October 27, 2007

Listen Up: Becker, Snow to meet with residents at community centers

Mayor Gary Becker will hold listening sessions at all five community centers between Oct. 29 and Nov. 19.

Becker and Parks and Recreation Director Donnie Snow will meet with residents a few weeks after the mayor was roundly criticized at the John Bryant Community Center for failing to clearly communicate his plans for the city's community centers.

Rumors got out that Becker wanted to close the centers. Becker, instead, said he wanted to partner with outside nonprofits to provide more programming in the centers.

"The existing community centers are a critically important part of the quality of life that we enjoy in Racine," Becker said last week in a press release put out by City Administrator Ben Hughes. "I care deeply about the programs and facilities that we offer to our citizens. As such I have proposed an additional $40,000 in programming funds for the community centers in my 2008 budget. Director Snow and I believe that it is important that we visit all five community centers to listen to the thoughts of those citizens who use the centers."

Here is the schedule for the listening sessions. They all start at 6 pm.
  • Monday, October 29th – Bryant Community Center, 601 21st St.
  • Tuesday, October 30th – Tyler-Domer Community Center, 2301 Twelfth Street
  • Monday, November 12th – Dr. Martin Luther King Community Center, 1134 Dr. MLK Dr.
  • Tuesday, November 13th – Humble Park Community Center, 2200 Blaine Ave.
  • Monday, November 19th – Cesar Chavez Community Center, 2221 Douglas Ave.

October 26, 2007

Unified's Vanden Wyngaard in running for superintendents' job

WRJN reported Friday that Racine Unified Chief Operating Officer Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard is applying to become the district's next superintendent.

Unified School Board President Tony Baumgardt told WRJN's Paul Kern Friday morning that Vanden Wyngaard, known in the district as "Dr. V," will be considered for the job.

She was hired by former Superintendent Tom Hicks to oversee the district's academic testing programs. Hicks resigned from the district effective Aug. 31. The School Board is seeking his replacement, and hopes to have someone in place by July 1.

Dr. V has at least one backer...

Karas wants citywide focus on recycling

Racine Alderman Pete Karas is pushing for a renewed citywide focus on recycling.

Karas met with representatives from the City of Racine, the Civic Center, The Oasis, Racine County Visitors and Convention Bureau, Downtown Racine Corp., and others to discuss improving recycling rates, which are at a 10-year low.

“We concurred that this program needs more study and public awareness to ensure success, instead of instituting new government regulations and mandates at this time," Karas said. "Education of the public is going to be the first step towards success.”

The city parks and public works departments are testing a program that would make recycling containers more available throughout the city. They will be monitored to see if they're used.

More important, however, is voluntary involvement. Cuts in city spending mean more businesses and residents will have to take the lead on recycling.

“For this program to succeed we need the people, groups, and businesses of Racine to buy in with their voluntary participation,” Karas said. “With the City’s recycling coordinator position eliminated in 2004, the City does not have the staff or money to aggressively provide additional recycling education, making the public’s voluntary involvement essential."

Karas will start the public information campaign with a website, www.RacineRecycles.org. The site is expected to be running by mid-November. Anyone interested in helping with the site, or suggesting possible content, should write to: Recycle@RacineRecycles.org

October 25, 2007

We took the (Rustic) road less traveled...on Vespas

“Two roads diverged in a wood,
and I, I took the one less traveled by.
And that has made all the difference.”
-- Robert Frost, "The Road Not Taken"

Robert Frost's diverging road -- we assume it was scenic, with faded red barns, trees shedding their leaves, horses languidly hauling ... whatever -- was in New England. Let's face it, when it comes to fall foliage, Vermont gets all the PR, and Wisconsin the crumbs.

It's not fair. We have roads less traveled, too. And there's an easy way to follow them in Wisconsin: just seek out those brown and yellow signs proclaiming "Rustic Road."

The Legislature established the Rustic Roads program in 1973 to help preserve Wisconsin's scenic, lightly traveled country roads. The state now has 103 marked Rustic Roads covering over 572 miles in 54 counties. Racine County alone has seven of them, Walworth County has five and Kenosha County has one. There's even a 10-member Rustic Roads Board; Ray DeHahn of Racine is our representative on it.

Last weekend, with temperatures nearing 70, a clear and cloudless sky, and luminous red and yellow leaves swirling in the breeze was perfect for exploring Rustic Roads. Which is just what a group of Chicago Vespa enthusiasts did. They put-putted here on the little Italian motorscooters and traveled down 10 of Wisconsin's Rustic Roads, barely noticing that there might not be many more such Sundays before winter forces two-wheelers into hibernation.

More pictures HERE.

The state has a nifty program to encourage motorcyclists to travel the state's "system of lightly traveled asphalt or gravel roads highlighting the state's natural beauty." Wisconsin gives motorcyclists an embroidered patch if they travel 10 of the Rustic Roads; a certificate if they traverse 25 of them. All a cyclist has to do is submit pictures of himself and/or the motorcycle next to the requisite number of Rustic Road signs.

So every few miles, they stopped and pulled over and took pictures of each other, of themselves, of their Vespas. Except for the fact that cameras have gone digital, one could have imagined the program being a sly way to sell film. Or gasoline -- but the Vespas barely sip that. Soon after driving up from Chicago, they filled up at Wind Lake, each having used little more than a gallon for the 80-mile first leg.

