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La Crosse may remove assessment for damaged sidewalks

City of La Crosse residents may soon be off the hook for replacing sidewalks damaged by natural causes.

The city’s Board of Public Works voted Monday to approved an overhaul of the city’s sidewalk and driveway ordinance that eliminated the assessment for replacing sidewalks and tweaks the permitting process for installing sidewalks and driveways.

“There’s typically a 25-75 percent split, where if the city condemns a portion of sidewalk, either due to settling or tree movement or something else, the homeowners get the option to pay or to be assessed,” city traffic engineer Matt Gallagher said.

The proposed ordinance change removes the private assessment, instead having sidewalk replacement handled through capital projects, similar to the installation of new sidewalks — something the city stopped assessing for years ago.

Gallagher said that would streamline the process quite a bit.

“We could just go out and do the work and eliminate a lot of the paperwork and dealing with having to assess owners who are typically not happy about having to pay because the trees moved the panel of sidewalk,” Gallagher said.


Council member Gary Padesky sponsored the ordinance change, saying it protected the city’s trees as well as served the public interest.

“That way we don’t have homeowners versus trees. … I know one person had to replace their sidewalk portion of it twice,” Padesky said. “It’s just the proper and right way to do business when it comes to trees.”

City engineer Randy Turtenwald said a previous city council removed the assessment to property owners for new sidewalks.

“We used to assess new sidewalks, and we decided not to do that as an incentive for people. People have to maintain those sidewalks in the wintertime and if it gets badly damaged, but yet it’s used for the public,” Turtenwald said.

If approved by the council, the city would need to budget about $50,000 for replacing sidewalks.

Property owners who damage sidewalks themselves could still be required to fix them.

“We wanted to keep in a mechanism to be able to assess owners or contractors who damaged sidewalks through construction activities or through development, so we had a way to recoup costs,” Gallagher said.

Other changes include simplifying the permitting process and updating the ordinance to take into account formal efforts to improve the city’s bicycling and walking routes.

“We’re essentially eliminating the old sidewalk and driveway permit. Everything now, as it’s proposed, will be under an excavation permit. The public or contractors pay for one permit, pay one fee and they just check the box for what the use or the purpose is,” Gallagher said.

The rewrite also removed a list of priorities for sidewalks, instead directing the Board of Public Works and Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee to come up with priorities established through the green complete streets process the city initiated several years ago.

“All of this code existed before green complete streets so we’re putting it in compliance with that,” Gallagher said.

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Despite tweaks, dairy insurance program not saving Wisconsin farmers

Western Wisconsin dairy farmers praised tweaks to a price insurance program Monday but told U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin they face much larger problems, primarily too much milk.

Erik Daily, La Crosse Tribune  

Westby dairy farmer Brett Von Ruden milks cows Monday. Western Wisconsin dairy farmers praised tweaks to a price insurance program Monday but told U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin they face much larger problems.

Baldwin, D-Wis., met with farmers Monday to talk about legislative tweaks to the program, which was introduced in the 2014 Farm Bill.

Known as the Margin Protection Program for Dairy, the MPP allows farmers to purchase insurance that pays out when the cost to produce milk gets too close to their selling price. But farmers complained the formula doesn’t fully account for feed costs, nor does it factor in the cost of transportation and feed supplements like salt and vitamins.

“It’s not a true reflection of costs,” said Tom Jandt, a small dairy farmer from Barre Mills who said he’s yet to receive any benefits from the program.

The MPP was a great idea, said Frank Ponterio, a small dairy farmer from Melrose, but lawmakers changed the feed cost calculations and stripped production limits.

“There’s no way of stopping all this milk from being produced,” he said.

Despite spending about $10,000 a year for coverage in 2015 and 2016, Ken Wunderlin said he received only about $5,000 in payouts from the MPP.

Wunderlin, who milks 100 cows in Iowa County, said he got just under $15 per hundred pounds of milk in January, only a couple of dollars more than he was getting in the mid-1980s, and only about $5 above his production costs.

In its first year, more than 6,500 Wisconsin farmers signed up for the program, with most buying coverage for production margins below $6.50. Last year, participation had fallen to less than 5,300, with more than 90 percent in the lowest tier, which costs just $100 and pays out when margins fall below $4.

“It didn’t do the job of risk management they hoped it would,” Baldwin said.


