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

Posted in Uncategorized on June 14, 2016 by Jim Rosenberg

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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.

JR

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

http://www.wicounties.org/blog/local-government-leaders-transportation-statement/

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

http://legis.wisconsin.gov/assembly/shankland/pressreleases/Pages/Rep-Shankland-Statement-on-Governors-Transportation-Budget.aspx

 

Become a Conch in Key West

Posted in Uncategorized on January 24, 2016 by Jim Rosenberg

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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.

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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.

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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.

Sunset

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.

JR

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

Posted in Uncategorized on December 13, 2015 by Jim Rosenberg

CBL

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.)

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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.

JR

Rationalizing bigotry, failing in leadership

Posted in Uncategorized on November 19, 2015 by Jim Rosenberg

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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.

JR

Added: A Refugee Crisis Made in America:

http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/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

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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?

http://www.myfoxwausau.com/story/25071188/2014/03/25/marathon-co-board-approves-135m-renovation

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.

JR

Walker’s UW budget cut proposal breaks faith with local partners

Posted in Uncategorized on February 3, 2015 by Jim Rosenberg

?????I have a different perspective of the governor’s current budget proposal as it relates to UW Colleges. Not only do I work in Student Affairs at UW-Marathon County, but I am also a multi-term member of the Marathon County Board of Supervisors, where I chair the Education and Economic Development Committee. It places me in the unusual position of simultaneously being a landlord and a tenant.

UW Colleges benefit greatly from being part of the UW System, but it is important to remember that the 13 campuses of the UW Colleges have a unique partnership arrangement with their host communities.  That makes them different than the 11 comprehensive campuses and the research institutions of UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee.  Local funding is used to construct and maintain the facilities of the two-year campuses, amounting to millions of dollars annually across the UW Colleges.  The 14 counties and three cities are literally UW Colleges partners. They have undertaken these significant investments and ongoing costs because they support the mission of UW Colleges to provide “high quality educational programs, preparing students for success at the baccalaureate level of education, and to be an institution of access.”

In return for their investment, the counties and municipalities rely on the UW System to provide the staff and program expenses that make a high-quality UW education available in their communities.  While it may have never been a perfectly fair system, it is one that has worked and it respects the fact that the state does not have unlimited resources.  State funding was a far larger piece of the funding for these local colleges in the past than it is today. But it is still a comparative bargain, when measured against the alternative of not having this asset available and judging by the support that the campuses continue to receive.  Unlike Wisconsin’s multi-county technical college districts, the burden of supporting each campus of the UW Colleges is far more narrowly focused in the individual counties that host them.

While the system of two-year campuses has been remarkably stable over the years and host communities still regularly make investments in renovation, maintenance and new facilities to house their local campuses, huge and continuing financial challenges threaten the ability of these campuses to carry on their mission in the future. A 2013 assessment report by Huron Education conceded that the ability for UW Colleges to continue to meet budget reductions without “a diminution of service to students, faculty, and staff” is limited. That is no surprise to those of us who are looking at it from the inside, but what is it that allows some to think that further cuts are in order or even possible? What does this mean for county and municipal partners, who have shouldered their share of the agreement over the years, while the state continues to diminish their commitment to the educational programs being housed?

Decisions along the way have exacerbated the inability of UW Colleges to reach tuition targets, which are a significant part of the current problem. Enrollment numbers represent one variable toward hitting a dollar target; the other variable is the per-credit tuition charge.  By employing UW System-wide tuition increases and freezes, the disparity between tuition revenue per credit and a dollars-per-student basis at UW Colleges in comparison the comprehensive and research universities in the system has continued to widen. Making matters worse, UW Colleges had its own tuition freezes imposed from 2007-2011 while Madison, Milwaukee and the Comprehensives were increasing tuition annually by figures of from 5.5 percent to as high as 9.3 percent.  That makes UW Colleges an even better comparative value to students, but this is a hollow victory if it means that the two-year campuses can’t adequately support their already-lean programs.

Even before the most recent budget proposal, it was past time for counties, communities and the legislators who represent them to insist that the State of Wisconsin again begin acting in good faith on the historic understandings that gave us the UW Colleges in the first place. “A diminution of service to students, faculty, and staff” in an environment where Wisconsin needs to be even more competitive will do nothing but leave more people and our state further behind in the years ahead.