The round trip of 10 Rustic Roads involved about 120 miles through Racine, Walworth and Kenosha Counties. I joined the riders as they crossed Route 20, heading north on Raymond Road toward Rustic Road 37 at 3-Mile. My round trip to and from Racine was exactly 150 miles: on twisty roads, up and down hills, on asphalt stained with manure, past drying corn stalks, harvested fields, orchards and wineries, faded barns and charming farmhouses decorated with piles of pumpkins and fake spider webs on their mailboxes.

There are woods, rolling meadows, wildlife areas, an occasional one-room schoolhouse and log cabin. No traffic, no trucks, no fast food joints, almost no gas stations (oops, I could've used one right near the end in Twin Lakes).

My companions from Chicago were a diverse lot: a photographer, a semi-retired computer geek, a former restaurateur, an almost-orthodontist, a refrigeration engineer and his wife. Their scooters ranged from 150cc to 250cc; all together barely more horsepower than a single Harley-Davidson. We met a lot of Harleys, whose drivers invariably honored us with the cyclists' left-handed salute, fingers pointed down, and universal smiles all around.

Want to take your own ride? HERE's the route we took. And HERE's a link to the state's interactive map of all Rustic Roads, with clear descriptions and maps of each one, listing all the highlights, county by county.

Happy riding!

Racine treasures may make it on the Roadshow

The BBC has a lovely story this week about a painting stolen in 1987, then found four years ago dumped in a pile of rubbish on the street in New York.

It's a charming, sentimental tale for a number of reasons, but especially because the woman who found the painting tracked down its rightful owner with the help of Antiques Roadshow -- and returned it. And, oh, yes, the painting is now worth about $1 million. It'll be auctioned Nov. 20. Go ahead: read about that painting HERE; I'll wait until you get back.

OK, then, back to our story, about two Racine women who made their own visit to Antiques Roadshow last year, when the Roadshow visited Milwaukee. Now you know where they find some of those interesting heirlooms that have made us all rummage through our own attics and basements for 11 seasons.

Joedy Simonsen and her daughter, Laurie Stevenson, made the trek north, treasures in tow, with a number of local folks and finally we'll all find out whether any of those "treasures" really are. The Roadshow folks will say only that the show will be broadcast here Monday on PBS's Milwaukee station, WMVS, (Channel 10 on TimeWarner) at 7 p.m., and on Chicago's PBS station, WTTW, (Channel 11) at 8 p.m.

Joedy and Laurie may appear in one of the show's sidebars. They were interviewed by one of the appraisers about pieces of miniature luggage made by Joedy's grandfather, Joseph Kiefer. He was the Master Craftsman for Hartmann Luggage in the 1940s, and his photograph appeared on all the hangtags attached to the luggage.

Several pieces of the miniature luggage he made are at the Heritage Museum, donated by Joedy's uncle; the museum also has some of his tools. Joedy has some luggage too, perfect for traveling light: the pieces range in size from 3" to 9".

Joedy doesn't know whether she and Laurie will be part of the show, but she did say this: "We both got to meet Leigh Keno and Mark Walberg and have become their adoring fans!" Treasures come in all sizes.

KRM backers forge on

Backers of the proposed commuter rail line from Kenosha to Milwaukee with stops in Racine and Caledonia are forging on after a major setback in the state budget process.

Legislators dropped the funding source for KRM, setting back the line two years - if not longer. Transit NOW, the lobby group fighting for commuter rail, issued a statement Thursday saying they were not deterred.

"The feedback from business and elected leaders in the past few days has been overwhelming. There is more commitment than ever to keep KRM moving," Rosemary Potter, executive director of Transit NOW. "There is broad consensus that KRM is simply too valuable to lose."

Transit NOW said the southeast Wisconsin Regional Transit Authority will meet in November to develop an alternative dedicated local funding source for KRM and local transit. The organization also noted the support from several business and legislative leaders.
"While we are not happy with the outcome of a very frustrating budget
process, it is still one more step in the legislative process to keep the
train moving. Major projects are never easy, simple or advance without
- Julia Taylor, President, Greater Milwaukee Committee

"A modern, fully-integrated transportation system that serves our City and our region is critical to Milwaukee's economic health and vitality ... we should continue to search for a comprehensive funding solution for this effort."
-Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett

"While I am extremely disappointed by the partisan opposition to KRM, I am pleased to see that efforts to find a solution continue. KRM would create thousands of jobs and revitalize entire communities, which is why it has such strong support from the business community and local leaders. This could be the single biggest economic development tool for all of SE Wisconsin. We can't afford to give up now."
-State Representative James Kreuser

"We are very disappointed that KRM was not included in the state budget. Our economic success as a business and as a region lies in better connecting communities and individuals in the Milwaukee-Chicago corridor. We consider KRM a great value, and a key to growth in the region and we're committed to keep working to get it done."
-Chip Brewer, SC Johnson, Director of Worldwide Government Relations

"We are not deterred by this setback. KRM is too important to the economy of this region to let it slip away. KRM is a huge priority for businesses in SE Wisconsin and we fully intend to see it become a reality."
-Jerold Franke, President, WISPARK, LLC

Trick or Treat times

Trick-or-Treat Times and Days - Trick or Treat in the City of Racine will be Sunday, October 28th, from 4:00 - 6:00 pm. Mt. Pleasant's will be October 28th from 4 - 7:00 pm, Sturtevant's will be on the 31st from 5 - 7:00 pm, and Caledonia's will be October 28th, from 4 - 7:00 pm.

