The Wisconsin Public Service Commission is recommending a water rate increase of just under 20 percent for the city of La Crosse utility, less than initially estimated, according to a report received Monday by the Board of Public Works.
“This rate-setting process addresses multiple objectives including cost recovery, affordability and resource sustainability. The PSC has now provided us with two rate design options that will provide a 19.58 percent overall increase,” said Tina Erickson, utilities accounting and customer support supervisor.
The board voted to move forward with a rate design structured so that residential buildings rate would go from $1.05 per unit to $1.11 per unit on the first 800 cubic feet of water. After that, it would go up to $1.59 per unit. A unit is 100 cubic feet of water, or about 748 gallons.
The board chose the rate design that had rising rates for residential use and declining for nonresidential rather than a uniform rate increase, which would have increased rates on residential properties to $1.56 per unit.
With the housing trends in the city and the tight market, city planner Jason Gilman said the city should do what it can to favor residential developments, especially those for families.
“I just think that all the pressure on residential right now, shifting tax burdens and things like that, I am more comfortable with ... rate design 1,” Gilman said.
La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat said he wanted a rate design that encourages people to be mindful of their water usage.
“If you’re using a lot more water, you’re trying to encourage conservation and protection of our precious water, we really should be getting out of the mode of the more you use, the cheaper it gets, because that does not encourage people to conserve,” Kabat said.
However, at the same time as the PSC is looking toward sustainability, it’s also concerned about industrial consumers, Erickson said.
“I essentially have to find a balance between sustainability and allowing people like City Brewery and hospitals and Trane Company, those that use a lot of water for their manufacturing, to continue operating,” Erickson said.
The proposed rate for nonresidential users is $1.14 per unit for the first 5,000 cubic feet, which would decrease with the more water used. With that kind of volume, those companies already have an incentive to conserve, said utilities manager Bernard Lenz.
“Whether it’s 11 cents more or not, the total dollar amount is a lot bigger just because of the volume that they’re using,” Lenz said.
After the board’s vote, the PSC will determine a final recommendation and there will be a public hearing to let the community weigh in. The PSC will then issue a final order to the city and the La Crosse Common Council will vote on the increase.
Erickson said the goal is to put the new rates into effect July 1.
The last time the city did a full conventional rate case was in 2010, and the 30 percent increase went into effect in 2011. There was a simplified rate case in 2015, which allowed a cost-of-living increase.
“Even with the rate increase, we’re still one of the cheapest in the state,” council member Gary Padesky said.
“We really should be getting out of the mode of the more you use, the cheaper it gets, because that does not encourage people to conserve.” Mayor Tim Kabat
Students and staff at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse have been given more power in booking guest lecturers after the chancellor invited a porn star to speak on campus last November.
On Monday, Chancellor Joe Gow announced the formation of a Joint Committee on Free Speech Promotion, a group of students and staff members that will organize events during National Free Speech Week and issue “recommendations regarding matters of importance to our campus community,” a release said.
Gow said he approached faculty leaders because of the backlash he received after booking Nina Hartley, a porn star and sex educator, for what proved to be an incendiary lecture on sexuality and adult entertainment.
“After the events of last fall, when there was a controversy about the choice of speaker, people said this would be best done by a more inclusive group and not just you,” Gow said, referring to himself. “I did what I thought was right last time, and from that I learned that we should move in a direction that’s more (inclusive) of our students and staff.”
Gow said the joint committee structure has been an effective one for UW-L, which has similar groups overseeing sustainability, budgeting and multicultural affairs.
In the coming weeks, Gow will work with campus governance groups to appoint members to the new committee, he said.
Under UW System policy, chancellors are responsible for overseeing and implementing free speech protections on their respective campuses. That did not stop system President Ray Cross from scolding Gow for his decision to book Hartley.
“Apart from my personal underlying moral concerns, I am deeply disappointed by your decision to actively recruit, advocate for, and pay for a porn star to come to the UW-La Crosse campus,” Cross wrote in a Nov. 6 letter that landed in Gow’s personnel file. “While I understand and appreciate your commitment to freedom of expression and public discourse, as chancellor, you need to exercise better judgment when dealing with matters such as these.”
Gow, while lamenting the news stories and negative attention the booking brought on, has maintained that Hartley’s lecture was both appropriate and insightful.
“I think we see things differently,” Gow said of the president’s letter. “I think the free speech policy is very clear that each chancellor is responsible for implementing that policy, and I took that seriously and did my best effort on this. I was approaching things from a very pure, free speech perspective.”
One hundred days into his tenure, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has drawn a line in the sand with Republican lawmakers on what the next state budget must include.
“We have to make sure we have affordable and accessible health care, we have to make sure we have increases in resources for our education system, and fix the damn roads,” Evers said in an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal. “I would not be accepting of a budget that didn’t make significant progress on all three of those.”
Still, Evers said he thinks the likelihood is small that he will veto an entire budget passed by lawmakers.
The governor’s comments come as he reaches the 100-day mark in a tenure marked, so far, by his clashes with Republicans who control the Legislature. Flashpoints have included laws enacted by Republicans just before Evers took office that curtailed his powers, as well as complaints from Republicans that Evers has failed to reach out to them.
The policy changes the new governor has ushered through amid a Republican-controlled Legislature have been modest: he recently fulfilled his campaign pledge of removing the state from a lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act, a consequence of court orders that have thrown state government into tumult.
Evers identified his biggest accomplishment so far as his approach to state politics.
“We’re governing in a good way and an open way,” he said.
