Archive for October, 2011

Chili with Tonette (recipe…)

Posted in Uncategorized on October 29, 2011 by Jim Rosenberg

Okay, it’s time for a recipe. While I ordinarily use these as a way to get away from politics, I do sometimes make exceptions. (See the SOTU salmon recipe, which refers to President Obama’s most recent State of the Union address.) The other thing is that I volunteered for the Marathon County Democratic Party’s annual Chili Cook-off and I was looking for something catchy to name my entry. Based on the crowd and the times, “Chili with Tonette” seemed like a no-brainer, but allow me to develop the concept a little here, before we get to the meat of the matter.

Dial back to March 1, 2011. The Center for Media and Democracy reports:

“In a dramatic turn of events at the Wisconsin State Capitol today, Governor Scott Walker defied a court order to open the Capitol for normal business operations. State legislator, Representative Marc Pocan, called the move “not only unprecedented, but contempt of court as well.”

On Monday at 8:00 a.m., the Wisconsin Capitol building, which was the site of dozens of major protests in the last two weeks — including one of over 100,00 on Sunday — was virtually locked down as the Governor moved to limit protester access in advance of his scheduled budget address on Tuesday.

After untold numbers were turned away at the door Monday and told they could not speak to their legislators, Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney pulled his deputies from the Capitol saying it was not their job to act as “palace guard.”

* * *

Amidst this environment of crisis, which would eventually cost two GOP state senators their jobs in recall elections, Governor Walker puts out the following message on his Twitter account:

“Had some chili w/Tonette as we watched @AmericanIdol.”

The soulless little dispatch was quickly retweeted by 61 people and we had ourselves something that was tone deaf enough to pass for a Wisconsin version of Marie Antoinette’s famous misquote, “Let them eat cake.” (The fact that her name is Tonette only gives it a little more of a ring.) We therefore immortalize this historic quote by naming our chili in its honor.

So anyway, let’s talk about the chili. Sure, I’ve made it with garden-fresh tomatoes and other “from scratch” ingredients in the past, but I have to tell you that it doesn’t seem to make enough of a difference to be worth being a pretentious purist about it. Also, I make large batches and then freeze it in quart-size freezer containers, so feel free to cut the quantity in half if you like a smaller batch or you don’t have a large enough stock pot to make it work for you. (And don’t put macaroni in your chili. It doesn’t belong in there and it pretty much destroys it for freezing, too. If you like macaroni, make it on the side and let people who have picked up that bad habit add it on their own, by the individual serving. Just remember that it isn’t chili.)

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 4 lbs. ground beef
  • 2 large onions
  • 28 oz. can of tomato sauce
  • 29 oz. can of crushed tomatoes
  • ¼ cup sugar (or a little more, to taste)
  • 2 – 16 oz. cans of chili beans (NOTE: Chili beans are NOT kidney beans!)
  • 2 packets of chili seasoning (I use hot)
  • Chili powder
  • Black pepper
  • Garlic (powder and several pressed cloves)
  • Cayenne pepper
  • 8 oz. Velveeta (I use Mexican. Save the good cheese to grate over a steaming bowl.)
  • TIME! Good chili takes at least three hours to be passable and usually more.

You’re going to need at least a 10-quart stockpot. (I’ve done it with an 8-quart, but it doesn’t leave much room to stir things.)

Open the cans of tomato sauce crushed tomatoes and beans. Pour them into your stockpot with one can of hot water from the tomato sauce can and one cup of hot water from a bean can. Cover it, put it on medium heat and start dicing your two LARGE onions (and if they’re not large enough, use more.) Stir occasionally and as soon as you bring this to a light boil, back it off to a very low simmer, which is where it will stay for the rest of the process. Sprinkle on a thin layer of chili powder and a bit of black pepper. Stir it in thoroughly. Drop in the onions as soon as they’re ready and stir them in with one of your packets of chili seasoning and a quarter cup of sugar.

