Archive for August, 2009

Understanding table stakes; pursuing excellence

Posted in Uncategorized on August 28, 2009 by Jim Rosenberg

Union Square - monument, sunsplash

At a recent county board meeting, one of the members wanted to know what a pedestrian-bicycle bridge over the Wisconsin River was really producing for us in terms of revenue. Since it’s not a toll bridge, nobody knows the answer. But one thing we do know is that some of the most successful communities are paying attention to having connected and attractive pedestrian and bicycle trails – both for recreational use and as a legitimate means of travel for people who enjoy a more active lifestyle. Likewise, some express reservations about an $80,000 study of the availability of broadband coverage. Why is that an issue for the county anyway? Well, the ability to quickly send and receive data is a piece of basic infrastructure in the new economy. If we have an inadequate capability in a given area, then we’ve got the equivalent of black hole, where many types of economic success will not be possible.

The same thing happens with individual businesses when they don’t keep up with customer expectations. A few years back, I was suggesting to a coffee shop owner that there was a need to put in free WI-FI for customers and post a sign to tell people it was there. Like any good businessperson, the first question was why would someone want to add a new operating cost that might not produce any return. Would it attract new customers? The answer was free WI-FI was rapidly becoming an industry standard for coffee shops across the country. Failing to recognize it would eventually cripple efforts to gain new customers and imperil some of the existing base as more people considered it an important feature adding value.

Back in the 1960s, it was common to see motel signs pointing out that they had clean, air-conditioned rooms and color television sets. Put that sign out there today and you’re likely to lose potential customers. It’s not because people don’t like air-conditioned rooms, color TV or good housekeeping. It’s because they expect and even assume that is the case. To point it out would practically make the lodging owner look like an idiot. It is table stakes. It doesn’t get you anything but the right to be in the game to potentially win or lose — but without it, you’re out.

If we want people to see our community as an attractive place to live, then we need to understand some of the things that are important in their lives. These things are dynamic, so what is cutting edge now may well be either presumed or dated at some point going forward. Successful communities recognize this and look out on the edge for improvement. Failing communities may all but ignore these things or say they can’t afford them. They may ultimately be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century after they realize that they’ve got a problem and there is more to life than simply pinching pennies and trying to look thrifty.

It’s not that taxes aren’t important, but they clearly aren’t the be-all and end-all that some would have you believe, either. It’s no secret that some of the most successful and vibrant communities in the U.S. are not those with the lowest taxes, but those in which people are willing to pay the costs in view of the value. One of the ways to identify a real economic powerhouse is by comparatively high costs for housing, parking and just about everything else, including taxes. You will also see diversity and progressive leadership that is sometimes willing to push the envelope.

There can be differences between generations about some of these things. But young professionals, mid-career managers, families with soccer moms and vital retirees aren’t necessarily always going to be as different as some people seem to believe or as unwilling to support accommodating the interests of others. Most people who come to a coffee shop don’t bring a laptop and they understand that WI-FI isn’t free, but they don’t begrudge that addition to the overhead, do they? 

There are many paths to successfully achieving a unique and positive identity, but expecting it to happen by accident may often be hoping for too much.  Just like there is a difference between making a living and making a life, there will always be an element in the community who believe every pothole should be filled before any “extras” can even be considered. Likewise, it is unreasonable to tax people out of their homes for things that are clearly frills or that would best be funded primarily by the users who find them valuable. I can’t give you a cost-benefit analysis of having fireworks on Independence Day, but I think we ought to try to find a way to do that, even in dire times (and maybe especially.) The secret is to achieve a balance that takes into account what table stakes really consist of and to also provide areas in which to excel in ways that will truly set a community apart.


Travel flap: cost vs. value

Posted in Uncategorized on August 25, 2009 by Jim Rosenberg

London Gnome

The Wausau Daily Herald has been publishing a series of stories on travel by public officials. I’m not sure what to make of it so I’m most interested in seeing the reader reactions, which are mixed. Sure, there are some people who think that every seminar or convention is some kind of junket and it ought to be eliminated. Others see it differently. They realize that if you don’t build relationships or you work from a more limited knowledge base, it could end up being a far more costly choice in the long run. Coming late to the game in introducing a best practice that would save far more than what you paid to find out about it in a timely fashion isn’t a great way to save money.

It’s no accident that you see the best organizations represented at national conferences. Having well-trained and educated people who are tuned in to current thinking and creating new approaches to challenging problems would seem to be its own reward. On the other hand, it’s certainly possible to abuse things.