Changes she introduced to the two-year spending bill approved earlier this month will lower the cost of premiums for small to medium-sized producers and allow farmers who buy in to participate in other risk management programs. The continuing resolution includes an additional $10 billion during the next decade to help lower premiums in two production insurance programs.

The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, the state’s largest farm trade group, has hailed the fix.

“We are extremely pleased with the changes that were made,” said Karen Gefvert, the bureau’s director of governmental relations.

But Darin Von Ruden, president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, said the money would have been better spent on the Livestock Gross Margin program, which relies on a different risk management mechanism but hasn’t been able to accommodate everyone who wants to participate.

Von Ruden

“It seems to be working a lot better for dairy farmers,” Von Rudin said. “For every year in existence every single dollar has been used.”

While farmers said the tweaks should help, they don’t view the program as an industry solution.

“It doesn’t really fix the situation,” Wunderlin said. “We’ve got too much milk.”

De Soto farmer Kevin Walleser argued exports are the answer.

“We’re not going to be able to eat our way out of this domestically,” he said.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, right, talks with dairy farmers Monday in the La Crosse County Administrative Center.

Von Ruden, who sold his organic dairy herd to his son two years ago, took the opposite view.

“If there isn’t a market for food,” he said, “we shouldn’t be producing it.”

Distraction, drinking among causes for high traffic death toll

CHICAGO — The traffic death toll in Chicago is growing, and the national count remains at historic highs, despite new car safety technology.

That means it’s past time to slow down, stay sober and stop trying to multitask while you drive, according to traffic safety experts.

“We’re really treading water in terms of roadway safety, which is unfortunate” said Kenneth Kolosh, manager of statistics for the National Safety Council, a safety advocacy organization based in Itasca. “We’d like to see actually very large decreases.”

Safety improvements to cars, like crash-avoidance technology, “really haven’t moved the needle,” Kolosh said. He cited a host of factors contributing to the high death count: more cars on the roads because of low gas prices and an improved economy, distracted drivers and pedestrians, high speeds and alcohol use.

In Chicago, the number of traffic deaths rose sharply last year over 2016, to 133 from 113, an 18 percent jump, according to city transportation and police department figures. This is above the 2011-15 average of 126.2

In the U.S., traffic deaths and injuries have plateaued, with a slight decrease of 1 percent from 2016 to 2017, with an estimated 40,100 people killed and 4.57 million seriously injured on the roads, according to data released last week by the National Safety Council. The council gets preliminary numbers from all 50 states ahead of the official count that will be released in December by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

But a plateau is nothing to be happy about — it’s just a leveling off of the steepest two-year increase in over 50 years, according to the council. Deaths have exceeded 40,000 for two years in a row.

Illinois has followed the national trend — the numbers remained largely unchanged from 2016 to 2017, but deaths last year were six percent higher than they were in 2015, the National Safety Council said.

In Chicago, deaths for motor vehicle drivers and passengers rose to 80 last year from 63 in 2016; pedestrian deaths rose to 46 from 44; and bicycle fatalities involving motor vehicles rose from 6 to 7. Pedestrian and bike deaths were both above the 2011-15 average of 38.2 and 6.2, respectively.

There has also been a large increase nationally in pedestrian deaths — up 9 percent in 2016 from 2015, along with an increase in fatalities for other vulnerable road users such as cyclists and motorcycle riders, Kolosh said. Pedestrian, bike and motorcycle numbers were not yet available nationally for 2017.

Rebekah Scheinfeld, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation, said while cellphone use by walkers may be a factor in some fatal crashes, the bigger issue is driver behavior.

A pedestrian “using their cellphone does not pose the same risk as someone driving and looking at their cellphone,” Scheinfeld said.

Mike Amsden, an assistant director of planning with the department, noted that most pedestrian deaths happen when the pedestrian is doing something legal, like crossing the street. Eighteen of last year’s pedestrian deaths were hit-and-runs.

Patrick Salvi, a lawyer whose firm, Salvi, Schostok & Pritchard specializes in traffic-related deaths and injuries, said he often sees cases where pedestrians were not obeying the rules of the road.

“They’ve got to stay visible, avoid distractions and avoid using alcohol,” Salvi said.

