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La Crosse committee considers family rental assistance program

For Amanda, getting into the YWCA’s transitional housing program was “a relief and a half,” she said.

“I don’t think the definition ‘relief’ covers it,” Amanda said.

The city of La Crosse’s Finance and Personnel Committee is considering a measure Thursday to set aside $110,000 in community development block grants and budget carry-over funds to fund a program similar to the one that got Amanda out of homelessness, called a tenant-based rental assistance program for families experiencing homelessness. If approved on the committee level, the La Crosse Common Council will vote next week on whether to approve the program.

The measure is part of the La Crosse Collaborative to End Homelessness’s initiative to get everyone into permanent housing.

Amanda, who asked the Tribune to keep her identity a secret to avoid the stigma attached to those who are homeless, was enthusiastic about the prospect of the city stepping in for families.

“I’m not saying everybody in the program is perfect, but there are people who need help. We’re not trying to leech off the system,” she said.

The 30-year-old mother of two ended up in dire financial straits after leaving a job that turned out to be a bad situation. While she admits quitting might not have been the right way to handle it, she didn’t have any good options. Amanda ended up living with her mother before her mother got evicted.

“I was living in my car, although I had a place for my children to go,” Amanda said.

Her children, aged 11 and 8, stayed with their father — literally the last place Amanda wanted them to go. While she was able to see them on a daily basis, taking them to parks and other free activities or visiting friends, being forced to spend nights away from her children was harder than sleeping in her car.

It wasn’t easy for her kids either.

“Like me, they tried to hide it, but it didn’t exactly work,” Amanda said.

Her son began lashing out at school, snapping at teachers and classmates. While he wasn’t violent, that led to quite a few phone calls from teachers. Her daughter took it hard as well.

“My daughter was always sad, and that’s not her personality at all. She is my little ball of sunshine,” Amanda said.

Swallowing her pride enough to ask for help was incredibly difficult, but she had to think about her children.

“When you’ve got kids, you’ve got to do a lot of stuff you don’t want to do,” Amanda said.

The program provides rent vouchers specifically for families, defined as at least one adult with dependents. It requires the adults to pay 30 percent of their income for rent, as well as work with a case manager.

“Whatever income they have, they’d pay that portion of the rent. This program would fund the balance,” said city community development administrator Caroline Gregerson.

They have a list of five to eight families lined up who could use the assistance.

“We know that the families we’re looking at on this list have a lot of needs and they can’t just be plopped into housing without a lot of wraparound support,” Gregerson said.

Julia McDermid, project manager for the La Crosse Collaborative to End Homelessness, said similar set-ups have proven successful for other populations targeted by the collaborative. Subsidizing rent especially is really valuable when it comes to providing stability.

McDermid

“This is a great way for these families to get back on track,” McDermid said.

La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat pointed to research that shows what a lack of stability does to children’s development.

Kabat

“The focus on families is especially important because the goal would be to provide stable housing for our young people, so they can stay in the same school with their classmates and not be set back at all as far as development,” Kabat said.

After going through it, Amanda can say for sure that bringing her family back together was a tremendous help for her kids.

“It was a complete 360. It was a relief for them as well. It was definitely visible,” Amanda said.

Rent vouchers on a limited basis — the program is for up to two years — have also proven to be the most cost-effective way to get people into permanent housing.

“Research has shown that it costs a lot more to have a family in Salvation Army shelter than just pay for an apartment,” Gregerson said.

Kabat agreed, saying, “These investments are actually much more cost effective in the long run to get people into permanent housing, rather than having folks remain homeless and dealing with the cost of emergency room services and social services.”

Having requirements and a realistic deadline, in addition to a boost up, have proven valuable as well.

“I don’t want to be here forever. I’m glad there is a limit,” Amanda said. “We keep moving. We don’t want to get stuck.”

Amanda had one piece of advice for the city as it moves forward with the program: Make sure to let people know.

“It needs to get out there … There’s no reason why, in the winter, kids are sleeping outside and are separated from their parents,” she said.


Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

Rebar and other metals are cut Wednesday by a member of a McHugh Excavating crew as the building that formerly housed 2nd Street Hair Gallery and Pella Windows and Doors at Second and Vine streets, La Crosse, is dismantled. Both business have relocated to make room for the La Crosse Distilling Co., which is scheduled to open this summer.


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'Impeach' sign OK to go up at West Avenue home for now; ACLU defends La Crosse man against city

When Dennis Lawrence of La Crosse put up a white sign reading simply “Impeach,” he didn’t think he’d be hearing from the city’s buildings and inspections department.

“I wasn’t expecting any kind of response other than to just express my opinion of the immoral, ignorant buffoon in our president’s office,” Lawrence said.

Instead, Lawrence received two notices that it had to be removed before the orders were rescinded in a letter Lawrence received Jan. 26.

The 5-foot-by-3-foot sign went up outside Lawrence’s West Avenue home last summer, about six months after President Donald Trump took office.

“After it was up for a couple weeks, I got a letter saying that the sign was in violation of city ordinance and I needed to take it down,” Lawrence said.

The letter, dated July 11, 2017, informed him that the sign was too large to be placed in his yard. It needed to be about three square feet shorter to meet city ordinance.

“I said, ‘OK, I’m going to take it down to 12 square feet and put it back up,’” he said.

He did exactly that, which prompted a second order to take the sign down, saying it was still too large.

“I didn’t go along with that,” Lawrence said.

