The La Crosse Common Council on Thursday approved an outside audit of the parks department and finalized a capital improvement budget that includes increased funding for Riverside Park improvements and Veterans Memorial Pool.
The council voted 10-3 to pay WIPFLI LLC $30,000 out of the city’s reserves to conduct a review of the Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department’s procurement procedures, income generated, donations received, expenses incurred and associated accounts for the past three years.
“I think this outside audit is beyond question something we need to do. We need to look backwards and look at where we’ve been to establish a pattern and establish where we want to be,” said council president Martin Gaul.
The proposal to audit the parks department came after council members raised concerns about transparency in parks projects such as Riverside Park and Veterans Memorial Pool, leading to La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat ordering an internal audit which would have reviewed six projects.
Gaul said the review would give council members a better idea of how city projects work, allowing them to better to their job.
“We need to make sure we’re putting funds where these funds ought to be going,” Gaul said.
Council member Gary Padesky argued that it was wiser to save the city money and keep the audit in-house, having the city’s new finance director, Valerie Fenske, lead the review.
“We have a lot of needs for $30,000 and to spend it on an outside audit that we can do inside, it’s just wrong,” Padesky said.
However, proponents of the audit argued it was worth the money to assure a transparent, clear process.
“Gary is right to say we have a lot of things we can spend this $30,000 on, but I will also say that I think that, given the feedback I got, $30,000 is a small price to pay to make sure we have the public’s confidence in what it is we’re doing,” Gaul said.
Gaul said the need for clarity and understanding of the city’s processes goes beyond the parks department.
“Because of the scope of their projects, because of the way these things have been put forth to the council and their methods, they just happen to be here,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for us to take a good, hard look.”
The council unanimously voted in favor of the capital budget after a proposal by Gaul added funds for repairing the Riverside Park fountain and renovating the band shell, as well as for Veterans Memorial Pool.
The funding would come from reimbursements to the city’s reserves connected to money spent addressing damage from July’s flooding. When approving the $765,000 expenditure in August, the city included language ensuring any insurance payouts or funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency would return to reserves.
“We have not got a final reimbursement number yet, but we do know that there are negotiations going on with the city’s insurance company. Beyond that, we also know that our FEMA application was granted,” Gaul said.
Gaul suggested dividing those funds up for the projects which were made priorities during the final stages of the capital improvement budget process, contingent on receiving those reimbursements.
“Whatever money we would get back, the first $100,000 of that money would be designated for the Riverside Park fountain,” Gaul said.
Gaul also suggested putting the remainder of the reimbursements toward the pool, adding to the $825,000 already set aside for the estimated $4 million project. The $100,000 previously allocated for Riverside Park improvements will be split between the band shell and trail restoration projects.
It is getting harder and harder for Will Petska to find all the skilled diesel technicians his company needs.
Tractor Central’s human resources and safety manager was one of 16 employers participating in a diesel and automotive career fair at Western Technical College’s Truck and Heavy Equipment Facility on Thursday. His company, the John Deere equipment dealer in Westby and West Salem, hires between 10 and 20 technicians each year, and the supply of qualified graduates is having a hard time keeping up with industry demand.
“Service techs are one of the toughest positions to fill,” Petska said. “This career fair is a way to come in and get in contact with the right people.”
Tractor Central wasn’t the only employer hoping to make inroads with Western students. Other participating companies were J.F. Brennan, River States Truck and Trailer, and U.S. Steel.
Western has offered a diesel and heavy equipment program for more than 45 years, instructor Chad Hofslien said. The program is two semesters long, and through 55 credits, students learn about electronics, electrical systems, drive trains, engine repair and heavy equipment repair.
Those who complete the coursework will have a technical diploma as a diesel technician, and there is a one-year option that can lead to careers as an assistant diesel tech. At capacity, the program can handle 32 new students each year, and graduates can earn more than $45,000 after graduating.
The field is becoming a lot more technical, as computers and electronics replace the older, simpler mechanical systems in diesel vehicles. There is something for those who want to get their hand dirty, Hofslien said, but also for those who like working with technical systems.
Hofslien said graduates’ options range from repairing large construction or agricultural equipment to working on trucks or even diesel engines in boats and ships. And with Baby Boomers retiring, the need for skilled technicians outstrips the state’s ability to train new workers, resulting in a spike in demand.
“Right now, employers can’t get enough qualified techs,” he said. “We just can’t graduate enough people.”
Kala Halverson was one of the first-year students chatting up employers at the career fair. She was looking for a job to complement her classroom studies and earn some extra money and was asking the employers about what kinds of hours and positions were available.
“I love being in the shop,” she said. “The classroom can be a bore sometimes.”
Halverson, originally from Melrose, Wis., said her older brother Clay sparked her interest in being a mechanic when they restored a truck together. She thought the diesel program would be an even bigger and better experience, and said she loved being able to play with and learn about the big toys.
“I love the field,” she said. “I look forward to coming to school every Monday.”
