January 31, 2009

Updated: South Hills Country Club sells for $5.9 million

Update: South Hills was purchased by Hintz Real Estate Developers. Dan Hintz is listed as the contact. That opens the question: What would they like to build on 148 acres of land along I-94, once the Interstate expansion is complete?

Original Post: South Hills Country Club in Caledonia sold Dec. 22 for $5.9 million. The 18-hole golf course and banquet facility is located at 3047 Highway 41.

The course had two owners, according to the Register of Deeds website. One is listed as Susnar Investments of Palm Springs, Calif. The other is listed as Tomlin of Kenosha.

The parcel appears to be divided into three parts. One 148-acre parcel owned by Susnar was assessed at $2.5 million this year. A second 65-acre parcel also owned by Susnar was assessed at $6,800. The third parcel owned by Tomlin (no details listed) was assesed at $95,700.

155 S Emerald Drive in Mount Pleasant was the highest-selling home last week. The home on a half-acre of land sold for $348,000. It was assessed this year at $397,500.

Click here for the the Jan. 19-23 property transfers.

Oh, the weather outside's delightful...

The high is expected to reach 36 today, and stay there through Sunday. But you didn't have to tell the kids that -- they already knew, and dragged Mom or Dad, and sometimes both, to Lockwood Park on Ohio Street for some very pleasant sledding.

Enjoy this "warmth" while it lasts. By Tuesday, the high temperature is expected to be down to the very low 20s again.

January 30, 2009

Council may formalize succession plan

Photos from Thursday night's meeting.

It took two weeks of phone calls and searching through city code, but the City Council found an elegant way out of the mess Gary Becker left behind with his abrupt resignation. (Can you believe he was arrested just 16 days ago?)

Instead of duking it out over who would be the best fill-in mayor, city officials found a succession plan designed for a war-time emergency. As Alderman Greg Helding pointed out after the meeting, the plan allowed the council to pick an interim mayor without a divisive fight over the merits of individuals. The process led to Alderman Tom Friedel, who's in line to become the next mayor at Tuesday's City Council meeting.

The succession plan worked so well, the council may end up formally adopting it in the event of future problems with the mayor's office. Helding is already thinking about it, and mayor candidate Pete Karas has researched the idea. Given the confusion of the past few weeks, it's likely other aldermen are thinking along the same lines.

If history is any indication, it's likely they won't have to use the plan. City Administrator Ben Hughes said Thursday night there's no record of a mayor, other than Becker, leaving office because of an indictment. One mayor in the early 1900s apppeared to have left mid-term to pursue a business interest. Other than that, historically, Racine's mayors appear to be well behaved.

Zales closes its Regency Mall jewelry store

Diamonds may be a girl's best friend, but they're going to need another place to hang out together.

One of the country's largest jewelers -- Zales -- just pulled out of Regency Mall, closing its 1,700 sq. ft store.

"It was the end of their five-year lease," said Regency Mall manager Curt Pruitt, "and they didn't renew."

Still, the usually unflappable Pruitt was surprised by what happened. Zales' last day selling merchandise was Sunday, although no "going out of business" sale was proclaimed. Just business as usual.

Then yesterday, the staff came in and hauled everything away. Well, not quite. "They had their own trademarked cabinets," Pruitt said. "Usually, a company will liquidate them, sell them, or abandon them. But Zales just destroyed them, broke them up with hammers and stuff, and put the residue into dumpsters. It was a first for me." The store sat dark today, cleaned out to the bare walls and carpet.

Zales, with 2,200 stores in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico focused on moderately-priced jewelry, had a tough year in 2008. Two weeks ago, the chain announced that sales in the all-important November/December holiday season dropped 19.5% to $582 million, and the CEO called the period "the most difficult in memory." Wall Street didn't like that, or the resignation of Zale Corporations's CFO last week; the stock hit an all-time low of $1.14 this week, from a 52-week high of $42. It was selling this morning at $1.35 per share.

Still, there is nothing saying that all Zales stores are closing; the chain is running a major promotion that will award the winner a 2-carat diamond solitaire ring in Times Square on Valentine's Day.

Two of the mall store's employees -- out of about half a dozen -- have been hired by one of the mall's remaining four jewelers. Yes, ladies, you can still buy fine jewelry at Regency Mall: Rogers & Hollands, JB Robinson Jewelers and Shaw's Jewelers still share one intersection of the mall's corridors, and Kay Jewelers, the country's largest specialty jewelry chain with 1,400 stores in the U.S., is just down the way at the next. And let's not forget JC Penney, the country's largest seller of gold jewelry.

As for the mall itself, Pruitt says times certainly are "challenging," but overall sales in all CBL mall stores were down just 2% in 2008. "Given the economy, that's great," he said.

Other recent closures at Regency Mall include Linens and Things last fall, and Steve and Barry's and Waldenbooks earlier this month. Pruitt says he doesn't expect any more closures in the near future.

We could use your help ...

Dear Readers,

When the city editor at The Journal Times hired me as a reporter 10 years ago, the first thing he said was: "Racine is a newsy town. Weird things happen here." The last few weeks have certainly proven that true, and hopefully RacinePost has been able to dig into the mayor's arrest and resignation and provide some meaningful competition to our daily newspaper.

So what would you think about us doing this full time?

I've been giving a lot of thought to the future of RacinePost and what we can do to grow and improve the site. Right now, Pete and I put the daily site together as a labor of love. (Actually, Pete does a lot of the daily work while I scrounge together a living as a freelance writer.) We're beyond grateful for the number of people who visit RacinePost to scan headlines, read stories and add comments. In our first months, I dreamed of 1,000 daily readers. We're now over that number, and growing on a monthly basis. My greedy mind now hopes for 5,000 (or 10,000!) daily readers, but we have some work to do to get there.

So how do we do it? Here's the plan for the coming months:

1. Complete a redesign that will bring all of RacinePost's sections under "one roof," and add several reader features including a Forum, Reader Blogs, Photo Galleries, a Community Calendar and submitted stories.

