Tensions ran high Monday during a three-hour meeting to discuss a proposed Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center transitional housing program on the city’s South Side.
The La Crosse Plan Commission voted to delay action on the VA Medical Center’s request for a conditional-use permit at 3120 Farnam St. for another month after testimony from supporters and opponents who raised additional questions. The recommendation will go to the Judiciary and Administrative Committee on Tuesday and the La Crosse Common Council next week.
Samuel Hipp, who is in the VA’s campus program and would transfer to La Crosse if the permit is approved, said he understood the neighbors’ concerns. He has two young daughters himself, but he said his fellow participants are the last ones who would want anything to do with violence, drugs or alcohol.
“This isn’t a typical group home. ... It’s really an unusual, unique experience,” Hipp said.
Hipp, who is nine months sober and works as a peer ambassador at the Tomah VA, said participants come to the program because they know they need help, and the VA gave him the tools to dig himself out of a hole after a drunken driving citation — not a single violent offense — left him homeless.
“I hit the ground running with this system. And it’s great, and that’s also why I believe in this La Crosse location. There are more resources, there are more local businesses,” Hipp said.
The La Crosse facility would give him a place to build a community while saving up money to move into his own home.
“I’m homeless. I want a home so that I can have my daughters overnight,” Hipp said.
Vietnam veteran David Barlow, who lives down the street from the proposed facility, questioned whether the parking would be sufficient, saying the plan to have excess parking at the River Valley VAMC Clinic isn’t ideal because there isn’t abundant parking space there either.
He also questioned whether there would be enough room for eight people all eating and getting ready for work at the same time.
“Everybody thinks we’re all against the veterans. We’re not against the veterans. We’re just against this being the place for it,” Barlow said.
Barb Erickson also took the opportunity to clarify some of the facts about her house and whether there would be enough space, explaining that the kitchen island seats 13 people, there is a three-car garage and four additional spaces in the driveway and an uncovered parking area. The upstairs also only has two bedrooms, both of which face Farnam Street.
Steve Gunn was at the meeting to talk on behalf of his 91-year-old mother, who has lived next door since the 1950s and is worried about her privacy with the house being built up above hers.
“When you’re talking about fear, it’s usually because of the unknown,” Gunn said.
The initial notice was short on details, he said, adding that it could have been handled differently.
Leslie Patterson, another neighbor, concurred, saying her concerns for the neighborhood were built on the number of unknowns and the VA’s initial indication that people with a history of violence would be allowed to live there.
The VA has since released guidelines forbidding people with a criminal history including violence and sex offenses from living in the La Crosse facility. It also committed to hiring 24/7 security, limiting parking for residents to four cars and reduced the number of residents from 10 to 8 after neighbors’ objections.
“I do ask for respect of others. This neighborhood is a great neighborhood, and we want the best,” Patterson said.
Hipp, who has lived in nine other veterans in house at the Tomah VA with only one bathroom, attempted to put neighbors’ minds at ease as far as the logistics go, explaining that veterans are used to close quarters and tend to work different shifts.
“It’s never been an issue,” he said.
If neighbors are worried about privacy, he’d be glad to come help install curtains and blinds, Hipp said, saying helping out the neighbors is part of building a community.
Others were concerned about what the facility would do to the property tax base.
Tomah VA medical director Victoria Brahm assured the city that the federal government would provide the city with a payment in lieu of taxes to pay for municipal services and offset the tax exempt status of the VA. The exact amount will be worked out by the VA’s general counsel and the city attorney.
Many people came to speak in favor of the facility as well, including La Crosse developer Don Weber, a Vietnam veteran who is known for supporting local initiatives. Weber, a friend of the Ericksons, stressed that the people in the program aren’t criminals.
“These are bright young men and women who stand up and volunteer to serve,” Weber said, adding they deserved to be thanked for fighting for Americans’ freedom.
“Wars are ugly. They scar you for life. Some of the scars are physical and others — you carry the spirit of that war forever. … Some of them need help, and we should be here to help them back,” Weber said.
Weber said he can understand prioritizing safe neighborhoods and protecting the tax base, but said it was time for the community to give back to its veterans.
“What if we can put them to work and they can go out and buy homes? What does that mean for the tax base?” Weber asked.
“I don’t think in any way that’s going to take the values of the properties down,” he added.
The proposal was previously delayed two months to allow the VA a chance to address neighbors’ concerns.
A city block that formerly housed the Abraham Zahn building is one step closer to redevelopment after a Tuesday vote by a La Crosse committee.
MADISON — Wisconsin Republicans moved quickly Monday to change the 2020 presidential primary date at a cost of millions of dollars to benefit a conservative state Supreme Court justice, part of a rare lame-duck session that would also weaken the newly elected Democratic governor and attorney general.
