It’s not the media being dishonest today

Posted in Uncategorized on January 22, 2017 by Jim Rosenberg


I’ve been seeing lots of crazy representations of how huge the crowd was for Friday’s inauguration ceremony in Washington DC. Here’s one: ‘Trump says his Inauguration brought crowds of over a million people, and the outlets claiming it was only 250k are just full of it.’

Well, they’re not. They’re right.

What I can tell you from being in town for three inaugurals, including this one, is that Trump’s event was several times smaller than Obama’s in 2009. This is not a big deal and it’s not a contest.

But what is odd is how Trump and his press secretary kept pounding away on something that is demonstrably and grossly untrue. I’m posting a picture of a street blocks away from the event in 2009. It was nothing like that for Trump — not even close. Friday, you could walk down the streets with plenty of elbow room and stay on the sidewalks. You could sit in many empty bleachers for the parade. You could easily find a seat on the Metro.

It took hours to get into Congressional offices the day before Obama’s 2009 inauguration to get tickets. It took about 10-15 minutes this time around. It wasn’t because it was more efficient. It was because a whole lot less people were trying to get in.

To begin your administration trying to peddle bull and making a point of it — trying to undermine the media for telling things the way they were — is just absurd. For whatever reason, they are pushing this big lie. Why? And to then claim that THE MEDIA is dishonest? It’s silly. If Trump will go to the mat to lie about that on his administration’s first full day in office, then what else will they be misrepresenting?

I can see Minnesota from my house

Posted in Uncategorized on November 28, 2016 by Jim Rosenberg


I haven’t been very good at updating this blog. It’s not as if nothing has been happening, but I often find that I have other things to do.

Up until the middle of last year, we were living in a house on a street with a lawn to mow, leaves to rake, snow to remove, county meetings to attend and a short drive to and back from work. Since then, we sold the house, got rid of half our stuff, left the government meetings behind and moved to a new city into an apartment where we could both walk to work. People ask me what that’s like. I tell them it’s like being on vacation, except that I have to go to work.

So how does that work?

Well, it’s like being on vacation because you go to a different place where you don’t know anyone and make discoveries. (Of course, you also meet people and eventually, it just becomes a new lifestyle to replace your old one.) But living in downtown La Crosse is very different. There are lots of restaurants and watering holes; tons of foot traffic and interesting characters. There are miles of bicycle trails and the Mississippi River. It’s a college town. We found there was no reason to have two cars anymore, so we got rid of one. We don’t cook much.

When I put together my job search strategy, I will tell you that while we were willing to relocate, we were not looking to do that. It would have been much easier to stay put. The fact of the matter was that I found almost no good fits in Wausau. I got a lot of interviews, but they were mostly in the Twin Cities and Madison. When the opportunity came up in La Crosse and we could eliminate the need for higher living costs and soul-sucking commutes on multi-lane highways in a larger community, it was a very attractive option.

But there was something else about La Crosse that was attractive, too. I was unwilling to send resumes to politically deep red areas of Wisconsin like the counties ringing the Milwaukee metro area or other areas of the state where Republicans hold a chokehold on elective offices. Unfortunately, that is something that has characterized Marathon County in recent cycles, too — and it makes it a lot less attractive place today than it was in past years for people like me. Congressman Sean Duffy was able to spend months promoting the candidacy of Donald Trump with impunity and no fear of political fallout. That would seem counterintuitive in a district that sent his predecessor, Democratic firebrand Dave Obey, to the U.S. House for four decades. But it turns out that he read his district exactly right. In the end, a former right wing toxic talk jock was chosen as the Republican Assembly representative for Wausau. Trump carried Marathon County with 56 percent of the vote. He only carried Waukesha County – one of the places where I refused to send resumes — with 60 percent.

I loved my county board district and neighborhood on Wausau’s southeast side. If the rest of the county thought a little bit more like most of my former constituents do, then I would have had a much more difficult time leaving. Ron Johnson and Scott Walker have never won in that district. Neither did Donald Trump. Sean Duffy finally took it for the first time in four tries, but only by a dozen votes against a weak opponent – and he still lost in the ward that we lived in.  I don’t think that neighborhood is likely to give in to nationalism and a heavy undertone of bigotry anytime soon, which is a very good thing. (I’m not saying that a person had to be a bigot or a white nationalist to vote for Trump, but it was definitely something that had to be looked past.)

Here in La Crosse County, Trump lost by double digits and our Democratic Assembly representative ran unopposed, thanks to the long odds for anyone carrying the GOP banner.  If I have to live in a place where the politics are one-dimensional, I want to be in a place where I can support the outcome.

To some people – and I guess that is most who live there now – it’s just fine that Marathon County is all red. Well, it’s not fine with me and it makes it whole lot easier to be living somewhere else. I can see Minnesota from my house.