Knowing the risk of using technology like mobile phones and GPS does not keep drivers from doing it, according to a recent survey of more than 1,000 U.S. drivers by Esurance Insurance Services. While 91 percent of surveyed drivers believe that texting while driving is distracting, more than half admit to doing it anyway, because they’re busy or bored.

Three out of 10 of those surveyed know someone who has experienced a distracted driving crash or close call, and 1 out of 10 have experienced a crash or close call personally, the survey found.

Kolosh said the distracted driving trend seems to be “evolving” with more advanced technology, but that does not mean things are getting better. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration studies see a decrease in the percentage of drivers observed using their cellphones, Kolosh said.

However, hands-free technology has been found to be just as distracting and “cognitively taxing” as using your hands to operate a phone, Kolosh said.

“There is no safe way to interact and do multitasking behind the wheel,” Kolosh said.

Regarding alcohol use, Kolosh said the U.S. is “out of line” with many other developed countries in its driving-under-the influence laws. The U.S., Canada and Great Britain all use the .08 alcohol standard while most other countries charge drivers if they are caught with blood alcohol levels of .05 or less.

“Research shows there’s really no safe level of alcohol in your system while you’re driving,” Kolosh said.

In the 1990s, states started increasing highway speed limits, and some western states now allow speeds of 80 mph. “While you may save some time with higher speed limits, you’re paying for those few minutes with lives lost,” Kolosh said.

Vision Zero and crashes

The city put forward a “Vision Zero” plan last June to eliminate traffic deaths and serious crashes. Under the plan, the city said it is pushing for more safety education, intersection changes like curb “bump-outs” to shorten walking distances across streets, and encouraging policies and technologies that make for safer vehicles and professional drivers.

The city said it is also focusing efforts on high-crash areas, which tend to be in low- to moderate-income communities, including Austin on the West Side, Belmont-Cragin on the Northwest Side and Englewood on the South Side.

Vision Zero programs are being tried in other cities around the world, including New York, which began its program in 2014 and has seen a 45 percent decrease in pedestrian deaths, according to the city’s website.

So far, Chicago Vision Zero representatives have reached out to almost 8,000 residents on the West Side about ways to make the streets safer, according to Luann Hamilton, deputy commissioner of Chicago’s transportation department.

Kyle Whitehead, government relations director of the Active Transportation Alliance, said he did not see the increase in fatalities as showing that Vision Zero is not working — it just started.

But Whitehead said the death numbers are evidence that more needs to be done at a city, state and national level to reduce dangerous travel behavior, like speeding.

“All of these crashes are preventable,” Whitehead said.

“There is no safe way to interact and do multitasking behind the wheel,” Kenneth Kolosh, National Safety Council statistics manager

U.S. traffic deaths and injuries increased by 1 percent from 2016 to 2017, with an estimated 40,100 people killed and 4.57 million seriously injured on the roads.

Rory O'Driscoll, La Crosse Tribune 

Bangor's Emma Wittmershaus dribbles against Aquinas' Courtney Becker during Saturday's Midwest Players Classic game at the La Crosse Center.


Wisconsin Supreme Court race tops spring primary ballot

Voters today will narrow the field in a hotly contested Wisconsin Supreme Court race.

In La Crosse County, voters will pick the Democratic candidate for county treasurer and narrow the field in an Onalaska city council race. West Salem School District voters will consider covering a shortfall of funding for two projects with the savings from another.

Chad Hawkins and Amy Twitchell are on the ballot for treasurer, while Diane Wulf, Kevin Hintz and Dan Stevens are vying for two spots on the general election ballot in Onalaska’s 2nd District.

The spring general election will be April 3.

The West Salem school referendum question proposes that $1.5 million in borrowing originally authorized for middle school expansion and renovation be redirected toward a multi-purpose events facility and the expansion of the high school automotive lab.

In the state Supreme Court race, three candidates are vying to fill the seat left vacant by the retirement of Justice Michael Gableman. They are Madison attorney Tim Burns, Milwaukee County Judge Rebecca Dallet and Sauk County Judge Michael Screnock. Two will advance to the April 3 general election.

Such primaries typically are low-turnout affairs. In the past two decades, there have been five state Supreme Court primaries averaging a 7.3 percent turnout among the voting-age population, according to the state Elections Commission.

Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. If you are unsure of your polling place or need information about registration and acceptable forms of ID, visit