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Onalaska fire chief back on duty after drunken-driving arrest

Onalaska’s fire chief has signed an agreement with the city of Onalaska that would result in a five-day unpaid suspension in the wake of his conduct during his April 7 drunken-driving arrest.

The agreement — signed by Fire Chief William D. Hayes Thursday and Mayor Joe Chilsen Monday — is subject to review April 29 by the city’s Police and Fire Commission.

Contributed photo 

Onalaska Fire Chief Billy D. Hayes

The agreement, released by the city Monday as part of the agenda for the Police and Fire Commission meeting next week, acknowledges that the drunk-driving and speeding charges are pending.

Hayes was pulled over for speeding early April 7 and a preliminary breath test showed he had a blood-alcohol content of 0.13 percent.

It was Hayes’ first OWI offense, according to the criminal complaint, and police issued three separate citations: operating while intoxicated (driving under the influence), operating with a prohibited alcohol concentration (driving under the influence) and exceeding speed zones, according to the complaint.

The agreement with the city focuses on the traffic stop, stating “Chief Hayes made certain comments regarding his position and title with the city of Onalaska, and also referenced socializing with the assistant police chief,” Jeffrey Cavender, who subsequently was placed on administrative leave and retired two days later.

According to the police report, Hayes told officers: “You just ruined my career.”

“What I don’t understand is that I’m the fire chief and you’re going to do me this way,” Hayes said while performing the field sobriety test, which he failed, according to the police report.

According to the agreement he signed with the city, Hayes admits that comments about his title and Cavender’s “constitutes a violation of city of Onalaska policy 1.06 which states that no employee shall display conduct that adversely affects the reputation, health, safety or welfare of the city during his actions.”

In addition to the five-day unpaid suspension, the agreement states that any future rule or policy violation could result in termination by the Police and Fire Commission, and that “this traffic stop incident shall be an aggravating factor … for which termination would be appropriate.”

The city agrees to review the so-called “last-chance agreement” in nine months, and Hayes waives any right to file a grievance in the case, according to the document.

Hayes returned to work Friday — the day after he signed the agreement.

He will appear in traffic court May 2.

Agreement with fire chief

Contributed photo 

Onalaska Fire Chief Billy D. Hayes

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

Nemo Yang of La Crosse tries to catch a fish in the Mississippi River April 22 from a dry spot below the Cass Street and Cameron Avenue bridges.

Mississippi River forecast to crest again this week in La Crosse

The National Weather Service has issued flood warnings along the Mississippi River, thanks to water from a melting snowpack enhanced by an April blizzard and rain from last week.

The river in La Crosse reached the moderate flood stage during the weekend, the second time this month the Mississippi River has crested above 13 feet.

The river was 14.2 feet high at 1:15 p.m. Monday, according to the river gauge in La Crosse. It is expected to crest at 14.6 feet about noon Wednesday.

The flood forecast includes the half to three quarters inch of rain forecast Monday evening.

In Winona, the Mississippi rose to 16.72 feet at 6 p.m. Monday and is expected to reach 17.2 feet at 6 p.m. Tuesday, according to the weather service.

That is short of the 18-foot threshold for major flooding, but the river in Winona is expected to remain at moderate flood stage for at least a week.

Pages of the past: La Crosse Tribune stories and photos from the Great Flood of 1965
Pages of the past: La Crosse Tribune stories and photos from the Great Flood of 1965

La Crosse board OKs pumping water into streets while it determines long-term solution

The Board of Public Works has issued a blanket OK for La Crosse residents to pump water into the street for the next 60 days as people, particularly those on the North Side, struggle with excess groundwater.

Craig Snyder, assistant chief of fire prevention and building safety, came to the board saying the city is struggling with more than 200 people pumping from their basements into the street.

“I feel for the homeowner because they don’t have a lot of choice. That water’s got to go somewhere. They have to do something with it,” Snyder said.

Municipal code requires a $50 permit from the board to make pumping into the city catch basins legal; however, that permit also requires the homeowner add the city to their home insurance, which not all insurance policies allow.

The code is meant to keep water out of sewage drains and from washing away the dirt under the city infrastructure.