In the context of the overall budget, travel is not a big expense in either the City of Wausau or Marathon County. Still, it is a lightening rod with some people and trying to minimize the significance can put a person into that tar baby quote land of “a lousy eight million” or something like that. That is all the more true in times like this, when many people have thrown the idea of a distant vacation overboard and revenue limitations threaten people’s jobs in every sector of the economy, including the public sector.  Whether it’s a significant expense in the big picture or not, it’s natural for people to want to scrutinize these kinds of expenses. Generally speaking, I’m not interested in eliminating jobs to carve out more headroom for travel.

I’ve cut back on travel significantly over the past few years – official, business and personal. On the public official side, a big part of it is simply sensitivity to the issue of perception. Times are different and a person would need a tin ear to miss it. At work, our company has more than a passing interest in cutting costs, since the recession definitely has an impact on revenue streams. I completed the professional certificate in economic development that I was working on for several years, which was the focus of much of the effort, too.

On the personal travel side, it has been a really interesting adventure, but it wouldn’t be possible for me to do over the next dozen years what I did over the last. It would be too expensive. There are people who have traveled more as a personal avocation, but not very many that I know. Here’s a map that shows the places that I’ve been and it even surprises me:

A couple of my favorite quotes about travel:

– “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain

– “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine

What’s interesting is that both of these people lived in times when travel was far less convenient than it is today, but their observations are as true now as they ever were. I was fortunate to have been able to seize the opportunity that was presented by a golden age of relatively low-cost travel and I’m glad that I did.

I’m not sure if a policy will be developed in response to the discussion in the newspaper or not. What I do know is that the great amount of resources that I’ve spent personally on travel has been an incredible adventure in lifelong learning that often has an impact on the way that I see things. The relatively little that has been added through official or business travel over the past few years has been a welcome and well-used addition to that wealth of experience. It is difficult to separate out a few threads from a tapestry and say what they might be worth to somebody else, who can count the money but not measure the insight gained or how it might fit into a particular situation to add value to a choice about direction. It would be difficult for me to do that myself, except to say that the value exceeded the cost.


Fall may be coming, but politics stay hot…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on August 22, 2009 by Jim Rosenberg

Dupont Circle Escalator

It was steamy in Washington DC Wednesday and meanwhile, out in the hinterlands, more than 13,000 Huffington Post readers voted in a poll that asked whether the First Lady has the right to wear shorts. The answer was yes, but with only 58 percent of the vote strongly in favor on a website that may only be visited by right-wingers while they’re doing opposition research. Mrs. Obama was in Arizona, but if she would have stayed home in DC, the need for something cool would have been just as apparent, I can assure you. If you like Singapore’s weather, you would love Washington DC in August. The Obamas picked a great time to go on vacation and the shorts flap just goes to show that their detractors will pick ANYTHING to make noise about. With most senators and congressional reps home in their districts for the August recess, things are a little more laid back in the house and senate office buildings, too. (And no, I was not traveling at either taxpayer or company expense.)

* * *

Coming up this week, it will be interesting to see what comes of the “town hall meeting” planned by Americans for Prosperity at the Rothschild Pavilion Thursday. Advocacy journalist John Stossel of ABC News is an unabashed Libertarian and there’s no doubt that having him as a headliner will bring a few folks in. Heck, I’d probably go to see him myself, under different circumstances – (but I’ll listen to Lyndon LaRouche, too, for that matter.) On the other hand, calling it a town hall meeting doesn’t make it so. AFP is a group with a hard-line conservative agenda and anyone who thinks that they’re bankrolling this as some kind of foray into random public participation should think again. This is a political rally with a distinctly partisan purpose and nothing more. AFP has been working on trying to deep six current Democratic health care reform proposals on Capitol Hill and by extension – just my opinion, mind you — to put supporters in a disadvantaged position in the 2010 elections, too. The latest interesting twist? The Wausau Daily Herald reports that 7th District GOP congressional Dan Mielke has been “uninvited” to speak.

* * *

Speaking of political rallies, it looks like the Duffy wing of the Republican Party in these parts is doing their damnedest to get people to coalesce around their candidate. Shooing Mielke off the high-profile AFP event this week is at least the second public flap the Mielke has responded to with some objections. Earlier, a number of party leaders sent out a memo trying to enforce the idea that Republican candidates shouldn’t be bloodying each other up too much in the run-up to the 2010 September primary. In general, it’s good advice – but what fun is that? Meanwhile, Mielke’s campaign was putting out robocalls last week inviting people to 3:30 p.m. events on the 400 block on August 29 and 30 that kind of SOUND like Tea Party-type gatherings, but may not be. Even keynote speaker Pat Snyder didn’t seem to know much about the events, judging by his quote in City Pages. Interesting.

