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City, county leaders talk homelessness, vaccine mandates and more in forum

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In a forum hosted by the La Crosse Area Chamber of Commerce on Monday, area leaders discussed some of the more pressing issues for the region and possible solutions.

La Crosse Mayor Mitch Reynolds joined La Crosse County Board Chairwoman Monica Kruse for the forum, and both emphasized that regional collaboration and partnership has grown in the last year.

This has been evident through recent collaboration on launching bridge housing that would help individuals escape homelessness. The city and county recently made an offer to purchase the Chamber’s current headquarters, but it was unsuccessful.

“But it’s definitely not the end of the road,” Kruse said Monday. Both she and Reynolds said that the groups continue to search for other properties for the project, which would in-part be paid for using American Rescue Plan Act dollars.

Monica Kruse

La Crosse County Board chair Monica Kruse

Reynolds said that other partners, such as the Chamber, could help by being advocates for the cause and spreading the message that solving homelessness is “good for everybody.”

“It makes our entire region, our entire area healthier if we can find lasting and permanent solutions to homelessness,” Reynolds said.

As for future partnership between the city and county, Reynolds said “everything’s on the table.”

Vaccine mandate impacts?

As the Supreme Court continues to debate a new vaccine mandate from President Joe Biden, Kruse and Reynolds differed slightly on the impact it might have.

The vaccine-or-test policy, which technically went into effect Monday, mandates private businesses that employ more than 100 people to require employees to either be fully vaccinated or test regularly.

Chamber CEO Neal Zygarlicke, who moderated the forum, said that medium-sized businesses in the area, especially those who just cross the threshold of 100 employees, are worried.

“They’ve heard from their workforce that says, ‘If this is happening I might not be here anymore,’” Zygarlicke said.

Kruse — who said she supports the mandate and encouraged everyone who was able to get vaccinated — said she thinks it won’t have an adverse effect and instead would make people feel safer to visit businesses.

“I don’t see a lot of downside,” she said.

Reynolds said that he thinks there will be a “reshuffling” of the workforce if the mandate is allowed to continue, where employees will do a “job hop” to find a workplace that matches their vaccine stance.

Both agreed that the impact the pandemic has had on the region’s workforce has been significant, though, with Kruse saying the area is “not immune” to the “great resignation.”

Taxes, housing

Housing remains top-of-mind for officials. An added stressor on the troubling area housing market includes last year’s city assessments that raised property values and threatens to raise rent.

“We’ll have certainly an impact on the level of affordable housing in our community,” Reynolds said.

Mitch Reynolds

Mitch Reynolds, La Crosse mayor

The mayor, who has been on the job for just under a year, said his sister has been considering moving to the La Crosse area from Virginia, but has been “stunned” by the lack of housing and how high rent is.

The solution, Reynolds said, is to continue adding to the housing stock. This includes affordable and market-rate units, he said, and he pointed to the 5th Ward Residences, River Point District and 4th Street housing developments as examples of this work already underway.

But Reynolds also cautioned that this strain on housing is likely to continue as the city continues to become compliant with the state on its assessments. The city is required to be within 10% of market value once every five years.

“We’re not at that point where we’re even assessing what we should be assessing,” Reynolds said. “So just as a fair warning: There’s more coming just in order to stay compliant with state law.”

"It makes our entire region, our entire area healthier if we can find lasting and permanent solutions to homelessness."

Mitch Reynolds, La Crosse mayor

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