Archive for December, 2010

A flurry of issues and corporate responsibility

Posted in Uncategorized on December 30, 2010 by Jim Rosenberg

Driving up Grand Avenue in Wausau Monday morning, we came upon a weird little localized snowstorm on our way downtown. Visibility was low, the roadway was getting slick and it was something that I’d seen before. When conditions in the atmosphere and the wind direction are just right, the snow cannons operating on the Granite Peak ski area can end up dropping snow miles away from the slopes.

On our way back, we saw a significant two-car accident on Grand Avenue in the 1700 block. I have no idea what all of the contributing factors were, but I can tell you that if I had been in one of the cars, I would have appreciated far better pavement conditions for braking than what they had. One car had done a 180 and the impact was likely far greater as a result of the slick roadway. (One can only imagine how dramatic things could become if someone happens to lose control on one of those new flyover bridges at the I-39/Highway 51/Highway 29 interchange.)

This isn’t just some theory. It happens and a lot of people know it. On one occasion a couple of years back, I saw people out with their snowblowers in one part of town while the skies were blue a few dozen blocks away. People need to understand that snowmaking on the ski hill is a huge operation involving hundreds of units and many thousands of gallons of water – enough to create a small snowstorm, because that’s exactly what they do. Most of the time, the weather conditions are such that it’s not much of an issue.

Since it’s not that tough to take a look, that’s what we did earlier this week. I also served for years on the Marathon County Highway Committee and we learned of the impact that snowmaking sometimes has on the roadways in the area, so this wasn’t some new discovery. It’s not just the highways that are of concern. Every roadway in the area impacted offers the potential for property damage and personal injury. Every sidewalk can become more hazardous and generally has to be cleared or treated to restore a safe condition. In short, thousands of people are impacted to greater or lesser degrees.

This is a classic case of what economists call an externality. It’s a cost that is not picked up by the parties to the transaction. There are lots of externalities in the economy. You don’t have to pay for Middle East security forces every time you fill up your gas tank, for example – but if you think the cost of our military posture would be exactly the same over there if the principle product was Jerusalem artichokes instead of petroleum, well, that’s one of us.  And what of the cost to the environment?  Do I really want my cocktails to reflect the total cost of alcohol consumption to our society?  The list goes on — cheaper goods at the expense of looking the other way on the issue of sweat shops; lower priced commodies at the expense of environmental degradation; the toll of second-hand smoke, etc. It’s a slippery slope.

The reasoning for not including externalities includes that they can be notoriously difficult to accurately quantify and there are offsetting public benefits to consider, too.  There is also the matter of politics.  In the case of the ski hill, there is no question that it is a boon to the local hospitality industry during the winter months. It’s a multi-million dollar generator of tourism dollars and that money spreads through the local economy in the form of retail sales, tax revenues and economic activity.

The problem is that the people who are incurring the costs of externalities are often not the same people who are most directly and substantially enjoying the economic benefit of the activity. If you’ve got a 45-minute wait for tables at your skier-swelled restaurant, then your perspective is likely to be a bit different than the injured person sitting in a mangled vehicle waiting for emergency responders.

By Wednesday, after two days of oddball snowfalls, the local media were on it. It was front-page news in the Wausau Daily Herald:

http://www.wausaudailyherald.com/article/20101229/WDH0101/12290455/Man-made-snow-squalls

The often-raucous discussion among readers took the typical twists and turns, weighing the importance of the ski hill as an economic engine vs. the right of taxpayers to recover costs of service, the overall environment for business, whether the hill could fairly be fingered and everything else.

The story in the paper provides a good starting point for a discussion:

Stu Kulpinski, who oversees snowmaking at Granite Peak, said some snow from the snow-making guns goes into the sky and the low cloud cover and wind in recent days has pushed snow into Wausau. When the clouds dissipated, the snow that went into the air evaporated, he said. When complaints were made, the snow cannons were pointed in a different direction to address the problem, Kulpinski said. “We’ve run over 30 days of snowmaking and only three or four times had problems,” Kulpinski said.

 What this tells me is that the company knows there’s a problem and even admits that it could be occurring up to 10 percent of the time. (Personally, I think it’s a lot less than that, but 30 days of snowmaking with problems “three or four times” is not insignificant.) So, instead of proactively evaluating conditions like wind direction, barometric pressure, temperature and humidity to find a pattern, they wait for complaints and THEN they modify their operations to mitigate it. That’s backwards — and it’s the kind of thing that makes people hate corporations.

