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Lower shelter demand in La Crosse may indicate housing push success, agencies say

The La Crosse Collaborative to End Homelessness, which has helped secure housing for about 50 formerly homeless individuals and families during the past year, is moving toward one of its tangential goals, judging by one barometer.

The number of homeless people seeking shelter this winter is either down from previous years or those who need help are different from those in the past, according to local agencies.


The Salvation Army Shelter, an 80-bed facility in La Crosse that often is above capacity at this time of year, is housing fewer than 50 people and has two open family rooms, said Nick Ragner, the corps’ public relations and development director.

“We’re not seeing as many as usual,” said Ragner, who expressed surprise at the lower numbers, especially with the brutal temperatures this week.

Most of those in the shelter now have few or no ties to the area or don’t have strong support systems, he said.

Some may have had home for holidays

Part of the smaller number may be that homeless individuals’ families or friends have invited them in for the holidays, he said, also crediting the collaborative’s success in housing people.


Similarly, even though the La Crosse Warming Center downtown has been at or near its capacity of 40 people for overnight sheltering, there are new faces among the clients, said Mark Schimpf, coordinator of the facility at 413 S. Third St.

That reflects the fact that many previously homeless now are housed but also signals that others have appeared, he said.

“It’s a very different crowd, reflective of the fact the collaborative has housed people,” said Schimpf, who added that the fact that the center still is full shows “we still have work to do.”

“Homelessness is not something you can end in a year,” said Schimpf, who has been involved with the collaborative’s work. “Some had been homeless for a long time.”

Traffic at the Franciscan Hospitality House remains brisk, with temperatures hovering around zero on Wednesday prompting 30 or more people to seek relief from the cold there. Many also dipped the ladle into a crockpot for a bowl of the soup a volunteer had delivered.


“We are definitely busier,” said house coordinator Tristine Bauman, who noted that the drop-in center at 114 N. Sixth St. normally attracts around 20 people a day.

The visitors Wednesday, returning after the center had been closed for two days for Christmas, overflowed into a room that normally serves as an office, where two men were socializing and two women were engrossed in adult coloring books.

In the larger gathering area, people were using computers, reading, talking with each other, napping and piecing together puzzles. The facility also offers a chance to shower and do laundry, as well as haircuts, foot care and legal assistance on rotating days.

At The Salvation Army, Ragner said he expects the shelter to fill up in January and February, although the full effect of the collaborative’s housing efforts may reduce the influx.

“It’s definitely made an impact for us,” Schimpf said of the collaborative’s effect on the Warming Center, which is open to men and women older than 18 from 7 p.m. to 8 a.m. seven days a week between Nov. 1 and April 30.

Guests, who also are able to shower and do laundry, also can partake in evening meals provided by a rotation of volunteer groups.

Numbers were light on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day — but still in the upper 30s, Schimpf said.

“That makes sense, though, when people might be visiting family and friends,” he said.

Halfway to housing 10 families by Jan. 31

Although representatives of the collaborative could not be reached for comment Wednesday and Thursday, Schimpf, Ragner and Bauman indicated that the benefits of its work are becoming apparent.

The collaborative secured housing for about 20 homeless veterans between fall and Christmas 2016, and another 20 chronically homeless individuals between spring and midsummer.

It has been able to find housing for five of the 10 families it has targeted during its current sprint, with Jan. 31 as the goal to accomplish the task.

The collaborative traces its beginnings to early 2016, when community activists began huddling to press for an initiative to address homelessness in the community.

Spearheading the effort were Sister Karen Neuser, a member of the La Crosse-based Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration who also is on the order’s Homelessness Initiative Committee, and Sandy Brekke, director of the St. Clare Health Mission, which provides free health care to underinsured and uninsured people.

They enlisted Gundersen Health System’s newly created Population Health and Strategy Department to hire Erin Healy, a private New York consultant and expert on homelessness, to help craft a strategy for solutions.

Healy met with a broad range of stakeholders, including social and human service agencies, city and county officials and committees, law enforcement, veterans and vets organizations, faith communities, businesses and funding sources in June 2016 to begin the quest.

