February 1, 2008

Miniature barn a hand-made Gallery Night extra

Next week's downtown Gallery Night will feature a variety of arts and crafts, blown glass, jewelry, paintings, photographs, ceramics, quits... and a miniature barn.

That last one caught my eye.

The listing was as spare and direct as a Yankee farmer: "John Henkel, An Inside View of an authentic miniature barn and its contents, created by a retired science and biology teacher from Case High School," at Cobblestone Art & Frame, 415 6th St.

I went to see John and his miniature barn. Frankly, it's more complete than some real barns I've seen.

John Henkel was born on his family's farm 58 years ago. His father, Bob, had 140 acres west of the I, where he raised cattle, hogs, sheep and the crops needed to sustain them. But although they moved to town when John was 4, some vestiges of the farm remained in his DNA (You can take the boy off the farm, but you can't take the farm out of the boy?)

Whatever the reason, having a barn remained an unfulfilled need. Until 1994, when a teaching colleague gave John a barn made by Leland Fisher of Jesup, Iowa, who made dollhouses after he retired ... dollhouses and this one barn. It's got nice lines, a hip roof and cupola, but was basically just a blank plywood canvas.

Meanwhile, John taught biology and horticulture at Case High School. He retired three years ago and thought, "I might as well put this together." And then the obsessiveness kicked in.

"Everywhere I went, I looked for stuff for the barn." Last winter, it became his project, and the work began.

The barn basically was an empty shell with a stanchion or two for livestock. Not much at all.

So John painted it, built more stanchions for livestock from basswood. Used plaster of Paris to make tiny fieldstones for the foundation walls. Each stone painted by hand.

The search for barn "stuff" continued. "I remembered what old cow barns looked like," John said. What he couldn't find, he made. Architect Mies van der Rohe said, "God is in the details," something John Henkel took to heart.

His barn has: ropes, water buckets, apples, carrots, grain sacks, a manure shovel (yes, with some "manure" stuck on it), hay hooks, milking stools, a broom, a horse stall with handmade (clay baked in the oven and then painted) horse "apples" (you city folks can figure that one out for yourselves).

Of course, there's livestock: horses, three Holsteins (all painted with matching spots, denoting common heritage, doncha know), one Angus with calf ... and, of course, an Angus bull, complete to the ring in his nose. There's a 1920 German turkey, a hand-carved farmer, a pesky kid in his wagon.

In the attic, besides the barn cat, there are two ducks ... nesting on duck feathers, and hay bales made of alfalfa cubes.

"I got kinda carried away," John admits.

I'm sure I've missed a lot. You'll have a chance to relive our farming past on Gallery Night, on Saturday, Feb. 9, from 6-9 p.m. at sixteen downtown galleries. Be sure to check out John's miniature barn at Cobblestone. Full list of Gallery Night offerings is HERE.

Aldermen want to allow Neighborhood Electric Vehicles in Racine

This just came in from Aldermen Greg Helding and Aron Wisneski. This is in response to our article on the state approving Neighborhood Electric Vehicles, but them being illegal in Racine. Here's the release:
Racine’s streets may soon be buzzing with zero emissions electric vehicles, if two Racine Alderman have their way. Aldermen Aron Wisneski and Greg Helding are working on an ordinance to allow the operation of “Neighborhood Electric Vehicles” in the City of Racine.

Wisconsin’s DOT recently approved the vehicles for state licensing, but did not mandate that they be allowed on city streets – leaving the decision up to local officials. “People in Racine are being squeezed by high gas prices,” said Alderman Aron Wisneski. “City government shouldn’t stand in the way of this market-driven solution to that problem.”

Specifically designed for localized use, these cars produce zero emissions because they are 100% electric. The car’s batteries provide only enough power to reach a top speed of 25MPH and a maximum range of 35 miles with a single charge. Despite these limitations, they are gaining in popularity because they are affordable. With a retail price under $15,000 and an estimated annual fuel cost of just $200, they make for a very low cost second car. “These vehicles are perfect for people who do all of their driving in town,” said Alderman Greg Helding. “They are inexpensive, clean, and quiet. I can’t think of a reason we would not want to allow them.”

The Aldermen submitted a request to the city council asking for an ordinance to be drafted that would allow the operation of Neighborhood Electric Vehicles. The request will be introduced at their February 5, 2008, meeting. “At that point, we will refer it to a committee so we can study the proposal and get feedback from city departments, including Pubic Works and the Police,” said Wisneski. “This is the first step, but we would like to see the ordinance adopted sometime this spring.” If the ordinance is adopted, Racine will join about 35 other Wisconsin communities that allow the vehicles, including Green Bay, LaCrosse, Eau Claire, and Beloit.