MADISON — A former Onalaska church secretary who stole more than $800,000 from collection plates during a nine-year period was sentenced Thursday in federal court to four years in prison and ordered to repay St. Patrick’s Catholic Church.
Barbara L. Snyder, 60, did not offer remorse or an explanation in court for the offense, which Onalaska Mayor Joe Chilsen, who is also a member of the church’s finance council, said was “probably the biggest tragedy.”
“She never said she was sorry,” Chilsen said after the sentencing.
St. Patrick’s Pastor Steven Kachel told District Judge James Peterson that Snyder’s embezzlement took hard-earned contributions from the parish’s 1,800 families that were intended to help the needy and fund the parish’s school.
“You betrayed them with your selfishness and greed. Their sacrifices were used for your worldly pleasures. You stole from God, the building of His kingdom,” Kachel said.
Kachel extended forgiveness to Snyder on behalf of the parish but turned over to the court the “proper consequences” for her actions.
Chilsen said the effect of Snyder’s theft spread beyond St. Pat’s, one of the largest parishes in the La Crosse Diocese.
“When Onalaska hits newspapers throughout the Midwest because of internal theft problems, companies make note of that and in a close race to get a company to relocate in Onalaska versus … Wausau, we lose … and when (crime) is in the headlines, especially at the dollar amounts we are talking about in this case, it puts us at a very significant disadvantage in recruitment circles,” Chilsen told Peterson.
Snyder, of West Salem, took $832,210, gambled it at nearby casinos, and falsified financial records and bank deposit slips to conceal her theft, according to court documents.
“She looked us in the eye at finance meetings and lied” about the church’s finances, said Frank Abnet, a church deacon.
Although Snyder worked at St. Pat’s for more than 30 years, authorities could only verify her theft going back nine years, limited to using mainly bank records of her expenditures as evidence, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Antonio Trillo.
Kachel, who has been St. Pat’s pastor for seven years, said the amount of Snyder’s theft “was probably more” than could be determined from records but did not speculate on the actual total.
Snyder discarded original records on collections, referred to as count sheets. In August 2016, she lied to law enforcement officers who interviewed her about her excessive spending at a local casino. Snyder denied gambling with church funds and falsely said she had 10 to 15 years of count sheets in her office that were reconciled with the church’s accounting books, Trillo wrote in a memo to the court.
Investigators found count sheets from 1994 and earlier but no recent ones, Trillo wrote.
Her lies led authorities on “a wild goose chase,” said Peterson, who factored obstruction of justice and abuse of a position of trust into the length of her sentence.
Snyder’s listing income of $162,949 in 2015 led to charges of false statements on her tax return for under-reporting her income and failing to disclose its source.
She pleaded guilty in August to wire fraud and making false statements, and joined the government’s recommendation of a sentence within the 41- to 57-month advisory guideline range.
In imposing four years of prison, Peterson said it sends a “strong message of community disapproval … anything less is inadequate and more is beyond the need for punishment.”
Peterson ordered a gambling assessment and treatment for Snyder after she reports to prison on Dec. 14. He also ordered her to liquidate her interest in a 2014 Cadillac SRV.
Commenting on Snyder’s sentence after court, Chilsen said she would not be able to repay the parish “in five lifetimes,” but thought four years was “about right.”
Authorities cited two men accused of running an illegal deer-hunting operation in Trempealeau County.
Travis Brush, who owns Brush Ranch Outfitters in Galesville, and employee Randall Hoff lured wild deer into a fenced captive deer farm to harvest trophy bucks, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.
The men altered the fence to allow wild deer to enter the ranch, where people could hunt and harvest deer year-round. They also used illegal bait and allowed hunts during closed seasons.
The DNR and state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection launched an investigation after complaints from the public.
“In this instance, we found that the actions of Brush Ranch Outfitters created a situation where captive deer and wild white-tailed deer commingled to create a potential disease risk that, if we had not stopped it, could have had a negative impact on the deer population in this part of Wisconsin,” said Paul McGraw, Wisconsin State veterinarian with the DATCP Division of Animal Health.
Brush, 48, of Holmen was issued 34 citations and two misdemeanors for unauthorized use of taking a deer from the wild in Trempealeau County Circuit Court. Hoff, 61, of Galesville was issued 14 citations.
While fewer Americans today have relatives or friends serving in the Armed Forces, a La Crosse man and his three brothers all have served.
The youngest, Alex Gaunky, was killed in Iraq at the age of 19 — a shocking enough event in itself without the fact that another brother, Donleigh, was given the rare assignment of accompanying Alex’s body home.
Donleigh chronicles the trek and the emotions it stirred in his book, “The Hardest Journey Home — A True Story of Loss and Duty During the Iraq War.” The publication date will be Saturday, Veterans Day.
“Every American should read this and learn what ‘thank you for your service’ really means,” retired Army Gen. Carter F. Ham writes on the cover of the book, also noting, “Donleigh Gaunky offers a heart-rending glimpse into his family.”
Donleigh Gaunky reflects on his brother, his family and that tough journey home in an interview to be published in Saturday’s La Crosse Tribune.