Open mic night in Racine: It's not Greenwich Village

Waiting for the doors to open at 716 Fine Art's open mic night.

Gathered together in the warm hue cast by votive candles and dim track lighting, a crowd of people – mostly under 30 -- peppered themselves throughout 716 Fine Art gallery, waiting for open mic night to begin.

David Geisler, the gallery director, was rearranging paintings in the storefront window as a few late-comers straggled in and were welcomed by the thump of a friendly palm on the djembe. You could see the glass rattling in the frames of a few of the photographs on a nearby exposed brick wall.

With about half the seating filled, Geisler started the show at 9:30. The crowd was meager compared to turnouts the gallery had when it was in Kenosha, but it's only been here, at 401 Main St., for two months and Geisler hopes attendance will grow.

"We've retained about half of our Kenosha audience," he said. "Both our performers and our supporters. Honestly, I was surprised that so many people came with us when we moved.”

One thing the gallery's open mic night has is the enthusiasm of its participants, their acceptance of one another's creative efforts. While it's certainly not for kids, the weekly event is open to all ages and is billed to start promptly at 9 p.m.

Wine, donated by Uncorkt, is available. And the gallery isn't asking the $3 cover it requested from non-performers in Kenosha. So it might just be the best bargain for a Wednesday night.

"Everyone who's coming here is coming as they are, putting themselves out there. It's an openness you don't get in most environments," said Sasha Brown, attending for the first time.

Brown, a student at UW-Parkside from Madison, came with friends, including fellow UW-P student Jammie Davis. “The lighting and setting are awesome,” said Davis. “It's very homey. You'd feel at home hearing a political poem, or a romantic poem – or something just plain freaky."

Nothing too freaky, though. If the MPAA were doling out ratings, the event would probably garner a PG-13.

The evening's offerings included political rants on university policy, acoustic renditions of folk tunes and spirituals, quasi-erotic romantic odes, some free verse, a few rhymed quatrains and the occasional humorous sonnets. Dani Weber of Kenosha performed a few crowd-pleasing numbers, using her tap shoes to keep rhythm for a guitarist and singer as well as performing solo.

716 weekly regular Dayvin Hallmon sees the open mic presenting him with an opportunity for growth. "I would certainly say it's a place where there are friends of mine who are fellow artists, who will challenge me to learn and grow with them," he said.

"Obviously this is a new city, so you get some different folks," Hallmon

"I really like the new vibe," Geisler said. "It feel's less like a performance because we're not sticking the readers and musicians in the corner. It seems much calmer, much warmer."

It's generally a casually paced evening with a ten-minute intermission. When the list of performers is exceptionally long, or when the show gets started late, it can go to midnight.

But if it's just a quick dose of creativity and personal expression you crave, you wouldn't be wrong in leaving at halftime. There's always next week, after all.

-- by Nicholas Michael Ravnikar

PROPERTY TRANSFERS: Norway home sells for a bargain at $832,000

The big deal of the week was an $832,000 home at 4395 Southdown Drive in Norway. The five-bedroom, 4.5 bath home was listed at $895,000 by Century 21. It had been on the market for more than 30 days.

The listing for it described the 3,000 square-foot home as being in a secluded, park-like setting. The home has oversized windows overlooking a pond surrounded by professionally landscaped grounds. It also includes a deck overlooking three ponds on 10 acres.

View Larger Map

In Racine, the big seller on a slow week, with just 30 transfers countywide, was a $285,000 home at 205 Lombard Ave. The three-bedroom, three-bath located near Lake Michigan at Lombard and Michigan Blvd. had been on the market for more than 30 days. It had a list price of $299,000.

View Larger Map

On the opposite end, the low seller of the week was an $18,000 home at 1709 Linden Ave. in Racine. The home was owned by Thomas Nelson and assessed at $72,000 last year.

View Larger Map

October 24, 2007

Feingold: "I will not stand idly by as this war continues..."

On Oct. 11, 2002, at 12:50 a.m., Sen. Russ Feingold, D-WI, voted against H.J.Res. 114, one of 23 senators opposed to the congressional resolution that authorized President Bush to use military force in Iraq.

Two weeks later, exactly five years ago yesterday, Bush signed it into law.

Yesterday, marking the five-year anniversary of that signing, Feingold issued a statement that concluded:

"I will not stand idly by while this mistaken war continues. I will continue working to end this war and bring our troops home, and I will continue looking in the days and weeks ahead for opportunities to debate and vote on ending the war – this year, and, if necessary, next as well.

"My colleagues may complain, they may be inconvenienced, they may prefer to focus on other matters. But this Congress has no greater priority than making right the mistake it made five years ago when it authorized this misguided war.

"I do not want to have to come to the floor again in a year to mark another anniversary of the war’s authorization, and to again implore my colleagues to act. I do not want the American people to lose faith in their elected leaders for pursuing a war that they rightly oppose. And I do not want more American troops to be killed for a war that does not serve our national security interests."

Some other points made by Feingold yesterday:

-- "America is mired in a conflict that continues to have no end in sight."

-- "The region is more unstable and our credibility throughout the international community has been significantly damaged."

-- "We have spent over a half trillion dollars and stretched our military to the breaking point."

-- "Al Qaeda has been strengthened - not weakened - since we authorized military action against -- and then went to war in -- Iraq."

-- "Finding the votes to end this war is not an easy task, but for the sake of the country, we must keep trying. I, for one, am not prepared to say in mid-October, with weeks to go before we adjourn for the year, that Iraq can wait until we come back in 2008."