Now, it’s time to brown the meat. I do it with a large, covered skillet that can handle my 4 lbs. at once. Mix in the other packet of chili seasoning with the meat and add some garlic powder. You’re going to be mixing this up frequently with a spatula, but use the cover to hold in the heat and the moisture. The spices will mix in with the liquid and flow through the meat while it browns. Having your meat add extra flavor instead of having to draw it from the other ingredients fuses things together more effectively and it makes a big difference in the finished chili. (Yes, you’ll end up with more liquid at the end of the process to pour off or strain out, unless you finish it uncovered to steam some of it away at the end.)

On the subject of draining, I like to compact the browned meat into a fine mesh colander to push out any excess liquid because I don’t want to see any grease puddles separating out in the final product. Everything in this chili is fused together, once it’s finished. (I’m showing you two pictures of the chili in process. One shows it before the onions are cooked down and the other is the finished product, which has an entirely different color, texture and flavor after three or four hours of simmering.)

Okay, so once you toss in the meat and stir it all together, you simmer and stir occasionally for the next three hours, at least. After about an hour, I dice up the Velveeta into chunks and drop them in, stirring them in about 10 minutes later, after they’ve melted down. Just keep up the stirring and simmering over low heat. The onions will cook down to near invisibility and after a couple of hours you can begin tasting and adding things like chili powder, black pepper, cayenne pepper — (and be careful with this stuff, okay?) Press a clove or two of garlic into the mix.

That’s it. It’s all a matter of taste, smell and touch as you go along. And have you ever noticed how chili is even better warmed up than it is on the first go around? Well, I usually take it to the point where it’s totally done and then park the pot to cool until the next day. By the time you get it reheated, it will have effectively added more than an hour of cooking time between the cool down and the warm-up, moving your chili up the scale from excellent to outstanding.

Bon appetit!

JR

Tired of non-stop partisanship? Then give it a rest.

Posted in Uncategorized on October 14, 2011 by Jim Rosenberg

The other day, there was a gang of crows in the back yard – (did you know that a flock of crowds is actually known as a “murder?”) – cawing away as they mobbed a lone hawk that they were trying to drive out of the neighborhood. Crows are fairly reliable troublemakers and they kind of remind me of the electronic lynch mobs that regularly turn up in the comment section after each story in our local newspaper with their cyber torches blazing.

There’s a great example in today’s edition. A story appears about Congressman Sean Duffy and his family moving to Weston from Ashland, a small city of around 8,700 on Lake Superior, in the far reaches of his district. It makes all the sense in the world because it cuts down on the stress of travel for him to be able to fly back and forth to Washington DC from nearby Central Wisconsin Airport and he considers the Wausau area to be the hub of the 7th Congressional District.

Without trying to sound like too much of a homer, I have to agree with him. The Duffys have six children, which is a lot to manage – so anything that minimizes the travel time is worth something to that family. It’s also a good thing for the Wausau area to have their representative in Congress be as familiar as possible with local concerns and conditions.

So it’s all good, right? Well, no.

There immediately ensued a heated exchange between Duffy detractors and supporters, who seem to use any excuse to engage on their various grievances and ideological differences, punctuated by the usual cheap shots. It was no different when Dave Obey was in office – and it’s a damn shame. Heaven only knows how many capable, visionary people of good character have been dissuaded from serving in any office from school board on up by the toxic personal attacks that people are forced to endure just to serve in government.

I’m all for spirited policy debates and holding people accountable. There are plenty of things that I disagree with Congressman Duffy about and State Senator Pam Galloway, too. But I think it’s important to respect the people who hold elective offices to the greatest possible extent. I’ve had a number of conversations with both Duffy and Galloway. These are interesting people with convictions, principles and intellect. There is more to them than simply politics, but even that is a general area of interest that we share.