* * *

Mark O’Connell of the Wisconsin Counties Association as a gubernatorial candidate? We could do worse. The guy is smart, knows government, has a ton of passion and is well known among Madison insiders as well as county government types around the state. WAOW-TV 9 asked him about it outright this week and he didn’t dismiss it. He also opened his remarks to the Marathon County Board of Supervisors Thursday with comments about it being the type of position where a person like him would have the opportunity to make the contributions he would like to make.

But running for governor is a tall order for anyone, speaking of contributions. When all of the campaign cash from all of the candidates in the next Wisconsin governor’s race is counted up sometime after the November 2010 election, the total will likely fall somewhere between $30 million and $50 million. What that means is that if you can’t raise $10 million, you probably can’t win. On the other hand, Russ Feingold was a dark horse candidate at this point in the 1992 U.S. Senate race (speaking of opponents who tear each other to pieces.)  And speaking of Russ Feingold, he continues his annual listening sessions in every Wisconsin county, despite the fireworks that are occurring at some town hall meetings around the country.  Marathon County’s will be in a real town hall in Poniatowski Tuesday.  It will be interesting to see who shows up.


An interesting week, so far…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on August 19, 2009 by Jim Rosenberg

Pat Snyder - 108

Governor Doyle has decided not to run for re-election next fall and that opens the door to all sorts of interesting possibilities. Biggest winner of the weekend: Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who was seriously injured while intervening in a domestic incident outside of State Fair Park. He showed his character, some of his detractors showed theirs — and he becomes an instant frontrunner if he should care to mount another gubernatorial campaign. So far, Barbara Lawton is the only Democrat with her hat in the ring, but I would look for more to be joining in the coming weeks. Biggest loser of the weekend: Scott Walker, who picks up a formidable Milwaukee-area opponent in his quest for the governor’s mansion and has to re-tool his entire campaign, which was geared around a contest with Doyle. This could be one of the more interesting races in the country next fall.

* * *

Brett Favre signed with the Minnesota Vikings in a continuing soap opera that will be of immense help to the people in Eden Prairie. The reason is simple. Favre is going to be selling a lot of tickets for the Vikings, a team that nearly had an NFL-imposed local blackout of their playoff game last year after winning the NFC North. Simply put, it’s nothing like Green Bay when it comes to fans of the local franchise in the Land of 10,000 lakes. But with Number 4 coming on board, look for some big-time ticket sales over the coming weeks as the presumptive Hall of Fame quarterback dons a purple jersey. He’s going to be a good pick for them whether he can play well or not. Football is a business. This was a business decision and a very good one. Am I sorry I dumped my Vikings season tickets now that Favre is putting on the horns? No. That was a business decision, too. I wish Favre, the Vikings and the scalpers a great season.

* * *

The Tea Party Patriots and Americans for Prosperity have invited Congressman Dave Obey to their health care forum scheduled for 6 p.m. August 27 at the Rothschild Pavilion, to be moderated by John Stossel. I’ve always enjoyed Stossel’s stuff, although I don’t always agree with his take on things. As for Obey, it would be sort of like having Dick Cheney appear at a convention. There is no reason on God’s green earth for the congressman to show up at something like that and I would estimate the number of votes he has to lose among that group at something in the neighborhood of zero.

Tea Party and AFP folks are widely believed to be behind the disruptions that have been taking place at health care town maul meetings across the country. It kind of looks like when Congressman Obey didn’t oblige them with an opportunity to stage one of their food fights in Wisconsin’s 7th, they decided to have their own. These are not people who have shown incredible expertise in the area of policymaking and it’s probably best to let them continue talking to themselves, just like they do on 550 Radio. More Tea Party activities are planned on the 400 block in downtown Wausau on August 29 and 30 at 3:30 p.m., featuring keynote speaker Pat Snyder. Of course, it’s all non-partisan (which is why the robocalls keep coming from the Dan Mielke congressional campaign.)

* * *

So it’s been a pretty interesting week so far – and it’s only Tuesday.