But it may not be such a great thing for Wisconsin. The state’s workforce has a smaller share of people with a bachelor’s or advanced degree than any of its neighbors and Wisconsin’s in-migration of such adults is among the lowest in the nation. Net in-migration to Wisconsin overall last year was negative and Marathon County’s in-migration was proportionately lower than the state’s. Call me biased – and I certainly am – but I don’t think being an all-red region in what has become a red state is a very attractive selling point. Allowing Wisconsin roads to become some of the worst in the nation, diminishing the quality of education at all levels, running the Department of Natural Resources into the ground, defunding state parks and advancing a reactionary social agenda isn’t a winning strategy, in my view. I’m pleased that a federal court has found that Wisconsin’s redistricting map is unconstitutional. I’m also pleased that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is stepping in to enforce environmental laws that the state won’t. But I don’t hold out a lot of hope for things improving much while most Wisconsin voters are going to the polls to ratify and support the people who did the deed (and signed secrecy agreements in the process.)

On the other hand, while there were only 13 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties that Trump didn’t win, the overall statewide margin for him was only one percent – pretty thin, as these things go. There is arguably still some hope that turning Wisconsin around may not be as insurmountable of a task as it sometimes seems to appear. But it also looks like it has become an even taller order for certain areas of the state to help lead the change and Marathon County is now just another one of those places. Of course, there are also plenty of people that I like and respect who don’t necessarily see things my way and there are a lot of people in Central Wisconsin still fighting the good fight from their disadvantaged position, which is important to do.

Wisconsin has had stunningly wrong-headed leadership before. We gave the nation Joe McCarthy, a man who was so reprehensible in his conduct of public office that his name became a pejorative term that is still in use today. Sadly, he was never voted out. He died in office. It can take a while for the pendulum to swing. In the meantime, it’s just as well to be in a place where more people see things differently.


Your car and their dogma: Wisconsin’s crumbling transportation infrastructure

Posted in Uncategorized on June 14, 2016 by Jim Rosenberg


Wisconsin has a problem with bad roadways and infrastructure. More importantly, the state has a problem with people running for legislative seats this fall who feel comfortable ignoring the issue, which promises only more of the same. In a very real sense, the steady crumbling of the state’s roads are just one of the more visible manifestations of leadership that so averse to funding public assets and services that they’re willing to let things diminish and fall apart, rather than support a coherent, adequate and sustainable system of support.

Two years ago, an aggressive plan to maintain and improve Wisconsin’s roadways quickly died because it didn’t fit well with then-presidential hopeful Scott Walker’s narrative and it therefore couldn’t gain traction in the legislature. At 70 days, his official campaign was the shortest in decades, but the continuing policy damage is still being felt. A couple of weeks ago, Wisconsin Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb announced that his department’s request to the governor will not propose any major revenue increases. Gottlieb acknowledges this will delay road expansion work and upkeep for all but the state’s most-traveled highways.

This comes on the heels of a report in April 2015 that ranked Wisconsin’s roads as third-worst in the nation. A dozen years ago, state’s roads ranked No. 22, so the fact that they’re going downhill under Walker and this GOP legislature is not really a debatable point. The deterioration of streets and highways affects almost every industry and motorist in the state, according to the study commissioned by the Local Government of Wisconsin Institute. It is estimated to average hundreds of dollars in additional annual maintenance costs for car owners, compared to other states.

The Transportation Development Association (TDA) recently completed a series of regional meetings around the state to underline the problem. Their theme is “Just Fix It” and although they’re not really offering solutions, they’re right to bring the problem into focus. It would be better if they would just come out and say what needs to be said and it is this: If we want to stop our roadways from going to hell, we need a sustainable solution toward funding the necessary work. Then offer some alternatives. A good start might be refusing to support the re-election of the same people who continue to refuse to deal with the issue in a thoughtful, long-term fashion.

Part of the problem was manufactured a decade ago by short-sighted legislators angling for votes in the 2006 election. The largest source of revenue for the state’s Transportation Fund is the state gasoline tax. There is very little growth in gas tax revenue; far less than income or sales taxes. That’s because the rate per gallon does not change, regardless of the price of gasoline. Cars became more efficient and many people began driving less in more recent years, so the revenue stream can’t keep up with construction and maintenance costs. Beginning in 1985, the legislature had addressed this problem by creating an annual indexing adjustment. Indexing originally called for the state gas tax to be adjusted annually on April 1 based on inflation and overall fuel consumption.

In 1997, lawmakers removed the consumption factor and based the adjustment only on changes in the Consumer Price Index. This was not wise. It resulted in actual reductions in 1989 and 1994, but things were made even worse in 2005, when the Legislature eliminated the annual indexing adjustment entirely, with the last adjustment made April 2, 2006.This provided insignificant relief to consumers when gas rose above $4 a gallon that summer, but it gave legislators the opportunity to act like they were doing something.