The changes being sought would shift power to the GOP-controlled Legislature and allow outgoing Republican Gov. Scott Walker to make one last major mark on the state’s political landscape after he lost re-election in November.
Angry opponents filled the hallways of the Wisconsin Capitol, and the hearing room, banging on the doors and chanting “Respect our votes!” and “Shame!”
Republicans forged ahead despite threats of lawsuits, claims by Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers and others that they were trying to invalidate results of the November election and howls of protest from hundreds of people who showed up for a public hearing.
The lame-duck maneuvering in Wisconsin is similar to what Republicans did in North Carolina two years ago and is being discussed in Michigan before a Democratic governor takes over there.
The protests, coming at the end of Walker’s eight years in office, were reminiscent of tumult that came shortly after he took office in 2011 and moved to end collective bargaining powers for public sector unions.
In addition to moving the primary date, the proposals would weaken the governor’s ability to put in place rules that enact state laws and shield the state jobs agency from his control.
Other measures would weaken the attorney general’s office by allowing Republican legislative leaders to intervene in cases and hire their own attorneys. A legislative committee, rather than the attorney general, would have to sign off on withdrawing from federal lawsuits. That would stop Evers and incoming Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul from fulfilling their campaign promises to withdraw Wisconsin from a multi-state lawsuit seeking repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald downplayed concerns about what was being considered in the lame-duck session, saying “I don’t think it’s outrageous at all.”
“But listen, I’m concerned,” he said. “I think that governor-elect Evers is going to bring a liberal agenda to Wisconsin.”
Walker has been largely silent on what is being considered, voicing general support last month for moving the primary date. But Fitzgerald said Walker and his chief of staff had been deeply involved in crafting the measures.
Fitzgerald wouldn’t say whether there was enough support among Republicans for moving the 2020 presidential primary date, a change that would cost about $7 million and has drawn opposition from nearly every county election official.
Fitzgerald said last week that Republicans want to move the 2020 presidential primary, when Democratic turnout is expected to be high, so it won’t be on the same date as an April election where Walker-appointed Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly is on the ballot, thereby improving his chances of victory.
The state Elections Commission unanimously adopted a motion Monday declaring that the shift would be “extraordinarily difficult” and costly without additional funding. Commissioner Mark Thomsen, a Democratic appointee, called the plan “the biggest waste of money for a single person that I can think of” during discussion preceding the vote.
Fitzgerald and other Republican leaders said that changes to that proposal, and others including limiting early voting to two weeks before an election, were being considered and could be offered during floor debate Tuesday.
Similar limitations on early voting were found unconstitutional by a federal judge in 2016 and Democrats have threatened legal action again.
A news conference where Fitzgerald and other Republican leaders spoke was peppered with catcalls from protesters.
A Republican-controlled legislative committee planned to hold a public hearing for eight hours Monday, before taking votes late in the night to set up final approval in the Senate and Assembly on Tuesday.
The votes to pass the sweeping package of bills would come about a month before Evers is slated to take office.
Evers decried the lame-duck session — the first in Wisconsin in eight years — as an embarrassment and an attempt to invalidate the results of the November election where Democrats won every constitutional office, including governor and attorney general.
He vowed to fight it, saying lawsuits were being explored, and called on the people of Wisconsin to contact their legislators even as the bills were speeding through. They were just made public late Friday .
“It goes to the heart of what democracy is all about,” Evers said at a Sunday news conference held at a Milwaukee law firm. “I think it’s the wrong message, I think it is an embarrassment for the state and I think we can stop it.”
The executive director of One Wisconsin Now, which filed the lawsuit challenging the previous attempt to limit early voting, said the Republican’s latest effort shows they “refuse to accept the results of the 2018 elections” and are worried about large voter turnout.
About 565,000 people voted early in the November elections.
The last lame-duck session in Wisconsin was eight years ago, just before Walker took office, when Democrats tried unsuccessfully to approve union contracts.
Democratic lawmakers who sit on the committee holding the hearing Monday said the scope of the lame-duck session was unprecedented and a reaction to Democrats winning all statewide races in November.
“It’s a power grab,” said Democratic state Sen. Jon Erpenbach. “They lost and they’re throwing a fit.”
Erpenbach said expected legal challenges to what is passed could “grind things to a halt” in the Legislature for as much as a year.
Republicans have had majorities in the state Senate and Assembly since 2011, and worked with Walker the past eight years to past a host of conservative priorities. Republicans will maintain their majorities in the Legislature next year when the Democratic Evers takes over.
Thousands of University of Wisconsin System employees would receive 3 percent annual raises over each of the next two years if lawmakers and the System’s governing board approve a plan officials released Monday.