2. Ramp up our reporting resources so we're covering more local stories in more depth.

3. Install a system to increase our ad inventory and track advertising on the site. Our goal is to create an affordable, effective advertising solution for local businesses.

4. Create a marketing campaign to solidify our presence in the community.

We need your help to make it possible. Today we're launching a drive to fund RacinePost through reader subscriptions. It's an experiment to find out if independent community journalism can come up with the resources to fund a full-time operation.

"Subscription" here doesn't mean anything exclusive. RacinePost will always be free, whether you contribute or not. Initially, subscriptions will be used to pay us a reasonable salary (trust me, this will be very reasonable) and cover expenses related to the redesign, advertising system and marketing campaign. As we grow, subscriptions will go to hiring additional staff and reporters.

We're really hoping this can be a Racine-powered site. Even a few dollars on a recurring basis would go a long way to supporting RacinePost and establishing a purely local independent news source.

You can make a contribution by clicking here. So let's do this thing! I think it'll be exciting. More to come throughout the week ...

Letter to the Editor: Paulette Garin

With so much economic uncertainty, what we should be asking from our government is Universal HEALTHCARE for every American citizen. Healthcare IS where we demand our tax dollars be spent!

Supporting failing, ill-managed industries will not "recover" our economy. Irresponsible lending practices and unfair tax breaks created our problems, and a multi-billion dollar bailout or economic stimulus plan cannot be allowed to succeed if it only serves to promote self-interests. A company with a solid business plan, innovative ideas and vision will attract financial capital. The American taxpayer does not need to "prop up" those at the top and hope for the "trickle down" effects.

We can weather economic uncertainty. We can learn new technologies and adapt to changing industries, but without health care, the promise of a secure future vanishes. The world is suffering from the economic downturn. For those living in a country with a national health care system, losing your job does not mean losing your medical security. What we NEED is access to quality, affordable health care for every American!

The elections of 2008 were fueled by hope and optimism. Our President campaigned on a platform, which included healthcare reform. Our state legislature listed health care as a primary issue for the upcoming session. What can we do? Contact our elected officials, who benefit from a taxpayer provided healthcare plan. Remind them of their promises that got them elected. Tell them that now it’s time to "show me your health care plan" and get the job done.

-Paulette Garin

Paulette Garin was a 2008 Democratic Candidate for U.S. Congress. She campaigned on a platform strongly in favor of Universal Single Payer Healthcare supporting H.R. 676-The National Health Insurance Bill. She continues to receive national recognition for her position.

You can reach Garin at: paulettegarin@yahoo.com and read her blog at: paulettegarin.blogspot.com

January 29, 2009

Alderman Tom Friedel named interim mayor

Alderman Tom Friedel at Thursday night's Committee of the Whole meeting.
See more photos from the meeting here.

Respected Alderman Tom Friedel will be the city's next mayor.

The City Council, meeting as the Committee of the Whole, voted unanimously Thursday night to appoint Friedel to the city's top office. He replaces Gary Becker, who resigned after getting arrested in an Internet sex sting.

Friedel was selected based on an obscure city ordinance that laid out a succession plan in the event of a war. The ordinance listed the City Council president as first in line, followed by the chairman of the Finance Committee, Public Works Committee and Public Safety Committee.

Alderman David Maack, who is council president, passed on serving as interim mayor because he would lose his council seat in the April election. Friedel, as chair of the Finance Committee, was next in line and agreed to serve. He also agreed not to run for mayor in the special election this spring, an important consideration for council members reluctant to give an edge to a candidate.

Council members widely praised Friedel for his skill and experience in handling city business.

After the meeting, Friedel said he would take an unpaid leave of absence from his job at Twin Disc while serving as interim mayor. He will be paid as mayor, and will earn roughly one-third of the mayor's $69,000 a year salary ($91,000 when you add in benefits) for his 3-4 months of work as the city's chief executive.

The council will finalize Friedel's appointment on Tuesday, the same night the council scheduled to vote on a proposed $7 million development in West Racine.

Friedel said Thursday night he was undecided on the development.

Here's how the meeting went down:

5:53 p.m.

No one is parking in the mayor’s parking spot tonight.

5:55 p.m.

TV is here tonight. Channel 4 is parked in the lot, and another guy is carrying around a big camera. The crowd is smaller than last night’s Plan Commission, but the full council is here, so the room is hopping.

5:57 p.m.

Jim Smith is here. So is First District candidate Mercedes Dzindzeleta, and former Alderman Bob Morrison, Police Chief Kurt Wahlen, Mayoral candidate Pete Karas, City Administrator Ben Hughes, and former Alderman Tom Sollman.

6 p.m.

David Maack calls the Committee of the Whole to order. The whole council is here, and everyone is in a bubbly mood. Jeff Coe hands out bottles of water. Sandy Weidner points out she just got her hair done.

6:03 p.m.

Maack clarifies the council will not vote on when to hold the special election to replace the mayor. They’re just here to select an interim mayor.

City Attorney Bob Weber lays out the situation. The council is looking for a full-time mayor who won’t run in the upcoming special election. They have three ways to go about picking the mayor:

1. Do nothing, which would violate state law.
2. Appoint a mayor until an election takes place.
3. Use an obscure provision in city code that lays out a succession order for the mayor’s office in the event of a war.

Weber says No. 3 would apply to Becker’s surprising resignation. “An indictment is not a war, but it’s certainly created an emergency,” he said.

The succession order is:

1. President of the City Council
2. Chair of the Finance Committee
3. Chair of the Public Works Committee
4. Chair of the Public Safety Committee

Here’s where it gets messy. Becker had the discourtesy of attempting to hook up with a 14-year-old for sex near the spring election, which makes picking his replacement a lot more complicated. Under the succession plan, Maack would be first in line for the mayor’s office. But he’s up for election in April, and would have to resign his council seat and skip the spring election. The council could reappoint him to the seat, but then he’d have to run for re-election in 2010 and 2011.

In other words, Maack, who wants to stay on the council, wants no part of the interim mayor position. So who’s next in line? Tom Friedel, who chairs the Finance Committee.