January 31, 2008

Alors, the tragedies of Racine

Google Reader is a blogger's best friend (BBFF?). Many times a day it brings us news about Racine from far and wide. But it's not very discriminating...

Imagine my initial consternation at finding this headline and teaser from the Feb. 1 Sydney Morning Herald in my Racine folder a few minutes ago:

Alors, ees down the toilet, mon old cher
The walls are swathed in Aubusson tapestries depicting scenes from the tragedies of Racine...
AH! And Bah! Yet another story about the 17th Century French playwright, Jean Racine, a contemporary of Moliere (so much for LitCrit 101).

What's worse ... after reading the story, I still haven't a clue what it's about. For those of you with unquenchable curiosity, here's what they're saying about us ... um, about that other Racine, 'way Down Under in Australia. The rest of the yarn after the break.

The story, by Chris Henning:

Scene: The chairman's suite at a Paris bank. A short, balding man paces up and down behind a vast, elaborately carved gilt desk. The walls are swathed in Aubusson tapestries depicting scenes from the tragedies of Racine...Thick satin curtains fringed with brocade frame enormous multi-paned windows, through which accountants and senior managers can now and then be seen plummeting to their deaths on the cobblestones below. The chairman's mistress, Emanuelle, reclines on a chaise longue, feeding chocolates to her dog. The chairman talks on the telephone, his brow shiny with sweat.Chairman: Tiens! You are telleeng me whurt?

Voice on phone (shouting): Ze murnee ees misseeng!

(Loud knock at the door. Emanuelle, in impossibly high ankle-strap shoes, pencil skirt and silk blouse stretched tight over her magnificent poitrine, sashays over to open it.)

Chairman: Zat ees riduckulous! It can nurt 'ave vaneeshed overr naht. Ow murch murnee?

(Office boy enters and wheels an empty wheelbarrow across to a tapestry, where Iphigenie is shown reclining on a sacrificial altar.)

Voice: Burt eet 'as, my old. Five billion euros down ze lavatoree.

(Office boy lifts up Iphigenie's dress, and fiddles with the combination lock of a wall safe.)

Chairman (staring out window, oblivious): Sacred blue. What you tell me ees perturbeeng, I find.

(Safe opens. Office boy and Emanuelle stack bundles of banknotes in the wheelbarrow.)

Voice: You commence to understand ze gravitee of ze problem, my friend.

Chairman : You understand, Mister the President - een a situation of this sort, eet ees pussibole zere weel be repaircussions.

Voice: You 'ave reason, my old. Repaircussions are vairee pussibole.

Chairman: Nurt all of ze repaircussions will necessarilee be positive fur ze bank's currant management, I seenk.

(Office boy climbs on desk and unhooks tapestries from the wall, rolling them up and stacking them on the wheelbarrow.)

Voice: Eet wurd seem nurt.

Chairman: Yet I usk myself ow can zees uppen? Our safeguards after all are second to nurn.

(Emanuelle wheels barrow to door, while the office boy rifles the desk drawers behind chairman's back, stealing all he can carry.)

Voice: Eet eez a mystery. I of curse murst refer zis mattair to ze authorities. (Police siren approaches.) You murst nut distress yourself, my pot!

(Exeunt left Emanuelle and office boy, wheeling their loot.)

Chairman: I sank eaven I retain ze suppurt of ma staff, familee and friends.

(Enter right four police, who arrest the Chairman. Curtain.)

(OK, on second thought, it has something to do with the huge French investment scandal last week, although why Australians would care about that (any more than we) is beyond me...)

Caveat Emptor, Journal Times' Amish edition

You thought it was just in The Journal Times, but in fact that big full-page ad promoting an "Amish man's new miracle idea" for cutting home heating costs has been appearing in newspapers around the country, including USA Today (none offering anything close to the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval).

I have no idea what the advertising campaign costs, although I'd bet it's running at cut rates, filling otherwise empty space where newspapers normally would have filler, or simply need to balance out an odd-number of pages.