Leading up to and after Walker’s election in November 2010 with GOP majorities in both houses of the legislature, Republicans were fond of blaming Governor Doyle for “robbing the transportation fund.” The thing is that the transportation budget remained funded under Doyle with borrowing; it was not defunded. As a show of concern toward a problem that they have shown absolutely no intention of actually trying to solve over the past half dozen years, the GOP legislature floated a statewide referendum in November 2014 for a constitutional amendment:

Question 1: “Creation of a Transportation Fund. Shall section 9 (2) of article IV and section 11 of article VIII of the constitution be created to require that revenues generated by use of the state transportation system be deposited into a transportation fund administered by a department of transportation for the exclusive purpose of funding Wisconsin’s transportation systems and to prohibit any transfers or lapses from this fund?”

The TDA, whose membership had been almost all in for Walker’s 2010 election, dutifully hit the road to promote the amendment. As members of the Marathon County Board, John Robinson and I opposed the measure, even though we knew it was doomed to succeed. The reason was because it wouldn’t (and hasn’t) produced a nickel of revenue to support Wisconsin’s roadways. It was political window dressing. The measure passed statewide with nearly 80 percent of the vote. It has accomplished nothing toward solving Wisconsin’s transportation funding issue, as some of us predicted at the time. This week, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that faced with delays and inflation over the past five years, just four major state highway projects have accumulated overruns in excess of $700 million.

With gasoline prices diving below $2 per gallon this spring, the governor and the state legislature had a golden opportunity to address the transportation funding crisis in Wisconsin by raising the gas tax. It could have been easily absorbed without economic shock and it would have put the state on the road toward healthier infrastructure. (No, I’m not a big fan of odometer-based taxing schemes that essentially turn every street and roadway in the state into a toll road — up to and including your driveway.)

It’s not as if people don’t understand that other aspects of driving have become more expensive. Experian reports that the average cost of new cars purchased in the first quarter of the year topped $30,000 for the first time ever. But our feckless leadership in Wisconsin continues resist sensible funding levels, even while borrowing hundreds of millions more than they should so they can pretend they stood firm against tax increases. All the while, they’re putting us in the hole fiscally – and literally, in the form of potholes. Bad policy should be bad politics, but apparently that’s not the case.

Wisconsin is now paying nearly 20 percent of its transportation budget on debt service, according to the TDA. That number is only going up and it is leading county and municipal governments to take measures on their own to make up for being shortchanged and limited by the state in their ability to raise revenue. Marshfield is looking at a referendum that could bump up property taxes by 11 percent over the next five years to deal with the expense of repairing its streets. Marathon County is considering a wheel tax to help it deal with need to maintain more than 600 miles of county trunk highways. The La Crosse City Council approved a proposal from Mayor Tim Kabat last week to increase the street budget for next year by nearly $3 million to help the city catch up on street repairs; money that will have be taken away from other priorities. Out of the 225 miles of roadways in La Crosse, 50 miles are rated at a 4 or worse on a one-to-10 scale.

While the local leaders will have to take it on the chin for whatever adjustments they have to make to other services or revenues they need to raise, the governor and his Republican majorities can continue to puff out their chests and say they never raised taxes. The truth is that they did, by creating a situation in which others are forced to take the responsibility that they shirk. And while local government attention will help a little, it won’t be nearly enough and it won’t touch most of Wisconsin’s transportation infrastructure.

I would love to say that Wisconsin deserves better, but people get what they vote for. Senator Jerry Petrowski, who is chair of the Transportation and Veterans Affairs Committee and vice chair of the Economic Development and Commerce Committee, is unlikely to ever be called into account for the declining condition of the state’s roadways on his watch or the continuing failure to address them with a sustainable, long-term funding solution. He’s been at this for a long time, chairing the Transportation Committee for the Assembly before moving to the Senate in 2012. Rep. Keith Ripp, who now chairs the Assembly Transportation Committee, represents a rural district north of Madison that he easily carries with wide spreads because that’s the way it was designed and that’s the way it is. Scott Walker was elected governor three times in four years. Things will not improve until voters are willing to demand it by electing people who are committed to advancing the public good instead of telling them they don’t need to pay for things that are important.


Wisconsin’s local government leaders issued a statement on the state of Wisconsin’s Transportation system today:

Rep. Katrina Shankland’s response to Wisconsin’s continuing infrastructure funding gap:


Become a Conch in Key West

Posted in Uncategorized on January 24, 2016 by Jim Rosenberg


Mama, I’m freezin’, I wanna go to the sun;
These icy winter breezes are chillin’ all my fun. 
– From Key West, by the Village People

As we boarded an early morning flight out of Central Wisconsin Airport in early March, temperatures were well below zero. By afternoon, we were driving the through the Florida Keys in 86 degree ocean breezes. Now that’s value.