-- "As we were reminded last November, however, ending the disastrous Iraq war is one of the American people’s top priorities. It may well be their top priority, and we owe it to them to make it ours, as well."

Make a Difference Day is Saturday

Make a Difference Day began small 17 years ago, but has blossomed into the largest volunteer effort in the country.

It is upon us again, this Saturday.

Marilyn Pelkey, executive director of the Volunteer Center of Racine County -- major domo of all the activities this year -- expects anywhere from 5,000 to 8,000 people to come out and spend a few hours helping others, or sprucing up their communities or neighborhoods.

Young and old will find plenty to do.

Coat and clothing drives, beautification efforts, various restoration projects head the list of organized opportunities, but this is also a time for people to "get out and, one person at a time, make a difference: with a project, or on your own helping a neighbor, maybe chatting with a shut-in who would just love a visitor, or helping an elderly person down the street," Ms. Pelkey said.

"This is also great family time; we've had babies in backpacks. Children as young as two or three can go down to Kids' Cove and pick up trash. Teach them and at the same time make Racine beautiful and better."

One new project this year is the collection of outdated prescription drugs, to prevent potentially hazardous materials from being discarded into landfills and water supplies. There will be two collection points, each supervised by pharmacists: at 6200 21st St. in Racine, and at 123 N. River St. in Waterford.

The Young Professionals of Racine recently adopted the riverbanks in Washington Park as part of the city's Adopt-a River program. They'll make their initial clean sweep of the park Saturday morning, followed by a cookout.

As many as 10,000 people have been involved in Racine's effort in past years; the number depends upon the weather, and on how many schools get fully involved. Two Racine schools this year that did major projects are Jefferson Lighthouse, which cleaned up its neighborhood, and Walden, whose students completed a number of projects from cleaning up the Cop Houses to harvesting geraniums students had previously planted so they can survive the winter and be replanted on Earth Day in neighborhood parks.

Go here for the Volunteer Center's list of major projects.

Kohl gets $100,000 for Racine dental clinic

Sen. Herb Kohl has secured a $100,000 grant for the Racine Health Care Network's dental clinic.

The clinic opened last year, staffed by 12 dentists, seven hygienists, and seven dental assistants who volunteer their time. The program provided 667 appointments in eight months.

But the demand for dental services was far greater than expected; and more than half the 256 adults who had appointments for cleanings reported this their first such visit. The money will help the clinic expand hours, to serve more patients.

Racine's funding is a portion of $975,000 for dental health programs across the state added to the Department of Health and Human Services budget for 2008, which was passed by the Senate last night.

Feingold gets $200,000 for school defibrillators

The death of a Wisconsin teen in 1999 still resonates in the U.S. Senate.

Sen. Russ Feingold's amendment to provide money for schools to buy portable defibrillators has been approved, adding $200,000 to the Labor-HHS appropriations bill.

Adam Lemel, a 17-year-old Whitefish Bay High School student died of sudden cardiac arrest while was playing basketball. His mother, and others, have pushed forward the ADAM Act (Automated Defibrillators in Adam’s Memory) to fund a national clearinghouse to help schools buy the life-saving devices and train staff to use them.

"The more we can do to educate our schools and communities on how to obtain and operate AEDs (automated external defibrillators), the more lives we can save,” Feingold said.

The Senate also added $3 milltion to the Rural AED program, which, since 2002, has helped provide $45 million in defibrillator grants to rural communities.

Racine's Top 25 Movies of the Week

Here are Netflix's top 25 movies viewed by the Racine area this week. "The Professional" released in 1994 tops the list. It's the story of a hitman who befriends a little girl. "Wild Hogs" holds near the top of the list, while "The Queen" breaks into the top five along with Will Ferrell and Napoleon Dynamite's "Blades of Glory."

Here's the list:

1. The Professional

2. Wild Hogs

3. The Queen

4. Zodiac

5. Blades of Glory

6. Heroes: Season 1 (7-Disc Series)

7. Surf's Up

8. Derailed

9. Premonition

10. Apocalypto

11. Fracture

12. Peaceful Warrior

13. Perfect Stranger

14. Hot Fuzz

15. Pan's Labyrinth

16. Ghost Rider

17. Disturbia

18. 300

19. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

20. Smallville: Season 6 (6-Disc Series)

21. Next

22. Shooter

23. Reign Over Me

24. The Pursuit of Happyness

25. The Holiday

City's health costs going down

The city's health costs are expected to drop 3 percent next year. You read that right.

Changes in the city's health insurance and prescription administrators led to a project saving of nearly $800,000 in 2008.

Mayor Becker said this week he expects the account to come out flat, but is hoping for the decrease. He's not, however, expecting long-term gains from falling health insurance rates.

"This buys us a year, maybe two," he said. "We still need a permanent fix."

The city, which is self insured, expects its health care costs to drop from an estimated $17,525,106 in 2007 to $16,794,063 in 2008.

The numbers are soft - 2007 isn't over and 2008 is just a projection - but it's a good sign for a local government that had seen double-digit percent increases in health costs in recent years.

Parking fines going up

Parking tickets will increase from $11 to $13 under Mayor Gary Becker's 2008 proposed budget. The $2 increase for expired meters will not result in a windfall for the city. The parking system projected a roughly $6,000 increase in revenues for 2008 to $1.21 million, and a $39,000 shortfall for the year.