JR

http://legis.wisconsin.gov/lfb/publications/informational-papers/documents/2013/33_uw%20overview.pdf

Globetrotting to Haarlem: Going Dutch in North Holland’s capital

Posted in Uncategorized on January 24, 2015 by Jim Rosenberg

Each year, I do a feature for a special travel-themed January issue of City Pages in Wausau. Since they do not publish their content online, I also post here for those at a distance who do not have access to a hard copy. City Pages cover   

After more than a dozen years of destination features in the annual City Pages “Get Outta Town” edition, people often ask about where our last adventure took us or what’s next. When the answer this year was “Haarlem,” it led to a reactions like “Why in the world would you want to go THERE?” The reason is pretty simple, since people hear “Harlem” and they think about a New York City borough famous for being a center of Afro-American culture or the hometown of a comedic basketball team that has been bringing their antics to sports arenas around the country for decades.

Most Americans may know that Manhattan was purchased from the local Indian tribe for trinkets back in 1624. What isn’t remembered as well is that it was the Dutch who did the deal. New York City used to be New Amsterdam and back in the day, Harlem was even spelled with an extra “a” in deference to its original namesake in the Netherlands. The city of 156,000 is a 20-minute train ride from Centraal Station in old Amsterdam.

We’ve visited Amsterdam a number of times and while we enjoy it, we were looking for a different experience. Haarlem fits the bill nicely. It’s beautifully historic and built around canals like Amsterdam, but it has far less in the way of drugs, prostitution, buskers, street people and tourists. It’s spiffier. Good food is easier to find. You get more for your money on the lodging side. Even more importantly for us on this particular trip, Haarlem is more relaxed for bicycling than weaving along the often hectic, crowded streets of Amsterdam, which is five times as large in population and hosts more than 15 million visitors annually.

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Regardless, there is no need to exclude one for the other because it’s easy to visit both. Amsterdam is an easy non-stop on Delta from Minneapolis or Detroit and depending on how you schedule, the layover time from Central Wisconsin Airport is minimal, resulting in around 11 hours from wheels up in Mosinee to wheels down at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. Better yet, the fare difference out of CWA runs somewhere between negligible to non-existent.

We spent our first day and night in Amsterdam within walking distance of the train station and then headed to Haarlem the following morning. Train travel in Europe is efficient, comfortable and cheap. Our train in from the airport was around $5 per person and travel to Haarlem was about the same. (There are ticket vending machines, but you’ll need to have a chip in your credit card to use them, so be sure that you have one of those if you want to avoid standing in line at a ticket window.) There are half dozen trains an hour between Amsterdam and Haarlem. From the Haarlem station, we could see the spire of the Grote Kerk (great church) of St. Bavo near our hotel and we had our heading set for a nice walk through the historic central city to our digs. We passed bakeries, cheese shops, art galleries and the occasional girl in a red light-lit window with fishnet stockings.

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Established as a city in 1245, Haarlem is the capital of the province of North Holland. Its long history includes everything from a Spanish siege and Black Death in the Middle Ages to Nazi occupation in the 20th Century.  Today, it is a picturesque city that offers not only its carefully preserved, historic ambiance, but great night life, wonderful dining, artisan cheeses, Old World beers, some interesting museums and a diverse retail scene that includes everything from designer labels to an iconic, bustling Saturday public market in the town square.

Our hotel is operated out of an office tucked away on a side street between the Grote Kerk and the Spaarne River and it isn’t really a hotel at all. Instead, Haarlem Hotel Suites and Brass Hotel Suites together comprise 18 separate, serviced apartments in the old central city at rates ranging between around $120 to $175 per night. For around the middle of that range, we had a living room, bedroom, a full bath and outdoor deck overlooking the old church in an apartment that was up two flights of steep steps above a Middle Eastern restaurant. (Like many of the centuries old structures in the Netherlands, there are no elevators and the stairways are about as handicapped accessible as an extension ladder.) There was nothing to indicate it was a hotel property behind our anonymous-looking door on Lange Veerstraat. The street is narrow and lined with shops, bars and restaurants; pretty noisy at night with music and voices trapped in the canyon of wall-to-wall brick buildings. Nearly across from us, patrons of the High Times Café contribute a constant aroma of reefer into the atmosphere. Most of the traffic is pedestrian, with the occasional scooter and a constant parade of bikes.

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Bicycles were part of our mission here and we were not disappointed. For around $12 a day, we rented single-speed bikes, together with two separate locking systems that were each far more industrial-strength than what is typical around central Wisconsin. (If you want to look like a tourist, you can get a helmet, too. None of the locals wear them.)