As plain vanilla as going to Florida in March may be for people in Wisconsin, there is plenty of territory in the Sunshine State that is just flat-out not reliable for truly warm weather in late winter.  It may be nicer than Wisconsin, but spending a beach vacation in a sweatshirt instead of suntan lotion isn’t what a lot of people have in mind when they’re planning an escape. That can easily happen in the Florida panhandle or at Daytona Beach.  Key West doesn’t have that problem. As the crow flies, it’s another 470 miles from Panama City Beach to Key West and it’s mostly south. That means an entirely different climate zone for the southernmost city of the continental U.S., which places it safely on the northern edge of the tropics.

We flew into Fort Lauderdale and rented a car. While it is interesting enough to see the Keys and it’s about like driving to Milwaukee at 189 miles, there is a lot of two-lane roadway, plenty of bad drivers, towns to go through and even a drawbridge that gave us a short stop along the way. Now that we’ve seen it twice, we probably won’t do that drive again. Key West International Airport welcomes around 360,000 arrivals annually and another 700,000 each year arrive on cruise ships. In all, Key West hosts more than 2.6 million visitors each year, with March being the peak month – not bad, for a city of less than 26,000 who call themselves Conchs (pronounced konks.)

Our hotel is the Crowne Plaza Key West – La Concha, located right on Duval Street in the heart of the historic Old Town district. Tennessee Williams finished his iconic, Pulitzer winning play “A Streetcar Named Desire” here in the 1940s. Dating back to 1926, the large boutique hotel has had regular renovations over the years. It also has high rates – easily reaching $500 a night in March as it books up, plus another $26 a night for parking. An IHG credit card provides platinum status (which means free parking) and I had a collection of points substantial enough to trade for the rest. Of course, Key West has plenty of other lodging choices, including condo rentals and a plethora of bed and breakfast establishments in historic homes close to the action.


Duval Street is the main drag in Old Key West, with an impressive concentration of historic buildings; something like what Bourbon Street is to the French Quarter of New Orleans, but not quite as drunk or dirty. There is a lot of live music and plenty of night life, along with a lot of restaurants, art galleries and small retail shops. Walgreens is housed in the impressively restored Strand movie theater and other buildings feature neatly painted antebellum balconies and porches. Old Key West is very much built on a human scale. Streets are narrow, parking is competitive and the best way to get around is on foot. That said, we wanted to orient ourselves to all that our island had to offer, so we rented scooters the first day at $35 each for five hours – plenty of time to fully explore the 7.4 square miles of the island. With things narrowed down, we rented bicycles the following day. The car stayed parked for the duration of our stay.

Mention Key West and a lot of people instantly think of musician Jimmy Buffett, whose original Margaritaville saloon does a brisk business on Duval Street and faithfully plays his music over the sound system. But Buffett and his parrotheads are far from the people who discovered or created Key West. Famous residents over the years have included Winslow Homer, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, John James Audubon, Ralph Lauren, Robert Frost, Calvin Klein and Harry Truman, who made 11 trips to his Little White House and spent 175 days of his presidency in Key West. You can tour Truman’s home, as well as that of Earnest Hemingway, which is still populated by six- and seven-toed cats that are descendants of his own from the 1930s.

The other thing that populates the streets, alleys, yards and parks of Key West are feral chickens and there are a lot of them. The roosters are colorful and noisy, beginning their struts along the streets before sunup in the morning and then mostly retiring to more secluded locations as the traffic picks up. About a decade back, the city hired a chicken catcher to try to cut down on the population. It was controversial and the post was discontinued around a year later. Now, people can live trap problem chickens and drop them off at the Key West Wildlife Center. The chickens have been around as long as anyone can remember and it’s just another thing that makes Key West a little different.


The oldest house in Key West dates back to 1829 and as luck would have it, it was playing host to the 53rd Annual Conch Honk during our visit. We joined hundreds of people who came to the garden to enjoy the competition; a fun mix of locals and visitors. The Florida Keys and Key West declared themselves the Conch Republic in 1982 and they are doing their best to keep traditions alive here. A panel of judges dutifully heard the one-note renditions and evaluated them on the basis of quality, duration, loudness and novelty of the sounds. It was cute for a while, but we slipped away before the trophy presentations to get an especially good table on the porch of the restaurant next door.

Seafood is king in Key West. It’s especially welcome for people like us, who live inland and have limited access to fresh catches. In addition to various conch-themed dishes from soup to fritters, there is fresh fish, shrimp and shellfish as regulars on the menu. One of our favorites is stone crab. Unlike other crabs, stone crabs are harvested by removing one claw leg and then they are returned to the water to re-grow their lost limbs. Claws are sold by graded size from medium to colossal. The Stoned Crab in Key West does a very nice job of preparing the claws in a manner that is not only tasty, but makes these rock-hard crustacean claws possible to easily consume. Set on a pier that forms its own little harbor, it’s an ideal place to enjoy some wonderful al fresco ambiance along with those fabulous crab claws.

