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Trempealeau-based singer/songwriter Johnsmith, left, will be joined by Dan Sebranek (pictured) and bassist Larry Dalton when Johnsmith plays concerts Jan. 12-13 at The Pump House Regional Arts Center to celebrate the release of his eighth solo album.

It's cold, but the Coulee Region is staying well above record lows

It is indeed cold out there, but here’s some cold comfort to go with the sub-zero temperatures: It isn’t nearly as cold as it sometimes has been.

The National Weather Service predicts a high of 6 degrees in La Crosse today — 35 degrees warmer than the record low of 29 below zero set in 1884, and a full 20 degrees warmer than the lowest high temperature for the the date of minus-14, set in 1924.

Erik Daily, La Crosse Tribune 

Evan Bryan, 17, of Holmen, skates Thursday afternoon on the Copeland Park ice rink.

The expected overnight low of minus-10 could be the last time the thermometer dips below zero for the foreseeable future, according to NWS projections.

And gaps between what we’re getting and the worst of what we’ve had in the past will increase in coming days. The NWS says there’s a warming trend in the future, with a high of 13 on Saturday. The record low for Jan. 6 is minus-26 in 1912. The lowest high temperature for the date is minus-13 that same year.

Sunday’s high of 31 will be a stunning 65 degrees warmer than the record low of minus-34 set in 1912, balmy enough to warm the cockles of the heart of anyone who thought the two week were brutally cold.

In the Coulee Region, there is ample evidence that 2018 started cold, especially after the heartiest of hardy folks, the La Crosse Skyrockers, moved the normal big blast of New Year’s Eve fireworks from midnight to 6 p.m. in deference to the plunging mercury.

Temperatures colder than minus-10 and a windchill factor of minus-30 would have made the late-night setup excruciatingly painful, Skyrockers officials decided. Benefiting the most from the expanded early-evening display were the children — the main audience what’s usually a smaller 6 p.m. show to accommodate early bedtimes.

Even Mount La Crosse experienced lighter traffic early in the week, although the upside was that it was able to make snow around the clock, said Jenny Blake, a manager for the skiing and snowboarding mecca on La Crosse’s South Side.

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

A horse makes its way across snowy field Thursday in rural La Crosse County. One more day of single-digit temperatures is expected today before a weekend warm-up. 

The slightly warming temperatures Wednesday and Thursday propelled a surge of skiers to enjoy the results of two weeks of snowmaking, with 30 inches at the summit, Blake said.

“The sun is out, the hills are great, and the snow is beautiful,” she said Thursday.

Nine of the facility’s 19 hills were open, and all will be open by the weekend, she said. Its three chairlifts and the rope tow also are set to be open.

People apparently have been dressing warmly enough to ward off damage from the bone-chilling temperatures, as Gundersen Health System and Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare in La Crosse reported no frostbite patients in their emergency rooms — cold-related cases generally involved scrapes and bruises from slips and falls on ice and snow.

The repair business has been hot for heating and air-conditioning firms, with Cary Heating and Air Conditioning in La Crosse fielding about 30 calls a day, compared with a normal of about 10, said co-owner Marv Becker.

“This is the worst one I’ve had,” Becker said, citing a variety of problems, from ice buildup to frosting over intakes. “People get uptight that you can’t get there soon enough.”

Business is slowing as temperatures rise, he said.

“You can already tell. When it gets that way in this business, it’s just the reverse, and you wonder whether that phone is gonna ring sometime,” Becker said.

The story is similar at Schneider Heating and Air Conditioning in Onalaska, where owner Mark Schneider said call volume is double to triple normal levels and his crews “have been running around like crazy.”

In addition to a rush of repairs, Schneider said, customers are calling with “comfort issues,” such as accumulations of moisture on windows propelling requests for air exchangers, and drier air prompting demand for humidifiers.

Speaking of dry air, this type of weather also is the peak season for static electricity, the effects of which range from the novelties of hair-raising views of family and friends, and rubbing a balloon and sticking it to somebody, to the irritation of being shocked after walking across a carpet and touching someone else, or a doorknob or a metal chair.

