La Crosse’s most infamous street could be fixed sooner than expected, according to a representative of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
WisDOT communications manager Michael Bie told the Tribune editorial board Tuesday that the state agency is aiming to replace the pavement on La Crosse Street from Losey Boulevard to West Avenue in 2022. Earlier plans called for repairs in 2025.
“It’s a demonstrated need, no doubt about it,” Bie said. “We’ve been well aware of the local interest in La Crosse Street, and we’ve been working with the city for quite some time.”
The preliminary plan calls for a pavement replacement, which entails removing the surface of the road and some of the base, then rebuilding it with all new pavement, according to project supervisor Stephen Flottmeyer.
“We’re trying to stay within the current footprint, maybe a little wider, but not much wider than it is now,” Flottmeyer said.
WisDOT is looking at added a two-way turn lane down the center for safety, and maintaining the current bike lane.
While plans aren’t finalized yet, WisDOT is working on a design and funding plan for the city street, which serves as a state connecting highway for Hwy. 16. The proposal is to name it a highway safety improvement project, Bie said.
“These are primarily safety projects. Federal funding is used to make safety improvements at locations that qualify,” he said.
The street has been a point of contention between the city of La Crosse and WisDOT in the past, with La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat saying last year the city couldn’t wait any longer for the state to repave the street, which last had an overlay repair in the 1980s.
“Obviously it’s ... long overdue for attention, and I’m excited to see the DOT is moving forward,” Kabat said.
The road has been a high priority for the city because it’s one of the principle routes from the northern edge of La Crosse and Onalaska to downtown La Crosse.
“It’s a very vital link between two of our major north-south corridors,” Kabat said.
Should WisDOT move forward in 2022, the city expects to update the utilities underneath the street at the same time.
“We had that kind of in the works already,” Kabat said.
He added that he hopes the city’s advocacy played a part in getting the construction moved up.
“We’ve been working just overall at the local level of trying to get caught up on these deficient streets, and La Crosse Street is one of the very critical ones,” he said.
Stephen and Barbara Slaggie have donated $5 million for the expansion of the Cancer Center at Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare in La Crosse, and the building will be named in honor of the longtime Winona residents and philanthropists.
In donating virtually the entire cost of the project, the Slaggies continued their largesse toward the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and dozens of Winona-area facilities and organizations.
“We support the expansion of the Cancer Center in the region to complement and expand the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, and we’re pleased to play the role that we are in bringing it to fruition,” said Stephen, a co-founder of Fastenal Company in Winona and lifelong Rochester Mayo patient.
During a phone interview Tuesday, the 79-year-old Stephen said his first experience with Mayo was as a child, when he was diagnosed with spinal meningitis, an infection of the fluid and membranes surrounding the spinal cord and brain that almost always was fatal at the time and still is a life-threatening disease if not treated quickly.
Having no idea how serious the illness was at that age, Stephen said, he was hospitalized in isolation for three weeks to a month — unable to see even his parents — until Mayo doctors were able to save him.
“It endears one to the facility,” he said, noting that Mayo has been his family’s go-to health care provider ever since.
Stephen’s second serious encounter of the medical kind came 15 to 20 years ago, when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, had surgery within a few days, recovered and has been cancer free, he said.
That experience may “have piqued our interest in funding the cancer education center” at Rochester, he said. “It’s a unique opportunity to have that accessible to all patients, even if they aren’t Mayo patients.”
The resulting Stephen and Barbara Slaggie Family Cancer Education Center is one of the largest cancer resource centers in the United States. It features reader-friendly materials on topics such as nutrition, clinical trials, support, alternative and complementary therapies, and end-of-life care.
The Slaggies, who now live in Marco Island, Fla., except for forays north to visit their four children and 14 grandchildren ages 2 to 17, said they consider the donation to the Mayo-Franciscan Cancer Center to be an extension of the education center.
“Having cancer treatment in La Crosse is a tie to the education center,” Stephen said.
“It encouraged us so much to be a part of the project,” Barbara said. “We’re so thankful to be a part of something so beneficial to people.”
She expressed the hope that people from throughout the region around La Crosse and Winona will take advantage of the Cancer Center, with treatments closer to their homes.
“It is a gift to everyone all around La Crosse and Winona,” she said. “It’s absolutely our hope that people who are diagnosed get early care.”
The 3,900-square-foot La Crosse project, announced in November 2017, began last year and is scheduled to be completed this year. It is being built on the lower level of the Center for Advanced Medicine and Surgery, pushing south from the original center over what formerly was a sunken garden off West Avenue.