But as for his agenda, there are few signs of agreement on Evers’ proposal for the next state budget. Republican leadership long ago cited a list of “non-starters” from it: expanding Medicaid under former President Barack Obama’s health care law, increasing taxes on large manufacturers and capital gains, significant hikes to the minimum wage, decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana, rolling back school voucher programs, expanding abortion rights and issuing driver’s licenses for immigrants in the country illegally.
For several of those proposals, a recent poll suggests public opinion is on Evers’ side. Seventy percent of respondents in the latest Marquette Law School Poll say they support taking federal dollars to expand Medicaid; 57% support increasing the minimum wage; and 59% want marijuana to be legal.
Evers’ expansive authority to veto spending bills gives him leverage in negotiations with GOP lawmakers. But Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has noted the governor has greater leverage to reduce spending than increase it, as Evers wants to do for schools, transportation and other budget areas.
Evers contends that if he has leverage beyond his veto authority, it’s public opinion.
“If they ignore that, I think they ignore it at their own risk,” Evers said, referring to the GOP’s stance on his budget. “We just cannot operate under these circumstances where we don’t care what the people of Wisconsin are saying to us.”
Connecting with people is a priority for Evers, who cited former Gov. Scott Walker’s engagement with voters after his unsuccessful presidential bid as something positive he’d give him credit for.
“He connected with people,” he said. “I thought he was pretty effective at that.”
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said she’s noticed Evers, too, has an effective style of communication.
“He’s genuinely authentic,” she said. “He is the same in front of an audience of one as he is an audience of 100.”
Former Republican Gov. Scott McCallum, who served from 2001 to 2003, said Evers started his tenure trying to reach out to Republicans.
But McCallum said Evers faces a tough challenge to juggle today’s political constraints with the need to govern. Any attempt to compromise with Republican lawmakers risks alienating his liberal Democratic base, McCallum said.
“Tony Evers has some good instincts. He’s got to learn to trust his instincts,” McCallum said. “You do what you think is right despite what the political consequences may be.”
Brian Fraley, a Wisconsin GOP strategist, said Evers has achieved far less in his first 100 days than Walker, who by this point had signed the landmark Act 10, which curtailed collective bargaining for public workers, and created the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.
Unlike Evers, Walker had the benefit of working with a Legislature controlled by his party.
Fraley said the start of Evers’ term has been mired in “partisanship and gridlock,” including a legal battle over whether he has the right to appoint 15 members of state boards and councils that Walker appointed and the state Senate confirmed in a December lame-duck session. During the session Republicans also passed laws curtailing Evers’ powers before he took office.
But Fraley said it’s early enough in Evers’ tenure that public views of him are not yet deeply defined. He said transportation is the area of the budget where there’s the greatest likelihood Evers could find common ground with Republicans.
“He still has the ability to craft the image of a pragmatist and less of a partisan ideologue,” Fraley said.
For conservatives, the governor’s first days in office haven’t given them much to celebrate, however, there are some bright spots.
Eric Bott, state director for the conservative group Americans for Prosperity Wisconsin, praised Evers’ Secretary of Revenue, Peter Barca, for the administration’s handling of regulation.
Bott said he’s particularly pleased with the DOR’s issuance of guidance documents allowing wedding barns to operate without a liquor license and applauded the governor’s proposal to eliminate the minimum markup on fuel, although AFP supports a complete repeal, not just on fuel.
But beyond those topics, the list of grievances from those on the right is building. Bott argued the image Evers created as a moderate Democrat is now tarnished, a sentiment shared by Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau.
“The governor’s first 100 days showed how far-left he plans to govern,” Fitzgerald said in a statement. Fitzgerald also tore into the governor’s participation in lawsuits challenging the state’s lame-duck laws, calling it an attack on the Legislature’s authority, and veto of their tax cut for the middle-class.
Democrats, however, say the budget of any governor is just a road map meant to stake out a negotiating position and is subject to change.
But the grievances from Republican leadership go beyond his policy. The relationship with Fitzgerald and Vos has been icy. Vos and Fitzgerald have complained Evers won’t sit down with them on a regular basis, as they did with Walker. The three did meet Wednesday, but Evers declined to discuss the details of their conversation.
“When it comes to his relationship with the Legislature, I’m hopeful that better days are ahead but this has been a pathetic start,” Fitzgerald said.
Evers said the expectation Vos and Fitzgerald should meet as frequently with him as they did Walker makes little sense, and that he has no regrets about his relations with the two legislative leaders so far.
“It’s a new day,” Evers said. “Of course they’re not going to have the same relationship with me as they had with Scott Walker.”
For Democrats, the honeymoon period is still ongoing. Shilling praised Evers for his cabinet, budget and “swift action” in requesting Wisconsin be dismissed from the Affordable Care Act lawsuit. The lame-duck laws initially barred Evers from doing so, but a Dane County judge’s order temporarily suspending the laws allowed Attorney General Josh Kaul to remove the state from the suit.
Shilling did, however, suggest a meeting between Evers and the four legislative leaders from either party might help to smooth over relations.
Some, particularly in the criminal justice sphere, are questioning why Evers hasn’t pressed harder to for change.
Angela Lang, executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, based in Milwaukee, said she’s glad the governor has criminal justice reform on his mind, but wants more.
“We need very clear ways to just flip some of these policies and where we’re at on its head,” she said.
Bott, whose AFP has taken up an interest in changes to the criminal justice system, said Evers’ proposals, which do not account for any substantial reduction in the prison population, were disappointing.
Shilling urged patience, underscoring there are more than three years left in Evers’ term and another budget process.