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Govt-and-politics
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Gov. Evers says veto is 'on the table' for remapping bill, but mind not made up yet

Gov. Evers said that a veto is “on the table” for a new bill that would extend deadlines for local municipalities to remap electoral districts, but that his mind is not yet made.

The bill, which is making its way through committee currently, would allow local counties, cities and towns more time to redistrict because of slow-moving census data, but Evers said it’s too early to know if the data would be available in time.

“There is a veto on the table,” Evers said Wednesday during a local press call, saying fair maps was a pillar of his campaign for office.

“I know this bill deals with wards and aldermanic districts and local, but it’s way too early to assume that that information won’t be available to the locals in time for them to make a good decision,” he said.

The bill specifically would move the deadlines for remapping at the local level to next spring and summer rather than this summer and fall, as required by state law. The first deadline is July 1.

Local leaders have already begun planning for the possible extension. La Crosse County Administrator Steve O’Malley is in support, saying it’s “impossible” to meet the current deadlines.

O’Malley said that the extension would not affect the fall 2022 elections, when Evers is up for re-election, and would only keep districts the same for the spring races, including the La Crosse County Board of Supervisors.

The 2020 census data used to reshape any electoral districts is not expected to be released to local governments until next spring, the U.S. Census Bureau’s schedule states.

O’Malley

At a committee meeting early Wednesday morning, O’Malley said that initial responses are still muddied.

“Initially the governor didn’t have any issues with it but it’s still unclear if Democratic resistance is going to change that, but nobody’s come up with an alternative plan so it’s still going through the process,” O’Malley said.

Early opposers to the bill are fearful that delaying the remapping process would disenfranchise communities whose population has grown in the past decade.

Evers shared similar concerns.

“I fear that this bill is nothing more than a stalking horse for making sure that fair maps don’t happen here in Wisconsin,” he said. “And so I’m concerned about it, I haven’t made up my mind, a veto is possible, but I have to emphasize I have not made up my mind on this.”

In preparation, the county board is set to approve its remapping committee next week with an estimated six supervisors and six community members.

Hopeful for PFAS help

As the state Legislature makes its way through the budget process, funding for PFAS pollution is an uncertain item so far.

In La Crosse, that funding could help the nearly hundreds of households whose private wells have been contaminated with PFAS, a group of toxic man-made “forever chemicals” believed to have originated from firefighting foam used at the nearby airport on French Island. Many other communities in the state are also fighting the same environmental issue.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has stepped in to help better understand the pollution in La Crosse, and island residents are under a water advisory and more than a thousand individuals are currently receiving bottled water from the city and state.

Evers said he remains hopeful, though, signaling early on that he thought the funds for mitigation, testing, clean-up and new standards would receive bipartisan support, but said that politics could prevent that.

“They’re listening to various special interest groups outside of our office and frankly, they’re special interest groups that don’t have members that live on French Island or up in the northeast part of the state,” Evers said.

“It’s just wrong and we will continue to fight this issue. We can’t have special interest groups saying that people on French Island should be drinking Culligan water for the rest of their life. I mean thank God that we do have that option, but that’s just not the way it should be working,” Evers said.

Some lobbyists have already pushed back on the state’s attempt to address PFAS, including the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, which filed a restraining order in an attempt to stop the DNR from testing wastewater discharged from businesses.

In early versions of the Republican’s budget, funding for setting PFAS standards, financial responsibility and certified testing laboratories were among the nearly 400 items removed from Evers’ proposed budget.

Evers said that setting better standards for PFAS contamination is a top priority.

“We have money in the budget for PFAS,” he said, “but we have to set standards. Right at this point in time we are hamstrung by the administrative rulemaking process that the Legislature put in during the lame duck session that causes us — it’s 30 months, God almighty think of that, 30 months it’s going to take for us to set standards for PFAS. How can we move forward as a state?

Tony Evers

“There’s no middle ground here. We have to address this. PFAS are bad, we have to get rid of them, we have to respond to people, we have to have standards, and so this is going to be a big deal,” Evers said, “and frankly I think the federal government is going to be helping out, too.”

Evers said his team is monitoring as the Legislature works through the the state’s future spending, calling it a “butcher job so far,” and said he was disappointed with the $1.5 billion project budget that was approved by the Joint Finance Committee late Tuesday night, $1 billion less than Evers’ proposed.

It appears that funding for the $9.6 million elevator rehabilitation at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse made the cut, but the remaining $121 million in projects did not.

“Of course I’m disappointed,” Evers said, saying economists advised him the group made the decision to slash as a way to reduce borrowing. Evers said it’s unlikely that borrowing is never needed for projects.

Evers was particularly disappointed about the decision after the news that the state is expected to receive $4.4 billion more in tax revenue than previously expected.

“The argument can’t be made that the resources aren’t there,” he said.

“This is the perfect time to get some really important projects done,” Evers said, noting that the decision to slash money for public transit in Milwaukee and Madison was particularly concerning.