6:09 p.m.

Alderman Ron Hart is the first to wade into the debate. He wants to talk about saving $36,000 by moving the special election primary up to coincide with the general election in April. But he can’t talk about it, because it’s not on the agenda. He tries anyway and gets point-of-ordered into silence.

6:12 p.m.

Alderman Jim Kaplan belabors the point saying an agenda was sent out listing the special election issue as up for discussion. Nope, says Weber, that was an internal staff memo.

6:13 p.m.

Alderman/Mayor Candidate Jim Spangenberg wants to go down the list of succession and see who’s interested in the interim job. Friedel, Helding and Shakoor (the committee chairs) all say they’re eligible. Helding and Shakoor shrug, though. They think Friedel is the way to go.

6:15 p.m.

Alderman Aron Wisneski takes the lead. He says he talked with a bunch of people and every single person said, roughly: Did you set an election date? About the interim mayor, they said: We don’t care who it is. There should be one. Make a decision.

“Having an empty executive seat for 3-4 months is not going to benefit the city at a crucial time,” Wisneski said.

He then introduces the motion to appoint Friedel interim mayor. It’s immediately seconded.

6:18 p.m.

Hart asks if the city could save money and just stick with Maack as a stop-gap until the special election. Weber says, under state law, that’s probably not a good idea. Hart pushes the point. There’s not really a need for an interim mayor, he says, and they’ll just take up staff time learning all of the issues. Plus, Racine’s legislators will take care of the city’s share of the federal stimulus funds.

6:22 p.m.

Maack, who’s managing a long list of speakers, accidentally skips Alderman Mike Shields and calls on Alderman QA Shakoor II. Shields isn’t amused. “I yield to the alderman, but pay attention,” Shields says to Maack. Maack winces.

6:23 p.m.

Shakoor says succession is the way to go. It looks like Friedel will be the next mayor.

6:24 p.m.

Shields wants to know if Friedel is, or isn’t, going to run for mayor.

6:25 p.m.

Friedel makes a statement. He says the last two weeks have been painful, and he’s worked behind the scenes to get Becker to resign. After talking with family and his employer (Twin Disc), he decided it’s not the right time to run for mayor. “I have no intention of running this spring,” he said. (Note how Friedel didn’t rule out a future run for mayor. He’s eyeing 2011.)

6: 27 p.m.

Shields says he won’t mind Maack filling in as mayor. He points out Mayor Olson was sick for two months and the City Council president filled in fine.

6:28 p.m.

Alderman Bob Mozol wants to make sure the council is following the succession path. It is.

6:30 p.m.

Alderman Jim Kaplan speaks against the motion, but not why you think. He says the succession plan automatically makes Friedel interim mayor, so no need for a motion. In other words; What are we all doing here?

Weber says Kaplan is right, but the council needs to vote to follow the succession plan,

6:32 p.m.

Alderman ray DeHahn supports Friedel. He asks how much training Friedel will need.

6:33 p.m.

Friedel says not a lot. He’s served on the School Board and City Council for a long time. He knows the drill.

6:34 p.m.

Weidner backs Friedel. She says she was surprised at the passion residents had on the need for a mayor, and for holding a special election. She notes Friedel was elected to the council, and describes him as trustworthy and diplomatic.

6:36 p.m.

Alderman Jeff Coe says Maack did a good job as a fill-in mayor, and that he respects Friedel. But he’s worried appointing a someone on the council interim mayor will cause divisiveness.

6:37 p.m.

Alderman Greg Helding backs Friedel. He says the council isn’t rushing to a decision, it’s being decisive.

6:39 p.m.

Spangenberg says Maack is doing a good job, but the council needs to follow the law. The city would be in very good hands with Friedel, he says.

6:41 p.m.

Shields says Friedel would do a good job, but wonders about his council seat. If Friedel is named mayor, won’t he have to resign his council seat? And, wouldn’t the council appoint a replacement to fill out Friedel’s term, which runs through 2010?

For a moment, the love fest is broken. If Friedel is named interim mayor, the council will have to reappoint him to his seat once the new mayor is elected. In a sense, they’re making a deal to keep his seat vacant for 3-4 months.

Weber muddies the waters by saying the council can’t appoint a replacement. Helding points out the council has left vacancies in the past and had other aldermen cover the district.

Spangenberg adds if Friedel’s constituents are having a problem, they can call the mayor’s office.

6:45 p.m.

Alderman Terry McCarthy is good with Friedel and the succession plan.

6:46 p.m.

Mozol quips, “The way it sounds tonight, everyone is running for something.” He really wants to nail down that council followed the succession plan.

6:47 p.m.

Wisneski agrees to reword his ordinance.

6:48 p.m.

Hart speaks in favor of the motion. He still wants to save $36,000, and adds about Friedel: “I played ball against him years ago. He couldn’t catch, but he still played ball.”

6:49 p.m.

Weidner points out the motion goes to the council meeting on Tuesday. Weber says Friedel would be sworn in Tuesday.

6:50 p.m.

Kaplan backs Friedel. The love fest is officially back on. Except for the money. He really doesn’t want to hold two special elections.

6:50 p.m.

Maack thanks the council for saying nice things about him. He calls for a unanimous vote for Friedel. Weber clarifies the council could appoint a replacement for Friedel.

6:52 p.m.

Wisneski calls to question. Weidner is worried Friedel may lose his seat. She wants to know if the council will hold it open for him. Maack says the council can’t talk about it.

6:53 p.m.

Friedel says he’ll risk losing his seat. “It’s more important I serve as interim mayor than alderman of the 10th District,” he says.

6:54 p.m.

Spangenberg points out Friedel is going to hear from his constituents as interim mayor.

6:55 p.m.

It’s unanimous for Friedel. Crowd applauds.

6:56 p.m.

Meeting adjourned.

Lehman's wage protection act passes committee

Sen. John Lehman's proposal to pay workers before banks in bankruptcy cases passed a Senate committee Thursday.