Moreover, a lot of things that elected representatives and their staff members can facilitate are not all that partisan. Even though we may have fundamental disagreements about some very important issues, there will always be opportunities to agree on other things that have real value. When I served on the county highway committee, I had a number of discussions with Rep. Jerry Petrowski, who is a long-time member and chair of the Assembly Transportation Committee. But why should people like that put up with you between elections if you aren’t willing to put up with them long enough to have a civil conversation? Those who refuse to maintain anything but a confrontational relationship sacrifice important potential opportunities to have a positive impact or temper some outcomes.

People often complain that campaign season never seems to end, but it isn’t just the fault of politicians. If we want to have a political environment that goes beyond posturing for elections, there has to be something more to things than simply trying to tar people at every turn in an effort to set up the next one.

JR

Jobs and global commerce: bringing it all back home

Posted in Uncategorized on October 9, 2011 by Jim Rosenberg

There was a conference Thursday with the Center for Civic Engagement at the UW-Marathon County entitled “Positioning Central Wisconsin to Better Compete in the Global Economy,” and since it was right across the street and I’m an economic development kind of person, I went over to check it out. I was especially interested in hearing Footlocker U.S. President and CEO Dick Johnson. He works in New York now, but he lived in Wausau a few years ago, before taking a position as president of Footlocker Europe in Amsterdam.

A lot of people who have been around Wausau for awhile know the story of the guys from Eastbay Running Store who started out selling athletic shoes out of their trunk at the kayak races and eventually ended up with a huge enterprise. It was sold and it’s a worldwide business today working through 3,400 retail outlets, but they still have significant operations in Wausau filling catalogue and online orders from a half million square foot distribution facility in the industrial park and a corporate facility off 1st Avenue.

Anyway, back in 2005, there were three couples from Wausau who were planning a trip to Paris and one of the gentlemen on the journey was Dick Johnson. None of them had been to Paris before and I was leading a rather flexible existence at the time, so I volunteered to show them around town on their arrival day, since I like Paris anyway. We had a great time and they were all real troopers, preventing jetlag by marching the city and enjoying the ambiance instead of taking that tempting nap after the transatlantic flight. One thing on their list was a trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Dick bought me a ticket, for which I still have the stub and with which I took the photo above.

One thing that really resonated from his presentation at the conference a few days ago was a negative experience the company had trying to expand their call center. They were getting little help from local officials and ended up setting something up in Oshkosh. Times were pretty good in those days. Just thinking about 2005, for example, the Wisconsin unemployment rate dipped below 4 percent at times and never even reached six percent that year, or for several years thereafter. “Those are just call center jobs,” said people Dick Johnson talked with about Eastbay’s expansion plans.

About all I can say about it is that I know he didn’t talk to me. At Marathon County’s Education and Economic Development Committee, I harped on the idea that ALL jobs are important and that necessarily includes occupations with lower barriers to entry.

We need rungs on career ladders that go all the way to ground and it is shortsighted to only be concerned with higher-paying occupations. Those lower-paying jobs need supervisors. Young people and those who need to get back into the workforce have a place to gain current experience. A second income in a household can push the family’s income more firmly into the middle class, providing an extra measure of financial security. Households have a better chance to build assets and a good share of that income ends up supporting other businesses with consumer spending. Eastbay even has a tuition reimbursement program so employees who want to improve themselves and their career prospects through higher education have an opportunity to do that.

And here’s a biggee: additional demand in the labor market is what will eventually support higher wages and benefits. Remember a few years ago when the minimum wage was practically a moot point because almost nobody could find people to work at that rate of pay anyway?  Now, legislation is being considered to deal with pervasive discrimination against the unemployed because so many companies refuse to consider hiring them. Maybe there ought to be a law, but it would be far better if there were jobs from which people can work their way in and up.