The Dutch handle a large share of their day-to-day travel using bicycles and it is not just because the terrain is unusually flat. Rather, there has been a long-term public policy commitment to bicycling as part of a balanced approach to transportation infrastructure that includes pedestrian, private vehicle, public transit and bikes. The result is a separate network for bicycles that includes dedicated paths which are really miniature roadways, complete with bicycle traffic signals. It might sound like it would be confusing – particularly in a city with the added aspect of dozens of drawbridges to accommodate the constant flow of boat traffic on the waterways – but it’s not. In fact, it is a lot easier to get around on a bike than it would be in a car, at least in the central city, where parking a motor vehicle any larger than a scooter is challenging, at best.

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We hit the bicycle paths armed with a map and we only managed to get lost once along the way. It was no big deal to procure some navigation help from one of the locals in a park, since essentially everyone seems to speak excellent English. A 52 degree latitude could place a person in North America somewhere along the shore of James Bay and well north of where the great majority of Canadians live. In Haarlem, the leaves were not yet changing in early October and thanks to the temperate maritime climate, we enjoyed weather in the high 60s to low 70s.  We peddled many miles and it’s a great way to see the city up close and personal, but what makes it even better is to stop from time to time.

Shrimp special edited

Haarlem has an outsized selection of cafes and restaurants, many of which offer outdoor seating. If you think Friday night fish fries in Wisconsin are great, you would be in paradise with the fresh seafood that is available when you are within minutes of the North Sea. Fish, scallops, prawns and oysters are staples on many menus and that’s enough to keep me happy, but there is always more. The Dutch are also skilled brewers and while they export half of the beer that they produce, we can vouch for some of what they keep behind for themselves. When we stopped at a non-descript bar with an attractive-looking array of tables along the street under a wide awning, we were happy to find a great menu that included fresh cod and a wonderful selection of beers on tap. Pricing is reasonable and standards are fairly high. (In cities with high tourist traffic, we’ve sometimes encountered restaurants that we felt were being kept alive by one-time visitors, of which there can be a good supply. In Haarlem, repeat local business is a far more necessary ingredient for sustained success and it shows.)

Sidewalk cafe waitress

Speaking of great food, the Saturday market on the town square in the shadow of the Grote Kerk is more than just a place to pick up fresh produce. It offers everything from funky clothes to artisan cheeses and quite a bit in the way of ready-to-eat foods prepared on site. Flounder? Raw oysters on the half shell? Vegetarian fare? It’s all there and there is no need to make any other plans when the market is in session. We picked up a half kilo of freshly prepared shrimp to munch on while we toured the densely-packed expanse of tents and booths and months later back home, we’re still eating the cheese.

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Beyond the Grote Market, there is the Grote Kerk itself. It is named for St. Bavo, the patron saint of Haarlem, who spent the first part of his life in the Seventh Century as a self-indulgent noble before experiencing a conversion, giving his wealth to the poor and becoming a monk. A statue of St. Bavo presides outside over the great market square. The present church opened in 1520. It is cavernous and it defines the skyline of the old city, but the focal point inside is the organ built by Amsterdam organ builder Christian Muller and decorated by the Amsterdam artist Jan van Logteren between 1735 and 1738. Herman Melville cited it in his immortal novel, Moby Dick, as he compared it to the mouth of the great whale: “Seeing all these colonnades of bone so methodically ranged about, would you not think you were inside of the great Haarlem organ, and gazing upon its thousand pipes?” Famous musicians who have played the organ have included Mozart, Handel and Mendelssohn. It is massive, with 60 voices, 32-foot pedal-towers and an ornate facade. But bringing things up to nearly the present day, the carillon in the bell tower plays Elvis Presley’s “Love me Tender” on the half hour.

We didn’t feel ready to leave Haarlem on the day before heading back to the U.S., but with an early morning flight out, we thought the safest bet was to spend the last night close to the airport. We took the train to Schiphol and caught the hotel shuttle. But what made it an even better call was that the hotel had a fleet of bicycles available for free use. Located along a rural bike route that began in a suburban commercial area, it quickly transitioned into a scenic ride through herds of grazing sheep, past neatly-tended farms, ponds full of waterfowl, orchards heavy with fall fruit and well-kept Dutch country homes. Paved with a centerline, it was like being on a country bicycle highway and although we were using it on a quiet Sunday afternoon, it was built to handle plenty of commuters on weekdays.

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Returning home to Wausau, those painted “sharrows” on Grand Avenue created a stark contrast between where we had been and what we had returned to. But for those who would like to have a better idea about what is possible with a multi-dimensional approach to transportation instead of a nearly total focus of resources on private motor vehicles, a little globetrotting to Haarlem will provide an unforgettable perspective – and a very nice time, too. You won’t need a car.

JR