But the question, of course, is not whether the newspapers are making any money here -- assuredly, they are; rather it's whether this "miracle heater" (wrapped in a wood box allegedly made by an Amish craftsman) is something you should buy for the advertised price of $298 ... or is it just another fast-buck hoax foisted on you by a newspaper advertising department with limited scruples and/or unreasonable monthly goals. I know what I concluded the first time the ad appeared in The Journal Times: I tsk-tsk-ed, and turned the page. Not my job any more, as my wife reminds me.

But when the ad appeared again today I did something else: I Googled "miracle heater Amish," which produced 41,100 hits. Um... do we really have to go into the details? Here are some excerpts from just the first few screens:

"The "miracle heater," touted in the ads is essentially a dressed up electric space heater... The heater was designed in China and the claim that it uses less electricity than a coffee maker sounds good until you realize the same can be said for any electric space heater." --The Real Deal, WSYR-TV, Syracuse

"Consumer Reports magazine says you can get a good space heater for less than $100. As for these heaters that appear to be built by honest Amish Americans? Nope…they are made in China." -- WCPO-TV, Cincinnati

"Occasionally, I run across an ad that causes me to pull out my hair. The most recent hair-puller, which appeared in my own Chronicle on Jan. 24, promotes a Heat Surge Roll-n-Glow Amish Fireplace... The ad, written like a newspaper article, implies that the heater is the "miracle idea" of an Amish man. According to the ad, you just plug them in...Plug in? That's correct: As in plug the heater into an electrical outlet. Anybody see the irony here?" --Consumer Watch, Houston Chronicle

The most complete dissection of the ad's claims was found on Yahoo! Answers, which pointed out: "The way the heater saves you money is if you turn off your central heat, buy one heater, use it to heat one room at a time, and move the heater from room to room as you move around. This is called "zone heating." This is true, but it's also true for any electric heater.

"If you want to get one heater and move it around with you, that would be cheaper than central heat, but you can get a lightweight 1,500 watt / 5,119 BTU electric heater with a fan for under $100 at your local hardware store, while the "miracle" heater costs $350 including shipping." --Yahoo! Answers

More HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE and all over the web.

'Nuff said?

Sen. Proxmire's Golden Fleece Awards reborn

Longtime Wisconsin Senator (from 1957 to 1989) William Proxmire, a Democrat, has a new acolyte: Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, R-WI.

The First District Congressman today announced the recipients of his first Budget Boondoggle Awards, an "homage" to Proxmire's Golden Fleece Awards, which the senator started in 1975 to highlight government waste. The first Golden Fleece went to the National Science Foundation for conducting an $84,000 study about why people fall in love.

Much has changed in the intervening 33 years -- especially the amounts of questionable spending. Ryan's first Boondoggle Awards -- a two-way tie for first place -- cost taxpayers $59 million.

Ryan's first awards went to:

-- The Ferry to Nowhere – a $20-million earmark for a craft connecting the Alaskan communities of Anchorage and Port MacKenzie – serving a total of 40 residents.

-- The National Drug Intelligence Center’s “jobs program” – a $39-million earmark for a duplicative program that the President has sought to eliminate since at least 2005.

Honorable Mention went to the Omnibus Appropriations Bill with its $18 billion in earmarks that have long been the bane of Ryan's existence.

Details of the two major award winners after the break:

THE “FERRY TO NOWHERE” ($20 Million)

-- This earmark will pay for a ferry to connect Anchorage with Port MacKenzie on the rural Alaskan peninsula of Matanuska-Susitna Borough – ostensibly to test, for the Navy, how well the vessel could cut through ice. The ferry connects the same route as one of the celebrated, and previously abandoned, “Bridges to Nowhere.”

-- The ferry will reduce an approximately 2-hour drive to a trip of around 30 minutes – for the benefit of the 40 people who are employed on the peninsula.

-- The Office of Naval Research [ONR] did not request the funding and had actually rejected a similar proposal, saying that the project was not a high priority.

-- Despite the Navy’s rejection, this earmark received $20 million in this year’s DOD Appropriations bill, on top of nearly $50 million that was included for this project in appropriations bills between 2002 and 2006.

-- To make the ferry more “appropriate” for the Defense Appropriations bill, it was dubbed “an expeditionary craft” by the Ranking Member of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. Most proponents acknowledge, however, that it will ultimately be used as a commercial ferry.

-- In a time of war and deficit spending, this earmark begs the question: when did the Navy – already fully committed to the Global War on Terrorism – begin building commercial ferries?


-- The National Drug Intelligence Center [NDIC] was established in 1993 to collect and coordinate intelligence from law enforcement agencies, providing a strategic look on the war on drugs. Its role duplicates the efforts of other agencies, such as the El Paso Intelligence Center. But despite this, it has continued to receive funding for the past 15 years.