Of course, there are other specialties represented in Key West and one of them is authentic southern pit barbecue, which is something not to be missed when you’re in the south. Like most places in Key West, it’s casual dining. But casual or not, we found that no matter where we went or what we had, our bill for two invariably fell between around $45 on the low side and approximately $70 on the high side.


Key West has some public beaches and while they are decent, it is not a beach destination in the way that Clearwater, Cocoa Beach or Miami and Fort Lauderdale are. It’s more about being around the water than being in it. One particularly interesting side trip for great snorkeling and exploring a Civil War era prison is The Dry Tortugas National Park. It’s about a 70-mile ferry ride from Key West and it will consume most of a day to take the tour, but it is truly unique.

If you find yourself in the neighborhood of the Custom House Museum at the end of the day, then just walk with the procession of people heading toward the waterfront to join the large crowd that gathers every clear evening for the sunset. Watching the sun go down over the warm ocean being flanked by palm trees is almost enough to make you forget that it was below zero back home.


Mall Talk: Is CBL’s bailout plan really the best Wausau can do?

Posted in Uncategorized on December 13, 2015 by Jim Rosenberg


So somehow, I ended up in the (still restricted somewhat, I guess) mall presentation and I’m showing you a piece of one of the PowerPoint slides just to prove it. I don’t regret my comment about supporting Wausau’s downtown or the need to redevelop the Wausau Center Mall.

But I do not agree that there is only one way to do this or that the single option that people are being shown is the best way to accomplish what needs to be done. I can’t accept the inherent “too big to fail” argument, as it relates to CBL and the Wausau Center. There should be alternative strategies instead of working from what is essentially just a list of demands from CBL. It is a disservice to Wausau that there are not.

Let’s look at a few aspects here.

First, CBL is asking for an unsecured loan at 2 percent for 20 years. This is well below the cost of money for this type of activity. It doesn’t reflect the risk and the city will not be able to borrow money at that rate to give it to CBL. Money will be diverted to CBL for the first part of the plan from a successful Tax Increment District in the Wausau West Industrial Park. (Yes, it’s the same money that the city wanted to spend to move Wausau Chemical and if that had happened, it wouldn’t be there to talk about now. It’s also money that could be available for other purposes and even shared with other taxing entities, but for this new plan.)

The reason CBL needs city money, I understand, is because they’ve mortgaged the Wausau Center to the hilt and they can’t take on any more debt. While that may be true in the case of this particular property, CBL shares pay an 8.5 percent dividend and the company has a market cap of $2.1 billion – a bit less than the entire equalized value of the City of Wausau. (Real Estate Investment Trusts like CBL invest only in real estate and they are required to pay out at least 90 percent of their earnings in the form of dividends, which relieves them of the obligation to pay income taxes. Jim Rosenberg’s blog does not provide tax advice. Please consult with your tax advisor.)

My take: CBL borrowed the money on the Wausau Center to spend it elsewhere and they are now asking Wausau taxpayers to cover that problem. They want to compartmentalize the Wausau Center now, when it has issues and it is convenient for them, but they were only too happy to take the money and run when things were humming along. (Of course, I could be wrong about that.)


There is talk about being stuck with eight blocks of blighted buildings, if the mall closes. But the parking ramps, Sears and the Younkers store are not owned by CBL and the buildings are not blighted now. The reason that CBL wants to move Younkers is so they can collect the rent, instead of the owner of the current Younker’s property collecting it. Does that sound like a fair thing for the city to be involved in funding — literally picking a winner and a loser? Moreover, shares of the parent company of Younkers, Bon-Ton Stores, Inc., (NASDAQ: BONT), currently go for less than $2. Bon-Ton’s dividend is now at 10.5 percent, if you want some of that action. The  company has lost more than 85 percent of its market cap over the past five years. The story is that moving Younkers will enable CBL to secure a 10-year lease from them. Okay — but let’s hope that the next five years are much better for Bon-Ton.  And let’s not forget that Sears, the other remaining anchor at the Wausau Center, continues to close numerous stores as it attempts to reposition itself. It has lost more than a third of its value over the past year. (Jim Rosenberg’s blog does not provide financial advice. Please consult with your financial advisor.)

There is talk about jobs. There may well be 750 jobs in the mall, but it would be a much lower number if it was translated into full-time equivalents. I am of the belief that all jobs are important, but it’s also fair to point out that 750 jobs at the mall are not the same as, say, 750 jobs at Google.