Click here to read a PDF of the mayor's 2008 proposed budget.

City budget includes $50 sewer fee for all homeowners

Mayor Gary Becker's 2008 proposed budget includes a new $50 fee for every property owner to improve the city's sewer system.

The fee would create a $1.1 million special revenue account in the Public Works Department. The money would be used to hire a plumbing inspector to oversee the repair and replacement of failed sanity sewer laterals.

Property owners would be required to pay $50 per lateral connection to fund the position, which will be paid $90,000 in salary and fringe benefits. In all, $800,000 of the fees would go to repairs on the city's sewer system.

Click here to read a PDF of the mayor's 2008 proposed budget.

Local Theater: 'Dead Guy', 'King O' the Moon' take the stage

Racine has two new plays on the stage through November.

The Racine Theatre Guild is performing, 'King O' the Moon' on weekends through Nov. 11. Here's the summary:
Remember the Pazinski family from Over the Tavern, where the young boy, Rudy, questioned his Catholic faith and one nun in particular? Even if you missed it, and regardless of your ethnic and religious roots, you’re sure to enjoy this visit 10 years later. Believe it or not, Rudy’s in seminary. As Apollo 11 lands on the moon in 1969, the Pazinskis gather in fond memory of their cantankerous dad. Despite secrets, problems and differences, they stick together and share lots of laughs.

This is a laugh-out-loud comedy that manages to tug at the heartstrings and dig into the issues of the tumultuous ’60s. It was directed by Norm McPhee, former managing and artistic director of the Racine Theatre Guild for 32 years. The cast includes Scot Johnson, Matt Specht, Jamie Johnson, Denise Denault, Chris Heilgeist, Joe Mooney, and Douglas Kramer. Cindy David is production stage manager. Steve Krempasky designed the set.

Contact the Theatre Guild at (262) 633-4218 for tickets.

And, opening this weekend...

Over Our Head Players is performing "The Dead Guy," a reality TV satire by Erik Coble. The play runs four weekends October 26 to November 17 at the Sixth Street Theatre, 318 Sixth Street, Downtown Racine. Reservations are available through the box office, (262)632-6802. Tickets are $11 - $14.

With her career on the line, Reality TV Producer Gina convinces the Ultimate Loser, Eldon, he has nothing left to lose. She offers him one million dollars to spend over seven days. For one week he can live in the lap of luxury: have whatever he wants, do whatever he wants, go wherever he wants. A camera crew will follow his every move and broadcast his adventures on national television each night. At the end of the week, however, he will die on live TV, and the viewing audience gets to vote on how he dies!

The The Dead Guy ensemble features Ken Brown, Jamie Cain, Christopher Elst, Jackie Green, Nicholas Hoyt, Jaclyn Jankowski, Ryan H. Nelson, and Connie Rogers.

OOHPS Technical Director Joseph Piirto directs The Dead Guy, and Emily Breiwick is Production Manager. Gary Alvarado of AVA Media Services provided video assistance. The staff includes Shelly Becker, Vernon “Chip” Wienke III, Michael Becker, Sea Daniel, Paula Stack, Donna Nielsen, Terry Christensen, Christopher Larson, Ron Schulz, Jerry Horton, Tom Spraker, Collin Garner, Chad Heinzelman, JoAnn Rogers, and Kathy Honigmann.

Show times are Fridays are at 8:00; Saturdays are at 5:30 and 8:00; Sundays are at 2:30.

October 23, 2007

Just what we need, more billboards!

Everybody who likes billboards, raise your hands... Now those who oppose them...

OK, all of you on both sides of this fence better show up at the Racine Plan Commission meeting this afternoon (5 p.m., City Hall, Room 205) to make your feelings known.

Adams Outdoor Advertising is proposing to erect new and/or improved billboards at the following locations:

Improved: 1101 Washington Avenue; 1301 West Sixth Street; 2200 Douglas Avenue; 2218 Douglas Avenue. (Note: "Improved" is a synonym for "bigger" in billboard-land.)

New: 1601 Twenty-First Street (2100 Block of S. Memorial Drive); 1623 De Koven Avenue; 1673-75 State Street; 1728 North Memorial Drive; 3026 Mt. Pleasant Street; 3640 Northwestern Avenue.

Most of these are standard 12' by 25' billboards, replacing existing smaller signs. The one at 2218 Douglas, however, would be much larger, 14' by 48', and the ones proposed for 1673-75 State Street and 3026 Mt. Pleasant are double-sided and electronic.

(Just helping relieve the boredom of driving, by providing you something to read...)

For maps showing the specific locations, go HERE.

UPDATE: Dozens say "no." Plan commission defers action. (Thanks, "FYI!")

Mayor mum on Pointe Blue

We got a chance to ask Mayor Becker about the $200 million Pointe Blue project. Here's how the conversation went:
Racine Post: What have you heard on Pointe Blue?
Mayor Becker: Stay tuned.
Racine Post: Word on the street is nothing will be announced until spring.
Mayor Becker: You can't always believe the word on the street.

Not sure what to make of that ... maybe an announcement is coming sooner than spring. Or, maybe, the mayor was dodging the question. In either case, no word yet on the proposed behemoth along the Root River and Lake Michigan.

October 22, 2007

Mayor's Budget Address

Dave, thank you for giving us the background and the assumptions we used in putting together the 2008 City of Racine budget.

It is again an honor to stand before you and present my fifth budget. I want to thank all of the administrative managers, division managers, and the staff in the finance department for working together to help put this together. This is almost a 3-month process starting in July.