-- An administration official recently described the NDIC as “slow to delineate a unique or useful role within the drug intelligence community.” Last year, the House Government Reform Committee described the center’s budget as “an expensive and duplicative use of scarce Federal drug enforcement resources.”

-- Due to the problems with the NDIC, the President – since at least 2005 – has proposed shutting down the facility; and his fiscal year 2008 budget again proposed to do so.

-- But instead of eliminating the center, this congressional earmark directs $39 million to expand NDIC operations in 2008.

-- Not only is this bad policy, but the earmark is in the wrong bill: the NDIC falls within the Justice Department’s Drug Enforcement Administration, not under the jurisdiction of the DOD. Perhaps coincidentally, the earmark was requested by the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman.

Said Ryan: "While demanding taxpayers do with less, Congress was not required to do the same. Last year alone, billions of taxpayer dollars were lost to wasteful, self-serving pork spending.

“Congress is failing in its charge to spend taxpayer dollars wisely. We’ve got to clean up this process. It is my hope that by exposing wasteful spending practices, and by implementing important reforms such as an earmark moratorium and the line-item veto, we can greatly reduce the loss of taxpayer dollars to federal government waste.”

January 30, 2008

There oughta be a law ...

It was 12 degrees Wednesday afternoon as I drove down Durand Avenue. The wind chill was about 5 degrees below zero, according to the weather guy on the radio. Even sitting in a warm car, wearing parka, mittens and knit cap, I felt cold.

Until, that is, I drove by Liberty Tax Service, which thoughtfully let me know that my life -- whatever its problems -- could be worse. Much worse.

There, near Lathrop, were three versions of the Statue of Liberty, waving, to remind one and all that state and federal income taxes need to be paid soon.

One of the reminders was made of snow, maybe six feet tall. As snow sculptures go, it was nicely done, although tarted up with two sandwich boards promoting the tax preparation service. I wondered who holds the trademark on Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi's magnificent statue, presented to the country by France in 1886 to commemorate our 100th anniversary. I suppose the statute of limitations has expired, get over it.

But it was the other two that concerned me. Wearing green costumes were two very nice women, Marilyn Grayson and Linda Johnson. Eleven kids between them; otherwise unemployed, they told me. Standing outside in -5 degree wind chill, dressed however warmly one can be in heavily layered costumes, gloves, hats and so on, waving and smiling.

For $7 an hour.

They've signed on for the duration; Marilyn until April, Linda until Feb. 20. Four hours a day, with breaks every 15 minutes.

I talked to them for less than five minutes; it took my fingers twice that to stop tingling once I got back in the car.

When I drove by the corner an hour later, the temperature had dropped to 7 degrees. Wind chill, presumably, was about 10 degrees below zero. Linda was gone but Marilyn was still there. Waving.

For $7 an hour.

Until common sense prevails, and workers with no choice have better alternatives, or more humane schedules, I'll do my own taxes, thanks.

Feingold's call for Kenya peace passes Senate

The U.S. Senate this morning passed a resolution by U.S. Senators Russ Feingold, D-WI, and John Sununu, R-NH, condemning the recent violence in Kenya and calling on both of Kenya’s leading presidential candidates to support a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

The resolution calls for an international audit of the 2007 election results. In the month since the elections took place, violence has claimed hundreds of Kenyan lives and displaced hundreds of thousands from their homes.

Feingold said today, “I am very pleased the Senate has acknowledged that the crisis in Kenya must be resolved peacefully, with the first step being internationally brokered negotiations. The U.S. Senate is also now on record in support of an independent and transparent review of the entire electoral process and its outcome. I hope President Bush joins us in calling on Kenya’s political leaders to refrain from igniting violence and remain engaged in the U.N.-led international effort to bring peace to a troubled nation.”

The full resolution is HERE.

Wisconsin man invents car that gets 130 MPG

Here's video from Channel 12 about the car, which is competing for a $10 million prize to build a prototype:

January 29, 2008

Stimulus bill 'a fallacy,' but Ryan votes 'yes'

Despite previously calling the Economic Stimulus bill a "feel-good hit" and a potential "budgetary hangover," U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-WI, 1st District, voted with the majority today as the House approved it, 385-35, and sent it on to the Senate.