“There is a long-term cost, an erosion factor for the city; on the other hand, what we’re hearing from neighbors is that they’re pumping it onto their own property, that water is seeping into the ground, finding the lowest point and coming right back into the basement,” Snyder said.

That leads to a vicious cycle of constant pumping, which is expensive and difficult for the homeowners, especially with water levels as high as they have been this year.

“It’s not going to get any better for the next couple of weeks, and if years to come are anything like this year, this is something that’s going to come up over and over again,” Snyder said.

Snyder asked the board to look at tweaking the code to allow pumping into the streets during emergencies or some other solution.


Council member Andrea Richmond spoke out against charging people for getting rid of the water in their basements.

“They shouldn’t have to come here to get a permit. There shouldn’t be a citation. It’s a real issue when the water levels on the river are so high,” Richmond said. “The water is coming up from the La Crosse River and they need to pump that water out of their basements. It’s critical.”

People work very hard to get that water out and it’s an expensive process.

Council member Scott Neumeister agreed with Richmond that permitting wasn’t the answer during years like this one.

“I would hope we can find some compromise for these poor homeowners who are struggling. No. 1, they have to pay flood insurance. Now they have water pouring into their basements. They have to take action and they have to take action now,” Neumeister said.


City planner Jason Gilman, a member of the Board of Public Works, agreed that the city should find a creative solution to help people, saying the Floodplain Advisory Committee’s floodplain mitigation program funding could help.

The committee is looking at ways to allocate tax increment financing funds to help out; however, he said Federal Emergency Management Agency restrictions on work that can be done on homes in the floodplain are a challenge.

“Given current regulations and national flood insurance policy, I can’t see a way out of it for people,” Gilman said. “We can’t fill basements without getting into a big problem with FEMA.”

Snyder said the pumping was causing some damage where it pools in the streets, but it might make sense to bring problems before the board, rather than every instance of pumping into the street.

Council member Philip Ostrem, a member of the board, said the blanket permit will provide some immediate relief; however, down the road the city is going to need to have a defined policy.

“This is a very difficult problem. We’re obviously not done,” Ostrem said.


ColtenB / Associated Press 

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) is defended by Detroit Pistons forward Blake Griffin (23) during the first half of Game 4 on Monday.

Expelled La Crosse Aquinas student faces firearm charges

The Aquinas high-schooler who was expelled last week after bringing a weapon to school will face juvenile charges of theft of a firearm and possession of a firearm on school grounds.

Details were slow to emerge last week, but an incident report obtained by the Tribune on Monday brought things into focus, establishing that the 16-year-old had brought a gun to school and had a list of classmates he planned to spare.

The student told officers he had not been serious, that he never intended to shoot anybody.

According to the report:

The student appears to have stolen a handgun from the home of one of his friends, either in mid-February or early April. The friend’s mother told police that the family’s guns are either hidden or locked away, and that she had no idea the gun had been stolen.

Classmates said the student talked about bringing a gun to school and mentioned by name the students he planned to target or spare.

Then, two weeks ago, classmates noticed that the student appeared to be carrying a gun at school. One told police that, after school ended on April 12, the student had pulled up his shirt to reveal a handgun tucked in his waistband.


Police were called to the school on April 15, after a different student reported seeing the gun in the student’s backpack.

Officers searched the backpack and the student’s locker but did not find a firearm. The gun was later recovered from the student’s home.

In his original message to parents, Aquinas President Ted Knutson said only that there had been “an incident involving one of our students,” and that school administration and police felt it was “being handled appropriately.”

On April 16, the day after the student was removed from school, police said they did not know whether the student had brought a gun to school.

“Later, it was confirmed that he had a weapon on school grounds on the past Friday,” Knutson said in a subsequent letter. “The student involved will be subject to school policy and appropriate laws that govern weapons on school grounds and for making threats to school safety. The student will not be returning to Aquinas High School.”

Knutson apologized “if our earlier message was not as complete as desired,” adding that the school would re-evaluate how it responds to such incidents.

He said the school wanted to delay any public statements until the investigation had been completed.