Granite Peak needs to evaluate and identify the conditions that lead to the complaints and then do their level best to proactively adjust their operations to mitigate the issues. They need to communicate their concern for public safety and their willingness to do everything that they can be reasonably expected to do to prevent problems before they occur, while having a rapid response system to address those times when their improved approach may fall short.  This makes good business sense.  Trial lawyers have a way of bringing things like this into focus and turning externalities into dollars and cents when folks are oblivious. Almost nothing makes public officials more schizophrenic than some vague concept of potential liability hanging over them like a darkening cloud and the solutions they come up with can sometimes be worse than the problem.

The ski hill is a premier asset to the community and its remarkable improvements over the past dozen years have been a huge success. Few would be interested in making things less successful for them. On the other hand, Granite Peak isn’t moving to China and the current approach to the externalities of snowmaking is proving inadequate.  There’s no particular reason to believe that things can’t be improved, with a little resolve toward doing that. Absent that commitment, local governments could be pressured to address the matter by adopting a more aggressive regulatory approach, so working together toward a better situation is really in everyone’s best interests.

JR

And nearly two years later —

SPECIAL WEATHER STATEMENT

NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE GREEN BAY WI

928 AM CST WED DEC 19 2012

 

…SLICK ROADS THIS MORNING IN WAUSAU…

 

MAN MADE SNOW ON THE SKI HILLS CONTINUED TO FALL IN THE CITY OF

WAUSAU AND RIB MOUNTAIN THIS MORNING. THE LIGHT SNOW HAS CAUSED

SOME ACCIDENTS IN THE RIB MOUNTAIN AND WAUSAUAREA. IN

ADDITION…FREEZING DRIZZLE AND PATCHY FOG WAS MAKING TRAVEL

DIFFICULT ON THE NORTH SIDE OF THE SKI HILL. TRAVELERS CAN

EXPECT SLIPPERY ROADS IN THE CITY OF WAUSAU AND NEAR RIB MOUNTAIN

THIS MORNING THROUGH THE EARLY AFTERNOON DUE TO THE MAN MADE SNOW

AND FOG. PLEASE USE CAUTION TRAVELING IN THIS AREA.

 

 

Awesome Banana Pudding recipe!

Posted in Uncategorized on December 25, 2010 by Jim Rosenberg

As regular readers know, we occasionally dump the serious stuff and since I don’t really do comedy, we do a recipe.  Here’s your chance to be a hero at the next family gathering or potluck (a.k.a. as Paula Deen’s “Not Yo Mamma’s Banana Pudding.”)   This is what we’re doing today, so this is what you get — but you’ll love it!

Ingredients:

2 bags of Pepperidge Farm Chessmen cookies

6-8 bananas, sliced

1 (5-oz.) box instant French vanilla pudding

2 cups milk

1 (8-oz.) pack of cream cheese, softened

1 (14-oz.) can of sweetened condensed milk

1 (12-oz.) container of frozen whipped topping (thawed) or an equal amount of sweetened whipped cream.

Line the bottom of a 13x9x2-inch dish with  Chessmen cookies.  (And as you can see, we picked up the holiday-themed type.)

Cover the cookie layer with a layer of sliced bananas.

In in one mixing bowl, combined the milk and pudding mix and blend well with a handheld electric mixer.

Using another bowl, combine the cream cheese and condensed milk together and mix until smooth. Fold the whipped topping into the cream cheese mixture. Add the cream cheese and topping mixture to the pudding mixture and and still until it is fully blended.

Pour the blended mixture over the cookies and bananas and then cover it with remaining cookies.  (I ate one, so that’s why I have a row of three. Besides, there isn’t room to do four the long way…)

Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Bon appetit.

UPDATE: People are finding this recipe regularly and we noted with interest that someone had found it by entering “banana pudding and milk” in Persian. We are therefore adding the term here, to make it easier to find: پودینگ موز و شیر

Fasten your seatbelts, we are now ready for departure…

Posted in Uncategorized on December 19, 2010 by Jim Rosenberg

The story of the week in Madison was State Senator Russ Decker voting to prevent approval of 17 state employee union contracts in a lame duck session of the legislature. The action came following a sweep in the November elections that will flip the Assembly, Senate and governor’s mansion from Democratic to GOP control in January. The former union bricklayer had risen to majority leader with the strong support of unions during his 20-year legislative career and his parting shot was read as a betrayal of people who helped him along in two decades as a senator.  He was stripped of his leadership post after the vote, but it didn’t change the outcome and with November’s outcome for both Decker and the Democrats,  it was an office he was moving out of anyway.