H.R. 1540, the Recovery Rebates and Economic Stimulus for the American People Act, to give it its full, flag-waving, apple pie title, allows taxpayers to keep more of their own money. If passed by the Senate and signed into law by President Bush it will provide rebate checks to individuals and families, bonus depreciation for businesses for new equipment purchases, increased expensing limits for small businesses and an increase in loan limits for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as well as the Federal Housing Administration (FHA).

Here's what Ryan, who has been critical of some aspects of the bill, had to say after its passage:

“Since my first day in Congress, I have focused on protecting peoples’ paychecks. People are overtaxed and the best aspect of this proposal is that it allows people keep more of their hard-earned money. I also believe the business incentives will help create jobs.

“I will not pretend, however, that this bill will do much to ‘stimulate’ the economy. This bill is more about good politics for both parties, than it is about sound economic policy. The idea that sending $100 billion back to people to spend at the mall will turn around a $14 trillion economy is fallacy and we shouldn’t oversell this bill. The bottom line is this: people are struggling to keep up with the cost of living and letting them keep more of what they earn is the right thing to do. That is why I voted for this bill.”

Specifically, H.R. 1540 includes the following provisions:

§ Rebate Checks for Individuals and Families: Rebate check amounts would be determined by the greater of two options: (a) income tax paid in 2007, with a maximum of $600 for a single taxpayer and $1,200 for married couples; or (b) $300 for an individual and $600 for a married couple, provided the individual or couple earned income of at least $3,000 in 2007. The rebate check amounts would phase-out with adjusted gross incomes above $75,000 for a single taxpayer and $150,000 for married couples. A children’s bonus would be included in the rebate check calculation. Anyone qualifying for the base amount would also receive an additional $300 per child, with no cap on the number of children.

§ Bonus Depreciation for Businesses: A 50 percent bonus deduction on new equipment in the year it is placed in service, with certain exceptions for equipment with a “long life.” This provision expires at the end of this year. This tax relief provides an incentive to small businesses to invest now and create more jobs.

§ Small Business Expensing: Current law permits small businesses to immediately expense (rather than deduct over time), costs for the first $125,000 of purchases each year. Current law phases out that benefit, on a dollar-for-dollar basis, when purchases exceed $500,000. The agreement increases those limits for 2008, to $250,000 and $800,000. This provision expires at the end of this year. It would provide small businesses an incentive to invest now in their business so they can keep the workers they employ and create more jobs.

Weather cancels some Unified activities tonight

All Racine Unified elementary and middle school after-school activities have been canceled for Tuesday, Jan. 29 including the Lighted Schoolhouse Program activities.

All high school activities for this afternoon and evening will continue as planned.

EXCEPT: Muskego at Racine Park Boys Basketball is canceled tonight, due to Muskego canceling after school activities. No date has been selected for rescheduling at this point.

The forecast: Chance of Thunderstorms, Definite Rain, Definite Freezing Rain, Definite Snow, Definite Ice Pellets (sleet), Areas of Fog.

Time to refinace your mortgage? Actually, last week ...

So, you think that just because the Federal Reserve cut its short-term interest rate to 3.5%, you'll refinance your mortgage for something close to that?

Think again.

The Fed's prime rate has little or nothing to do with home mortgage rates, which are based on the U.S. Treasury's 10-year rates. Still, depending on what your current rate is, there probably are savings to be had.

Timing is everything: calls to local banks today found rates down from where they were a few months ago -- but higher than last week.

Assuming good credit and the requisite equity, local bank rates are mostly below 6%. The best we found was at Wells Fargo, offering 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages for 5 5/8%. That's up from 5 1/4% a week ago. Johnson Bank quoted us 5.75% (plus a 1/4% "delivery fee.")

M&I Bank today is at 5.875%, but last Wednesday locked in a mortgage at 5.375%. Later that same day the rate jumped to 5.625%, and then went up again. Yesterday's rate was 5.75%.

The Bank of Elmwood this morning is at 6%; last week it was at 5.75%. One year ago, its rate was 6.5%; in 2005 it was 5.5%.

Last week, according to mortgage tracker HSH Associates, the average 30-year fixed loan in the U.S. was 5.55%, down from 6.4% shortly after the Fed's first rate cut in the fall. A story in the Houston Chronicle, quoting a Bankrate.com national survey, says the average is 5.57 percent, down from 5.75 percent earlier this month and from 6.32 percent a year ago. "That's within shouting distance of the historic low of 5.21 percent set in June 2003."

Keep in mind that what the Fed giveth, it also taketh away: lower interest rates for borrowers also mean lower rates for savers.