There has been talk about several hundred thousand dollars in county sales taxes generated annually by Wausau Center sales. That’s not small potatoes, but it’s important to remember that it makes no difference to Marathon County if people spend that money on the Rib Mountain strip, at the Wausau Center or at other local business. To the extent that some things might be purchased online or outside of the county if the mall closed, that would be a net loss of sales tax revenue — but it’s disingenuous to pretend that entire amount is at risk and it is not a very important justification for an aid package. (For this reason and others, the county declined to participate in the bailout plan.)

Alderman Keene Winters has suggested that the city simply buy the mall and fashion its own redevelopment plan. I’m not sure that I love that idea yet, but I sure like having options and it is a legitimate avenue to explore. This course of action would leave the city actually getting something for the money it is laying out. The city would be in a position to proceed with a redevelopment plan without having to make CBL happy going forward. Owning something more than a promise of giving things another try makes some sense to me.

Here’s another idea. Before I left Wausau, I talked with an executive at Eastbay about the idea of moving their retail operation into the Penney’s space. I made it clear that I wasn’t representing anyone but myself, but he still gave me 30 minutes to lay out my idea. It would free up space and parking at their (converted shopping center) 1st Avenue location and create an instant new anchor at the Wausau Center. The city and CBL could give them a couple of years of free rent and incentives for far less than $4.1 million initial package to CBL. I still think it’s a good idea and Foot Locker is one of CBL’s more common tenants across their properties.  Foot Locker Inc. stock (FL: NYSE) is up 243 percent over the past five years. Securing a solid new anchor from a largely home-grown global company selling those product lines would change the dynamics for other mall tenants significantly. Moving Younkers seems more like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Turning the mall “inside out” by developing exterior storefronts on Washington Street is an important way to improve the mall and this type of renovation has been successful at other properties. I think it should be done, but I also think that city taxpayers should have a better role than being bankers operating at a loss to get it done. Let’s see a deal that reflects more of an equity partnership, if that is what is going to happen, instead of this “heads I win-tails you lose” deal that is currently on the table. Without leverage or equity, the city could someday end up paying a premium for improvements that it financed itself.

We need to think about other “what if” scenarios, too. Let’s imagine that a few years down the road, CBL and the city’s largesse end up in the hands of a hedge fund. We all know how much a group like Starboard Value cares about local communities after the Wausau Papers situation in Brokaw. Suffice it to say that a hedge fund’s idea of ‘unlocking value for shareholders’ may well be at odds with Wausau’s best interests, just as it has been before. Since this is the environment in which Wausau could find itself operating, forget about loaning out money at less than a quarter of CBL’s dividend rate over the next 20 years.  A 5-year deal would give CBL a fair opportunity to right the ship and get new financing. A 20-year deal establishes an unsustainable model that is all but permanent.

Then there is money that CBL wants for a marketing director. Could the mall instead join the Business Improvement District, which supports Wausau’s River District Main Street program? Other downtown property owners pay from $250 to $2,500 annually for this. Is it fair or smart for the city to fully bankroll another marketing representative dedicated exclusively to the Wausau Center, which supports downtown, but also competes with non-mall retailers for consumer dollars? And what about the idea of funding tenant improvements to mall shops with low interest loans that are not necessarily available to businesses outside the mall doors?

In short, the city wouldn’t seem to be getting anything in the way of real leverage for its outlay in the present mall deal.  Loaning money at a loss to prop up a Real Estate Investment Trust on an unsecured basis to a company that is paying dividends of more than four times that rate to its own shareholders today may drive up costs to secure the property tomorrow, if that eventually proves to be necessary. A good share of the “repayment” is covered by other concessions that the city would be offering to CBL as part of the plan.

The taxable value of Wausau Center property was recently reduced, amounting to another hit on the city’s operating budget from the mall.  If we don’t like things like not mowing the grass in the parks or cutbacks to police, fire and public works, then efforts to make sure that the mall can keep chugging along without causing too much heartburn in Chattanooga may be at odds with our vision. We may want look at this thing a little harder.


Rationalizing bigotry, failing in leadership

Posted in Uncategorized on November 19, 2015 by Jim Rosenberg


Like just about everyone, I followed the news coverage of the terrorist activities in Paris with great interest over the weekend. It was all the more significant to me because I’ve stayed a number of times in the neighborhood where much of the activity took place, including several times on Boulevard Voltaire, where the Bataclan Theatre is located.

While there are visitors and hotels just about everywhere in Paris, this is not as much of a tourist area as some other neighborhoods are. A couple of metro stops up from Place de la Republique, where evening news anchors and reporters are using the monument as a backdrop for their on-the-scene reporting this week, there is a neighborhood with a lot of people from the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey. I was happy to use the cheap internet service in a little storefront where I was the only person who wasn’t a Turk or Arab. There were kabobs, baklava and simit in store windows. The area reminded me a little of being in Istanbul, while still being unmistakably Paris – just not the Paris of Louis Vuitton or Coco Chanel.

