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La Crosse County unveils new plan to fund road work

La Crosse County has 282 miles of road and 69 bridges. To keep the roads in shape, the county needs to maintain about 10 miles of road each year at a cost of $500,000 per mile.

A majority of voters in last fall’s advisory referendum supported a $5 million a year investment to maintain and repair La Crosse County’s deteriorating roads and bridges. The next questions: Where that money will come from and how the county will pay for the expense?

For starters, the new state budget proposal doesn’t provide a significant increase in transportation funding for counties.

It’s also unlikely that La Crosse County will be able to raise $5 million from a retail sales tax known as the premier resort area tax. While 68% of voters supported adding the tax to businesses including restaurants, clothing stores, gas stations and souvenir shops, the amount of tourism in La Crosse County doesn’t qualify automatically for the PRAT and the Legislature has not indicated that it will give the county permission to authorize a binding referendum on the PRAT anytime soon.

O’Malley

As such, “our only alternative is (to look to) a new debt plan if we want to address the problem” of worsening roads, said County Administrator Steve O’Malley.

O’Malley worked with the county finance team to present before the county board of supervisors last week a funding pathway he thought would give the county the most capital for road work while limiting a sharp increase in property taxes.

The county board has already decided last year to borrow $2.55 million for roads in the 2019 budget, which the county will back pay over 10 years.

O’Malley recommended that the county borrow $5 million each year from 2020 through 2024 through loans that defer payment on the principal for the first year. The deferred payments give the county the ability to pay down significant upcoming debt obligations as scheduled, O’Malley said.

The county would pay for the loan on a 10-year schedule at first, then at an accelerated six-year schedule, O’Malley said. Since the plan requires borrowing more money over a longer period of time, it would cost the county $3.18 million in interest to be paid over 11 years, or $1.18 million more than if the county kept borrowing at 2019 levels.

Despite the additional interest, the county would still be able to pay more debt than it borrowed each year, O’Malley said.

“There’s no free lunch anywhere,” O’Malley said. “You’re still spending money on interest. But by spreading it out over current taxpayers and future taxpayers, you’re spreading it out over the life of the asset.”

And the county would be able to invest $22.5 million during the next five years — $10 million more than if the county had borrowed $2.5 million each year — into county roads, while keeping property tax increases within 1.1% each year for four years, O’Malley said.

Before the fall referendum, O’Malley had originally proposed a plan that would gradually increase borrowing from $2.5 million to $5 million by 2023, with accelerated debt payments on the principal. This route would generate $18.75 million in capital for road projects between 2020 and 2023. But because the loans would be paid back on an accelerated schedule, property taxes would need to increase up to 3% each year over five years, O’Malley said.

O’Malley said he no longer supported this plan because voters opposed a one-time property tax increase of 15% to pay for roads in the fall referendum.

Also, the $18.75 million would only provide a “minimal increase in road projects” each year than the $12.5 million baseline, O’Malley said. “The roads continue to deteriorate, we’re losing ground. … I don’t think that’s acceptable.”

The county board of supervisors has until fall, when it votes on the 2020 budget, to discuss the new highway funding plan. Since the board votes on the budget each year, it can also adjust borrowing and payment from year to year.


10 most crash-prone state highway intersections in La Crosse County
10 most crash-prone state highway intersections in La Crosse County

Unused electronics piling up in homes as residents unsure how to get rid of them

Wisconsin residents are sitting on a growing stash of unused electronics amid rising uncertainty about what to do with them.

A new survey by the state Department of Natural Resources found an estimated 9.3 million unused phones, computers and televisions are sitting around, an increase of 36 percent over the past five years.

Altogether DNR estimates there are 10 million mobile phones in Wisconsin — about 1.7 phones for every man, woman and child — more than half of which are no longer in use.

Residents reported nearly a third of computers and a little less than a quarter of televisions were no longer being used.

Almost three quarters of survey respondents reported having at least one old TV, computer or cellphone in their homes. The average number of unused electronics was 3.5, while one respondent had 21. Those who recently bought a new device tend to have more unused electronics.