January 28, 2008

DRC hands out 2007 Achievement Awards

The Downtown Racine Corporation announced the winners of its 2007 Downtown Racine Achievement Awards Monday night at the organization's annual meeting. Awards were presented by DRC board president Denise McKee.

Two awards went to Doug Nicholson, owner of the Ivanhoe Pub: The Downtown Champion Award, for an individual who has been a catalyst in improving downtown, has provided service to the downtown community and has worked tirelessly to promote downtown; and the Downtown Showcase Award for an exciting event that has helped attract visitors and improved the overall image of downtown as an exciting, dynamic, happening place, for the St. Patrick's Day Parade.

The Fork and Spoon Award for a new or redeveloped restaurant that has captured the attention of the marketplace, enhancing the downtown dining scene, went to Manny Salinas and his fiancee, Natalie, for Olde Madrid.

The Brick and Mortar Award, for a building or property that has helped to revitalize the area and bring new residents downtown, went to Eppstein Uhen Architects for The Harbor at State and Main.

The CPR Award for the redevelopment of a downtown building that has helped enhance the overall downtown neighborhood, went to the law firm of Phegley, Laughenberg and Jensen for their remodeling of 308 Sixth St.

The Corporate Citizenship Award for a business or organization that is the ultimate citizen, supporting downtown through employment, facilities and sponsorship, went to CNH, and was accepted by Gualberto Ranieri.

The Night Owl Award for an event that has attracted people into downtown after dark to enhance the overall ambiance of the city for locals and visitors, went to the Osborne and Scekic Family, for their financial support of the Summer Nights Concerts on the Square.

Three Congressional reactions ... to the same speech?

The reactions of our three Congressmen to President Bush's seventh -- and final! -- State of the Union address almost make one wonder whether they heard the same speech. At the very least, they targeted different aspects of it.

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-WI, focused on Bush's "attempt to bully Congress" into giving the Executive Branch more powers against terrorists; Rep. Paul Ryan, R-1st District -- who didn't mention war, terrorism or even the word Iraq in his response -- is "pleased the president focused on the economy;" and Sen. Herb Kohl, D-WI, says the president "should heed calls from Congress to responsibly end the war."

The contrast between Feingold and Ryan was stark. Feingold used words like, "unfortunately," "bully," "myopic," "most troubling;" while Ryan's reaction was peppered with "pleased," "encouraged" and "support."

Decide for yourself who heard the speech you heard. All three reactions, complete as received, are after the break:

Russ Feingold:

“In his final state of the union address, President Bush unfortunately continued to advocate positions and policies that have been harmful to our nation. He once again attempted to bully Congress into giving broad powers to the executive branch far beyond what is necessary to protect the country from terrorists. Congress must stand up to these tactics and pass a law that allows our intelligence community to go after al Qaeda and other threats to our national security while protecting the rights and freedoms of law-abiding Americans.

“Perhaps most troubling was the President’s steadfast commitment to an Iraq policy that has led to the deaths of nearly 4,000 American troops, continues to cost this country billions of dollars per month, and fails to make us safer in the global fight against al Qaeda and its affiliates. The president’s policies are keeping nearly 160,000 American troops stuck in Iraq and sapping our ability to address the global terrorist threat presented by al Qaeda.

“As we continue to pay a tremendous price because of the administration’s myopic focus on Iraq, al Qaeda maintains its safe haven in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The recent bombings in Algeria also remind us that the enemy we face is global and that a narrow focus on Iraq is self-defeating. Our next commander-in-chief will face great challenges in this critical region of the world, made more difficult because of the lack of attention the Bush administration has given to it.

“It is important to note that this is the last state of the union this President will give. I look forward to working with whoever takes office as our next President to change course, and begin to undo the damage this Administration will leave behind. We need to reform our broken health care system, and move away from a one-size-fits-all education policy. We need a real commitment to protecting our environment, and to moving away from the flawed trade policies that have led to so many American workers watching their jobs leave this country. I join many Americans in looking forward to addressing these challenges as the country prepares to move beyond the failed policies of this administration.”

Paul Ryan:

“I am pleased the President focused on the economy and the need for bipartisan action to create jobs. While I am encouraged that the stimulus package did not include a congressional wish list of new spending, I am doubtful this package will do much to actually create sustainable job growth. I believe it should have included more immediate tax reform to create more jobs in our country and provide more growth to our nation’s economy.