I stopped by his makeshift and temporary capitol office the day after the vote to offer my condolences to the lone, young staffer who was left to go through the e-mails and voice mails that had arrived overnight. Considering what people were willing to say in public, one can only imagine what their one-on-one comments were like, because the reaction had been swift and shrill:

“No one expected it, but Decker’s a whore. He’s whoring for (Gov.-elect Scott) Walker; he’s whoring for someone, for himself. That’s my only comment. There’s no other excuse,” fumed Marty Beil, executive director of AFSCME, the state’s largest public employee union. “Psychologists probably write books about this type of behavior. It’s a disorder that’s probably now being named.”

Long-time colleague Senator Bob Jauch didn’t mince any words, either. “It is the most disgusting behavior by any public official I have seen in 28 years. A leader who abandons his principals, the senate, the workers and left a legacy of being a loser. He’s been here for almost 20 years and he will be remembered by this one sad moment in life. That’s a shame… “I’m dumbfounded. No matter what his motive is, he’s sticking it to a lot of middle class workers. I’ve never seen anything this selfish.”

And that was what his (former) friends had to say. What did Decker have to say? Quite a bit, actually – and you can read it here:

http://media.graytvinc.com/documents/Decker+Statement.doc
 
 If all else fails, a person could take Decker’s statement at face value. Almost nobody but Republicans has shown much inclination to do that and it’s not unanimous there, either:

“I really feel bad for these people, for the state workers. They’re good people; they got shafted by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, it’s as simple of that,” incoming Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Ellis said. “You have a governor and a majority leader that hate each other. You’ve got a former majority leader (Chuck Chvala) running the show from the back room, and all these things came together in one big deal. And who is the loser?” (It is at this point that we need to point out that as sorry as Mike Ellis might feel for state workers, his “No” vote counted just as much as Decker’s did. The other Democratic vote to scuttle the contracts was Senator Jeff Plale’s. He was ousted by a wide margin in the September primary in his South Milwaukee district.)

Like the unions, I go back a ways with Decker. I handed out literature for him at plant gates in 1990. He was taking on long-time State Senator Walter John Chilsen, who had been in office since 1966.  At the time, I didn’t think Decker had a snowball’s chance in hell in that race, but he had a pit bull working the campaign by the name of Don Gehrhardt. Don was a government affairs representative with the Teamsters the last time I ran into him. In 1990, he was a staffer for Congressman Dave Obey. Decker’s win was a tribute to what an aggressive, well-run campaign it really was.

Personally, I’ve always liked Russ Decker. As a legislator, I sometimes found him maddening. I seethed when he fattened up public employee pensions based on the stock market bubble in the late 1990s because I saw it as a “heads I win, tails you lose” deal for taxpayers. It was — and I had to vote several times to fund larger pension liabilities on the part of taxpayers when I was serving as a city council member after the bubble burst. Reducing the number of Class B reserve liquor licenses in municipalities across the state and raising the cost to $10,000 at the behest of the Tavern League was pure crap, in my view. There was a workaround that the Wausau City Council never wanted to adopt when I brought it up, but the need for it was always because of Decker’s legislation.

Constantly advocating for things like uncased guns in vehicles, firing DNR deer managers, a phone-a-friend system for a deer tag — they all seemed like bad ideas, poor priorities and pandering to me. The continuing association with disgraced former Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala always struck me as surprisingly poor judgement. He made a few other poor judgements along the way, too.

On the other hand, Decker was a reliable supporter of Democratic values. A lot of things could be taken for granted with Decker and that is no small thing. There were plenty of things that would never make it to a committee or come out of one while he was majority leader or sitting on Joint Finance. Pay attention over the coming session of the legislature, if that doesn’t seem important. Ideology matters. Just ask train maker Talgo, the mayors of Milwaukee and Madison or the thousands of workers who might have been employed building an $810 million high-speed rail project in southern Wisconsin. As Russ Decker correctly pointed out, elections have consequences.

I’m not ready to make a pronouncement about Russ Decker. Judging motivations is a tricky business. Could it have been a desire to deny Governor Doyle a chance to wrap up the contracts for not bringing them to the legislature sooner? (That said, it also seems significant that three quarters of the work under these contracts has already been done, since they cover a largely retroactive period that began in 2009.) Is there something in the future for ex-Senator Decker that may have been conditioned upon deep-sixing the contracts? Is it retribution for supporters who didn’t rally the necessary support to take him through a tough election season that saw many Democrats go down to defeat, including U.S. Senator Russ Feingold? Some have suggested he attempted to gain a pardon for his old friend Chvala. Some have even called for a criminal investigation.

We may never know the real reason that Russ Decker did what he did on his way out the door, or we may be able to figure it out pretty easily, once we see where and how Decker finds his own way forward. He may have already told us in his statement — the one so few seem to believe right now.