The Senate Labor, Elections and Urban Affairs Committee approved the law that would ensure workers get paid all the wages they are due in the event of a business closing or bankruptcy.

Lehman said the bill restores Wisconsin's history of protecting workers' pay when their company goes under. A 1998 provision slipped into the state budget capped workers' claims at $3,000 in a bankruptcy before banks got to collect.

"The Wage Protection Act is based on the simple idea that a day’s work should result in a day’s pay," Lehman said.

The proposal has a decent chance of passing the Democratic-controlled Legislature and getting signed by Gov. Jim Doyle. Republicans had stalled the bill in previous sessions.

CATI presents to patent conference in Japan

CATI's Dr. Matt Wagner at left, during Tokyo panel presentation

Racine got some good publicity last week -- for a nice change.

CATI Executive Director Matthew Wagner made a presentation Jan. 19 and 20 about how CATI, the seven-year-old Center for Advanced Technology and Innovation, brings companies' unwanted patents to market at the 2009 International Patent Licensing Seminar in Tokyo, Japan. CATI manages or owns nearly 300 patented technologies from global corporations.

Wagner was invited by the Japan National Center for Industrial Property Information and Training and the Japan Institute of Invention and Innovation. The presentation was entitled “Leveraging Corporate Intellectual Property: A New Innovation Input Model for Regional Economic Development,” and reviewed the use of underutilized and off-strategy corporate technologies as a source of innovation for new business start-ups as well as for growing smaller companies void of extensive R&D efforts.

Wagner also explained the contribution of smaller academic institutions, such as Carthage College, UW-Parkside, and Gateway Technical College as key contributors to this process through student engaged projects aimed at furthering the commercialization process with business plans, marketing plans, and ideation sessions.

Wagner said Japanese corporations represent approximately 30 percent of all foreign patents filed in the United States. “This was a great opportunity to showcase Southeast Wisconsin and our activities. As a result of the presentation we have already received inquires from firms interested in evaluating out-licensing engagements with CATI,” Wagner said.

Wagner was on a panel with Dr. Takuji Sawaya, director of research, for the Hakodate Regional Industry Promotion Organization, and Dr. Riichiro Ohba, a professor at Sojo University.

P.S. Wagner is no slouch himself in the PhD department. Although I edited the "Dr." from in front of his name, he earned his doctorate in December from UW-Milwaukee, in urban affairs, with a research focus on minority entrepreneurship. When kidded about his new academic stature, Wagner said, "I promise not to start wearing sweater vests or carry a pipe."

Civic Centre problems aired as Commission (finally) meets

The Racine Civic Centre -- better known as Festival Hall and Memorial Hall -- is losing gobs of money, but turning away events because it doesn't have the staff to handle them.

That was just one of the tidbits to come out of Wednesday's meeting of the Civic Centre Commission supposed to oversee the private company hired to run the Civic Centre.

Other surprises:
  • Jerry Lopez, the Civic Centre's Operations Manager who had overseen set-up and take-down of countless events for more than a decade is gone. He was "not fired," insisted Rik Edgar, executive director, but rather "restructured" out of his job. "We went in a different direction with our staff," Edgar said.
  • Losses last year far exceeded the $350,000 budgeted. Another $155,000 had to be provided by the city at the end of 2008 to close out the year.
  • Wednesday's meeting was the commission's first since Edgar was hired on Oct. 27, 2008, about three weeks after his predecessor was fired, apparently for not attracting more events. The center is run by VenuWorks, an Ames, Iowa, company hired by the city four years ago.
  • Out of 11 meetings in 2008, the commission had a quorum at just three. Current chairman, District 1 Alderman Jeff Coe, said he expects the City Council to fill two vacancies on the nine-member Commission on Feb. 3. Four of the present seven members were present: Coe, Andy Kindsvater, Nicholas Yackley and J.J. McAuliffe..
The main subject of Wednesday's meeting was a series of complaints brought by Matt and Annette Flynn, who run Sophisticatering of Kenosha, one of eight companies who have paid the Civic Centre for the right to cater events there (in return for 10% of their receipts). They charged that one of their customers was called by a competing catering firm just 30 minutes after she called the Civic Centre to inquire about renting the hall; that another customer who wanted to hold a birthday party for up to 200 people was told there were no available dates in January or February 2009; that they were told there were no Saturday openings in July or August for a 1,000-person reunion.

"It looks like people here don't want to work weekends, and are saying 'we're booked' when prospective customers call," Matt said. He quoted his customer as saying, "They're pressuring me that Fiesta Catering is the only one here."

Edgar replied that the Civic Centre staff has been cut to three full-time employees -- "We purposely run light in winter." -- so they were unable to host events simultaneously at both Festival Hall and Memorial Hall (more employees are being trained and hired now). He earlier told Sophisticatering that the employee responsible for tipping off their competitor, Fiesta Catering of Kenosha, has been fired, and reiterated that there are no dates in July or August compatible with the 1,000-person reunion.

Some of the discussion devolved into he said/she said. David Perez, of Fiesta Catering, regretted that his company "is being dragged through the sewer," and denied getting any preferential treatment. Noting that Fiesta only handled five small events at the Civic Centre in 2008, Edgar said, "If we're giving them preferential treatment, we're not doing a good job of it."

"The bottom line," said Matt Flynn, "is that it's unfortunate we had to turn people away." Coe tried to act as a mediator, saying, "We've got to see how we can make this grow. We don't need people reading that things are bad down here." "How do we move forward?" Flynn answered his own rhetorical question: "By not having these kinds of problems in the future."

Moving forward, Edgar was happy to discuss some recent successes, like keeping the Journal Times' car show, after a decision had been made to move it elsewhere. He also announced a verbal commitment received Wednesday from the Teacup Dogs Agility Association for a three-day show on Oct. 9-11. Teacup Dogs' website -- "to provide a competitive venue for dogs of small stature without regard to breed or pedigree" -- doesn't yet list Racine as the location of its 2009 event. (Wait... now it does!)

