Local residents can weigh in Wednesday on Xcel Energy’s proposal to raise energy prices for some 257,000 Wisconsin ratepayers.
The town of Shelby and city of La Crosse officials hope to put an end to boundary disputes with a historic agreement announced Friday that they say is beneficial to both municipalities.
“It’s been a long road. We’ve crossed a lot of bridges, and tore some bridges down and rebuilt them, but moving forward, we think we have a package here that we’re ready to bring to the people who live in the town of Shelby and the city of La Crosse,” said town of Shelby Chairman Tim Candahl.
La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat struggled to choose a word to describe the deal’s impact, saying it was significant, historic and momentous for the two municipalities.
“It’s really a once-in-a-generation type of coming together of these two municipalities, and it really sets the stage for more cooperation, which I think is very, very exciting,” Kabat said.
Proponents of the agreement, which will go before the public Nov. 7, say both the city and town will gain property tax revenue as the agreement paves the way for new residential and economic development.
“For the last 30 to 40 years, we’ve watched growth and development in this area move to the north, so we’ve decided to take it upon ourselves to see what we can do to help each get some growth into the south side,” Candahl said.
The proposal is also meant to reduce conflict and lawsuits, saving both municipalities and developers time and money.
“Now we’re going to give the developers peace of mind knowing that now they can move forward, and they know how the city of La Crosse and the town of Shelby are going to act and be able to give them an opportunity to develop their property either in the town of Shelby or in the city of La Crosse,” Candahl said.
The proposal includes plans for future boundaries between Shelby and La Crosse, limiting annexation in some areas and requiring it in others in 15 years. The territory along the boundaries between the municipalities is divided into four areas, each with different growth plans and limitations.
Territory north of Hwy. 14 and on the west side of Leske Road is slated to be attached to the city upon development, with some exceptions, or after the agreement has been in place for 15 years.
On the other side of Leske Road, developed land will become annexed into the city of La Crosse, but any property not developed will remain in the town of Shelby.
That area was one of the sticking points.
“We both gave up a little bit in order to come together, and that is compromise,” Kabat said.
Under the proposal, for developments in the town of Shelby that are annexed into La Crosse, the city will provide the town with tax revenue for the property for 10 years. The rate will be set at 50 percent of the town’s tax rate.
There is also a large area slated solely for town growth, which forbids annexations and attachments to the city. Development is permitted in the area if consistent with standards such as a 66-foot road right-of-way, safe zones for walking and biking and easements that would allow for future retrofit of sewer. New developments would not need curb and gutter and storm sewer infrastructure or street trees.
Under the proposed deal, the city would be required to approve plats that meet the standards within 45 days. It would be allowed to extend city and water service under certain conditions.
The agreement also includes plans for areas known as town islands, where town of Shelby jurisdiction is surrounded by the city of La Crosse, such as the area around Ward Avenue and South 28th Street, and the area around Cliffside Drive and Crown Boulevard.
“From a providing services perspective, they make no sense,” Kabat said.
Annexation of parcels within those areas by the city of La Crosse is allowed by voluntary petition or by ordinance if the property is city-owned. The city can offer incentives to encourage voluntary annexation, and the town can’t object to property-owners looking to join the city. There will also be no new city sewer or water extensions to those areas without annexation.
A fourth area mapped out in the agreement is designated as bluffland transition, which can either remain in the town or be annexed into the city, depending on where it is and whether it is developed or preserved.
The last area singled out in the agreement is rural preservation. City water or sewer would be prohibited from being extended into the area, but it would still be under the city’s plat review authority.
In addition to land use and boundaries, the agreement also lays out plans for revenue sharing and shared services.
The town of Shelby will pay a fee per household to the city that will begin at $30 in 2020 and increase $1 per year until it reached $34 in 2024.
“From the city, that was very important. Not so much for the dollar amount, but just the recognition that the city has been providing regional services, and now we’re actually receiving something to put toward those regional services,” Kabat said.
After 2024, the fee will be adjusted each year for inflation and to reflect the number of households.
In return, Shelby residents will be charged resident rates for city of La Crosse services, such as those provided by the Parks and Recreation Department. The city will also transfer the Shelby Youth Baseball Hillview Complex parking lot to the town.
The proposed agreement also calls for the city and town to update their comprehensive plans to reflect the agreement, work together to renew the sewer service agreements for the city’s Shelby sanitary sewer districts, actively pursue a joint public library arrangement and meet regularly to review police and fire service needs.
The agreement is proposed to last 20 years and would extend automatically for five years if neither municipality withdraws. It can be amended if both Shelby and La Crosse agree to the change, and a process to address violations is included in the agreement.
After next month’s public input meeting, the draft agreement will go before a joint meeting of the Shelby and La Crosse plan commissions, then to the Shelby Town Board and La Crosse Common Council for approval. If approved, the Wisconsin Department of Administration needs to sign off on it before it can go into effect.
