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Future of La Crosse leaf collection uncertain after this year

The future of La Crosse’s leaf collection program is uncertain as costs rise and resources dwindle; however, it will proceed this fall after a discussion Monday by the Board of Public Works.


La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat brought together city staff from four different departments to try and find a solution, saying if the city is going to pick up leaves in the fall, then it needs to do it right.

“It boils down to, from the city’s perspective, are we going to provide this service or not?” Kabat said. “I don’t want to go through another two seasons like we have the last two, where we’ve not performed that service the way it should be.”

In 2017 and 2018, the city began collecting leaves Oct. 2 and continued until snow made it impossible. La Crosse spent $223,000 in 2017 and $276,000 in 2018 gathering 792 and 670 loads of leaves, respectively. That cost has more than doubled since 2005, when the city spent $98,974 to collect 547 loads of leaves.


Not only has the city’s Street Department heard from residents unhappy with the service — it received 222 phone calls about leaf pickup last fall — but council members like Phillip Ostrem also have heard from their constituents. Something needs to be done, said Ostrem, who is also a member of the board.

“We need to fix our pick-up plan so people can either count on it or let it go entirely, but it’s too late to let it go for this year,” Ostrem said.

Leaders from the Street, Utility and Parks and Recreation departments, as well as the Municipal Transit Utility, joined the board Monday morning to come up with a plan to pick up leaves in October.

Initial plans call for eight crews to begin the pick-up in mid-October and continue for six weeks using drivers and other staff members from several city departments on a rotating schedule and hiring some additional seasonal employees to fill in the gaps.

The board will discuss whether utility employees will join them next month when it has a better idea of what the impact would be if those employees are diverted from their typical fall activities of cleaning and inspecting sanitary sewer infrastructure and storm water catch basins.

Finding the seasonal employees to do the raking and vacuuming up of the leaves will be a challenge, however, say city staffers. While they hire extra help, workers generally don’t last long on leaf collection. They work for a few days and then stop showing up, according to city staff.

Kabat said he would work on figuring out how to fund the additional seasonal employees.

The board also discussed hiring contractors, but the funding isn’t in the city’s 2019 budget, and it would be difficult to find a company both capable and willing to take on the job.

Jason Gilman, La Crosse City Planner

While the city is gathering leaves in 2019, city planner Jason Gilman suggested it gather some data as well. He said it would help city officials make some difficult decisions if they knew who was taking advantage of the program and whether there were ways to encourage them to try out other options, like composting or mulching, or taking their leaves to the free drop-off points located throughout the city.

“I wonder how much we’re looking at the data because it seems like a service that is just sort of a given every year. But times are changing, and we’ve got to look at that stuff closer,” Gilman said.

The city has collected leaves for years, largely to keep them out of the street, where they flow into storm drains and block the sewers. If it did eliminate the service, city staff would still need to sweep streets to keep those clean, and the city would need an enforcement plan for people who rake their leaves into the street illegally.

“Obviously this is pretty dicey because the residents of La Crosse have become accustomed to this service and there’s going to be a pushback from the city residents if we go forward in the future and start cutting this service,” said council member David Marshall.

Online exclusive: Wisconsin and La Crosse area public-sector employee salary databases

However, he doesn’t think the leaf collection is sustainable when compared to the city’s other priorities and limited resources.

“It’s unfortunate because there are a number of people in our city who would not be able to do their own leaf pick-up,” he said. And while he acknowledged the city was unable to force them, Marshall said people would have to step-up and help their neighbors.

Council member Barb Janssen agreed, saying the city needed to look at other options and priorities, and possibly look at sponsoring a Neighbors Day type event in the fall to help those who cannot get rid of their own leaves.

Chuck Miller, Winona Daily News 

Gov. Tony Evers checks out the flood damage at the home of Keith Jereczek along with other Dodge residents and media on Monday afternoon.

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Gov. Tony Evers surveys flood damage in Trempealeau County during visit
Chuck Miller, Winona Daily News 

Gov. Tony Evers checks out the flood damage at the home of Keith Jereczek along with other Dodge residents and media on Monday afternoon.

DODGE — Meeting with victims of flooding in the Trempealeau County communities of Arcadia, Dodge and Centerville Monday afternoon, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers promised to work with the state Legislature to seek solutions.

“My goal is to make sure that the people of Dodge have the opportunity to live a life like most other people in Wisconsin, without constant flooding,” he told a small crowd of citizens and community leaders gathered at the Dodge Town Hall.

Late Friday, March 15, the Trempealeau River, which flows through the heart of Dodge, reached record flood stage, spilling over its banks and forcing nearly a dozen residents to abandon their homes for higher ground.

The National Weather Service in La Crosse reports the river reached 13.44 feet at the height of the flood, but eye witness reports put the level closer to 14 feet.

The water closed several U.S. and county highways and flooded dozens of homes throughout Trempealeau county.

“We had a lot of damage in town,“ Dodge Fire Chief T.J. Fonfara said. “I’ve been with the department for 24-25 years; I’ve never seen the water come up as fast as it did this spring.”

Fonfara said ice jams and heavy snow late in the season likely contributed to the record flood.