Update: An alderman was overheard at Thursday's night's special meeting telling a city official: "We have to get the Civic Centre fixed." The official agreed.

January 28, 2009

Ryan loses his taste for economic stimulus bills

I was misled by my email inbox tonight. A quick look at the message headers showed one interesting subject line:

Paul Ryan supports Economic Recovery
Yeah, so? Who doesn't? For a moment I thought: Ryan, R-WI, 1st District, who voted for the last two economic stimulus billsm while dancing around his own objections, might have voted for the latest one -- despite its coming from a Democratic president, despite his previously announced objections. But, of course, I was wrong, as I saw instantly as I opened the mail and read the full subject line:

Ryan Supports Economic Recovery Alternative;
Trillion dollar spending bill is "not worthy of our new President's signature"

And then the press release showing our fiscally conservative Republican representative has finally reverted to his true self... along with every other Republican who voted in the U.S. House of Representatives today, which passed HR 1, the innocuous-sounding "Making supplemental appropriations for fiscal year ending 2009" bill. The roll call was 244 in favor, to 188 opposed... with every one of those "aye" votes coming from a Democrat and 177 of those "nay" votes coming from a Republican. Bi-partisanship at its most "bi-."

As you read Ryan's explanation, keep in mind his prior votes in favor of almost $800 billion in bailouts at the end of 2008, the first TARP and the auto industry bailout:
“This is the worst recession we’ve seen in generations. We’re losing tens of thousands of jobs a week and communities in Southern Wisconsin continue to be hit especially hard. Congress is making matters worse with a fiscal response that is slow, wasteful, and will leave us a nasty debt hangover for years to come. This bill is not worthy of our new President’s signature.

“This trillion dollar spending bill misses the mark on all counts. This is not a crisis we can spend and borrow our way out of – that is how we got here in the first place. Yet this is precisely the path the Majority chose today. We’re repeating the mistakes of a flawed economic doctrine that deepened our depression in the 1930s and prolonged the economic stagnation in Japan in the 1990s.”

Ryan highlighted these "most troubling" flaws:

Trillion Dollar Price Tag: The $816-billion package will be financed by borrowing, which will result in additional interest costs of $347 billion – putting the total cost of H.R. 1 to over $1 trillion. (Um, the first two didn't come out of the piggy bank either.)

Does Very Little to Help Protect and Create Jobs: We need to help small businesses, entrepreneurs and the self-employed survive this recession and give them incentives to expand. 70% of our jobs in America come from small businesses. Yet there are more taxpayer dollars dedicated to arts and culture, cars for federal employees, and renovating federal buildings, than to helping small businesses grow. (TARP funds went to banks for lending... as if!)

Wasteful Spending: $54 billion is spent on 19 programs deemed “ineffective” or “results not demonstrated” by the Office of Management and Budget.

Special Interest Wish List: $600 million for brand new “green” cars for Federal government employees; $650 million for digital TV coupons; $7.7 billion to improve federal buildings; $50 million for the National Endowment of the Arts; and other dubious special interest projects. (Here I'm in full agreement with Ryan.)

Not So “Timely” After All: Even if borrowing and spending is the answer to our economic crisis, only a small fraction of the spending in the Majority’s bill will take place in 2009. By the start of fiscal year 2011, roughly half of the spending from this bill will remain unspent.

Another Round of Rebate Checks: The tax provisions in this bill do not encourage risk-taking; they do not encourage investment and job creation. The bulk of the tax ‘cuts’ are simply rebate checks - $10/week for individuals and $20/week for couples. We tried rebate checks last year, and they simply don’t work. (Whose idea was rebate checks in the first place?)

Guarantees Future Tax Hikes: The calls for new record spending would only exacerbate our exploding budget deficit, a national debt nearing $11 trillion, and well over $50 trillion of unfunded promises. By adding over $1 trillion dollars to this abysmal fiscal situation, we are guaranteeing tax increases in the near future. To hit a recovering economy with massive tax increases is a recipe for disaster.

Ryan noted that he fought to improve the stimulus bill with amendments and alternative proposals, including amendments aimed to boost incentives to expand business operations and create jobs. He said the Obama Administration claims H.R. 1 would preserve or create 3 million jobs, while the Republican alternative would create 6.2 million jobs at half cost.

To watch Paul Ryan speak on the House floor, go here.

The House Budget Committee analysis of H.R. 1 is here.

The Ways and Means Committee summary of the Republican Substitute is here.

Letter to the Editor: Ron Thomas

As a former seven term Alderman and Mayoral candidate in 2003 who is not seeking an elected position I recognize today what I did in 2003. “There are many good and positive things happening in Racine.”

As a community, we are only as strong as our most vulnerable populations. The vision Racine must have is that of a community which reflects the City mission statement, “We shall respond to the needs of our citizens by enhancing the quality of life.” This statement encompasses every person from every walk of life, every age group and every economic class.

In the very near future, the citizens of Racine are going to hear from a number of candidates who are seeking the position of Mayor within our community. As someone who has campaigned for the position of Mayor in the past and who is deeply interested in the welfare of this community, I thought I would ask the mayoral candidates to consider taking the “high road” in their respective campaigns.

Our community suffers from a poor image, and the well publicized activities of our former Mayor have further contributed to this perception. It is very easy to campaign and stress the shortcomings of our community and never offer any real solutions. Therefore, it is my fear that some candidates will run their campaigns on a platform that accentuates community problems and further contributes to our poor reputation. I know that we do have problems, and I am not asking candidates to turn a blind eye to them; but there are great things going on in our community. Furthermore, many good people are working, daily, to make Racine a better place to live, work and raise a family. I firmly believe that Racine is a great place to live and that there is hope for an even brighter tomorrow for Racine.

