The La Crosse Common Council approved its capital improvement project budget for 2021 Thursday to the tune of $119 million, its largest price tag in recent years, after weeks of back-and-forth and public pushback.
After several last-minute amendments and calls from the public to reduce spending, specifically for a public safety center that would partially house the city’s police department, the final number for projects next year is $119,191,482 — dwarfing the $44.5 million the council approved for 2020.
Calls to pump the brakes on a $36 million public safety center were not answered, and the approval to spend an initial $1 million to begin acquiring land near current Fire Station No. 1 just south of downtown for the project was approved with the budget on Thursday after two amendments to cut the spending were voted down.
Several changes were made through amendments submitted by council member Jessica Olson, largely to benefit parks and libraries.
More funding to fix floors and shelving at the Main Street La Crosse Public Library was approved through her amendments, as was moving up construction of a new shelter for Weigent Park that was originally on hold until 2022.
Council members were receptive to funneling more dollars into parks and libraries, two departments that received the brunt of city budget cuts in May.
“Loud and clear we heard people saying that the libraries are a priority. They are not obsolete, they are part of our lives, and the fabric of our neighborhoods,” Olson said.
“We don’t know how long this COVID’s going to go on,” said council member Gary Padesky. “We don’t know around next spring what’s going to be going on, and this would open up people to be outdoors, have social distancing, enjoy life.”
Other park and library efforts were unmet, with updates to the Myrick Park playground, Riverside Park bathrooms and the South Side library all tabled for future years.
The decision came down to balancing those updates to ones made to the City Hall lobby and council chambers, where officials gather for public meetings.
The updates to city hall include removal of asbestos, reconfiguring the space to house representatives for all city departments on the first floor of city hall, and to increase safety for staff and elected officials when using the building.
“There’s a true security issue,” said La Crosse Fire Chief Ken Gilliam.
Currently, members of the public are largely free to roam in most parts of city hall, and staff members report feeling frightened when working into the night, unsure of who is in the building. And, the layout of the council chambers, which has council members with their backs to the crowd, poses a safety risk.
“Hostile events are happening more and more frequently in schools and government facilities,” Gilliam said. “It’s just a dated building and it’s just a different world.”
Officials also approved last-minute additions to complete a final-stage study for the King Street greenway, locking down the money needed to complete reconstruction for Fire Station No. 4 on the North Side, and new spending to extend the life of Fire Station No. 1 while it awaits its controversial future, the latter two sponsored by Mayor Tim Kabat and council president Martin Gaul.
The city also approved an ordinance change at the Thursday night council meeting that reduces the fine for possession of small amounts of cannabis, or marijuana, within city limits.
The fine for possessing 25 grams or less of the substance will now be just $1.
La Crosse Chief of Police Shawn Kudron told the council he opposed the change, stating that it sends the wrong message that cannabis is legal, and that police will send related charges through La Crosse County circuit court, where city ordinances may be null and void.
“What the city is doing today, is only sending a false message in that marijuana is illegal in the state of Wisconsin. There is no legal marijuana in the state of Wisconsin. There is no legal marijuana in the city of La Crosse,” said assistant police chief Robert Abraham.
“Do not be surprised if not a single officer writes a single $1 citation,” Abraham continued. “The attempt you’re trying to make here politically, I think is going to backfire.”
The resolution was put forth and sponsored by council member Roger Christians, who has noted in the past that he supports the measures because of the medicinal benefits cannabis has His wife and several of his friends suffer from chronic pain.
“I consider this minor. I consider the traffic in this town a problem, I consider the fireworks that went off for a month a problem,” council member Gary Padesky said in response to police opposition.
“I don’t consider a 69-year-old hippie having a joint in his backyard because he has knee pains from maybe being a Vietnam vet a problem,” Padesky said.
“I’m not happy that [the police] are basically telling us, screw you, we’re going to go to the county level,” he added.
City officials attempted to refer the resolution for 30 days and then table the matter for a full calendar year, in order to find out more information, but it ultimately passed with a 9 to 3 vote.
Ahead of Thursday evening’s meeting, calls from the public to slow city spending ramped up, and officials met the emails and phone calls with a resounding: “we hear you.”
Criticisms from the public were timely: too much spending during a time where an unprecedented global pandemic has brought financial stress upon the city, and questionable funding for law enforcement after activists have called for defunding the police across the country in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.
Specifically, Olson’s amendments gained a lot of traction before the council meeting, a social media campaign launched to get a 1,000 emails sent to council members advocating for them.
“It’s been blowing my mind how many emails just in the last 24 hours,” Olson said about the support.
“They’ve just been coming in one after another after another,” Olson said.
Many officials used the floor to address their concern that local government processes needs to be more accessible, and that the public needs to be more engaged.
“We are at an interesting time in the last month or more, where law enforcement, public safety, the awareness has been raised,” council member Larry Sleznikow said
“And whatever we can do to increase the awareness and involvement, I think we should do that,” he added.
But others were also quick to note that the fire around city issues and policies is sometimes only fueled later in the process, noting that early public meetings and discussions are usually low-attended, specifically, conversations about the public safety center have been ongoing since as early as 2018.
“We have had transparency from the get-go,” said council member Doug Happel. “And people sometimes don’t pay attention, and that’s not their fault or my fault.”
Some other key issues the council voted on at Thursday’s meeting included approving the creation of several new tax incremental districts to support the new River Point District development, and a new effort to encourage the state to study the possibility of rail electrification in the La Crosse area.
MADISON — The conservative-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court on Friday overturned three of four partial budget vetoes issued by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, bucking 85 years of court precedent that upheld the governor’s broad veto powers.
