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Local
La Crosse council approves veterans transitional housing project on Farnam Street
Erik Daily, La Crosse Tribune 

Dave and Barb Erickson are in the process of donating their seven-bedroom, four-bathroom, fully accessible home on Farnam Street to the Tomah VA Medical Center for its transitional housing program.

The Tomah VA Medical Center will start making arrangements to move veterans into the former home of Dave and Barb Erickson on Farnam Street after a Thursday decision by the La Crosse Common Council.

The council voted 11-2 in favor of a conditional-use permit to allow the medical center to operate its transitional work residency program out of the home, which is in the process of being donated to the VA by the Ericksons.

The permit was necessary because the home is within 2,500 feet of several other community living arrangements, called CLAs.

The project will provide up eight veterans with a place to live and continue treatment as they find jobs and reintegrate into the community. The permit was passed on the condition that it undergo an annual review, and that the VA provide a payment in lieu of taxes and limit the occupancy to eight veterans.

“It’ll be a year of proving ourselves, but I’m confident that this will be a win-win for all of us,” said VA Medical Center director Victoria Brahm said.

Victoria Brahm

While Brahm expects it to take a few months to get the program up and running while the VA finalizes lease agreements and make sure the home meets all its codes, she hopes to get them in as soon as possible.

“At that point we’ll be doing continuous communication so that we can make arrangements in terms of an open house with the neighbors and that sort of thing, so we’ll be making contacts to see what they would like,” said Brahm.

Neighbors of the facility were outspoken against the project, objecting to veterans who could have anger issues and post-traumatic stress disorder living next door to their children, and raising concerns about what the conversion would do to their property values.

Council member David Marshall, a 35-year-member of the U.S. Army, said he would be overjoyed to have the facility in his neighborhood.

Marshall

“My deployments abroad have made me realize that the average soldier, the average marine, the average airman, is a step above most people in terms of their willingness to sacrifice, their willingness to be contributors to their society,” Marshall said. “I can’t turn my back on them.”

Marshall also spoke out against the stigma associated with mental health issues, saying those traumas are just as real as physical injuries.

“Just as real are the hell that comes back with you, that you bring back with you from overseas. I want people to understand that these are people who are healing and who are on the mend. I want to see them come into our city and mend in our city,” Marshall said.

Council member Doug Happel said he understood the neighbors’ concerns in the wake of scandals coming out of the VA Medical Center in recent year.

Happel

“My concern, in all respect, is will the VA really do what it says it’s going to do?” Happel said, saying the federal government isn’t a shining example of how to govern.

“Being from Tomah, I’ve heard good things about the director over there, but sometimes things are even bigger than a director,” Happel said.

However, Happel supported the project, saying the nation’s veterans deserved the care and the annual review will make a big difference.

The council also addressed the passion tied up in the debate over the past few months.

Council member Gary Padesky, who voted against the project along with council president Martin Gaul, urged the VA and the community to begin healing the rift between them.

Padesky

“I guess we’re past a lot of the talking. It’s been an emotional few months for everybody involved, including the neighbors, the VA and the Ericksons,” Padesky said.

However, he did repeat a request from neighbors to keep the property kept-up and consider landscaping and planting that would provide some privacy to people next door.

Marshall apologized for his harsh words to the neighbors during one of the public hearings on the project, specifically for when he told them “fear is not an American value” and painted the group with a broad brush.

“For adding any negativity to this discussion, I want to give the neighbors my sincerely apology,” the council member said.

City officials also scolded La Crosse area residents for incivility, saying those who expressed their displeasure with the neighbors over social media should be ashamed of their language.

Gaul

“Shame on you for doing that, for those of you who did that,” Marshall said.

Gaul described the public discussion as “very virulent and unnecessary,” comparing it to the respect the Common Council members show each other even as they fall on different sides of contentious issues.

“I think that in this particular case, the public could take a lesson from this council in the type of discourse we have in these discussions,” Gaul said.


Erik Daily, La Crosse Tribune 

Construction continues Thursday on Veterans Memorial Pool on Campbell Road next to the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse campus. The pool is expected to open by the end of May.


Education
Design begins on Holmen High expansion: District expects to finalize plans by March

Teachers, administrators and architects began meeting this week about the $23.5 million expansion and remodel of Holmen High School, with the goal of having a finished design by March.