Among the community benefits of ending homelessness, in addition to putting people in housing and helping them become independent, is easing the drain on public coffers, Healy told them.

She cited examples of savings from providing housing vs. other remedies in several other cities, including Chicago. The daily cost of providing supportive housing for one person is $20.55, compared with alternatives such as $60 for jail, $61.99 for prison, $22 for a shelter, $437 for a mental hospital and $1,201 for a general hospital, she said.

For La Crosse, Healy estimated, the annual cost of one emergency shelter bed could be used instead to pay a year’s rent for two, one-bedroom apartments.

“Crisis systems are very expensive,” she insisted.

Although the jury is still out — perhaps for years — on the results for the Coulee Region, the fact that there seems to be less pressure on crisis facilities so far this winter indicates movement toward the goals of providing housing and saving money at the same time.

Erik Daily, La Crosse Tribune 

Jake Kramer uses a leaf blower Thursday to clear sidewalks around Belle Square in downtown La Crosse. The cold snap that hit the Midwest on Christmas Day weakened a bit Thursday, with the afternoon high reaching 11 degrees. But it's back to the deep freeze for the weekend, with highs around zero Saturday, Sunday and Monday, according to the National Weather Service.

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La Crosse area charities fear hit, hope for generosity under new tax code

As U.S. charitable organizations brace to lose billions of dollars next year under the new tax code, local leaders remain hopeful that people will continue to give even without the benefit of a tax deduction.

The tax bill, which was passed this month and takes effect in January, still allows people to deduct charitable donations, but the standard deduction will nearly double to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for married couples. The Tax Policy Center predicts this will mean fewer than 10 percent of filers will itemize their deductions.

Without the financial incentives, the Tax Policy Center estimates overall charitable giving will decline by $12 billion to $20 billion. The Council on Foundations, which opposed the bill, claims the hit could be up to $24 billion.


“We are worried about it,” said Charlene Mouille, executive director of the United Way of Wisconsin, the trade association for the state’s 40 independent chapters, which collectively invest more than $100 million each year into other nonprofits. “We are trying to plan and regroup.”

Because the United Way focuses on workplace giving, Mouille said the average donors tend to be middle income, people who are likely to take the higher standard deduction next year.

The question is how much that tax savings motivates their contributions.


“People do give because they want to help, but we won’t know” the impact of the deduction loss until next year, said Mary Kay Wolf, executive director of Onalaska-based Great Rivers United Way.

Others are similarly optimistic.


“This is kind of new territory. We don’t know how much of an incentive that has been,” said Petra Roter, executive director of the La Crosse Community Foundation. “I like to think positively in the sense that particularly our community people are going to give because first of all it feels good and because it’s an investment in things they care about.”



David Stoeffler, who heads the La Crosse Education Foundation, said he expects most of the group’s donors will stay consistent, though he speculates some may shift their giving patterns.

“Maybe they’ll double up contributions in one year and then the next year use the standard deduction,” he said.

Stoeffler said most individual donors give between $35 and $100 a year, and he suspects most will continue, while larger donors may be more conscious of the tax implications.

Mary Jo Werner

Mary Jo Werner, a CPA and tax attorney with WIFPLI, said many of her clients are rushing to make additional year-end donations to take advantage of the deduction this year, anticipating they will use the standard deduction in 2018.

“Whether they’ll give next year or not I don’t know,” Werner said. “I would think La Crosse would continue to be generous as they are.”

No pre-payment for 2018 property taxes

In recent weeks, residents in many high-tax states have been flocking to pay their 2018 property taxes in hopes of writing them off in 2017 before the cap on state and local tax deductions is lowered.

Wisconsin residents hoping to take advantage of this loophole are out of luck: state law does not allow pre-payment of property taxes, which aren’t calculated until the end of the year.

Mark Padesky, supervisor of the city of La Crosse treasurer’s office, said he’s been getting a lot of phone calls from people asking how to pay 2018 taxes.