The state typically provides about 70 percent of the UW System pay increase with the rest being funded by tuition. But with an in-state undergraduate tuition freeze expected to continue through the 2019-21 biennium that limits the System’s ability to fund its portion of the two-year, $123.4 million plan, the System is requesting the state fully fund it, according to System spokeswoman Heather LaRoi.
The UW System employs about 39,000 employees statewide.
“As labor markets tighten, salaries rise and inflation increases, reinvesting in UW faculty and staff with modest wage increases will ensure we are not falling behind and losing out on talent we need in Wisconsin,” UW System President Ray Cross said in the announcement. “Attraction, retention and recognition of high-quality faculty and staff are critical investment opportunities for future student success.”
The last pay plan request came in 2016 when the UW Board of Regents and lawmakers approved a 2 percent increase for each year of the 2019-19 biennium. In five of the last eight fiscal years, however, UW System employees have received no pay plan increases, with increases averaging less than one percent between June 2011 and July 2019, according to a System announcement.
Faculty salaries lag behind peer institutions, the System said. For example, salaries for full professors at UW-Madison are about 10% below the median for its peer group.
That’s led to chancellors fighting for their faculty to remain on campus despite outside recruitment efforts.
The System’s annual faculty turnover report released Monday ahead of the Regents meeting shows about 7 percent of total UW faculty, or 434 people, departed in the 2017-18 academic year. That’s down from the 2015-16 school year when 509 faculty members left, but still higher than in 2013-14 when about 330 people left.
The proposed raises still would not not close the salary gaps between UW System employees and those at peer institutions, but give chancellors the ability to recognize employees’ work, according to meeting materials published Monday.
The UW Board of Regents will consider the employee compensation plan Thursday. The plan is submitted separately from its capital and operating budgets, at its Thursday meeting in La Crosse. If it’s approved there, the proposal would go to the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Employment Relations and would have to be approved by the Legislature and incoming-Gov. Tony Evers.
Requests to spokespeople for Evers, Sen. Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, were not returned Monday.
The city of La Crosse will work on adding directional signs to existing bike lanes, creating bike lanes on several different streets and updating the safe routes to school plan after the Board of Public Works Monday approved a priority list created by the Bicycle and Pedestrian Commission.
The list includes 12 projects listed in no specific order, most of which are taken from the city’s 2012 Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan. The approval gives direction to city staff and the BPAC as it works to turn La Crosse into a more bicycle-friendly city.
“Some of those are in the works already,” planning staff member Jack Zabrowski said.
Projects include a bike boulevard on Avon Street from Monitor to Moore streets and bike lanes on portions of Market, Clinton, Gillette, and George streets. Some, including curb bumpouts on the intersections of Redfield and 20th streets and Denton and 20th streets, have been before the public works board before; however, city staff and the BPAC wanted to run their list by the board.
“This sort of prioritizes how we would like to spend that money that was already set aside for it in a past budget,” Zabrowski said.
The capital improvement program budget for 2018 included $560,000 for the implementation of the bicycle master plan. Those funds would go toward the projects.
La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat approved of the priorities but asked Zabrowski to update the board on cost estimates for the project.
“They’re all very worthy projects that need to get going, so we need to find the resources for those,” Kabat said.
BPAC member Robbie Young was pleased to see the board approve those projects chosen by the commission, saying it’s a step toward them being completed.
“You’ve got your giant wish list, you knock it down to your to-do list, and then you hand that off to the people who get it done,” Young said.
Those projects are part of the city’s master plan for a more bicycle-friendly city.
“Healthy cities dedicate resources to moving people in all kinds of different ways, and making sure our city is accessible to people who choose to not travel by car or are unable to travel by car,” Young said
There are all kinds of benefits to those, from creating healthier communities to increasing mobility to supporting local businesses.
“Some of us run bicycle-related businesses and like to get more people on bikes for lots of reasons,” Young, who owns Coulee Bicycle Co. in Onalaska, joked.
The BPAC recently commissioned an economic impact study on bicycling in the region, which found that its proposed projects would have the potential to have a $10.3 million annual benefit for the area.
The city will host a public information meeting at 10 a.m. Dec. 11 to talk about the study, with consultants from Alta Planning and Design presenting their findings and answering questions.
“It’s one thing to look at other communities where these types of projects pay off in big ways, but for some people that’s still a pretty abstract thing,” Young said. “Showing locally relevant information is even more beneficial.”
The study is meant to measure the city’s successes and evaluate its progress in creating a more bike-friendly atmosphere, as well as analyze whether additional investment will show more returns for the community as a whole.
“We can unveil it and let people know about it. We’re going to put it on our website, but we’d just like to involve the public to see if they have some ideas and thoughts about it,” Zabrowki said.