Awards are the last things on Rosalie “Roz” Schnick’s mind when she immerses herself in service and philanthropic endeavors in the Coulee Region, because she is focused on her inspiration: her late husband, Ron.
Their 43-year marriage was so close, their interests so aligned, she said, that, after he died in March 2012, “In my eulogy to him, I dedicated the rest of my life to honoring him.”
Even though she acknowledges that she didn’t know at the time what that meant, she knows now as she declares, “I want to make every person reach their full potential.”
Schnick’s dedication to that goal and other community causes resulted in the decision of the Women’s Fund of Greater La Crosse to present her with the 2017 Roberta Zurn Outstanding Women in Leadership Award.
The award, which memorializes a retired teacher who left a bequest to the Women's Fund in 2003, honors women who strive to serve others.
If Schnick’s goal of helping every person sounds unrealistic, she doesn’t see it that way.
Consider one of Schnick’s passions since she joined the Downtown Rotary Club of La Crosse in January 2015: "The Brain Game.” The club is the publisher of the book, which has become a juggernaut among parental guides to help children’s brains develop in the crucial period up to age 3.
"Our mission is to have every parent in the world have a book,” Schnick said during an interview in her home office on French Island, with its idyllic view of Lake Onalaska.
“Everything happens in the first three years,” she said, noting that the 2001 book is in its third edition in both English and Spanish, it just became available as an ebook, and has an app coming and a hardcover in the works.
The app will be especially helpful in countries such as Nicaragua, which Schnick learned about through her involvement with Global Partners at the Gundersen Medical Foundation.
Many Nicaraguans cannot read, but a Rotary Club there will sponsor a reading of an audiobook of “The Brain Game” on a local radio station, she said.
Several of Schnick’s causes, especially environmental advocacy, aquaculture and aquaponics, sprang from her 15 years as national coordinator for Aquaculture New Animal Drug Applications and her 28-year career at the Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center in La Crosse.
“That center doesn’t get enough credit,” said the 75-year-old Schnick, whose work there included developing drugs to protect the health of fish, and influencing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Schnick, a native of Owatonna, Minn., attributes her interest in fisheries and other environmental issues to the fact that her dad, a farmer, took her fishing when she was just 4.
“That got me into nature and the environment,” she said, and convinced her of the need to protect the environment to safeguard people’s health and recreation at the same time.
“Sometimes, it was like herding cats,” said Schnick, who formed her own consulting firm after retiring in 2010, with clients in France, Norway, Scotland, Texas and Georgia.
She is a strong advocate of aquaponics, which usually involves growing fish and plants together.
“With aquaponics, we can raise our own food … and people on food stamps who can’t afford much will be able to grow their own,” she said.
Her husband’s death from a rare form of dementia just nine months after he was diagnosed instilled in her an appreciation of caregivers who helped her during his demise, she said.
“I have a very soft spot in my heart for people who are caregivers. They aren’t paid enough, and they are so skilled,” Schnick said, tearing up at the memory of her husband’s final months and the support she received from caregivers.
“To watch this incredible man die before me was a shock” because of their common interests in a variety of things in a relationship in which their minds synced almost as if they were one, she said.
Schnick expressed the wish that everyone “could have one day or even one hour of what I had for 43 years with my husband.”
Many in the Coulee Region are grateful for the days, hours, months and years Schnick dedicates to service projects.
“She’s a wonderful gift to our community,” said Chuck Hanson, a La Crosse attorney who sponsored her membership in Rotary.
“Roz is a very positive person who looks for ways to serve people,” he said. “She is a perfect fit for Rotary because it is so involved in so many service projects."
“Roz does nothing halfway,” Hanson said, an assessment echoed by Catherine Kolkmeier, executive director of the La Crosse Medical Health Science Consortium who has gotten to know Schnick as a Rotary colleague.
“She has energy and enthusiasm … from her politics, to community involvement to her dedication to the community,” Kolkmeier said, adding, “I’m sorry I got to know her just lately. She’s a great person to have in the community.”
Schnick has been a major contributor, both financially and physically, to YWCA, said Ruthann Schultz, the YW’s executive director.
The YW gave Schnick the Olga Schleiter Award in April to recognize her philanthropy, an honor that moved her to tears, as did the discovery that she would receive the Zurn award.
“She knows a lot about a lot of things,” Schultz said, making a point that Schnick might quibble with, since her own assessment is that she knows “a little bit about a lot of things.”
On the political side, Schnick is an avid Democrat who counts among her friends U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, who lives barely a stone’s throw from her; state Rep. Jill Billings, whom Schnick described as having “a true moral compass,” and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, to name a few.