"Earmark reform is also critical to restoring accountability and fiscal responsibility to the federal budget. While I am pleased that the President is committed to reducing earmark spending, I do not believe the President went far enough. Congress should immediately impose a moratorium on earmarks and reform the spending process to end this pork barrel spending as we know it. The President also needs the Legislative Line Item Veto to stop earmarks like the “Bridge to Nowhere” from becoming law. I, along with Senator Russ Feingold, introduced the Congressional Accountability and Line Item Veto Act to provide this tool to the President to stop wasteful government spending.

"In addition, I support the President’s call to balance the budget by 2012 without raising taxes. As the Ranking Member of the House Budget Committee, I look forward to working with the other side of the aisle to ensure that taxpayers are not overburdened with tax increases and that taxpayer dollars are not spent on wasteful government programs.”

Herb Kohl:

“Tonight, President Bush rightfully commended Congress for working in a bipartisan way to achieve a short-term plan to get our stalling economy back on track and provide timely relief for millions of working families. As part of a larger stimulus package, I believe we should also consider temporary measures to extend unemployment coverage for Americans out of work, address the housing foreclosure crisis, and expand food stamps and home heating assistance for families struggling to make ends meet.

“On Iraq, though there has been a reduction in violence in recent months, little progress – if any – has been made on achieving a long term political solution that puts the responsibility of leadership back into the hands of the Iraqis. The President should heed calls from Congress to responsibly end the war and redeploy our combat troops out of harm’s way.

“I look forward to debating these issues in the Senate, and taking a closer look at the specifics of the President’s plan when he unveils his budget proposal next week.”

Handsome Bryan looking for a home

Looking for a home this week is Bryan, a handsome four-month-old Labrador mix who was found as a stray. He's black with touches of white, and full of energy. He needs a committed home that will work on training. Because of his eventual size -- he should grow to about 50 pounds -- it is recommended that there be no children under the age of five in the household. He can be seen at the Countryside Humane Society.

Our last dog, William, an Alaskan Malamute perfectly suited to last week's snow, did not get adopted here, but was given a second chance at the Elmbrook Humane Society, where , we are told, he did find a new family.

Gather 'round for downtown's summer art project

DRC's Denise McKee with art project's raw material

Gather 'round! The Downtown Racine Corporation has chosen a large sphere for Racine's 2008 public art event.

Call it a globe ... well, at least until 75 artists transform each piece into something else. The art pieces start out as a 32-inch-diameter sphere on a molded base ... molded fiberglass weighing about 30 pounds.

Artists will be able to decorate their creations in the same way the city's previous projects -- dogs, cats, bears, fish, otters, birdbaths and lighthouses -- were turned into imaginative and individualistic sculptures over the past seven years.

"Our goal is to offer a form conducive to our artists' medium of choice -- painting, mosaics, collage, mixed media, and so on," said Terry Leopold, DRC's director of special events.

"We envision creative interpretations such as the sun, moon, globe or planets and everything from whimsical garden art to sophisticated and dramatic art pieces for homes and offices."

The finished creations will be displayed Downtown throughout the summer.

Contest for everyone: The project starts with a "Name the event" contest open to everybody. If you have a great slogan or catchy phrase to describe the 2008 public art event, DRC wants to hear from you. All entries must be submitted to DRC by 5 pm. on Thursday, Feb. 14. Entries should be mailed to DRC at 425 Main Street, Racine, 53403. The winner will receive a $50 Downtown gift certificate.

Information for artists: Packets for artists are available online or can be picked up at the DRC office. Artists will be awarded a stipend to cover some of their costs, and cash prizes will be awarded for the 'Best of Show' completed projects, as determined by a panel of judges. First Place will win $3,000; Second Place will win $2,000 and Third Place, $1,000.

All design proposals must be submitted to DRC by Friday, Feb. 29. Judges will choose from among the proposals and will notify artists by mail of the final selections.

Sponsorships: Businesses and individuals are invited to sponsor the various art pieces. Sponsorship is $550 per sphere, and all donations are tax deductible. Each sponsor's name will be displayed on a plaque. Sponsorship forms are available online or at DRC's office.

Local company makes the spheres: Fiber-Tech, Inc., of Franksville, which normally fabricates custom molded assemblies for the agricultural, construction, mass transit and other markets, is making this year's art project.