Twisted thinking on Mayor Barrett’s attack

Posted in Uncategorized on August 17, 2009 by Jim Rosenberg

“It is a tale told by an idiot…”  Shakespeare in Macbeth

As many people know, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett was attacked by a pipe-wielding thug Saturday night outside of State Fair Park in West Allis as he dailed 9-1-1 to intervene in a domestic dispute.  Here’s what right-wing blogger Amy Geiger-Hemmer had to say about it.  (I’d post a link, but things can be changed with a sudden stroke of sanity in cyberland and I wanted you to see it the way it was when I looked at it just now):

* * *

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett attacked while dialing 911

Milwaukee Mayor, Tom Barrett, was leaving the Wisconsin State Fair grounds when he and his family encountered a domestic dispute in progress.  Read an article about this episode by clicking on the following link:

After first hearing about this on the radio, then reading about the incident, two thoughts came to mind.  First, what if Wisconsin allowed concealed carry?  or – better yet –  if Mr. Barrett had made use of the right to open carry and been armed with a gun?  Do you think the mayor would have been beaten on the head repeatedly with a lead pipe, ending up in the hospital?

The second thought that came to mind,  knowing that Barrett is a staunch liberal, was why didn’t the mayor just offer to go sit down for a chat with the offender?  (At least he had the courage to whip out his cell phone and dial 911!  Never mind that he chose not to intervene physically to defend the woman that was being attacked…)   After all, according to the liberal mindset, criminals are usually considered victims, too.  They have feelings and needs!  Why didn’t Barrett reach out and offer to console the attacker?  Find out what was bothering him?  After all, maybe the woman who was being beaten had said or done something that angered him.  She may have been to blame!  Many times in liberal land, we know that there is more concern shown for criminals than their victims.  Which is why so many of us are against activist judges in our court systems.  Activist judges, as we have seen,  will bend over backwards in favor of  criminals, disregarding their evil deeds and forgetting about the true victims. 

All this aside, I hope that the mayor recovers.  No honest citizen who tries to aid another should have to suffer a beating like Mr. Barrett endured.  And I do think that Tom Barrett is basically a pretty nice, decent guy.  Something like this should never have happened to him.    Maybe this incident will make him do some soul-searching and  wish he had been carrying a gun….  (Remember the old saying:  “A conservative is a liberal who has been mugged?” )   Gosh, what am I saying?!?….How foolish of me!     Barrett is a true-blue liberal down to the core.   He’d never acknowlege that having a gun may have served to protect him, his family and the victim being beaten.  He won’t admit that a speedy dial finger isn’t quite the same as being armed.  Barrett could have ended the incident with one quick flash of a weapon…too bad he didn’t have one! 

No, unfortunately in the future, all I can see is Mayor Barrett possibly sitting down for a beer and peanuts to discuss the incident with his attacker….. Kumbaya!

Posted by Amy Geiger-Hemmer on Sunday, August 16, 2009.

* * *

Rather than comment on any of this, I’ll just say that it is the kind of thinking that speaks for itself. (Not WELL mind you, but just the same, it does.)  With luck, the mayor should be out of the hospital in a couple of days, where he is currently in stable condition.  The alleged perpetrator was turned in by friends and has been arrested.

400 Block: long night’s journey into day…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on August 14, 2009 by Jim Rosenberg

Chicago Boyz reduced - 029

We didn’t finish our Wausau City Council meeting Tuesday until around 10:45 p.m., but when the dust had cleared, the plan to improve the 400 block had passed 8-4. That was a better margin than I expected and much better than the votes I was mentally trying to count just a few weeks ago. The supporters who showed up and contacted their representatives deserve a lot of credit.

There has been much discussion about the appropriate level of city resources that should be invested in the project and other concerns expressed at the meeting. On one hand, the city acquires and invests in parks using tax dollars in almost every other case.

Though there is certainly precedent for private donations and fundraising, the 400 block project has emerged as some kind of unique carve-out in some people’s minds against  long-standing policies and practices. On the other hand, a high level of private funding was clearly one of the selling points for the project at the council. At least some of the votes in favor of proceeding were more or less conditional on that concept. An amendment that would have delineated this very clearly will now be dealt with in the Finance Committee, which I chair.

There were some provisions in the original “Kaiser Amendment” offered that I am not inclined to agree to. These include specifying a hard cap on dollars from the city and their source, setting up a geographical line that divides “the land of public dollars” from the “land of private dollars” and a hard percentage of private dollars that need to be in hand before work can proceed. It needs to be remembered by opponents of the program that when you lose the vote, it doesn’t mean you get to call the tune for the people who are ready to dance. At the same time, there were some political and practical realities that Matt Kaiser was legitimately trying to deal with. (Whether he would have ultimately supported the main measure if his amendment had carried is something we don’t know.)

