.

George Austin, who is managing the massive Judge Doyle Square project for the city, said the proposals for that project were released to the public with very little, if anything, blacked out. The city held several public hearings before a developer was chosen.

Austin said making the proposals public didn’t influence negotiations since the developer had already submitted its plan but added that the companies were informed in advance that their proposals would be released.

Transparent process

Sup. Jenni Dye, who chairs the Personnel and Finance Committee, which approved partnering with Gorman last week, said keeping elected officials out of the procurement process has protected projects from being influenced -- or being given that appearance -- by campaign contributors.

Keeping supervisors out of the process also keeps allegiance to a district being a factor, Pertl said. A supervisor in one area can't push for a business that operates in his or her district.

Supervisors and the public had a chance to weigh in on the project before the request for proposals was drafted, Pertl said. That input was also used to make the subsequent scoring sheet.

Pertl said he wasn't aware of the city's process but said the board should consider other methods of approving projects if it can be done in a way that's more transparent while still remaining objective and independent.

"The procurement process came out of the good government movement," Pertl said. "Now we're at a time where a lot of the good government advocates are saying, 'Well, we want it to be more transparent.'

"If there's a way to be more transparent and still be sort of on the good-government side of this, then we should look at that."

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