Last year Wisconsin residents purchased an estimated 13,600 tons of new electronics, according to DNR data.

It’s the fifth survey DNR has conducted since 2010, when a new law banned many consumer electronics from landfills and established the E-Cycle Wisconsin program to keep hazardous waste out of landfills.

While only about 2 percent of respondents reported throwing away their unwanted electronics last year, the number of people who know about the landfill ban has fallen steadily since 2011.

So has awareness of where and how to recycle them, according to the survey.

“It was a little disappointing,” said Sarah Murray, coordinator of the E-Cycle program.

But Murray adds DNR has focused less public outreach on the law itself and more on letting people know where and how to recycle — including an online map showing e-waste dropoff sites.

“I wish that we had seen more improvement in the share of people who didn’t know where to recycle,” Murray said.

CHRIS HUBBUCH, WISCONSIN STATE JOURNAL 

Old television sets await pickup at the city of Madison's dropoff site on West Badger Road. Used electronics are taken to URT Solutions, which recycles the parts. A 2010 law bans electronics from landfills and requires manufacturers to pay to recycle a portion of what they sell in the state.

Last year the city of Madison collected over 326 tons of used electronics — mostly at East and West Side dropoff sites, which are open to residents but charge a small fee for computers and televisions.

“It’s a burden to do it, but it’s also part of the ownership,” said Bryan Johnson, the city’s recycling coordinator.

Rising costs

As a result of market dynamics, consumers are being asked to share some of the costs, although nearly 65 percent of survey respondents said they would not pay more than $5 to recycle a device.

Nearly a quarter of those who said they were unable to recycle cited the cost, a share that’s doubled since 2013.

“That’s not completely surprising,” Murray said. “We’re seeing a lot more collection sites charging.”

That’s partly because of the upside-down economics of the law, which requires manufacturers to track the weight of what they sell in the state and to recycle 80 percent of that volume.

Manufacturers typically contract with a company like Madison-based Cascade Asset Management, which dismantles the old equipment and separates hazardous materials from those that can be recycled.

The problem is the products get lighter every year, meaning manufacturers pay for less and less volume while there’s still a lot of heavy old TVs gathering dust in basements and attics.

“There’s still a lot of stuff in storage,” said Cascade CEO Neil Peters-Michaud.

Recyclers are also getting squeezed because newer devices contain less valuable material — such as precious metals used in circuit boards — and more hazardous wastes, like lithium-ion batteries and flame-retardant plastics.

Peters-Michaud said the revenue from valuable recyclables is generally offset by the costs to dispose of those other materials, especially now that China has stopped accepting most plastics.

“There’s less value on the back end,” Murray said.

STEVE APPS, WISCONSIN STATE JOURNAL 

Hard drives after they have been through a shredder at Cascade Asset Management. About 13 percent of residents surveyed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources cited data privacy concerns as a reason for not recycling unused electronic devices. 

Data privacy

About 13 percent of those who would like to recycle their old devices cited concerns about data security.

Companies like Cascade and URT Solutions, which handles all the consumer e-waste collected by the city of Madison, ensure that all data is destroyed.

“It’s secure,” said Bryan Johnson, recycling coordinator for the city of Madison. “Our electronics vendor — they have to show they’re going to destroy that data. ... Their reputation is on the line.”

Peters-Michaud said Cascade, which primarily serves commercial clients, salvages about 30 percent of its material for resale.

“I wish it was more,” he said.

Computers destined for resale are put through a media “sanitization” process to wipe all data. Peters-Michaud said it takes about 8 hours to clean a 1-terrabyte drive.

If the equipment is too old or damaged, Cascade workers pull out any storage devices and put them through a shredder.

STEVE APPS, WISCONSIN STATE JOURNAL 

Josh Smentek prepares to wipe data from computers at Cascade Asset Management. The company, which primarily serves commercial customers, is able to resell about a third of the electronics received. The rest are dismantled and the parts recycled.

Data privacy wasn’t a concern for one Madison resident unloading an old 15-inch RCA television Tuesday at the city’s Badger Road site.