Of course, this isn’t the first terrorist incident in Paris — not even this year – and there have been tensions in France and in Paris for many years. In 2005, I was there during some riots that were going on in the suburbs which went on for weeks and resulted in a state of emergency being declared. There was a lot of property damage as cars and buildings were torched. People were told not to take the train out to the airport because it had stops in troubled areas but of course, I did. The three policemen in my car ended up roughing up an Arab-looking young man along the way.

Really, when I think back on it, a lot of fairly out-of-the ordinary things have happened in places that I’ve visited over the years. A hotel where we stayed a couple of times in Rio de Janeiro ended up in a shootout and hostage situation involving a drug gang, with a woman bystander being killed. I can’t say that I found it that hard to believe, since we had witnessed a pretty serious exchange of automatic weapons fire up the road from our balcony during one of our visits. Back in Wausau, that place would have spent a month in yellow police tape. In Rio, it was all in a night’s work. A McDonald’s across from a restaurant where we ate in Istanbul was blown up by some kind of carry-in bomb after we visited. In the Victory Monument area of Bangkok, where I’ve stayed a few times, there were riots, explosions and firefights in 2010 during a prolonged period of unrest that left 91 dead and 2,100 injured. In August, somebody opened fire on the Thalys train that I’ve ridden a number of times between Amsterdam and Paris through Brussels. I’ve walked out of a blast-darkened tube station in London and been to the pre and post 9-11 sites in New York and Washington DC.

Of course, none of this stuff happened while I was there and that is the whole point. The chances of this kind of thing involving me personally are just about zero, so I don’t worry much about it.  I know that some planes are going to crash or even blow up, but I don’t expect to ever be on one of them. I would go to Paris tomorrow. It’s not a matter of being insensitive, or having courage or anything else. It’s about probability. It’s not about having no risk whatsoever, but having relatively little.

Unfortunately, some are using this recent, tragic event to foment fear and they are fanning the flames of bigotry. And it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that some of the people nodding in agreement with the idea that we can have no risk at all because of what happened in Paris may be some of the same people who wanted to change the name of French fries to “freedom fries” when the French didn’t agree to go to our war in Iraq, but they’re figuratively waving French flags today.

“In light of these horrific and tragic attacks, our first priority must be to protect our citizens.  Along with governors across the country, I have deep concerns about the Obama Administration’s plan to accept 10,000 or more Syrian refugees, especially given that one of the Paris attackers was reportedly a Syrian refugee.  In consultation with our Adjutant General, who also serves as my Homeland Security Advisor, it is clear that the influx of Syrian refugees poses a threat,” said Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in a statement Monday, as he tried to make the case for preventing any Syrian refugees from entering Wisconsin.

I agree that it’s a threat, but it’s a relatively small threat. The people who are dealing with a real threat are the refugees. They’re fleeing an evil that has robbed them of friends, family members, livelihoods and their homes. They’ve got nothing.  And it’s not enough of a threat to us to justify throwing all of those people under the bus because we should value our safety more than doing what we can to assist in what is a very desperate situation. In the process, we have the opportunity to secure energetic entrepreneurs, workers that we will need in the years to come, bright students, future specialists and the appreciation that naturally arises from being a friend in need and deed. This is not only the right thing to do in the short term, but even more so in the long term.  And sometimes the right thing to do involves some cost and risk. Some of the same people who will invariably and soberly acknowledge that fact when it comes to participating in a war seem to have a real blind spot about that when it comes to advancing peaceful ventures, don’t they?

What I fear far more than a stray radical among throngs of innocents who know a level of suffering most of us can never imagine is the thought of our country abandoning its ideals. I fear giving countless millions around the world another excuse to hate us. I fear what happens when so many people – many of whom have nothing to lose — see an image of America that is being formed for us abroad by loud, small-minded leaders who pander to the lowest common denominator of religious bigotry among us to try to win elections and consolidate power with fear and isolationism in the name of public safety. This is not leadership and it is not worthy of a nation that the world looks to for exactly that.


Added: A Refugee Crisis Made in America:


Mount View Care Center funding failure goes deeper than money

Posted in Uncategorized on May 21, 2015 by Jim Rosenberg


Tuesday, a measure to issue bonds for the $13.5 million remodeling of Mount View Care Center failed at the Marathon County Board by a vote of 24 in favor to 10 opposed with four members absent. While most members voted in support of the bonding, a three-quarters vote of the members-elect of the Board is required under Wisconsin law to issue bonds or promissory notes, (Sec. 67.045 Wis. Stats.)

I strongly supported the project and since I’m now in my 14th term of public office, I also understand that you win some and you lose some. But the manner in which this particular bonding issue failed should give everyone in Marathon County serious cause for pause because it comes off like an act of bad faith on the part of some board members who either don’t understand the significance of acting with consistency or simply didn’t think it was important enough to do that.