However, the justices also upheld one of Evers’ vetoes as well as two made by Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2017. The court declined to hear a separate challenge to those vetoes, saying the 2019 lawsuit that came after Walker left office was filed too late.
A majority of justices could not agree on a rationale for why the three Evers vetoes were unconstitutional, finding generally that they created new law that the Legislature did not intend. The complex, 146-page ruling was limited to the four vetoes that were challenged and did not rein in the ability of future governors to make partial vetoes.
“In an important case like this, where the people of Wisconsin need clarity, we instead sow confusion,” wrote Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, one of two liberal justices. “Evidence of the lack of clarity is highlighted by the very fact that this case has generated four separate writings with various rationales. And not one of them has garnered a majority vote of this court. Thus, we are left with no clear controlling rationale or test for the future.”
Two of the vetoes were overturned by the five-justice conservative majority, with two liberal justices dissenting. But a third veto that was overturned 4-3 saw conservative Chief Justice Pat Roggensack side with the two liberals on the losing side. And in upholding one Evers veto, three conservatives joined with two liberals in support.
Wisconsin’s governor has one of the most powerful vetoes in the country, despite decades of limitations imposed by voters and lawmakers. The mixed results for Evers came a day after the court upheld laws that the Legislature passed during a lame-duck session to weaken Evers’ powers before he took office. In that ruling, the court also delivered a partial win for Evers, saying the Legislature overstepped its bounds with one lame duck law.
“Today’s ruling departs from decades of precedent and only creates chaos and confusion,” Evers said in a statement. Echoing comments after his defeat in the lame duck lawsuit, Evers said “we’re not going to let folks who are bitter about an election that happened nearly two years ago stop us from getting things done for the people of our state.”
Wisconsin governors, both Republican and Democratic, have long used the broad partial veto power to reshape the state budget. It’s an act of gamesmanship between the governor and Legislature, as lawmakers try to craft bills in a way that are largely immune from creative vetoes.
The governor’s veto power, which is spelled out in the Wisconsin Constitution, isn’t as extensive for regular bills that don’t spend money. For those, he can only either veto the entire proposal or sign it into law.
Walker issued 98 partial vetoes in his last budget in 2017 and 104 in the one before that. Former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson holds the record, with 457 partial vetoes in 1991.
The lawsuit didn’t challenge the governor’s veto powers outright, but instead how Evers used them. Taxpayers represented by the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty argued that Evers violated the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches by creating new laws never intended by the Legislature.
“Governor Evers used the partial veto power to create new laws never approved by the legislature,” said Rick Esenberg, president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. “The court’s decision recognizes limits to the partial veto power that will safeguard liberty and uphold the separation of powers.”
Friday’s ruling dealt specifically with four of the 78 partial vetoes Evers issued last year in the state budget. His vetoes shifted $10 million for replacing school buses to electric vehicle charging stations; allowed $75 million meant for local road construction to be used for any transportation program; eliminated a standard $100 truck registration fee; and expanded the types of vaping products subject to tax.
With one veto, Evers struck several sentences of law establishing a grant program to replace old school buses to instead create a new program to bolster alternative fuels as a way to combat climate change.
The court upheld the veto eliminating the truck registration fee, but overturned the others.
Lawmakers and voters have been attempting to scale back the governor’s veto power almost since it was created in 1930. Since 1935, there have been 25 constitutional amendments proposed to limit the governor’s power. The most recent one, banning the so-called “Frankenstein” veto where governors created a new sentence by combining parts of two or more sentences, was approved by voters in 2018.
The Crawford County Sheriff Department has located the Prairie du Chien man who fled Friday morning after the death of a toddler.
Chase M. Harville, 29, fled the scene of the investigation into the death of a 3-year-old boy on foot on Cty. Hwy. N early Friday, and was located in woods nearby about 2 p.m. The Sheriff’s Department earlier had asked the public’s help in reporting information on Harville’s whereabouts.
Harville taken into custody by authorities and is being held in Crawford County Jail on a charge of first-degree reckless homicide pending a bond hearing.
According to Wisconsin Circuit Court Access files, Harville was found guilty of felony child abuse in 2015, and has had prior felonies for burglary.
La Crosse County confirmed COVID-19 cases rose significantly Friday, with 22 new patients, two thirds of whom are in their 20s.
The new cases are attributed to two individuals ages 15-19, 15 people in their 20s, one in the 50s and four in their 60s.
The total cases for La Crosse County have reached 567, with 375 considered recovered. Four people are currently being hospitalized due to the virus, and there have been no related deaths. Countywide, there have been 13,273 negative tests.
The state of Wisconsin set a record Friday for new cases reported in a single day, with 845 new positives confirmed. Statewide, positive cases total 34,753, with a running total of 3,766 hospitalizations and 814 deaths. There have been 635,411 negative tests.
The La Crosse County Health Department urges community members to wear fabric face masks when in public, practice physical distancing and to stay home as much as possible. Those with any potential symptoms of COVID-19, including fever, chills, runny nose, congestion, muscle or body aches, cough, tiredness, headache, new loss of taste or smell, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea are asked to stay home and contact their provider for testing.
Monroe County reported seven new cases of COVID-19 Friday, bringing the total to 129 confirmed cases in Monroe County.
Monroe County has 60 active cases, 68 recoveries and one death.
Of the new cases, four had contact with a positive case, two are attributed to community spread and one remains undetermined.
The latest cases involve:
Also Friday, Monroe County reported that its June 30 drive-thru testing event administered 277 tests, and seven (2.5%) were positive.
The event drew residents from La Crosse, Juneau, Jackson and Adams counties, in addition to Monroe.