The project — which calls for the construction of a new fine arts center and gymnasium, and the remodeling of some classrooms and activity spaces — is meant to prepare the school for an enrollment bump a few years from now.

District leaders will provide a formal update on the project at a school board meeting on Monday.

Mueller

“We’re really excited to be starting on this, and our colleagues will be bringing input directly to the architects over the next several weeks,” District Administrator Kristin Mueller said Thursday. The high school, built in 1994, was last expanded in 2000.

“We’re coming up on the 25-year anniversary,” she said. “This (project) really fits into our long-term plan for the district.”

According to the district, the high school is mostly lacking in activity space and common areas, as opposed to traditional classroom space.

The biggest additions are the fine arts center, which beats the current facility by 750 seats, and the gymnasium.

Crews will also reorganize the cafeteria and kitchen, add new locker rooms, add a career technology education area and install new ventilation and cooling systems around the school, among other projects.

Mueller said the additions will be completed first, so there will be plenty of space during the remodel, and that the most intrusive work will be done over the summer.

If all goes according to plan, she said, construction will be finished by early 2021.

The project, along with recurring funds to maintain the new space, was approved by voters in November. It was the costliest referendum in district history.

The district will solicit bids in July, with construction slated to begin in August.


Lawsuit targets GOP laws reducing Wisconsin governor's power

MADISON — A coalition of liberal-leaning groups filed a lawsuit Thursday seeking to void laws passed by Wisconsin Republicans that reduced the powers of the newly elected Democratic governor and attorney general.

Republicans derided the lawsuit as a frivolous attempt by bitter Democrats to score political points.

The legal challenge is the first seeking to undo all of the measures approved during last month’s lame-duck legislative session. The lawsuit argues the session was unconstitutional because it amounted to an illegal gathering of lawmakers.

Then-Gov. Scott Walker, who was defeated by Democrat Tony Evers in November, quickly signed the legislation before leaving office.

The new laws include taking away Evers’ ability to withdraw the state from lawsuits without legislative approval, which would prevent Evers from fulfilling his campaign promise to remove Wisconsin from a multi-state lawsuit seeking repeal of the federal health care law. The laws also prevent Evers from rescinding federal Medicaid waivers approved under the Walker administration.

Another new law gives the Legislature, rather than newly sworn-in Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul, the power to decide how to spend money obtained from lawsuit settlements.

The coalition’s lawsuit hinges on the procedural move Republicans used to call themselves into what is known as an “extraordinary session.” The lawsuit argues that the Wisconsin Constitution only allows for the Legislature to meet “at such time as provided by law” or in a “special” session, which is a session called by the governor. The lawsuit contends the session held in December didn’t fit either category.

The groups that filed the lawsuit in Dane County Circuit Court are the League of Women Voters, Disability Rights Wisconsin, Black Leaders Organizing for Communities and three Wisconsin voters.

Wisconsin Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald called the lawsuit frivolous and said Democrats were “throwing a tantrum.” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said Thursday he was “absolutely, positively certain this lawsuit won’t have merit.”

He circulated a memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Council — attorneys who advise lawmakers — that said the Legislature has the constitutional authority to determine its own rules. Furthermore, the memo said the Wisconsin Supreme Court has made clear that organizational issues like this are for the legislative branch to deal with “free from interference from the judicial branch.”

“Courts are unlikely to aggressively interpret the law and inject themselves into the legislative process,” said Rick Esenberg, head of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty.

Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said the governor expected such a legal challenge and that he would consult with his attorney about his next move.

“This legislation was a hasty and cynical attempt by Republicans to override the will of the people,” Baldauff said Thursday.

Legislative “extraordinary sessions” are common in Wisconsin, but the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau said the session held in December was the first time it had been used to restrict the powers of an incoming governor and attorney general.

The lawsuit comes as state Rep. Jimmy Anderson, D-Fitchburg, also filed a complaint with the Dane County district attorney seeking to void the lame-duck laws. Anderson is paralyzed from the waist down and in a wheelchair. He contends Republican lawmakers violated the state’s open meetings law by not revealing when they would vote on the bills.

Anderson, who said he can’t be in his chair more than 16 hours a day, missed the early morning vote that came after Republicans negotiated the bills in private all night long.