This project has been under discussion for years and this past January, the county board passed an “Intent Resolution Regarding Issuance of General Obligation Bonds or Promissory Notes for Nursing Home Project.” By that resolution, the board officially declared its intent to issue bonds for the project and also stated that “At subsequent meetings, the County Board of Supervisors shall take further action to authorize the issuance of the Bonds, approve the details of the Bonds and authorize for the sale of the Bonds.” Barring some incredibly important new factors being introduced, the vote for the bonding should have been perfunctory. A sufficient number of board members had declared policy and their intent to follow through with this project.

There was a full discussion and full understanding that while that initial resolution only required a majority vote, the bonding would require a three quarters vote. It passed with 29 votes in favor, four votes against and five members absent – a three-quarters majority. It may not sound like there was any margin for the upcoming vote on issuing the bonds, but unless we believed that the five missing members were all hard “no” votes and we lost a “yes” along the way, the ice was plenty thick enough to walk on and everyone should have known what they were doing. Here’s some coverage after the January vote. Done deal, right?

Based on the January vote, the project went out for bids. The proposals arrived on time and within the budget. The planning and execution required to reach that point on something of this magnitude is no small thing; the costs were estimated at $668,000.

But then something else came into play, by way of some grievances that some county board members had with the management of North Central Health Care Facilities over the way certain mental health services were being delivered for the jail and perhaps other matters. None of these things had anything to do with the Mount View project. That didn’t matter, because some members had decided that withholding approval of the Mount View bonds would give them greater leverage in the unrelated discussions. These were issues that had been around for a while. And while they certainly didn’t require hundreds of thousands of dollars in unrelated wasted money to support the debate over them, that is what it could cost county taxpayers to place that particular arrow in their quiver.

Health and Human Services Committee Chair John Robinson was concerned about the possibility of the bonding vote failing and he offered an action to delay the vote in an effort to give wavering members time to resolve their issues with NCHC. I did not support the delay because it was clear that this process would take months. The bids on the project would expire and I wasn’t certain that a delay would produce new votes in favor or that a long delay would leave us in a substantially better position than a loss on the bonding measure would anyway. More importantly, I felt that it would be capitulating to a tactic that would set a bad precedent for the board going forward: the inherent claim that it is okay to renege on prior commitments for comparatively weak reasoning. Based on the people we had in the room, it would be necessary for some to act contrary to their vote in January – to not keep their word – in order for the bonding to fail.

And that is exactly what happened.

It doesn’t bother me that several members who opposed the project continued to oppose it, because those negative votes were already baked in. It doesn’t bother me that several members who missed the January meeting voted in opposition, since they hadn’t established a prior position on the matter that should have been tantamount to approving the bonds. What bothers me greatly is that five members – Lee Peek, Matt Bootz, Richard Gumz, Jacob Langenhahn and Alan Christensen – thought it was okay to flip their positions from the January vote and oppose the bonding that they had already agreed to authorize. Some of them felt comfortable enough with it to speak against the project that they had voted to proceed with a few months earlier. The bottom line is that these five votes provided the exact margin of failure and it is fair to place the responsibility for the outcome directly on the people who cast them. In the now infamous words of John Kerry, they were literally ‘for it before they were against it’ — and it is costing time and money.

The Marathon County Board needs to act in good faith and keep its word when it goes out for bids. Members can have their different views, but they should be consistent with them when it comes to asking people to bid major projects and to do business with the county. Instead, some members were perfectly willing to be Lucy, holding the football out for Charlie Brown to try to kick before pulling it away at the last possible moment.

At this point, there are a lot of losers and no apparent winners. Even if the unrelated issues with NCHC end up being resolved — as they almost certainly will — there is no particular reason to believe that it couldn’t have happened without blowing up the Mount View bonding measure on Tuesday. There’s a contractor that should have been given a multi-million job, after complying with the terms of the bidding and submitting the “winning” bid. There are the employees and future residents in what would have been some badly-needed renovated space at Mount View.  There are the taxpayers of Marathon County, who would have seen 70 percent of the money for the renovations come back through increased reimbursements for care and who may have also lost the opportunity for the lowest possible interest rates on financing, plus the hundreds of thousands invested already. There are some plumbers, carpenters, electricians, masons, managers and others who would have had jobs doing the work and our community that would have seen some of that money recirculated. We can hope that the project’s financing is eventually approved and the losses from current fiasco won’t be all that large, though it’s risky business.

But the biggest loser is the Marathon County Board, because it lost some serious credibility in a way that should never have happened. It will be a little more difficult to rely on some people going forward and to take them at their word. People can rationalize it any way they want to, but it should take a whole lot more for people of good will and good intentions to abandon important commitments than it did this week at the Marathon County Board.