I hope to hear the candidates talk about the Workforce Development Strategy for Racine County titled “Higher Expectations.” The six challenges clearly articulate the high road for the Mayoral election:
  1. Raising standards and expectations for public education.
  2. Supporting stronger more financially stable families.
  3. Creating jobs in communities with concentrations of unemployed workers.
  4. Enhancing workforce transportation alternatives.
  5. Improving job seeker information about opportunities in new and expanding businesses.
  6. Communicating a more positive community image.
So, to those who are campaigning to become Racine’s next Mayor, please take an ethical course in your campaigns. Present solutions to our problems and avoid being overly critical. In addition, seize opportunities to mention the good things that are occurring and avoid doing further damage to our image. It would be wonderful if your campaigns would instill hope in the future and lift us from where we currently sit.

Respectfully submitted,

Ron Thomas
1429 Grange Avenue
Racine, Wisconsin 53405

Turner, Vos, Lehman respond to Gov. Doyle's budget address

Update: Rep. Bob Turner (and mayoral candidate) sent out his response to Doyle's speech on Thursday. Here it is:
State Representative Robert Turner (D-Racine) commented today that Governor Doyle’s State of the State address was a reality check for the residents of Wisconsin, many of whom are already suffering the effects of the country’s failing economy. In the face of the highest jobless rate in 20 years, soaring numbers of home foreclosures, and a $5.4 billion state budget deficit, the news from the Governor was sobering.


Turner applauded the Governor’s proactive response to the economic crisis as he traveled to Washington earlier this month to meet with President Obama’s team and key members of Congress. When Governor Doyle informed the Legislature that the economic stimulus package from the federal government will not solve all of the state’s problems, Turner stated that he understands the need for disciplined fiscal restraint, which will include cuts to some popular programs.

Representative Turner said he agreed with the Governor’s recommendations to require private insurers to cover treatment for autism, make improvements to childcare, make the third offense for drunk driving a felony, and revamp the school funding laws to encourage the hiring and retention of good teachers and standards to encourage efficiencies in our school districts. He said these are issues that do not require funding that will improve the lives of Wisconsin’s residents in the face of economic uncertainty.

“I will support the Governor in his efforts to lead Wisconsin through this unprecedented economic crisis,” said Turner.

Original post: Gov. Jim Doyle said the obvious Wednesday night: The state budget is in lousy shape. Doyle said the projected $5.4 billion deficit is actually worse, and that deep cuts are needed in state spending. (Oddly, this is the exact opposite approach of the federal government's $800 billion increase in spending. How's that for stimulus?)

State Sen. John Lehman, D-Racine, and State Rep. Robin Vos, R-Caledonia, both responded to the governor's budget address. Here are their comments:

“Tonight we heard from Governor Doyle on the state of Wisconsin’s economy. He told us that the outlook is bleak and may get even bleaker based on new projections.

“While the Governor would have us believe that Wisconsin’s problems are only due to the downturn in the national economy, this is not the sole reason we have reached this level of deficit. Under Governor Doyle’s leadership over the past six years, he has grown the deficit from $3.2 to $5.4 billion through one-time funding gimmicks and massive expansions of government. As a result, we now have the 4th-largest budget deficit in the nation.

“As many look to the federal stimulus for solutions, Governor Doyle failed to offer any ideas on how to use the billions to lead Wisconsin out of this deficit or how he will put Wisconsinites back to work. He also made no mention of any measures he will take to ensure the money is spent in a transparent manner.

“There is a lot of work to be done over the next few months to craft a budget that Wisconsinites can afford. I am hopeful Governor Doyle will work in a transparent, honest and bipartisan manner to find solutions that create jobs and revive the economy without balancing the budget on the backs of Wisconsin citizens.”
“We all know that the struggling economy is causing hardships for families and working folks across Wisconsin. Tonight the Governor delivered some straight talk about how this crisis is also impacting our state’s finances and ability to deliver critical services people count on like education, health care and public safety.

These tough times require us to demand accountability from state programs, think creatively and be willing to work with our partners at the federal and local level to get our economy going again. The times also require us to make hard decisions, take tough votes and challenge special interests so that we restore fairness for protect middle class and working families, seniors and children in Wisconsin.

The coming months aren’t going to be easy but I’m confident that if we invest in and trust in the hard work, innovation and ability of the people of Wisconsin we’re on the road to recovery.”

West Racine residents rally against low-income housing development

The City Plan Commission voted Wednesday evening to put off a decision on a 55-unit affordable housing development in West Racine at Washington Avenue and West Boulevard. Here’s a blow-by-blow account of a contentious public hearing at the commission’s meeting:

4:08 p.m.

Someone is parking in the “Reserved for Mayor” parking spot outside of City Hall. It’s curious, because we don’t have a mayor. It’s not even fill-in mayor David Maack’s car. Hmm

4:18 p.m.

David Maack calls Plan Commission to order. About 60 people are in the crowd. More are trickling in.

4:19 p.m.

The commission votes to go into closed session to consult with legal counsel. They retreat to the mayor’s office to meet. The crowd is up to at least 80 people.

4:32 p.m.

The commission returns and votes to table some sort of request involving the establishment of an outlet at 4700 Washington Ave. They just want to plug in a lamp! (Oh, not that kind of outlet.)

4:36 p.m.

An ordinance involving historical guidelines is passed, but it needs more approvals. Alderman/Mayor candidate Greg Helding upsets PETA by saying; “There’s more kicks at the cat, so to speak, before it’s done.”

4:39 p.m.

Malek Musaitef wants to open a daycare center at 1630 Douglas Avenue. Seems pretty straight forward, and the commission approves the permit. Oops, I typed too quickly. Commission member Elaine Sutton-Ekes amends the proposal – something about landscaping – but the commission still approves it unanimously.

4:44 p.m.

The Commission rolls on with business while a standing-room only crowd waits for the public hearing, which was scheduled to begin at 4:30 p.m. Couldn’t the commission have gone into closed session after the public hearing?

4:45 p.m.

Now they’re talking about a procedural change that affects few, if any, people. It passes.

4:46 p.m.

Public hearing is underway … let’s get it on! Maack lays out the rules, and then tells the group the Commission will lose its quorum at 6:15 p.m. How’s that for public servants! (And, no, apparently they couldn’t put off that closed session.)

4:48 p.m.