During his visit to Dodge, Evers surveyed the damage to lifelong resident Keith Jereczek’s property. Jereczek and his daughter, Paige, who live just a few hundred yards from the river, were among the first to realize their home was in peril.

“We had at least 14 inches of water in our first floor and almost 4 feet in our garage,“ he told the governor. “We’ve got tons of damage to appliances, to flooring, to walls.”

Asked about Dodge’s history of flooding, Jereczek told Evers there had been an uptick in the frequency and severity of the floods since 2010.

For local property owner Mike Bushman, it’s time for Dodge to look at long-term solutions. Bushman, who moved to Dodge in 1972, called on the governor to get “big government” out of the way and help the community build a berm.

“They tell me something permanent can’t be done; I don’t buy that,“ he said. “Something needs to be done beyond sandbagging.”

Wisconsin Rep. Treig Pronschinske, R-Mondovi, said the biggest barrier for towns like Dodge is the high cost of the studies required by the Army Corps of Engineers.

“I think the biggest hoop here is how we are going to deal with the Army Corps,” he said. “How can local government afford this? Tax money is not just rolling in.”

Bushman said it was ridiculous that the town should have to spend millions on a study to construct a berm that he felt certain would only cost a fraction of that.

But while Pronschinske and Bushman criticized the high cost of the studies necessary to pursue long-term solutions, Wisconsin Emergency Management administrator Brian Satula said, while expensive, these studies are essential to securing federal funding from FEMA and other government agencies.

“Yes the cost is a factor that goes into getting a corps study,” he said, “but if you are ever to do a long-term fix of it, it really has to start with that.”

Evers highlighted the importance of flood mitigation and prevention while speaking in Centerville, another community hit by flooding this March.

He highlighted the work being done by the Army Corps of Engineers in Arcadia to study whether a levee could help mitigate flooding.

“The problem with mitigation is it takes time to plan and actually put into place,” he said, adding that in Arcadia it could take years before work begins on a levee.

“We have to be careful we don’t wear people’s patience thin on this issue,” Ever said.

While long-term solutions are being evaluated, Evers also urged residents to take pictures and report property damage.

He said if the damage reaches a high enough threshold, the county could be eligible for disaster recovery funds from FEMA.

Residents affected by flooding can report damage by calling Great Rivers 211.

PHOTOS: Gov. Tony Evers tours flood damage in western Wisconsin
PHOTOS: Gov. Tony Evers tours flood damage in western Wisconsin

Chuck Miller, Winona Daily News 

Gov. Tony Evers checks out the flood damage at the home of Keith Jereczek along with other Dodge residents and media on Monday afternoon during Evers' tour of western Wisconsin.


Report: wind, solar energy now cheaper than most existing coal plants

A new report suggests it costs more to operate four of Wisconsin’s seven largest coal-fired electricity plants than it would to replace them with wind and solar power.

The findings are from a study released Monday by Energy Innovation, a California nonprofit that advances policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with help from the renewable energy forecasting firm Vibrant Clean Energy.

The study found that, in theory, wind and solar could today replace nearly three-quarters of the nation’s coal plants at an immediate saving. Those include plants in Genoa, Oak Creek and Wausau with a combined capacity of nearly 3,000 megawatts.

By 2025, the study found, renewables will be more than 25 percent cheaper than every coal plant in Wisconsin except We Energies’ Elm Road Generating Station, which was built in this decade.

And it could be done on usable land within 35 miles of each plant.

“That really makes it a conservative analysis,” said Michael O’Boyle, director of electricity policy for Energy Innovation. “The best wind and solar resources are often much farther away.”

That could have big ramifications for Wisconsin, which generates more than half of its electricity from coal.

But of course there are caveats.

Wind and solar can replace the output of coal plants on an annual basis but can’t match it hour by hour, which would be necessary to operate the grid reliably. That would require additional technology such as batteries, demand management and “smart grids.”

“I don’t think it’s a pure one-to-one substitution,” said Paul Meier, an energy analyst and founder of the Madison consulting firm Juicebox. “Regardless, I do think those renewables would drop the market price for power during much of the year and therefore make those coal plants increasingly uneconomic.”

O’Boyle concedes there are practical limitations and that the numbers will vary from plant to plant.

“This is really a conversation starter,” he said.

And just because a coal plant costs more to operate doesn’t mean it isn’t making money for investor-owned utilities, which are guaranteed a roughly 10 percent return on the investment.

Most of the major utilities have pledged to cut 80 percent of carbon emissions by 2050, although a panel of U.N. scientists released a report last fall saying greenhouse gas emissions need to drop 45 percent in the next decade and fall to near zero by 2050 in order to minimize the risk of catastrophic climate change.

But those companies have invested nearly $3 billion in new coal plants this century and sunk another $2.5 billion into pollution controls — which don’t capture carbon — to keep older plants running.

The question will be who bears the costs if those assets are retired early — shareholders or ratepayers.

Policymakers will need to come up with creative ways to satisfy both, said Tom Content, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, which represents Wisconsin consumers.

“If you go to get a more efficient car you stop making payments on the inefficient car,” Content said. “In this case, we’re being asked to pay for both.”

Wind and solar can replace the output of coal plants on an annual basis but can’t match it hour by hour, which would be necessary to operate the grid reliably.