Tom Kamenick, another attorney with the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, said Anderson’s allegation was baseless because the state Supreme Court has already ruled courts can’t hear open meetings law complaints against the Legislature.

“I’m not aware of any cases or interpretations of open meetings law holding that a session can be ‘too long’ such that it excludes somebody,” Kamenick said.


Evers


Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

Central’s Noah Parcher drives against Stoughton’s Nathan Hutcherson during Tuesday’s game at Central High School. Parcher's offensive skills are often overlooked because of his pass-first mentality.


Local
La Crosse Center expansion moves forward to design phase; council approves $42 million concept

The La Crosse Center renovation cleared a significant hurdle Thursday when the city’s Common Council voted 12-1 to approve a concept to put the majority of the expansion to the west of the arena.

“We now go ahead with the plan and that’s exciting,” said La Crosse Center Board chair Brent Smith. “There’s going to be a lot of activity in the next 60 to 90 days here; there’s no doubt about that. We’ve got to put that design in and that’s going to be a lot of work.”

Smith

The concept includes about 12,000 square feet of renovated area, a 12,000-square-foot ballroom, 5,500 square feet of meeting rooms and areas for people to gather before events. More importantly, it features an atrium facing Second Street with new restrooms and a new concessions area, something the architects said were priorities that allow for multiple events and create a new face for the decades-old building.

It also gives the board a starting point as it looks at options for a larger exhibition hall, different sizes for the atrium and a possible connecting hallway on the Front Street side of the building — all called “bolt-ons” by the architects.

“It was the intent of these concepts to show multiple options in the decision-making process, multiple options in the design, and those decisions are going to be further evaluated and made during the schematic design phase,” said ISG architect Will Kratt.

Kabat

The project stalled on this step last July, when Mayor Tim Kabat vetoed a concept that put the expansion into Riverside Park and over its $42 million budget.

With the Thursday’s approval, the La Crosse Center Board and architects hired by the city can begin the design process, going through options for materials for each room and which bolt-ons it’s cost-effective to include.

The group will host two more public input sessions — slated for February and April — to hear more opinions on what priorities should be as they weigh costs versus service and other concerns.

“There is a lot to fill in, and as I said and as Council President (Martin) Gaul said, there’s a lot of moving parts that still have to be decided,” Smith said.

There will also be wiggle room in the maintenance budget, which included $2 million for North Hall improvements. With North Hall coming down and being replaced, that frees up those dollars for either different maintenance projects or for adding on the additional features.

“There was $2 million in the project for the acquisition of the Radisson Center. As you know, that’s probably not going to happen,” Smith told the council.

Olson

Council member Jessica Olson cast the sole dissenting vote, arguing that a detailed third-party economic impact of the concept was necessary and it was too similar to a concept deemed too small to have the needed impact by the previous study.

However, her fellow council members disagreed.

“This is the beginning stage. This helps us get to the next level, where we’re able to choose what we can do, what we can’t do, what we can budget-wise do, which is honestly the most difficult part,” council member Scott Neumeister said.

Padesky

Council member Gary Padesky added that delaying the project further would increase construction costs, saying, “Time is money.”

Smith said getting a finalized plan is key to putting the La Crosse Center’s customers’ and users’ minds at ease when it comes to their future events.

“Certainty is a very important thing to any customer of any business and ours are no different,” Smith said.

The plan calls for construction to start in January 2020, with completion slated for February 2021.

The costs associated with the project are on city officials’ minds as they start in the detailed design and development phase.

Mayor Kabat intends to the La Crosse County Convention and Visitors Bureau next week to consider raising the room tax to help for the project.

Council president Gaul spoke in favor of the mayor’s proposal during Thursday’s meeting and asked the La Crosse Center Board and architects to ensure they included an explanation of what the impact of design decisions are.

“My hope again is that the $42 million is adequate, but I would encourage and I have encouraged the people who are responsible for putting this together for us to make us understand what we’re losing and what would be gained if need be for us to allocate more money to this project,” he said.

Gaul reminded the council that the original price tag for the project was $45 million; it was reduced when the state tourism grant came in at $5 million rather than the $10 million asked for.

“I don’t want to allocate more money to this project unless we have to. On the same token, I don’t want to build it if it isn’t worth building, and we need to make sure when we do this, we do this right,” Gaul said.


Smith