Instead, Lawrence brought the case to a lawyer he knows, who recommended he contact the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin.

“They were right on top of it right away. I just was impressed with it,” Lawrence said.

His case was assigned to ACLU staff attorney Asma Kadri, who drafted a letter to La Crosse city attorney Stephen Matty, accusing the city of acting improperly and violating Lawrence’s constitutional right to free speech through a sign ordinance that had different rules based on the contents of a sign.

The ordinance as written singles out political and campaign signs, which Kadri contended violated city residents’ civil liberties.

“We just sort of made our position clear that the sign was constitutionally protected and the city was improperly imposing an ordinance,” Kadri said.

The political message of the sign didn’t factor into the order to remove it, according to city officials. It wasn’t even clear to Matty.

“It didn’t say who it wanted to be impeached,” Matty said.

While impeachment is often associated with the presidency, it isn’t always directed toward the person in the Oval Office.

“We never asked the question, because it, quite frankly, didn’t matter,” the city attorney said.

At issue was the size — a fact both Matty and Lawrence agreed upon.

According to the city’s legal department, the size of a typical yard sign, such as a for-sale sign, is limited to two-square-feet and political signs have more freedom to be larger.

“The code we have grants more rights for political speech than any other kind of speech,” Matty said.

However, in light of a 2015 Supreme Court ruling that prohibits regulating signs based on what they say, the city rescinded the order to remove the sign.

“I was within my rights as a citizen to display the sign,” Lawrence said.

That ruling had already prompted changes to the city’s sign ordinance.

“We’ve been reviewing our sign code since before the ACLU contacted us, so we can get that updated,” Matty said.

As is standard practice in the city’s legal department after court rulings and the creation of new laws, the city attorney began reviewing the ordinance in 2016 to make sure it was up to date.

“A lot of what we needed to do with our 79 pages of sign code is to try and pull out those content-based distinctions,” Matty said.

While it sounds simple enough, he said, the size of the ordinance, along with the four different Supreme Court justice opinions on the case, make it a difficult undertaking. The department is drafting changes that will eventually need to be approved by the La Crosse Common Council.

“It’s an important issue … We’re talking about the First Amendment. It’s the First Amendment for a reason. It’s the most important amendment. It’s not something you want to get wrong,” Matty said.

It’s not clear whether the sign will violate the ordinance after the changes are approved.

The city’s legal department also stressed that Lawrence’s case is not unique. Part of its function is to review situations and city ordinances and provide legal advice to city staff and elected officials.

“This kind of inquiry is something that happens all the time,” Matty said.

Despite the city rescinding the order, Lawrence did take the sign down late last fall to ease the fears of his father, Henry Lawrence, who was concerned supporters of the president would vandalize the home they share.

“I do plan on putting it back up as soon as the ground thaws up,” Lawrence said.


McDermid


Kabat


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Wisconsin groups to get $12M settlement for natural gas price fixing

The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration are among some five dozen Wisconsin organizations that have received more than $12 million in settlements for natural gas price fixing nearly 20 years ago.

In 2001, natural gas prices spiked, costing Wisconsin businesses and other organizations that bought gas on the open market an estimated $100 million in what federal investigators determined was the result of illegal price manipulation by energy companies including Enron Corp.

But while those suppliers were collectively fined some $350 million, the customers who overpaid didn’t get refunds.

Gegios

“The government was all over this, but the government can’t return money to harmed parties,” said Robert Gegios, an attorney with the Milwaukee firm Kohner, Mann & Kailas who is representing seven Wisconsin plaintiffs in a suit to recover damages.

Now four of the 11 defendants have agreed to a settlement that will be distributed among about 60 Wisconsin customers who were overcharged. Some of the largest recipients are the state Department of Administration, which will receive nearly $1.2 million; Milwaukee Public Schools will get almost $350,000; and the Madison Metropolitan School District will receive more than $90,000.

“In our view it’s a win-win for business, for government, for consumers and other people in Wisconsin,” Gegios said.

One of the only participants in western Wisconsin, the FSPA was awarded $28,290 for over payments

Ernster

“FSPA is very involved with corporate social responsibility efforts and moved forward as a participant in this lawsuit to hold these companies accountable,” Sister Sue Ernster, treasurer and CFO of the La Crosse-based order, said in a statement. “The settlement received will simply be returned to the operating budget from which the excess fees were paid out.”

Between January 2000 and 2001, the price at natural gas pipelines into Wisconsin, a state that relies heavily on natural gas but produces none, jumped from $2.94 per thousand cubic feet to nearly $10, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Gegios contends the jump in prices was the result of traders reporting bogus trades and prices to industry publications and websites, for which the companies were fined millions of dollars by the federal Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

“The publications became their device to conspire,” he said.

The case, first filed in 2006, has bounced between state and federal courts, where it was combined with similar cases from other states, and then to the court of appeals as the defendants argued that federal regulations should trump state anti-trust laws. In 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an appeals court ruling that sided with the plaintiffs, allowing the case to proceed.

Despite the settlement, legal action is still pending against seven other companies, though the case has yet to be set for trial.

“For us it’s gratifying that we can bring this forward after 12 years,” Gegios said, adding, “We’re just getting started.”

“FSPA is very involved with corporate social responsibility efforts and moved forward as a participant in this lawsuit to hold these companies accountable.” Sister Sue Ernster, treasurer and CFO of the La Crosse-based order