Evers said that his top priorities to keep on the budget continue to be K-12 and higher education funding, and broadband.

“We’ll continue to monitor it. Can a budget be vetoed? Of course, but that would be something that is not my preference,” Evers said. “But if this budget is one that is going to cause problems with the federal government, and I don’t say problems with a small ‘p’ but a big ‘P,’ we’ve got to fix them. It’s a mess now.”

Vaccinations

As vaccination rates slow, Evers’ prided the state in being a national leader for inoculating against COVID-19.

Wisconsin has now vaccinated over 50% of its population with over 5 million doses administered, but Evers said he is focusing on reaching those with little access to health care over offering incentives like other states have done to push through plateauing rates.

“We’re at a point now where it has to be hand-to-hand combat and making sure that we make it easy,” Evers said.

“There are people in this state that really being involved with health care is not what they do,” he said, saying he had a personal experience in his family with inaccessibility. “They don’t have the resources to go to the doctor. I was with somebody just the other day that didn’t qualify for medicaid and as a result she’s in the marketplace and she has a $6,000 deductible.

“There’s lots of people like that in Wisconsin. They just aren’t hooked into health care systems so we have to figure out how to reach out to those folks,” he said.

Evers said the state is still vaccinating thousands of people a day, and that the rate is “plateauing, it’s not sinking into the sunset.”

Pharmacies and local walk-in clinics are tools to reach people unfamiliar with the health care systems, Evers said, over incentives.

“I know that there’s been interest in doing a lottery and all that, but frankly that’s a one shot thing and then that levels off, too,” he said. “So I’d rather use that federal money and use that for Main Street businesses, frankly.”

Another run

Evers is back on the campaign trail after announcing last week he would seek another term as governor in 2022. He said his decision to run again was based off the people and the work left unfinished.

“I do enjoy it. One of the best parts of my job is talking to people across the state of Wisconsin, and I’m back on the road now, meeting with people and hearing what their needs are. That’s really important and gives me a lot of hope for the future,” he said.

“I’m glad to be running again. We have a lot of unfinished business,” Evers said. “Whether it’s around fair maps in Wisconsin, whether it’s to ensure that we continue to invest in roads and mass transit and broadband in this state, and of course our public schools and our universities and our technical colleges — all those things are unfinished business.

“We did pretty well in our last budget and it looks like Republicans at this point in time are going to make matters worse,” Evers said, “so there will be lots of unfinished business.”

IN PHOTOS: Gov. Tony Evers visits vaccination site at UWL

Cole Riffe, 7, of La Crescent fishes Wednesday from a perch on a fishing pier at Pettibone Park. Riffe is participating in a four-day fishing class with La Crescent Community Education.


Crime-and-courts
top story
No COVID-19 cases in La Crosse County jail during pandemic

Since the first case of COVID-19 was found in La Crosse County 15 months ago, the area jail has seen zero cases of it amongst inmates, officials said.

“I can’t say enough about everything that was done during COVID,” La Crosse County Sheriff Jeff Wolf told the county Judiciary & Law Committee Tuesday afternoon.

Steve Rundio / Steve Rundio 

Jeff Wolf

Protocols were immediately implemented in the jail at the start of the pandemic, with Wolf saying that it was a “quick” process to shut down, and will be a “slow” one to bring it back: a lot of plans were put in place, some that were used and others that never needed to be.

One of the key aspects of protecting the jail population during the pandemic was decreasing it, officials said. Partners worked to release low-level offenders, people on small bonds and non dangerous offenders in order to reduce crowding, and more signature bonds were handed out, bringing the population from 160 to 60 last March.

The amount of movement within the jail was also limited, and volunteers for schooling or recreation, as well as ministry, social workers and visitors were reduced to only the essentials.

All inmates were forced to quarantine for 14 days in a COVID block of the jail as well.

After quarantining, most inmates were able to have their own cells to accommodate social distancing, and cells were left open during the day to allow for more space, though much of the activities usually offered were altered.

“It was challenging, but we did the best we could,” said jail captain Sgt. Jim Verse of mental health and morale among inmates.

A book exchange between blocks helped boost morale, though Verse said some inmates were cautious and waited to handle a book after receiving it because of the fear of transmission. Games, cards, TV and phone access were also still available for the general population, and the quarantine block was allowed books and an hour outside.

Now, about two-thirds of the jail staff has been vaccinated, Verse said, and things are starting to slowly return to normal.

Population in the jail has increased as officials are now accepting almost all people except those with low misdemeanors. The population is now at 98 inmates, Verse said.

The jail has been offering vaccinations to inmates for about two months now through a voluntary program with the La Crosse County Health Department. Officials originally intended to issue Johnson & Johnson vaccines, which require only one shot, but went with Pfizer after J&J was briefly taken offline for clotting concerns.

So far, 40 inmates have been given at least one dose of the Pfizer vaccine, and 13 have been given the second dose through the jail.