The goal of making Racine a great Midwest City is always kept in our decision-making process.

The budget is the document that implements the policies to reach our goals. As you are all aware, the presentation of the budget is a little later than last year. The reason for this is we were hoping the state would fulfill their responsibility of passing a state budget. What they do can dramatically impact those of us at the local levels of government.

I finished the city budget on Thursday and had to have a meeting on Saturday afternoon to redo sections that were impacted by the budget agreement that was struck by Madison on Thursday night.

There is both good news and bad news for Racine in the state budget.
· The proposed increase in shared revenues was scrapped.
· Levy limits were extended for another 2 years.
· It is interesting to note that Madison increased the state budget by 8% but feel local government should only be entitled to a 2% increase. They demand we do what they could not.

The positives in the budget are that the proposed decrease of 12% in Racine’s shared revenues was scrapped. $400,000 is in the budget for 6th Street enhancements as that street is rebuilt. And $250,000 per year for work to reduce the high infant mortality rate in the Racine area was included, thanks to our local delegation.

I want to say “thank you” to those that represent the city in Madison, Senator John Lehman and Assemblymen Bob Turner and Cory Mason. I know they fought hard for their constituents here in the city of Racine.

The budget that is presented tonight proposes the elimination of 10 positions. Once again these are spread out among all areas of city government. The budget as presented eliminates 1 police position, 3 fire, and the other 6 from various departments.

Public safety remains my number one concern. There is no elected official that ever looks to cut public safety employees. However, I have pledged to keep a balance of the services we deliver. Last year no positions were cut in the Fire Department and only one sworn officer position was reduced in the Police Department. In a perfect world we would not have to make any reductions, but with the current state of local finances it is obviously not a perfect world we live in.

Another goal in the Police Department this year is to bring much of the parking ticket operation back in house. We are currently working on a unique arrangement with our vendor which should save money and greatly improve our customer service levels. To accomplish this there is proposed $50,000 for hand held ticket machines for the squad cars.

For the first time in a number of years I am proposing the addition of 2 new positions. The first position is in City planning and Development. I feel this position is needed for a number of reasons.
1. The amount of time to administer our federal grants has dramatically increased.
2. The amount of Brownfield redevelopment continues to grow.
3. The number of developers interested in Racine keeps increasing.
4. Our emphasis of redeveloping our neighborhoods and business districts continues.
To expect current staff to handle the added workload has become unrealistic and therefore a generalist position to help on a variety of issues is proposed.

The second position which is initially funded starting in May of 2008 is the position of “grant administrator”. This is a position a number of aldermen have asked about over the years. This position is proposed to be in city administration in the mayor’s office. This person will work with our federal and state grants which take considerable time. While this is proposed as a new position, we currently have a person doing this work. Unfortunately, she has plans to retire mid-year 2008.

In addition to administering state and federal grants I envision this person working to develop ties with private foundations and working in the community with the NGO’s to help facilitate collaborations and working partnerships. I am convinced this position can pay for itself many times over.

A major item we are removing from the regular budget is sanitary sewers. This is an issue that virtually every alderman deals with at some time. We all know when these fail they become a burden to our residents and can create financial hardships. The cost of sanitary sewer will be covered by a $50 per residence fee once per year. This will generate enough revenue to maintain an aging infrastructure and cover the cost of all lateral failures beyond the property line of the property owner.

There are two departments that I am proposing to run differently than in the past. The first is Human Resources. In talking with other mayors I learned a number of cities have merged HR with the legal department. Much of the work is done jointly; mediations and arbitrations, grievances, contract negotiations, affirmative action and equal rights matters, family medical leave act issues, workers compensation claims, HIPPA questions and fair labor standards act issues to name but a few. To be able to run more effectively and efficiently I am proposing the elimination of the director of Human Resources and the merging with the Attorney’s office.

The other major change proposed is in Management Information Systems – MIS. We currently have about 1/3 of this department’s work done by outside contractors. This budget proposes that all but the director and one position that we are contractually obligated to keep are contracted out to a professional IT staffing contractor. We have had preliminary discussions with the vendor the county uses to do this. All current city employees with be offered jobs with whatever vendor we choose to work with.

I believe this is the right way to go because of the nature of the IT business. As we all know it is ever changing at a speed that is hard to fathom at times. By having an outside contractor they will be able to supply the skill sets that are needed to implement specific projects. The director will remain an administrative manager, and will be in charge of executing the contract and ultimately for the delivery of all IT services.

There is a proposal to eliminate one community center director. Humble Park would be overseen by the director at Tyler-Domer. Half of the savings from this position will be put into additional programming at the centers. In addition, the center directors and recreation staff are aggressively looking for partners to help strengthen the programming we have at the centers. After discussing this with staff I could not justify a full-time position which costs tax payers nearly $90,000 at Humble Park. I am confident with a fresh approach at partnering that our centers will be the best neighborhood resource that is possible.

The main reason we are eliminating only 10 positions is the ability to control healthcare costs. We are still self insured but MEI, which is our group of local businesses and governments, has negotiated with United Health Care to bring rates down. While the plan and benefits will not change, our plan administrator will switch to UHC on January 1st. We anticipate that health care costs in 2008 will be the same as this year. We will continue to look for ways to save dollars and to strengthen our wellness program to help our employees stay healthy.