As for me, I’m content to wait and see. We may someday be able to look back on this as one of the most principled acts to take place in the Wisconsin legislature during this session. Failing that, it could also turn out to be one of the least.

JR

Another city, another 400 Block…

Posted in Uncategorized on December 14, 2010 by Jim Rosenberg

So, I’m reading the paper this morning and I learn that the city may need to kick in another $300,000 for the renovations of the park in the 400 Block.  The budget was around $1.2 million, but happily, the project actually came in well under that at $978,055. 

Here was the funding formula: general obligation borrowing by the city, $50,000; impact fees, $80,000; tax increment financing, $650,000; private donations, $385,00.  That last part — a minority share from private sector fundraising — is what didn’t materialize.  But don’t expect a big demonstration at tonight’s city council meeting.  It’s not likely that there will be angry people turning themselves inside out with threats and charges of elitism on tonight’s news after a bitter, decade-long, community-wide, all-consuming struggle.  There probably won’t be major retribution over it in the Spring elections and it may not even come up in the discussion at all by then.

In general, most people who care — and most probably don’t — seem pretty happy with the project and in the broad scheme of things, the general attitude seems to be  that it’s a nice improvement.  There are even public restrooms and the work is already completed.  Really, I’m not making this up.  You can read about it here, complete with a “city on the hook” headline:

http://host.madison.com/wsj/news/local/govt-and-politics/article_6c296b54-0721-11e0-a6c5-001cc4c03286.html

But this park is in the 400 block of State Street in Madison and it won’t be called “the 400 Block” because it’s already been named after a local peace activist, Lisa Link.  And now you know the rest of the story.

JR

Naming that Square…

Posted in Uncategorized on December 8, 2010 by Jim Rosenberg

A  new page will be appearing on the City of Wausau’s website tomorrow that will give people the opportunity to offer potential names for the 400 Block, which is now a frozen construction site.  My guess is that a lot of people will suggest that it continue to be called “The 400 Block” — but that doesn’t make it the best idea.  History is filled with examples of people getting together in loud majorities to make the wrong decision by majority rule.  (I mean, Hitler was elected, you know?)

Add to that our long-time community challenge of trying to name things.  The Woodchucks play at “Athletic Park” and our hockey teams play in buildings named to honor “multi-purpose.”  (Hey, it’s not just us.  “Central Park” and “Public School No. 212” aren’t exactly tributes to creativity, either.) 

Anyway, I’m thinking I’d like to put my two cents worth in for people that have already put in tens of millions and who continue to do it today.  My suggestion is that we instead hold a naming nomination process for the little park on the corner of Pied Piper Lane and Lakeview Drive on Wausau’s southeast side by the Wausau Downtown Airport.  (Never mind that the airport is not downtown and that the park is not “Airport Park” because the park with that name is further down the street.)

The reason to rename the little park, which is Alexander Park, is to take that name for the square.  Here’s why:

1.  Alexander Square has a nice ring to it.  It makes you want to know more — and by golly, you should.  Google maps already thinks that the 400 Block is Washington Square and you can go check that for yourself.  That has a nice ring to it, too — but any town could have a Washington Square and in our case, we already do.  It’s a building complex.

But most importantly…

2.  The Alexander Foundation(s) in Wausau have and continue to provide for truly remarkable things in our city.  This incredible resource has quietly provided many millions of dollars for projects in our community for decades.  (I didn’t count up what they have into the square and they may even be acting anonymously, but I’d be willing to bet that foundation is significantly involved without even bothering to check.)  The mission of the Judd S. Alexander Foundation, for example, includes funding only things that directly benefit the citizens of Marathon County. 

The Alexanders were involved in building some of the area’s most important industries and also with working to diversify the regional economy from heavy dependence on the lumber industry, as important as forest products continue to be in our neck of the woods.  Being a good Scotsman, Walter Alexander didn’t spend all of his money and neither did his sons.  Worthy community efforts large and small have had a friend in the Alexander Foundation(s) over the years.  They’ve made things happen that would have been very difficult or impossible without them.  More times than most people realize, they’ve represented a lot of the “private” in public-private partnerships in Wausau. 

It’s been a fairly quiet operation, in comparison to the tremendous influence for good that they have brought to bear in Wausau.  We owe the Alexander family a huge debt of gratitude because we couldn’t be what we are today without what they did to help our community move forward so many years ago.  We ought to give just a little of the recognition that their awesome gesture deserves by placing their family name on a prominent feature in the center of the city that they have had so much a part of building in so many ways.  In doing so, we would also be honoring their noble ideal of giving something back to the community, which is exactly what they’ve done in spades for decades, while also providing an invaluable and sustainable means to accomplish even more in the future.  It should be Alexander Square.

JR