The spheres are made of fiberglass finished with a smooth gel coat surface. It was designed by Doug Kowalski, a Fiber-Tech project engineer, using computer aided 3D software "When he presented the model to me," said Dale Rogers, president of Fiber-Tech, "I said, 'That ought to put Racine on the map.' "

The mold's two halves are joined together to form a hollow sphere. Fiber-Tech is producing one to one and a half spheres a day.

When not making spheres, the company has made such diverse projects as 23-ft. long fiberglass hot dogs which serve as the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile, car bodies for a manufacturer of customized replicas of the 1960's LeMans racer, and front bumpers for Amtrak trains.

Unified: Principal reassigned 'to ensure best leadership'

In the last few weeks, readers have been asking about the reassignment of Richard Larson from directing principal at Gilmore Middle School to assistant principal at McKinley Middle School.

Here's the brief memo interim Superintendent Jackson Parker sent out to all Unified staff on December 6:
Dr. Gary Jackson will be the directing principal for Gilmore Middle School. Dr. Richard Larson will be the assistant principal at McKinley Middle School, and Rebecca Zahn will be the assistant principal of Wadewitz Elementary School.

We followed up with district Spokesperson Stephanie Kratochvil-Hayden to ask why the changes were made. Here is her response today:
Staff in the district's academic division evaluated the leadership in each building and to ensure the best leadership was in place to serve the needs of students.
Larson, previously from Streamwood, Ill., is in his first year with the district. He was hired to replaced to Dan Thielen, who took over as the principal at Park High School.

As to what specifically led to Larson's reassignment, we don't know.

PROPERTY TRANSFERS: Aurora medical clinic sold for $892,677

The Aurora Health Center in Waterford was sold this month $892,677.

The clinic was expanded in 2006. It was actually owned by a company named Triple Net Properties, which is a subsidiary of the Grubb & Ellis Company based in Texas. Under a deal with Aurora, Triple Net purchased six medical offices from Aurora and leased them back to the health care company. The Waterford office, assessed at $3.12 million last year, was part of the deal. It's not clear why it was sold this month.

Also this month, the former home of Educator's Credit Union at 8800 Washington Ave. in Mount Pleasant sold this month for $1.25 million The property was assessed last year at $1.59 million.

A four-bedroom Union Grove home at 425 Wellington Drive sold for $560,000. The five-year-old home is 3,500 square feet and includes 3.5 bathrooms. Taxes on the home last year were $8,800. The home was listed by Heather Parker at ReMax for $579,900.

Here are this week's listings:

January 27, 2008

Segway coming to the sidewalks of Downtown Racine

A new vehicle is coming to Racine streets this summer.

No, check that: Not to Racine streets, but rather to Racine sidewalks.

Even callling it a vehicle is a bit of a stretch: It's got two wheels, yes, but looks more like a pogo stick than a bicycle or motorcycle.

It's a Segway, the "personal transporter" invented by Dean Kamen (who also created the first insulin pump) -- a one-person electric platform that travels about ten miles an hour. Segways never really lived up to their marketing hype to revolutionize society, but every so often you see one somewhere; I came across a group of seven in Milwaukee last summer, a pride of tourists looking like a mother duck leading her ducklings.

Yes, the Segway is the same vehicle President Bush fell off in 2003, in a fuzzy photograph seen 'round the world. It's not that the vehicle's gyroscopic balance devices failed; simply that Bush had forgotten to turn it on before boarding.

Well, now we're getting one. The Downtown Racine Corporation bought a used Segway (price: $3,500; new ones go for $5,145-$6,175 depending on model) and plans to set its Ambassadors loose on it, patrolling the sidewalks of downtown this summer looking for tourists who need assistance. We've still got a long way to go to catch up to Chicago, which bought 30 Segways in 2006 for police, fire and airport personnel.

Interestingly enough, although electric cars are not yet legal on the streets of Racine, it is legal to drive the electric-powered Segway on the sidewalks. State law permits operation of a Segway (known as an electric personal assistive mobility device, or EPAMD) on sidewalks, but authorizes a municipality to prohibit it. Racine has not enacted an ordinance prohibiting it, so it is allowed.

Although EPAMDs may operate on the sidewalks, they must yield the right of way to any pedestrian or bicyclist and are required to give an audible signal when passing a pedestrian, bicyclist or other EPAMD headed in the same direction. So I expect we'll get used to hearing the DRC Segway's distinctive "beep," or whatever it sounds like.

And before you ask: Yes, I tried to get DRC director Devin Sutherland to ride DRC's Segway for a picture (this was before the snowstorm), but he demurred. Maybe in June.