“We inherited it when we bought our place 8 years ago,” said the man, who didn’t want to give his name. “Just 8 years to get rid of it!”


O’Malley


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Wind turbines proposal whips up dispute in rural Wisconsin

Cindy Blanc, 57, and her 61-year-old husband, Peter Minucci, are freelance musicians who moved to 5 acres in the countryside in south central Wisconsin for the scenic views and serenity.

Blanc leans against the glass door to her expansive backyard where they see a lot of wildlife, including owls.

“This is the best place to watch stars ever because there’s no light out here,” she said. “Now we’ll have … flashing lights.”

Blanc was referring to a plan for 24 wind turbines, nearly 500 feet tall, including one tower that she said would be 1,500 feet from the couple’s home in the town of Jefferson, a rural farming community of 1,200 people near the Illinois border in Green County.

On a February afternoon, Blanc and Minucci drive along a county road in their tan 1999 Oldsmobile to a neighbor’s house to hand out yellow posters with the image of a wind turbine with a circle and red slash mark across it. The protest signs are in yards dotted throughout the town.

Blanc learned about plans in October for the wind project when EDF Renewables, the American subsidiary of a French company, sent her a notice in the mail.

EDF’s 65-megawatt Sugar River Wind Project would include 24 turbines spread over 5,870 acres. According to the company, the project would bring in more than $250,000 in tax revenue annually. It has the capacity to provide power for 20,000 homes, according to the pro-renewables group Renew Wisconsin.

The project reflects a reignited interest among wind developers in the state, according to Renew Wisconsin Policy Director Michael Vickerman. Currently, wind power provides less than 3% of Wisconsin’s electricity.

The fight between residents and renewable energy is playing out in Wisconsin and other states as large wind and solar projects — which in some cases can produce electricity more cheaply than coal-fired power plants — have begun cropping up in rural areas.

After receiving the notice, Blanc organized her neighbors to rally against the turbines. Under state law, projects are automatically approved after 90 days if a local municipality does not pass a wind ordinance to specify conditions for approval of the project, so the situation felt urgent.

She leaves the poster with a neighbor and gets back in the car.

“This is the exciting life of a wind warrior,” Blanc said, laughing. “But mostly I just sit around and like, write emails.”

Blanc said she is not anti-wind, she just does not think turbines should be close to residences.

She is worried her property’s value will fall with wind turbines towering above it.

“Who is going to want to buy it living in the shadow of giant, industrial wind?” she asked, raising a question studies have failed to answer, as some find a decline in value and others do not.

“We’re working musicians. We have no pension. We have no retirement. So this 5 acres and this janky old farm house, is like, it,” Blanc said. “This is what we’ve worked for our entire lives.”

At an evening Jefferson Town Board meeting in late February, a roomful of more than 70 community members faced three town board members and the town attorney, at times booing and jeering.

The board was considering a possible wind ordinance after months of public pressure. Local governments cannot enact restrictions on wind projects that exceed the standards set out in the state’s wind energy siting law, Public Service Commission Rule 128.

Prior to the law’s enactment in 2012, some local governments blocked projects in their areas. PSC 128 was a way to provide predictability to the permitting process and help prevent impasses. Under the law, any local government that passes a wind ordinance gains the power to regulate, approve or reject a wind project, within the bounds set by the state.

Yet some residents, like Blanc, want the town to push the limits of the law and require setbacks from residences greater than the standard of 1,250 feet (381 meters) outlined in PSC 128 for properties not a part of the project. The town planning commission supported those changes.

But the town’s attorney, Daniel Bartholf, advised the board against challenging the law, as did an attorney for EDF. Ultimately, the Jefferson Town Board rejected the proposed ordinance. Board Chairman Harvey Mandel said in an interview that he did not want to approve an ordinance that would invite a lawsuit.

On several occasions, audience members shouted to the elected leaders that they would soon be out of office after spring elections. Two people stood to speak in favor of the project; about 10 people spoke against.

In interviews before the meeting, some residents said they have heard people living close to turbines can be disturbed by the flashing shadows and low-frequency noise from the rotation of the blades, causing headaches, nausea, lost sleep and other health issues.