Schnick experienced a severe health problem with digestive issues after her husband died. The malady brought her in contact with wholistic nutritionist Diane Carrk, whom Schnick credits with “saving my life.”
Adopting the healthy eating habits Caark espoused, Schnick said she lost 100 pounds and regained her health. They now are co-writing a book about nutrition.
Between her husband’s death and her own brush with it, Schnick has found that suffering has helped her find meaning.
Receiving the Olga Schleiter Award from the Y was “such a humbling experience for me, but I have this beacon (Ron) driving me,” she said. “I get out of this much more than I ever give.”
Often invoking the mantra of “there are no throwaways,” Schnick said, “Every life has meaning. Every person has the right to the basic necessities of life.
“We as a society will be better when everybody has a chance to have a decent life. Zuckoff writes about the need to live with love and compassion, not fear and anger,” Schnick said. “Think of where society would be — instead of where we are — if we had love and compassion instead of fear and anger.”
Consumer advocates are raising concerns about a bill in the Wisconsin Legislature that could give utilities the upper hand when it comes to raising rates or getting approval for expensive projects.
Among other things, the 2017 Public Service Commission Reform Act establishes a framework for settling contested cases that come before the PSC.
Local residents can weigh in Wednesday on Xcel Energy’s proposal to raise energy prices for some 257,000 Wisconsin ratepayers.
When utilities apply to raise rates or to undertake a major project such as a high-voltage transmission line, groups representing different customer classes can participate as “intervenors.”
These include the Citizens Utility Board, which represents homeowners, renters and small businesses; the Wisconsin Industrial Energy Group, which represents the largest customers; and even individual businesses such as Walmart, which frequently participates in rate cases.
The utilities file detailed financial information and testimony to show their proposed rates are reasonable, and these intervenors are able to review that information — some of which is confidential — and demand additional evidence.
Utilities can also negotiate outside settlement agreements with the consumer advocates.
Under the bill, a utility could reach a settlement with one or more groups without giving other intervenors access to all the information traditionally required for a contested case. Those nonsettling groups would then be given just 30 days to respond.
That could leave consumer advocates “flying blind” and with little time to respond, said Tom Content, executive director of the CUB.
“These can be pretty complex proceedings,” Content said. “We traditionally go through process of hiring experts to evaluate (them). That process itself takes more than 30 days.”
Clean Wisconsin has raised similar concerns and is calling for changes that would permit only unanimous settlements.
“This is putting into statutes a process that stacks the deck against the public interest and the little guy,” said Sarah Barry, director of government relations for the environmental advocacy group.
Content said the CUB does not oppose settlements and has participated in many over the years, but the proposed law would put consumer groups in the position of having to show why utilities shouldn’t be allowed to raise rates without access to all the information.
Currently the burden is on the utility to prove their projects or rate structures are necessary.
“This new process is being proposed at a time when Wisconsin is rated as having one of the most shareholder-friendly regulatory structures in the country — and among the highest electricity rates in the country,” Content told an Assembly committee this week.
WIEG is officially neutral on the bill, though executive director Todd Stuart said, “It depends on how it’s used.”
The CUB has proposed amendments that would require utilities to still file the standard information when reaching non-unanimous settlements and providing 60 days for nonsettling parties to respond.
The bill has the support of the state’s largest investor-owned utilities as well as their trade association, which argues it will help avoid costly litigation.
“You’re saving staff time and resources.,” said Bill Skewes, executive director of the Wisconsin Utilities Association. “That’s going to save everybody time and hassle and money.”
Skewes notes that the PSC would retain the authority to approve or reject a settlement proposal. And the bill says the PSC must find the public interest “is adequately represented by the parties who entered into the agreement.”
According to the PSC, which supports the bill, 39 states have rules or laws allowing settlement agreements, although some, such as Minnesota, allow only unanimous settlements.
“Placing such a framework in statute provides all parties clarity and transparency with respect to the process necessary for participation in and fair resolution of contested matters,” PSC chairwoman Ellen Nowak said in comments to the Legislature.
Another provision of the bill would allow utilities to rebuild transmission lines without PSC approval so long as they retain roughly the same footprint and voltage.
That raised concerns for Rob Danielson, secretary of the Vernon County town of Stark’s energy planning committee, which has been active in opposing high-voltage transmission projects, including CapX2020 and Badger Coulee, which both cross the La Crosse area.
With decades-old transmission lines nearing the end of their lifespans, Danielson argues the PSC should retain oversight to ensure ratepayers don’t get saddled with billions of dollars worth of unneeded re-building projects.
The bill was authored by Rep. Mike Kuglitsch, a Republican from New Berlin who chairs the Assembly committee on energy and utilities and in the past two election cycles has received more than $19,000 in campaign contributions from utilities and their employees, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign database.
A companion bill in the Senate is scheduled for a public hearing at 1 p.m. Tuesday.