Each year the budget contains changes. Over the past 4 years there have been many changes. We have reduced our city payroll by over 100 saving millions of dollars. With the consolidation of the Attorneys office and Human Resources we will be at 12 administrative managers versus 16 four years ago making coordination of work easier. We have reorganized neighborhood inspections and the result has been neighborhoods that are constantly being improved.

The lab in the Health Department was closed and all residents still have access to the services we provided through other providers and saving the city thousands. The list goes on but virtually every change we have made has provided cost savings to our taxpayers and efficiency to our operations. And when a change does not work out we admit and fix the situation as we did with the bulky waste site.

The other piece of this budget being presented tonight is the Capital Improvement Plan. The first step in this process is to determine the amount of debt the city can comfortably handle. We look at current year and then all the way out to year twenty. We then determine the amount of borrowed money we can sustain. Currently staff and I feel that bonding of between $7.5 and $8 million is the proper amount. At this point we start the process of prioritizing departmental requests.

You will notice that we are at our target for the five year plan. Only the 2008 year becomes part of the city budget, the remaining 4 years are just a plan and no appropriations are included in this year’s budget.

Approximately $4 million in requests have been cut from each year of the CIP. As you will see we have a relatively level 5-year plan that stays under the targeted amounts.

The majority of CIP dollars are used to maintain what we already have. Keep our buildings in good condition, repair infrastructure; i.e.: streets, sewers, street lighting, pathways, etc.

In continuing to provide improved service to our customers we are proceeding with the City Hall renovations. The next phase will bring the Department of Planning and Development into one office and in the same building. They will take over the Clerk’s office old space. This will give them a better location for the many loan program participants who they see on a regular basis. They will consolidate from two different offices to one where it will be easier to serve the public and to share resources and personnel.

In addition the old Finance space will be redone so Human Resources can move into there and 2 offices in the legal department can be moved to make room for a permanent office for the city administrator.

An area of increased spending is in our parks and community centers. Each of the last two years I have proposed and this council approved additional dollars to Parks to upgrade our facilities. This year I have again included nearly $200,000 above the requested amount to improve our parks, playgrounds, beaches, ball fields and community centers. These areas should be great as they are what people see when they are out in our city, and they are a resource for all to use and enjoy.

Community Development continues to be a top priority. Facade grants continue to be eligible in all areas throughout our city. Brownfield cleanup and redevelopment continues as we finish up the former Jacobson site, work to move West Racine ahead, and negotiate with the owners of the former Racine Steel location. Our commitment to our commercial corridors continues to grow. We will continue to work on Douglas Avenue, West Racine, State Street and of course Uptown as we get ready to kick off the artist relocation program.

The rest of the CIP budget is just not very exciting. It repaves parking lots, puts roofs on buildings, rebuilds streets and the rest of the mundane work of maintaining our infrastructure. However, I do want to point out that while it may not be exciting new projects, it is absolutely critical to the long term health of our city that we do not neglect our building and infrastructure.

Before closing I want to mention what a tremendous job the staff here at the city does. I receive compliments on city workers many more times than complaints. When people come to visit, almost all comment on the cleanliness of our city. People often comment on the friendliness and cooperation they feel when dealing with our front line service people. Developers tell me what a pleasure it is to work with a city focused on getting things done. I could go on and on about the great service I hear about from every department in this city. To every city employee I say “thank-you” for your public service and to making Racine great. I personally feel it is a noble cause.
So, ladies and gentlemen I lay before you the 2008 Mayor’s proposed budget. I look forward to working with you over the next 4 weeks to answer all questions and to use the wisdom and experience of this council to improve on what you now have before you.

Thank you and good night.

Mosaic honors Andrei's memory

Tom and Natalie Rutkowski, at the dedication of "Mythos" mosaic mural in honor of their son, Andrei.

Somewhere, Poseidon is smiling.

The bearded god of the sea in Greek mythology held off the rain Monday night, while providing a suitably damp backdrop to the dedication of a mosaic in his stern visage, to honor the memory of 13-year-old Andrei Rutkowski, who died of leukemia in April 2006.

The 6-ft. by 18-ft. mural, designed by Racine artist Jane Casico, is filled with images of the things Andrei loved: the sea, myths and turtles. Poseidon dominates the middle section; Icarus flies too close to the sun on the right panel, over swimming turtles; and the left panel represents the island of Crete. The mural's name is "Mythos," which means a collection of myths.

"This shows you what happens when you give talented kids a chance," said Harold Solberg.

The dedication ceremony on the Lake Michigan Walkway, alongside the beach where Goold Street meets Michigan Boulevard, was a moving affair, remembering a child who died too young, and recognizing the many organizations that worked together to create the memorial.

Andrei's parents, Tom and Natalie Rutkowski came up with the idea. Aided by Debra Karp, Lorna Hennig, Donna Newgord, the Main Gallery, the Racine Arts Council, the Wisconsin Arts Board, Racine Parks and Recreation Department and others, including mayor and aldermen, they put the plan in motion.

Casico, whose normal media are pastels and watercolor -- but who has done murals at the Historic Century Market and at the Crosswalk Park on Main Street (opposite Salute's) -- was an eager participant.

"We were all new at it; we're all self-taught," Casico said. She introduced some of the teens from Main Gallery, all wearing pirate caps for the occasion, who actually put together the mosaic she designed -- on mesh squares later installed on the walkway's concrete wall by Floortech, under the supervision of Peter Hannes. There are 144,000 individual tiles used in the project, along with some beach glass and broken mirror.