The project includes doubling the number of exam rooms to 18 and increasing treatment bays from 10 to 19, as well as renovations such as enlarging the pharmacy area and improving workflow patterns.
The number of patients at the Cancer Center has more than doubled — from 1,000 cancer patients a year to more than 2,250 — since the facility opened in 2004, Mayo-Franciscan officials said. The expansion is intended to allow for future growth and enable patients to stay closer to home, they said.
“Having a cancer diagnosis is incredibly difficult for patients and their families,” said Dr. Paul Mueller, regional vice president of Mayo Clinic Health System in La Crosse. “Offering comprehensive cancer services close to home makes it easier for patients to receive needed treatment.”
Several factors have contributed to the rising numbers of cancer patients, including increasing detection of more cancers as people age, Dr. Paula Gill said when the project was announced.
“We treat patients longer because they are living longer, and we have improved care and treatments,” said Gill, a Mayo-Franciscan medical oncologist who specializes in hematology.
The most common cancers treated at the center are breast, lung, head, neck and prostate, she said.
Details of naming the center in honor of the family will be disclosed when the expansion opens.
The Slaggies also have supported diabetes research, Mayo Clinic Connected Care, regenerative medicine and Mayo films, among other gifts to the health system, as well as a host of artistic and educational endeavors in the Coulee Region.
The Slaggies’ generosity has earned them several accolades. In 2017, Ashley for the Arts of Arcadia recognized the family with its Patron of the Arts award. The Slaggies also have received recognition from the Upper Mississippi Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals of the La Crosse, Winona and Decorah, Iowa, regions and other organizations.
“We try to fly under the radar with many things we do,” Stephen said. “We do not seek recognition” but are drawn to projects they find inspiring.
“If one has the resources, they are obligated to pay back,” he said.
On Marco Island, the Slaggies support private school initiatives and charities that address the needs of the significant migrant worker family population. They were instrumental in establishing the Marco Island Community Foundation, which directs assistance as needed.
Council president Martin Gaul called a proposed ban on Gillette Street bike lanes a mistake Tuesday during a city committee meeting that drew a crowd of people on both sides of the issue.
The Judiciary and Administrative Committee voted 4-3 to turn down the proposed ban, which was introduced by council member Scott Neumeister to prevent the city from adding bike lanes and removing parking on one side of the street from Rose Street to Onalaska Avenue.
“Part of the job a council person has ... is to not only look at what’s in front of you, but you have to be able to look into the future,” said Gaul. “(T)hese types of alternative transportation modes are the future and we have got to build out our infrastructure as far as we are able to do given the limitations of space we have.”
Gaul called on his fellow council members to incorporate the growth of alternative transportation into their plans, particularly when federal funding for a portion of the project could depend on it. The city’s plans call for repaving the portion from George Street to Onalaska Avenue this year and George to Rose in a couple years with federal help.
“We can’t discount what they’re going to require us to do anyway, and for us to build one section of it one way because we aren’t getting funding and to build the other one differently because we are makes absolutely no sense,” Gaul said.
Council member Gary Padesky agreed with Gaul, adding that the La Crosse Common Council gave the Board of Public Works the authority to decide things like where bike lanes are placed in city projects and where the city charges for parking. That board voted 3-2 in favor of adding bike lanes last month.
“Twice now in three months, we’re up here voting on things that Public Works voted on. I don’t want to pit Public Works against (the) council. I think if we want to change some of the things that are voted on in public works, I think we should do that,” Padesky said.
While Padesky voted against the bike lanes at that board, he said he was swayed by Gaul’s argument.
Neumeister, on the other hand, said he respectfully disagreed that the decision should be in the hands of the Board of Public Works.
“I don’t think a five-person panel ought to dictate such an important aspect of business where it affects so many,” Neumeister said.
However, his main concern is safety, he said, adding that bike lanes should be separated from the street.
“It scares me,” Neumeister said, saying he had a friend who was nearly killed after he was hit by a car while biking down Gillette Street.
“It happens, accidents happen,” Neumeister said.
Business owners on nearby Caledonia Street were split. Michael Christen of Wrench and Roll Street, a bicycle shop, stressed that the city shouldn’t tie the hands of planners who are looking after the city’s future.
Joella Streibel, who owns Old Towne Strings along with her husband, said she hears from customers who are looking for more bicycle access to her business.
“As far as the parking concerns, we share in that struggle. I think anybody who has a business on a street that doesn’t have their own parking lot struggles with that; however, on street parking does not belong to any business,” Streibel said.