The World Health Organization has identified sound from wind turbines as a health risk, although it acknowledged “very little evidence is available about the adverse health effects of continuous exposure to wind turbine noise.” The Wisconsin Department of Health Services says there are no known health effects from wind turbines.

In January, an expert panel reviewed scientific studies for a coalition of environmental groups, finding “little scientific evidence to support claims of health problems caused by wind turbines.”

Micah Bahr is a resident in the town of Kendall in Lafayette County, also near the Illinois border. He is a farmer who supports renewable energy; he has an array of solar panels next to his barn. But Bahr spoke against the Jefferson project at the meeting.

Bahr lives about three-fourths of a mile from a wind turbine. He believes it is giving him headaches, which vanish when he goes indoors.

“I was wondering why I was getting a headache,” he said in an interview at his farm. “Then it dawned on me that there was a … a lull, humming type sound that was coming when the wind comes out of the south.”

EDF Development Director PJ Saliterman said in an interview that allegations of negative health effects are a “myth.”

“Too often fear and misinformation … from web-based sources are used to drive wedges in communities in between neighbors,” he said.

It came as a surprise to Jim Bauman that his brother and neighbor, Brian Bauman, signed a lease to place a wind turbine and power station on his property in Juda, Wisconsin. That decision has put a crack in the bonds of an otherwise close family.

Not only is Jim Bauman upset, but so is his sister, Linda Kundert, who lives about 10 minutes away. She and her husband, Dan, along with their son, Brent, are dairy farmers who may soon live next to several towering wind turbines.

“We just never thought of this area as an industrial area, and the turbines kind of make it that,” she said.

The Kunderts fear they and their dairy cows will suffer health problems from the turbines. Jennifer Van Os, a University of Wisconsin-Madison assistant professor of dairy science, said she knows of no scientific research published on the effects of wind turbines on cattle.

“I’m tired of waking up with a knot in my stomach going through ranges of emotions,” Dan Kundert said. “Neighbors should not do this to neighbors, and above all, family should not do this to family.”

Brian Bauman did not return calls for an interview about his plans.

According to Vickerman, the average annual lease for hosting a turbine in Wisconsin is roughly $5,000 to $7,000 a year. Saliterman said the company will start off paying a total of $300,000 a year to landowners and neighbors, an amount it expects will increase.

EDF offered Jim and Kim Bauman a $1,500-a-year easement for the noise and vibration or other effects of the turbines. They declined to sign the contract.

In the town of Jefferson, board member Lyle Samson along with Larry Eakins, a member of the planning commission, recused themselves from participating in the decision over the Sugar River Wind Project because they hold leases with EDF.

Mandel dismissed the suggestion of any unethical practices in the town’s handling of the wind project. He said it was “too bad” that critics have maligned the officials with leases, adding, “They’re good people.”

Samson declined to talk for the story, citing his recusal, and Eakins did not return a request for comment. EDF’s Saliterman said the company does not target local officials for leases.

“As you know, bad news travels much faster than good, and if we were messing up in other communities, you would hear about it,” Saliterman said.

On March 20, Mandel and the remaining town board member, Rick Nusbaum, decided against creating a local ordinance.

The Green County Board on March 12 passed its own wind ordinance in line with PSC 128. The county zoning department plans to review the project for approval. That decision can be appealed to the PSC.

In the April 2 election, both Mandel and Nusbaum kept their seats. Samson did not run for re-election.

Not everyone in Jefferson opposes the project.

Tim Bender, a truck driver, and his wife, Linda, a stay-at-home mom, were among the few proponents willing to speak at the Jefferson Town Board meeting.

“I just can’t stand to sit back and watch an opportunity pass us by,” Tim Bender said.

The Benders have a “good neighbor” agreement with EDF. They would like to host a turbine too, but their property is too small.

Tim Bender said his support is not motivated by personal profit. He favors renewable energy because it is better for the environment than natural gas or coal.

“Why not benefit from clean, free wind?” he asked. “We have maybe three days out of the year when we don’t have wind. Why shouldn’t we benefit from it?”