Wisconsin residents can pay their 2017 tax bills in December rather than January, though he hasn’t seen a rush of taxpayers.

“It’s nothing unusual for us,” Padesky said. “We’re always busy.”

Werner noted it is also possible to pre-pay fourth quarter state income taxes, which would typically be paid in the new year. Since state and local taxes are deductible in the year paid, that could increase this year’s deduction.

Lower corporate taxes could yield utility bill savings

Lower corporate taxes could yield utility bill savings

Among other changes, the new federal tax code set to take effect next week could result in lower utility bills for some ratepayers.

The bill reduces the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent in 2018, which will result in millions of dollars in cost savings for investor-owned utilities such as Xcel Energy, which serves about 257,000 customers in western Wisconsin.

Because the electric and gas rates set by state regulators are based on estimated expenses, those savings should be passed on to consumers, said Tom Content, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, which represents residential and small commercial ratepayers.

“This is customer money,” he said. “Taxes should flow right back.”

Content said Wisconsin’s investor-owned utilities could see savings of tens of millions of dollars.

Xcel spokeswoman Christine Ouellette said the company has not yet estimated its savings or how that will affect customer bills.

Earlier this month the Public Service Commission approved a 2018 rate request that will result in an increase of about $2 a month for the average Xcel residential electric bill and about $4.75 more for natural gas.

PSC staff will be talking with utilities next week and directing them to calculate the change in their expected tax bills and to defer the savings “until the commission directs how the savings are applied in the ratepayer’s best interest,” said PSC spokesman Matthew Spencer.

Because of its nonprofit status, La Crosse-based Dairyland Power Cooperative will not benefit from the tax law changes, said company spokeswoman Deb Mirasola.


Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

UW-La Crosse wrestlers Sean O’Neil, left, and Reid Johnson are both pre-med students who carry a 4.0 GPA.


Camping, parks could cost more; hybrid fees to increase

MADISON — Campers and hikers might have to dig a little deeper to get into their favorite state parks in 2018. And if they’re packing their tents and boots into a hybrid vehicle they’ll have to pay even more.

Provisions in the Republican state budget that go into effect Monday allow Department of Natural Resources Secretary Dan Meyer to raise vehicle entry fees at state parks of his choosing by as much as $5 per day for both Wisconsin residents and non-residents.

Other budget changes that go into effect on New Year’s Day allow Meyer to begin raising camping fees at sites of his choosing by as much as $15 per night for residents and $16 per night for out-of-staters.

DNR spokesman Jim Dick said Thursday that Meyer and agency officials were still finalizing fee changes and hoped to have something ready by “early in the new year.” DNR officials will present the new fees to the agency’s board as an informational item but can implement them without the panel’s approval, he said.

Campers who want electricity at Devil’s Lake, High Cliff, Kohler-Andrae, Peninsula and Willow River state parks will have to pay an extra $15 under budget language that goes into effect on Monday as well. That’s up from the standard $10 electricity surcharge the DNR imposes at other campgrounds and parks.

Hybrid and electric vehicle owners, meanwhile, will have to grapple with higher registration fees in 2018. The budget calls for imposing a $75 surcharge on hybrid registrations and a $100 surcharge on electric vehicle registrations beginning Monday. That’s on top of the standard $75 passenger vehicle registration fees.

The surcharges are part of Republican lawmakers’ plan to fund road work over the next biennium as revenue from the state’s gas tax continues to dwindle. The budget also calls for borrowing an additional $400 million and delaying projects to make ends meet.

Other new laws that go into effect Monday include:

  • A budget provision that restricts school districts from holding referendums on exceeding revenue limits more than twice a year. Districts will have to schedule such elections on state primary or general election dates.
  • A budget provision that ends health insurance coverage and other benefits for government employees’ domestic partners. The budget also closes off the state’s same-sex domestic partner registry, which grants domestic partners a host of legal rights similar to marriage, to new registrants on April 1.
  • Statutes that require farmers who plant at least 5 acres of potatoes to use seeds certified by the University of Wisconsin-Madison.