Today, the national unemployment rate is 9.1 percent and the underemployment rate is 16.5 percent, so we’re not in a position to be so picky about jobs. Yet the Wisconsin Economic Development Commission passed a resolution in June that 85 percent of jobs receiving WEDC incentives must pay workers at least 150 percent of federal minimum wage; around $10.88 an hour. WEDC head Paul Jadin says the agency has been getting inquiries from employers looking for government assistance to open call centers here paying $8 an hour but it has turned them down. Sound familiar?

Look, I know that sounds very reasonable at first blush and I’m all for great pay and benefits. Unfortunately, it’s the same out of touch mistake that Dick Johnson was telling us about at the Global Economy conference. It’s also a great way to keep wages lower for longer, as if we needed any more supply side fat. As for WEDC, that $10.88 standard doesn’t seem like much of a hurdle. But they could jack their standard up to $20 an hour and then button up most of their agency, since they won’t have many people left to talk to anyway. In short, it was a bad idea at 4 percent unemployment when we were shipping those jobs to India and it’s a worse idea now.

I’m not saying we need to give away the store for low wage jobs, but let’s not kid ourselves about the value of employment on all levels. Why pretend that every worthwhile job has to be a career or act like pursuing incremental progress is a worthless endeavor, either individually or collectively? It’s not. All other things being equal, the person who goes to work every day in a call center will be in a far better position to be upwardly mobile a couple of years from now than the person who spent their time unemployed.

This economy has a problem with insufficient demand in many different areas, including and especially labor. Instead of turning up our noses at service sector jobs that might be developed, it would be far more effective to do everything we can to get everybody working just as quickly as we can. Once that happens, wages and career mobility will have a way of taking care of themselves.

JR

About the 400 Block and that $300,000…

Posted in Uncategorized on October 6, 2011 by Jim Rosenberg

There was an interesting story in the Wausau Daily Herald this week entitled:

“Overlooked $300,000 from TIF district to help pay for part of 400 Block project.”

“Wausau will use $300,000 in economic development funds to cover its portion of 400 Block construction costs — money that was set aside in 2006 and then all but forgotten by city officials.

“Minutes from April 2009 and August 2009 City Council meetings make no mention that the city three years earlier had set aside $300,000 in funding from its tax increment district No. 3 for the project — money that is separate from the general fund and used to spur economic development.

“The money had not been spent by the end of 2010, when the city approved this year’s budget, and Wausau Finance Director Maryanne Groat said Monday that the money carries over from year to year.

You can read the entire story here:

http://www.wausaudailyherald.com/article/20111004/WDH0101/110040403/Overlooked-300-000-from-TIF-district-help-pay-part-400-Block-project?odyssey=mod|mostcom

And it’s quite a story. It makes it sound like there was a pot of gold that had been quietly and carefully stashed when Tax Increment District 3 was amended in 2006, just ready and waiting to be hauled out.

Well, that’s not exactly the case.

First, let me say that I unequivocally supported the improvements to the 400 Block. That includes the city’s share of the cost, which was a minority of the funding in comparison to the money raised by people and organizations who donated to make it possible.

I also knew about the provision for up to $300,000 in the 2006 amendment to Tax Increment District 3 that created the possibility of funding “Perimeter Landscaping, Sidewalk and Amenities (seating, shade accommodations)”.

But there is a lot of stuff in TIF plans. The 2006 amendment to TID 3 in Wausau includes, for example, “Construction of a multi-purpose structure that will serve as a civic center/conference center/convention center,” although there is no dollar amount mentioned. Does anyone think we’re ready to roll on that?

So I’ve never been of the opinion that the existence of an item in such a document translated into a done deal, putting funding authority in place to proceed with no further action by the city council. In fact, I’ve said the opposite – that we want to include everything including the kitchen sink in the TID plan to mitigate the need for amendments later, but that the council would always have the right and obligation to pull the trigger – (or not) — on actual projects, as they came up.

If elected officials didn’t exercise that authority and affirmatively vote in favor of projects as they came up, they could end up as little more than spectators while tens of millions of dollars in projects “approved” by their predecessors in tax increment district plans with lives stretching over decades ran on autopilot.