"Everyone here, their heart and soul was in it," Casico said.

Main Gallery, said Mayor Gary Becker, "is a wonderful program for kids. Thank you all for your energies, talents and emotions." (He said that before Casico told one and all that the face of Poseidon was modeled after the mayor's. She was kidding, I think.)

Andrei "relished each day," said his father.

The mural is not his only memorial. The fund established by his parents at the Racine Community Foundation also has provided a typically quirky Bill Reid sculpture of a turtle for the children's room at the Racine Public Library -- a turtle whose broad shell serves as a chess board.

And there is a park bench at Riverbend Nature Center, with a haiku written for Andrei:

The firefly departs,
so quickly, so breathlessly,
it leaves its light behind.

Vos: "No" on the budget

Rep. Robin Vos has made up his mind: He's voting "no" on the budget.

The second-term Republican representative from the 63rd Assembly district, had earlier expressed his unhappiness with the compromise hammered out last Thursday. But he left the door open at the time, until he saw all the budget details, as to whether he would vote for it when the roll is called Tuesday.

Today he made it official: He will not. That's what he told the legislative committee of the Burlington Chamber of Commerce this morning.

A similar announcement was made at the same time by Kenosha County Rep.Samantha Kerkman, of Kenosha County's 66th Assembly district. She also is a Republican.

According to Sen. John Lehman, D-21st District, the outcome tomorrow is still uncertain, with at least 14 Republican "yes" votes needed to pass the budget. "If (James) Kreuser (D-64th Assembly district, the minority leader) starts losing Democrats, then that's a problem."

Lehman noted that the conference committee was meeting Monday afternoon and evening, still unable to agree on some issues -- one of them being KRM, the commuter rail extension from Kenosha to Milwaukee. "Milwaukee area legislators are upset," he said, indicating that a late compromise might yet be achieved, to find a taxing mechanism for the project.

Mayor's budget cuts 10 positions, adds 2

Mayor Gary Becker introduced his 2008 budget Monday night. Here are 10 points in the mayor's plan:

1. The mayor wants to eliminate 10 positions to save about $956,000 per year, plus any savings that comes from outsourcing the city's MIS (computers and technology) department. The eliminated positions include: one police officer, three firefighters, two employees in the health department, the director of the Humboldt Community Center, one parks department truck driver and an employee from the library.

1 1/2. We just got this from the city. The proposed levy (the amount the city will raise in property taxes) for next year is $42,093,601 -- 2 percent higher than this year. The proposed tax rate went down slightly, but as the mayor pointed out, it doesn't mean anything because everyone's assessment went up more than 2 percent. So, basically, everyone is paying about $20 per $100,000 in assessed value more in city taxes next year.

2. The city would outsource its MIS department, but will hire a technology department head to manage the outsourced employees. Velocity, a private company that runs the county's information systems, will be hired to run the city. The city will not bid the contract, because it needs to move quickly and Velocity is a proven commodity, Becker said Monday.

3. The state budget surprised the city, because it included a 2 percent limit on property tax levy increases. The meant city staff had to meet Saturday to cut $580,000 out of the mayor's budget. The cuts were made with minimal disruption to the mayor's original plan, though he did have to pull an extra $200,000 out of reserves.

4. Mayor is adding two positions. One is a full-time employee in the planning and development department, in part because the department is overwhelmed with work. The second is a grant administrator who Becker sees as an ambassador in the community helping non-profits work together to secure private grant money. They'll also oversee city grants, taking over that duty from an accountant who is retiring next year.

5. Becker said there simply isn't a need for the Humboldt Community Center director, who is paid $60,000 a year plus benefits. It's up to the parks department how it will manage the center, but Becker saw the Tyler-Domer director overseeing both centers.

6. Take $40,000 of the dollars saved by eliminating the community center director and give it back to the parks department for programming.

7. The new position in the planning department will help oversee the various business districts throughout the city, including the proposed arts district in Uptown.

8. The city's health care costs are projected as even, or may go down slightly, next year.

9. The mayor's budget calls for borrowing $7.9 million next year for the capital budget. The budget includes $200,000 for the parks and recreation department to fix up parks and community centers. "It's a visibility thing," Becker said describing the money for parks and rec. "It's the statement you send to the community. Not everyone has money to run to the country club. We really do try to strive to make our parks and community centers as attractive and welcoming as possible."

10. The budget goes to the City Council for debate. The council can change anything in the budget, but the mayor has veto power over the changes.

Jack wants to go home with you

Meet Jack, a 10-month-old collie/Brittany spaniel mix, that Countryside Humane Society has up for adoption. Surely, someone in Racine will fall in love with this high-energy fella, they're convinced, but he's been here six weeks and, so far, nobody's come forward. Before Countryside sends Jack to another city's shelter seeking a home, they asked us to let you know this lovable and playful mid-sized pooch is waiting for you.

KRM: Wounded, not dead

The commuter rail line connecting Racine to Milwaukee and Kenosha is "wounded, but not dead," Mayor Gary Becker said Monday.

Becker will travel to Madison Friday to meet with Gov. Jim Doyle about the proposed line.

One possible scenario has the state passing a regional transit authority law that would create bodies around the state to fund public transportation. Under that scenario, Racine, Kenosha and Milwaukee counties may be able to create a tax to pay for commuter rail, among other items.

KRM failed in the state budget process after Senate Democrats were unable to secure a $13 increase on the rental car tax in southeast Wisconsin to pay for commuter rail.