As furnaces remove moisture from the air, the effect can become shocking as your body accumulates electrons, according to a Science Buddies blog about static electricity.

Ironically, what makes you warmer may also get you shocked more. For instance, if you’re wearing wool socks and cashmere sweaters allow the buildup of positive electrons in your body looking for a way out — such as a doorknob or an annoying sibling or spouse.

Cotton clothing will help you avoid that static cling.

If a humidifier isn’t in your game plan or your budget, other remedies include boiling water — carefully, because you don’t want to solve one problem by creating another, such as a fire or burned hands — and having plants in the house to supply moisture.

By the way, the coldest January day ever in La Crosse was 43 below zero on Jan. 18, 1873. The long-term forecast is showing a high of 32 degrees for that day in 2018, 75 degrees warmer.

Scott Walker plans to close troubled Lincoln Hills youth prison, open six small facilities

MADISON — Gov. Scott Walker plans to convert the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls into a prison for adult inmates — a move that would close a dark chapter for the youth prison that has been plagued by allegations of inmate abuse and unsafe working conditions for staff.

Walker said Thursday he plans instead to build six smaller youth facilities around the state for Wisconsin’s most serious juvenile offenders, including one new mental health facility in Madison for girls.

“By moving from one facility to several facilities across the state, and placing a focus on mental health and trauma-informed care, we believe this plan will improve long-term outcomes for both juveniles and our staff working at these facilities,” the governor said in a statement.

The proposed reorganization has been in the works for about a year, according to the governor’s office. It comes amid a three-year federal investigation in which authorities are considering charges against two Lincoln Hills guards accused of excessive force and after several federal lawsuits alleging inmates’ constitutional rights were violated — one of which resulted in a court order to reduce the use of pepper spray, restraints and solitary confinement at the facility.

The plan would help alleviate crowding among the state’s adult prisons, address questions of how to move the youth prison forward amid persistent staffing problems and the federal investigation, and blunt an election-year attack against Walker by his Democratic opponents for what they have described as ignoring the prison’s troubles.

If Walker wins re-election, he plans to include in the next state budget at least $80 million for the construction of five new juvenile prisons for up to three dozen inmates each. Lawmakers would need to approve the plan.

Up to three new prisons would be in southeastern Wisconsin near Milwaukee, though the sites have not yet been chosen. An additional mental health facility would be built on the campus of the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Madison for female inmates.

While the new facilities wouldn’t open until after 2019, Walker plans to move some male inmates from Lincoln Hills to the Mendota campus this fall. In November, Department of Corrections officials indicated a desire to move the most aggressive inmates at the prison as a way to decrease the number of violent incidents at the facility.

The proposal will likely include hiring more staff to ensure each facility is compliant with federal staff-to-prisoner ratio requirements, and current staff at Lincoln Hills will be offered jobs at the new youth prisons or training to become adult correctional officers in order to remain working at the Irma campus.

DOC and the Department of Health Services, which operates the Mendota facility, will be responsible for drafting specific spending plans.

DOC Secretary Jon Litscher, who took over the department in 2016 after nearly all DOC officials who oversaw juvenile corrections quit or were fired, said in a statement the plan will “build on the many reforms” put in place since he took over.

Many key details are yet to be determined, however, including how education programs would be provided to the inmates and whether converting the Irma campus into an adult facility would require the approval of Lincoln County officials.

Missouri as model

The goal of the plan is similar to the juvenile correctional model in Missouri — recently profiled by the Wisconsin State Journal — that is hailed by juvenile justice experts.

In Missouri, juvenile offenders can be sentenced to one of more than 30 facilities throughout the state and those who commit the most serious crimes are placed in facilities of no more than 30 inmates.

Walker’s office was first told six years ago that the environment at the youth prison had become increasingly chaotic and unsafe. And since the investigation began at the Lincoln Hills facility in 2015, several lawmakers have proposed to close the facility or to study the Missouri model.

Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, recently unveiled his own legislative package that would accomplish the same goals as Walker’s plan and he has repeatedly called for a new plan that would move the inmates closer to their homes. The Lincoln Hills campus is more than 200 miles away from Milwaukee, where a significant number of inmates live.

Goyke said Thursday that Walker’s plan demonstrates “exciting progress in reforming Wisconsin’s juvenile corrections system” and said he looks forward to seeing the proposal “implemented quickly and effectively.”

“Today Wisconsin is taking its first step in meaningful corrections reform,” Goyke said.

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele also said Thursday Walker’s announcement will help the county “accelerate the transformation of the youth justice system into one that leads to better public safety outcomes and improved opportunities for youth to lead productive and successful lives.”

Democrats critical

While some Democrats hailed the proposal, others called it a tactic to smooth over hurdles in Walker’s re-election bid for a third term.

State Superintendent Tony Evers, who is running against Walker for governor and has made the troubles at Lincoln Hills central to his argument to unseat Walker, said Walker’s plan doesn’t wash away the years of problems at the facility.

“How many kids have been abused during the five years Walker failed to act?” Evers said in a statement. “Now he wants us to believe the same people who caused the Lincoln Hills mess are going to fix it. We need responsible leaders who are more focused about solving problems and protecting lives than winning elections.”

Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, who along with a number of Democrats have called for such changes, said “it’s not that we’re not enthused for action, it’s certainly the right thing to do, but it’s a little rich coming from the governor who’s been the main obstacle to any kind of corrections reform — not just juvenile corrections.”

Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, called the plan a “transparent, cynical” move in an election year, and was made to get ahead of former DOC Secretary Ed Wall’s planned book detailing allegations that the Department of Justice under Attorney General Brad Schimel “botched” the state’s investigation into Lincoln Hills, allowing problems there to fester.

Using the Irma facility as an adult prison could provide more jobs there, the governor’s office said. The facility has room for about 600 inmates but now holds fewer than 200.

Rep. Mary Felzkowski, R-Irma, and Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, who represent the area, praised the plan as one that would support job growth.

Doug Curtis, who retired last year from Lincoln Hills after 20 years, said the plan does not address current safety issues at the facility.

“This decision doesn’t help the people at Lincoln Hills right now; it ignores the problems,” Curtis said. “This is just an idea that’s five years down the road.”

Tom Evenson, spokesman for Walker, said the plan is envisioned to be funded in the 2019-21 budget because “we want to work with all parties to implement it in a thoughtful and purposeful way.”

“If the Legislature wants to advance the plan sooner we would be supportive of those efforts,” he said.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said they both support the plan.

Numerous allegations

In December 2015, dozens of state investigators arrived at Lincoln Hills to interview staff as part of a secret John Doe investigation of child neglect, tampering with public documents, intimidation of victims, use of pepper spray to cause bodily harm and intimidation of witnesses.

The raid made public allegations that had been under investigation by state officials since early 2015.

One lawsuit filed since the investigation began is a class-action suit from former and current inmates represented by the American Civil Liberties Union-Wisconsin and the Juvenile Law Center. It alleges the use of pepper spray, restraints and solitary confinement had violated the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

Jessica Feierman, associate director of Juvenile Law Center, said Thursday that the plan “is a huge step forward for Wisconsin.”

“We are relieved that the state is moving away from a model that just doesn’t work — large youth prisons that violate the Constitution and are dangerous to youth,” she said.

Trump administration targets recreational pot, placing marijuana businesses at risk

WASHINGTON (TNS) — Attorney General Jeff Sessions is rescinding an Obama-era federal policy that provided legal shelter for marijuana sales in states that have allowed recreational pot, placing thousands of marijuana businesses operating legally under state law at risk of federal raids and seizures.

The Justice Department move plunged California’s fledgling recreational pot market into further uncertainty, and was met with a bipartisan backlash from lawmakers in states where marijuana is now sold legally to any adult who wants to buy it.