Quick overview of the proposal. It seems like a decent development, but a lot of people are opposed. We’re about to find out why.

4:49 p.m.

More slides. It is a pleasant-looking development for the corner of Washington and West Boulevard. Three-story buildings with stores on the first floor and apartments above.

4:50 p.m.

There are two more buildings between Grove Avenue and West Boulevard that are a little more imposing. Hardly offensive, though. Or aren’t they?

4:51 p.m.

We’re looking at 66,646 square-feet on 27 percent of the available space. The development could be four times bigger under city ordinance.

4:52 p.m.

That’s a problem. Ordinance only allows for 27 units above the first floor, and the developers want 55 units. It also requires 129 parking spots. First rule in fighting a development: challenge the parking.

4:53 p.m.

Heather Hammond, from Landmark Development, the North Carolina company that hopes to the build the $7 million project, is up. She says people making between $28,000 and $43,000 will be able to live in the apartments, which include new appliances, balconies, pre-wired for cable, ceiling fans, A/C, etc. Rents range from $500 for a 1-bedroom to $700 for three-bedroom, which she says is a good price for hard-working people.

Hammond adds the neighborhood has a bunch of old houses, and it could use some new construction. Landmark is the group to do it, because it has an award-winning track record on property management.
In short, the company will take care of the property because it wants to make money. It’s also scaled back the development from 73 units to 55 units, but can’t go any smaller and come out ahead. They also can’t add more than 83 parking spaces, and they need approval quick because of a Feb. 16 deadline for state (WHEDA) tax credits.

“Our plan will bring life back into the block,” Hammond said, pointing out it’s now a gravel lot.

5:00 p.m.

Brian O’Connell is up. He backs the project, saying it’s the culmination of four years of work on the part of the city’s Redevelopment Authority. He goes through the timeline of what it took to knock down old buildings to make way for new development on the site.

5:01 p.m.

The crowd is near 100.

5:02 p.m.

O’Connell is defending Landmark. He’s happy with their plan, and wants it passed.

5:03 p.m.

Here comes the public comment portion of the public hearing. Maack reminds the standing-room crowd that the commission will lose quorum at 6:15 p.m. Commission member Judley Wyant isn’t in attendance tonight. I’m not sure who else has to leave.

5:04 p.m.

First speaker comes out in favor of the proposal. He wants to confront rising crime in the area with new development. He says Landmark is a good manager who won’t allow the property to spin out of control.

5:07 p.m.

Greg Thompson, of Bukacek Construction, supports the project. He points out it’s been a rough year on the construction industry. Bukacek has laid off employees, and their backlog is 50 to 75 percent below what it was last year. He points out Landmark is taking a $7 million risk on West Racine. The company will protect its investment.

5:10 p.m.

The commission didn’t set a time limit on speakers. It’s hard to know if Maack forgot, or if there is no time limit on public hearings. With the 6:15 p.m. deadline looming, could we see a filibuster?

5:11 p.m.

Maack asks the audience not to talk during the hearing.

5:11 p.m

Lawrence Gray, a West Racine resident, speaks in favor. “We’re not moving forward, we’re probably slipping backward a little bit,” Gray says about the neighborhood.

He adds the neighborhood can handle more rental units, and points out a condo building may be nice there, but it hasn’t happened. His one caution: don’t design long communal hallways like Jacato Drive. People don’t like those.

5:14 p.m.

Dick Hinsman, the owner of Hinsman Realty, is talking. He says he invested $500,000 in West Racine years ago without help, a shot at the WHEDA-funded project. He says the project doesn’t fit West Racine’s two-story architecture, strains parking and doesn’t have space for children to play. “I’m totally opposed to this,” he says.

Hinsman then offered to sell his building to the city if the project is approved. “I’m very serious,” he said. “I didn’t invest a half-million dollars to see something like this happen to me.”

Audience cheers Hinsman.

5:18 p.m.

Next speaker is opposed. He thinks it’s too cramped for the area. More applause. Maack asks the crowd not to clap because it takes into time, but then proceeds to take up a whole minute himself.

5:21 p.m.

Next speaker is upset more people weren’t notified about the project. He’s also opposed.
No one claps.

5:23 p.m.

Wayne Clingman, a local online activist/blogger/radio host, says the apartment can’t be managed and that it will spin out of control. Somehow he ties the development to Film Wisconsin (just a little tweak, Wayne).

5:25 p.m.

A speaker passes.

5:25 p.m.

Josh Johnson is for the project. He says Landmark has a good reputation and will do a good job. “If things don’t change, that crime everyone is talking about will creep into the neighborhood,” he said.

He added the development will contribute to the city’s tax base and notes there’s a park nearby.

5:27 p.m.

A woman is speaking now. I think she’s opposed, but it’s not clear. “It has always taken a two-income family to live in West Racine,” she says.

OK, now she wants a park on the site. Or a pet cemetery. Or the city to knock down Rubberville and build the development there.

She’s the second person to bring up the lost Piggly Wiggly grocery store in West Racine.

5:31 p.m.

Kristin Niemic, from RAMAC, is talking. She’s in favor, noting it hits with the city’s plans for the corridor.

5:34 pm.

A woman is talking now about how nice it is to walk around West Racine. She’s in favor of the project, because the neighborhood needs investment. “It’s important to move forward,” she says.

5:36 p.m.

The guy who bought the other half of Dick Hinsman’s building is opposed. He says there are too many apartments on the site, and he’s concerned about the lack of green space.

5:38 p.m.

A called speaker doesn’t show.

5:38 p.m.

A Racine landlord who lives in Mount Pleasant is talking. But he’s opposed to the project. He says it’s not the appropriate use for the land. Worried about competition?

Yup. He says the WHEDA grant is subsidized housing that will compete with the market he’s trying to reach with his apartment.

5:42 p.m.

A woman is upset word didn’t get out on the project. She collected 200 signatures opposed to the development in the freezing cold. Alderman Greg Helding jumps up to take the petition from her.

She’s the second speaker to mention Jacato Drive, and not in a good way.