It doesn’t work that way and it is for this reason that you will find, under Item 7 on Page 14 under “Detailed List of Project Costs” in the 2006 amendment to TID 3, the following statement:

“The Plan is neither meant to be a budget nor an appropriation of funds for specific projects, but a framework from which to manage projects.”

The 400 Block project isn’t a really huge matter in a fiscal sense, but it has been controversial enough for years to become a monument to acrimony. We might have hoped all that would have ended with its completion in a project mostly funded with private gifts, but it is apparently a gift that keeps on giving.

As for in-kind services by the city, they were estimated at around $175,000 and I don’t have a problem with that. Unless people believe that all of the workers would have been laid off for free and the equipment would have sat idle as an alternative to the 400 Block work, it’s really a case of “no blood, no foul,” in my opinion. Sucking it up and providing support for an important city improvement on a piece of city-owned property within existing resources is something that I regard as falling within the purview of good management by the mayor and he is an elected official. It’s also fair to recover some of that cost from the TID.

But the “Watchdog Report” from the Wausau Daily Herald also cites around $185,000 in materials and those are hard costs:

http://www.wausaudailyherald.com/article/20111003/WDH0101/110030445/Watchdog-Report-400-Block-bills-pile-up-Wausau

Now, if I was cynical, I might suggest that between the recent story on city cell phone costs and this 400 Block piece, it looks like the newspaper may be bored with the upcoming mayor’s race and they’re doing what they can to manufacture some issues for next April’s election. (Hey, any travel costs out there?)

Having said that, there is a right way and a wrong way to take care of the city’s hard costs for the 400 Block (which I have little doubt are probably already paid, notwithstanding the “bills pile up” headline in the Wausau Daily Herald.) It’s the same way the city takes care of other business and here is how that works: Somebody draws up a resolution for funding. It gets placed on an agenda of the responsible committee, say, Finance. It is moved and seconded in a public meeting. The committee votes and then it moves on to a full council agenda. There is another motion and a second.  The council discusses and votes on it. It’s all very simple, fairly routine, completely legal and totally ethical. It also looks like maybe it didn’t happen on this one.

Let me be clear that I’m all for that money coming from TID 3 revenues – (which isn’t free money sitting in a bank bag somewhere in city hall, but is still a pretty good way to handle it.) It’s also clear that this possibility was anticipated and provided for in the TID 3 plan amendment.

I’m happy that the 400 Block was finally completed. I fought against setting a lower cap on city participation when former council member Matt Kaiser tried to advance that idea in 2009. As Finance chair at that time, I was more than happy to hold up that hard cap proposal in committee until such time as a full funding resolution came with it to provide context, which it didn’t. But it doesn’t mean that nobody in Kaiser’s camp ever had a point.

But what happened with the passage of the plan amendment five years ago is simply not enough for current council members to either hang their hats on or be left out of the process in 2011. Moreover, I’m not interested in looking like I tried to pull a fast one in 2006 as chair of the Joint Review Board that passed the TID 3 amendment, nor in 2009, when the 400 Block plan that was finally implemented this year was being passed by the council. At that time, I didn’t regard the funding element from the city’s side as being resolved and I talked about it here:

https://jimrosenberg.wordpress.com/2009/08/14/400-block-long-nights-journey-into-day/

Bottom line? It is my firm belief that everyone involved in this matter has plenty of integrity and they have acted in what they have seen as the best interests of the community. They also produced an excellent result at a cost to the taxpayer that was more than fair. The funding source is legitimate.

But in addition to getting things done, local government needs to be mindful always of best practices, precedents being set and the need for due process at every stage. It is the responsibility of elected officials to make that ideal the reality.

JR

UPDATE: Herald editorial –

http://www.wausaudailyherald.com/article/20111006/WDH06/110060428/Our-View-Leadership-lacking-400-Block-costs?odyssey=mod|newswell|text|FRONTPAGE|p