“It is the mission of the Department of Justice to enforce the laws of the United States,” Sessions said in a statement, which said the Obama-era policy that directed federal prosecutors not to target state marijuana businesses “undermines the rule of law and the ability of our local, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement partners to carry out this mission.”

Sessions said the new Justice Department policy “simply directs all U.S. attorneys to use previously established prosecutorial principles that provide them all the necessary tools to disrupt criminal organizations, tackle the growing drug crisis, and thwart violent crime across our country.”

Whether federal prosecutors have the resources, or even the interest, to undermine the national movement toward more permissive cannabis regulation remains to be seen. The move on Thursday to rescind the safe-harbor policy, however, is certain to spread anxiety throughout the rapidly expanding multibillion-dollar pot business in several states.

States that have legalized are girding to fight. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra had previously all but dared Sessions to initiate raids in his state, suggesting it would be a fool’s errand.

“Have no doubt,” Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom tweeted on Thursday. “California will pursue all options to protect our reforms and rights.”

Voters in eight states have legalized recreational use of marijuana: California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Colorado, Alaska, Maine and Massachusetts.

Several other states, 29 plus the District of Columbia, have legalized marijuana for medical purposes. The new Justice Department policy does not put medical marijuana at risk in the same way as recreational pot, at least for now.

A law passed by Congress strictly limits the federal government from interfering with medical marijuana sales. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over federal cases in California and eight other Western states, has interpreted that law to bar any prosecutions in medical pot cases.

Sessions has sought to have the federal ban lifted, and Justice Department officials suggested their new policy could be extended to threaten medical pot as well, if the law changes or if the 9th Circuit’s interpretation is overturned. They left unclear whether they might pursue prosecutions of medical pot in states outside the 9th Circuit’s jurisdiction.

Justice Department officials said the policy reversal won’t necessarily mean a rush of new marijuana prosecutions. But they made clear their intent was to end the “safe harbor” for the industry to operate in.

“I can’t say where it will or won’t lead to more prosecutions,” said one senior department official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the policy change. “We believe that the U.S. attorneys’ offices should be opened up to bring all the cases that need to be brought.”

The decisions about how aggressively to pursue cases would be left up to the U.S. attorneys, the top federal prosecutors in each federal judicial district. Trump has not yet nominated U.S. attorneys in many districts, and one leading Republican senator threatened Thursday that confirmation of future nominees may be at risk if Sessions persists in his anti-marijuana effort.

Sen. Corey Gardner, R-Colo., angrily rebuked Sessions on Thursday on Twitter, accusing him of reneging on earlier assurances that prosecutors would not be unleashed on the Colorado marijuana industry.

“I am prepared to take all steps necessary, including holding DOJ nominees, until the Attorney General lives up to the commitment he made to me prior to his confirmation,” Gardner wrote.

Leaving the decision up to individual U.S. attorneys will create even more uncertainty, said Neill Franklin, executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a group that supports more permissive drug laws.

“This is going to create chaos in the dozens of states,” he said.

“If enforcement of laws are subject to the whims of individual prosecutors, no one will have any idea what is legal or what isn’t — because it could change from day to day. There’s no greater headache for an officer of the law than not to know where those lines stand.”

Sessions began signaling long ago that a crackdown was coming, but pro-marijuana lawmakers and regulators had responded with defiance, declaring that legalization was so far along that there is little the Department of Justice could do to stop it.

The Obama administration put its policy in place in response to the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington state. Those rules had prevented federal prosecutors from targeting marijuana businesses operating legally under state law and allowed the recreational cannabis trade to bloom in the states where voters have legalized.

The anti-pot crusade led by Sessions has often been at odds with the more laissez-faire stance of President Donald Trump. Trump said unequivocally during his presidential campaign that he opposes a crackdown on recreational marijuana, saying the issue of legalization should be left to individual states.

Gardner posted on social media Thursday the segment of a news interview where Trump said as much.