Do we need to enunciate a policy on these matters at all? I believe that we do – and clearly. The political reality is that some members of the council voted in favor of the plan in the good faith belief that private funding would cover the great majority of the project costs. That needs to be honored. All members of the council are up for re-election in April and since the project will not have commenced yet, there will be enough fears and smears surrounding the 400 block project being passed around anyway. Legitimizing those complaints by handling things on this high-profile issue in a manner that seems to have council members reneging on what is fairly viewed as their commitment to proceeding with private funding is a recipe for a lot of hard feelings.

There is also the practical matter of money. The city will have plenty on its budget plate for next year already. State shared revenue is being cut and the growth in the tax base will not match up to prior years as a result in the decline of new projects that accompanied the recession. I’m not interested in creating a perception that we would be willing to lay off family breadwinners and overtax property owners for the purpose of creating enough headroom in the budget to accommodate what many still see as something that is far from an emergency.

So what’s fair and makes sense? First, the hard number should be applied to the private funding component – not the public side of the equation. In consideration for the tremendous gift that the city is hoping to receive from private donors, the city needs to tell them outright and soon just exactly where the bar is that they need to jump over. When they show up with the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West, the city needs to grant their request with no ifs, ands or buts.

This construction project is going to be contracted by the city and it is the city that holds the cards, not the donors. If certain items are optional, then it is fair to give donors a minimum for the basic plan and then a “stretch goal” to accomplish those additions. Laying these understandings out clearly upfront will allow the fund drive to be clearly defined and provides the best opportunity for it to achieve its goals.  It can’t be a one-sided discussion because people from either side can walk if they don’t think it works for them. 

Second, there are aspects of the project that relate to infrastructure, public safety and code requirements for which the city has more than a passing interest and should take responsibility. We want a facility that meets certain specifications, while minimizing future costs for upkeep, replacements or upgrades because that saves money and it’s the right way to do things. The donors to the project aren’t doing something for their private benefit, but providing the means for a public facility that serves everyone. It’s the city’s land and it’s going to be the city’s square. As prudent landowners and managers, there are things like utility infrastructure, perimeter sidewalks, etc. that would be the responsibility of any developer if they involved private land. To the extent that any existing facilities may be adequate and in good repair, some kind of reasonable understanding on these things can surely be reached that is fair to both donors and city taxpayers. Moreover, there may be an opportunity for the city to assist this project with in-kind services. That should not only be allowed, but also encouraged for this partnership effort because it benefits everyone involved.

Finally, an agreeable governance structure and adequate capacity needs to be in place on the private donation side to accommodate contributions, including in-kind. This is more than simply a matter of having a tax-deductible fund to which people can send their contributions. With regard to the former, the parties need to be in complete agreement on expectations so that the considerable private funds being raised do not become a leveraging issue between the public and private partners at some point later in the process. With regard to the latter, not all in-kind contributions may be appropriate or may include conditions that would not be acceptable. To the greatest extent possible, this possibility should be anticipated and dealt with on a policy level – before someone comes in with an ill-advised idea that turns everyone inside out because we haven’t put anything in place to deal with it. People must be able to have complete confidence in the players and understand their roles.

So those are my initial thoughts. I’m only one council member and I’m constantly learning new things along the way, too. But whatever issues there are now or that will emerge need to be resolved and then we’ll take it wherever it leads us. Again, a big “THANK YOU!” to everyone who has made the substantial progress thus far possible.








Big Tuesday looms for the 400 block

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on August 8, 2009 by Jim Rosenberg

Concert crowd, reduced

Tuesday’s council meeting features the return of an issue that has been on my short list of things to try to get done for years: improving the 400 block.  It has been derided, derailed and delayed for years.  I don’t expect it to be a landslide victory, but I’m hopeful on this go-around because we’ve had a great outpouring of organized public support.  One example is a Facebook page that has collected more than 460 people supporting the improvements: 

And there’s recognition that the job isn’t done until the job is done, too — so I’m hoping that we’ll be seeing a lot of supporters at the meeting:

I’ve talked enough about this in the past and it’s easy to scroll down the blog and find the prior discussion.  There will be a lot of people to thank if we can finally get this plan approved this week.  I’m hoping that after Tuesday’s meeting, we will have the opportunity to begin working to implementation instead of being mired in yet another chapter of the unending discussion that has kept us from reaching our potential over the past few years with this outstanding but unpolished gem.  See you at City Hall Tuesday night.