She emphasized that as the mother of two young children, she wanted them to be able to safely ride their bikes to school throughout their entire education on the North Side.
Karla Doolittle of Mark Jewellers echoed Neumeister’s safety concerns and added her concern that the lack of parking would hurt business on the North Side.
“I think a side street might be a better options, just because the amount of semis going down that street,” Doolittle said.
La Crosse bicycle advocate James Longhurst spoke on the benefits of bike lanes, explaining that modern urban design and transportation research shows building roads only for automobiles is no longer considered safe, and there are fewer crashes in areas that install bike lanes.
Longhurst also cited the “Millennials on the Move” report released last month by the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group Foundation, which found the younger generation is looking to move to places that have transportation options other than cars.
The hourly wage of private attorneys representing poor defendants would rise 75 percent under the biennial budget Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers proposed last week.
Lawyers, however, say the move, while a step in the right direction, won’t solve the problem of delayed justice in the cases of indigent defendants.
Evers’ proposed 2019-21 budget would raise the rate paid private lawyers appointed to represent indigent clients from $40 an hour to $70 an hour. The rate has been $40 an hour since it was lowered from $50 an hour in the mid-1990s.
The Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers released a statement saying the changes would be “inadequate” because they don’t take into account overhead costs for private lawyers.
Private lawyers represent poor inmates the Wisconsin Public Defender’s Office can’t defend. The most common reason in La Crosse County is conflict issues, said Araysa Simpson, regional attorney manager at the La Crosse Public Defender’s Office, in an earlier interview.
One example of a conflict case is when a public defender cannot represent multiple defendants in the same case. Private lawyers take on these cases, but the number of lawyers willing to take them has dwindled because of the low wage.
“We’re encouraged to see that progress is being made, but the kind of progress that’s on the table is not enough to solve the problem, and this problem needs to be solved and needs to be solved yesterday,” said Hank Schultz, a retired criminal defense lawyer of 39 years. He has worked as a private attorney, a public defender and a public defender manager in northeast Wisconsin, and is a proponent of overhauling the system.
The proposed budget includes indexing the wage for inflation.
The Public Defender’s Office proposed the increase of $40 to $70 in its 2019-21 biennial budget proposal.
State Public Defender Kelli Thompson thanked the governor in a statement that said Wisconsin will meet its constitutional obligations by “increasing the rate of reimbursement for private attorneys taking State Public Defender cases (and) indexing the rate to allow for future increase.”
But the Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers argued that the number of lawyers who will take public defender case won’t significantly increase. According to its statement, the association is proposing a bill to “permanently fix this problem.” The bill consists of a structural change so private attorneys have a separate budget line and an independent director who can advocate for future funding instead of the State Public Defender’s Office having to “choose between advocating for additional staff resources or adequate private bar funding.”
The bill also includes a case-based fiscal proposal that depends on the severity and difficulty of each case ranging from a minimum of $100 an hour to a maximum of $140 an hour, basing these levels on federal public defender-rates. The idea is that lawyers who have tougher cases should be better compensated.
According to Schultz, most cases would fall in the minimum range of $100 an hour, an amount the Wisconsin Supreme Court found appropriate for court-appointed attorneys.
Meanwhile, poor people like George Goins are stalled in the criminal justice system, waiting in the La Crosse County Jail for a lawyer before his case can move forward. Goins, 36, of La Crosse, was jailed Sept. 4. He had a lawyer briefly, from Oct. 18 to Nov. 26, and has been waiting for a new lawyer for almost 100 days as of Tuesday.
Goins was charged with burglary, second-degree sexual assault, misdemeanor bail-jumping, battery intending bodily harm, false imprisonment, intimidation of a victim and disorderly conduct. According to La Crosse County Sheriff’s Office, the cost per inmate comes to $97 a day, based on a $6.8 million jail budget. That means Goins has cost taxpayers about $10,000 since Nov. 26.
Goins said he is working on his case in jail for when he does get a lawyer. Goins, who has been in federal prison, described the feeling of being in jail as “very draining. It’s stressful.”
Dale Pasell, a retired La Crosse County Circuit Court judge and the first staff attorney in the Public Defender’s Office in 1979, explained in a previous interview that while defendants wait for representation, witnesses, police officers and victims come to court only to be sent away. No one is investigating the indigent defendant’s case or interviewing witnesses, and the case is going cold. A defendant can lose employment simply because he or she had no lawyer.
The issue isn’t whether an individual is innocent or guilty — that is for the court to decide — but that the defendant has a right to a lawyer.
“We would very much like to find common ground here and resolve this once and for all as soon as we can,” Schultz said.