The difference in positions raises the question of whether the White House would back the Justice Department if federal marijuana prosecutions ramp up dramatically.

Yet the announcement by Sessions puts the fledgling marijuana industry in a defensive crouch. Marijuana businesses were already struggling to navigate untested state regulations and the challenge of finding insurance and banking businesses willing to risk working with them.

“While dismantling the industry will prove impossible, the move by Sessions will create more uncertainty in an industry that already has its fair share of risks and unknowns,” said Chris Walsh, vice president of Marijuana Business Daily. “We certainly could see some types of regional crackdowns.”

The 2013 policy which Sessions will rescind is known as the “Cole memorandum,” named after former Deputy Attorney General James Cole. It had provided clarity not just to marijuana businesses and users, but also to state and local law enforcement agencies, which now could find themselves working at cross purposes with their federal counterparts.

ERIK DAILY, La Crosse Tribune 

Central High School's Terrance Thompson takes a shot as Aquinas' Bryce Lee defends in the first half of Thursday night's MVC game at the Reinhart Athletic Complex. Central won 83-59, pushing its record to 8-1.

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$1 million La Crosse City Hall parking project moves forward

The La Crosse Police Department got the go-ahead Thursday to move forward with designing a $1 million secure parking lot at La Crosse City Hall.

The city’s Finance and Personnel Committee unanimously approved a $79,446 design agreement with HSR Associates of La Crosse to design a secure parking lot expansion off the police department, which sits on the south end of City Hall at 400 La Crosse St.

The need for new parking for police officers was spurred by the redevelopment of the former La Crosse County Administrative Center, now a housing development called Hub on Sixth, next door, according to La Crosse Police Chief Ron Tischer.


Year in review: Top 2017 crime stories in the La Crosse area

“We need security back there. Right now, basically, anyone and everyone drives through our back parking lot,” Tischer said. “It’s not safe for the officers who do their reports in their squad cars or it’s really unsafe when we’re bringing in confidential informants or victims.”

The department initially planned a fence, but that plan was complicated by the fact that the lot line on that side of city hall runs down the middle of the parking lot, meaning a number of the spaces belong to the Hub on Sixth.

“It really took away a lot of our parking and our ability to park our squads back there in a secure area,” Tischer said.

Preliminary plans call for an expansion into the west courtyard on the Fourth Street side of the building, adding a wall and a gate around the parking area and a covered portion on the south side of the building.

Due to building codes, there would still be public access to one of the doors that opens into what is now the courtyard. The main entrances to City Hall would remain unchanged.

The covered area would provide additional security, preventing people who live next door from seeing directly into the police department parking area and entrance.

“It’s a lot safer for the officers and everybody who they bring in back there,” Tischer said. “It’ll be gated so that only squad cars or police department personnel can drive in and out.”

That will protect the identities of confidential informants and victims, as well as prevent vandalism of squad cars and police officers’ personal vehicles, something Tischer said happens on occasion.

Although the police department has a pretty clear idea of what it’s looking for, HSR will finalize the designs over the next few months.

The design fees come out of the parking utility’s budget, and the remainder of the project is funded in the city’s capital improvement budget.

While the city was going through its budgeting process, council member David Marshall initially doubted whether it would be wise to invest in a new parking lot for the police department, as the city has been weighing options for a new public safety facility.


However, he said after Thursday’s meeting that he agreed with the chief’s assessment that it would be worth the cost for the city even if the police department moved out of City Hall.

“Even if they left right away, this would be a very valuable project. There are a lot of vehicles that are off-site that would then be brought on-site, that would actually improve efficiency and remove energy costs and things like that,” Marshall said.

It would also free up spaces in City Hall’s main lot that could that should be reserved for the public, Tischer said.

If approved by the La Crosse Common Council next week, HRS would launch into the design and development phase, with the hope that the project could go out to bids late this spring and be completed this time next year.

“I think in the end for the functional purpose of public safety, it’s going to be really great,” Marshall said.