“At first there were several inmates that were skeptical,” Verse told the Tribune. “I think right away we had around 20 that signed up, then a few got skittish” after the J&J news, he said.

“But now the word’s getting out that it’s safer than they thought,” Verse said.

A county nurse has been issuing the shots, and because of the three-week window between doses, vaccines have been intended to be issued in groups of six weekly so as not to waste any shots.

All inmates are given vaccination cards to carry with them throughout the jail during their stay, and if moved over to the prison. Nine inmates so far have been released from custody without a second dose, and while the jail staff does not follow up to issue the second shot, they give them their vaccination card and encourage them to get it elsewhere.

Body scanner a success

Officials also reported to the committee that the body scanner installed in the jail has been successful, and that fewer contraband has entered and no overdoses have occurred in the jail since.

“It’s been an effective tool,” Verse said.

The scanner, which cost about $118,000, scans for any contraband when people enter the jail. That and amnesty boxes placed throughout booking that allow people to drop off any contraband anonymously with no charges have helped reduce any drug or paraphernalia entering the facility.

Basma Amer, La Crosse Tribune 

La Crosse County Sheriff's Office staff demonstrates how to use the jail's new body scanner.

“We’ve had a couple of drugs get into the receiving area,” Verse said, because scans can’t be done on individuals who are pregnant, cannot stand, have recently received radiation or other instances, but no overdoses.

But there have been no overdoses in the general population for the two years the scanner has been in effect — a “good investment,” one commissioner said — after Verse described that contraband had been getting into the facility at “alarming rates” prior to its installation.

IN PHOTOS: Local community members wear face masks

Local
top story
La Crosse lifeguards to see at least $2 raise this summer due to donations

La Crosse area lifeguards are expected to see raises this summer after community groups have launched a fundraising campaign to help fill open positions.

La Crosse Neighborhoods, Inc. and Friends of La Crosse Pools & Aquatics launched a fundraiser to increase the hourly rates for lifeguards by at least $2, and are looking for more donations.

“Because of national hiring shortages, increased competition for alternative employment opportunities and last year’s pandemic closures, many pools around the region are not opening, have a reduced season and less hours, or are limiting capacities as well as areas of the pool,” a press release stated.

All of the city’s pools are open for the summer after remaining closed last season due to the pandemic. This year the pools will operate at 50% capacity with other precautions.

City staff said that it typically aims to employ around 70 pool staff members for the summer, but currently only have 55, which doesn’t put them in too bad of shape, but still leaves gaps.

Current wages range for pool staff positions such as lifeguards and swim instructors from $8-12 an hour.

A one-time $20,000 gift has already been donated to the city of La Crosse Parks, Recreation & Forestry Department, and a separate community matching fundraiser is underway through July, which has an anonymous donor committed to matching up to $10,000 of the fund.

Those interested in donating can do so online through a PayPal fundraiser found at paypal.com/fundraiser/charity/3581634, or at Friends of La Crosse Pools and Aquatics Wisconsin Facebook page. Donations can also be made by mail by sending to LCNI c/o FLPA PO Box 1661, La Crosse, WI 54602.

For more information, contact fundraising manager Jacob Sciammas at 608-492-4392 or FriendsOfLaCrossePoolsAquatics@gmail.com, or go to the Facebook page.

Photos: Onalaska/Holmen/Aquinas at Chi-Hi boys swimming 1-14-21

Local
alert
La Crosse County COVID-19 case rate remains low over past week

La Crosse County added 13 confirmed COVID-19 cases from June 2-8, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

The county, then, averaged 1.86 new cases over the past week; that figure is up slightly from 1.29 a week ago but still low. The county’s seven-day positivity rate is at 0.82%, up slightly from 0.62% a week ago.

Despite adding cases over the past week, total confirmed cases in the county dropped; that is possible because DHS retroactively updates its data, which includes removing cases that don’t belong in the county’s confirmed total.

Total confirmed cases in the county are at 12,765; that number was 12,792 a week ago.

No new deaths were reported in the past week, leaving that total at 88.

A total of 443 La Crosse County residents have ever been hospitalized because of the virus, according to DHS, up from 442 a week ago and with three other hospitalizations retroactively added before June 2.

There were 36 active cases in the county as of Wednesday, down from 47 a week ago.

DHS reported Wednesday that a total of 120,687 vaccine doses had been administered in the county, including 58,923 residents, or 49.9%, who are fully vaccinated. That’s up from 118,217 doses administered and 57,242 fully vaccinated residents on June 2.

Statewide, 5,168,214 doses had been administered as of Wednesday, including 2,524,604 residents, or 43.4%, who are fully vaccinated.

Wisconsin has averaged 134 new cases per day over the past seven days, according to DHS, with a seven-day positivity rate of 1.2%.

The state has averaged four deaths per day over the past seven days, which has brought total deaths to 7,189.


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