She says the city should wait for a better development.

5:45 p.m.

County Board supervisor Van Wangaard is up. He’s opposed, pointing out there’s a lot of apartments for rent in the area. He’d rather see a grocery store (Piggly Wiggly?) or a restaurant, going on record as supporting a liquor license for the area. He also says better notices need to be given for proposed developments.

5:50 p.m.

25 minutes to the loss of quorum …

5:50 p.m.

A guy says he owns two rental properties and can take 100 applications before he finds one acceptable tenant. He figures Landmark will take marginal renters to fill up the place, which could lead to problem behavior.

5:52 p.m.

A firefighter is up now, he’s opposed and is concerned a fire truck won’t fit to save people from balconies. It’s likely city planners took that into account when reviewing the plan.

5:54 p.m.

Next speaker is opposed. He says low-income housing in Rubberville causes problems, low-income residents don’t have car insurance, there’s no place for kids to play, it won’t raise his property value and it will increase litter. “Mixing have-nots with haves could be a problem,” he says with a straight face.

5:57 p.m.

Another mention of Jacato Drive, and, again, not in a good way. This guy also uses the word hellhole, hookers and lipstick (and ribbon) on a pig. “I better quit here before I get too pissed off,” he says.

5:59 p.m.

Speaker says he’s undecided, but wants to know if 55 units are necessary. He doesn’t think so. He’d rather see a restaurant and more commercial space.

6:01 p.m.

The next speaker lives near the development. She sees Hinsman shoveling his walks in the morning, and she shovels sidewalks even though she doesn’t have to. She’s opposed for all the big reasons: parking, safety, property value.

6:03 p.m.

Are we out of speakers? No, looks like one more … and he’s “totally opposed.” He says Landmark may be decent, but they’ll eventually sell the property to a less reputable management company. “If you don’t believe that, you still believe in the Easter Bunny,” he said. He’d rather see an Applebee’s there.

6:05 p.m.

Names of people who submitted an opinion, but didn’t want to speak, are read into the record. Four more people are opposed … and two of them did want to speak. Sure enough, they’re opposed.

6:08 p.m.

The public hearing is closed.

6:09 p.m.

Alderman Terry McCarthy now gets a turn. He says the feedback he’s received is 50-50 on the project. He wants to know what happens if the apartments fill? Will the standards drop? And, are vouchers allowed?

6:10 p.m.

A flurry of activity at the end here.

Hammond was called up to answer McCarthy’s questions. She says the housing does fall under Section 42 housing, which means vouchers from the government. The crowd mumbles disapproval.

Then she says rents won’t be lowered, but surprises Maack by saying the apartments will be made available to residents making between $23,000 and $42,000 per year. Maack said he believed the average would be around $42,000. Hammond says that’s always been the upper end of the scale.

6:15 p.m.

The commission is close to losing quorum. Apparently it’s Helding and Maack who have to leave for personal reasons. They talk about deferring the decision, but O’Connell jumps in and says that could jeopardize the project because of a Feb. 16 deadline.

Helding isn’t impressed. “We didn’t schedule this thing to come before us two weeks before the deadline,” he says.

The commission starts discussion, but it’s clear they’re going to run out of time.

Sutton-Ekes starts discussion by saying the commission’s job is to review land use, not make judgments on the people who are moving into the apartments.

Member Brent Oglesby, who lives near the project, then jumps in and says he supports the proposal, but he has some questions about parking. He adds that he’s a real estate developer, which may sway him toward supporting the project.

The commission is now out of time. It votes unanimously to hold a special meeting on Monday, Feb. 2 at 4 p.m. to make a decision.

Just before things wrap up, Helding tells the crowd that the proposal is pretty much the only one that’s come before the city. While people want a restaurant or a grocery store, no developer wants to build a restaurant or a grocery store there.

“It isn’t this or a grocery store, or this or a restaurant,” he said. “It’s this until somebody else comes along with a different idea.”

That comment went over OK, but then Helding threw in this aside:

“We’re not turning away a grocery store. The reason the grocery store left is it didn’t get enough business.”

That set off the crowd, which broke out into open jeers. One man started screaming at Helding that the old Piggly Wiggly was one of the chain’s top producing stores. Maack started banging his gavel and ruled the man out of order.

Things calmed down, the commission adjourned and now they’ll take up the matter on Monday.

Deja vu all over again: Jim Smith for (interim) mayor?

After days of quiet questioning from various aldermen and city employees, former mayor Jim Smith has made clear his position on another term as Mayor.

Absolutely not.

But in a letter sent tonight to all the aldermen, Smith says he would be willing to serve as Interim Mayor until a new mayor is elected.

Smith writes:
I have been asked by numerous individuals to consider serving as Interim Mayor, and would be willing to serve if asked. I have no interest in running for mayor in the future, and pledge not to do so. But, because of my love for Racine and respect for the institution of the Office of Mayor, City employees and Racine residents, I would agree to be of service until a new mayor is elected by the voters. I would make a full-time commitment to the job of Interim Mayor and take a leave of absence from my current employment as a Realtor with Century 21 Savaglio & Cape.

Being away from the daily business of City Hall since leaving office in 2003, I would come in with a fresh perspective as well as knowledge of previous history. We need to stop the barrage of negative press about problems at City Hall so the city can move forward and restore Racine's reputation. By working together, we can rebuild trust, confidence and transparency to the office.

Many of you know me and have served with me. While at times we may have had differences of opinion, I respect the critical role of the City Council and each and every person who makes the decision to serve as an elected official. I have no political agenda except for what is in the best interest of the city and its residents. i would direct all my energy to work with each of you and believe that together we can restore the people's faith in City Hall.
In the letter, Smith also noted that he had 10 years as an alderman and 8 as mayor, and is "uniquely qualified and would be able to step in immediately and get to work." He listed some of the accomplishments of his administration, including the regional sewer agreement, becoming an All-America City and consecutive National Make-A-Difference-Day awards, accomplished "because of the solid partnerships between aldermen, staff an citizens..."

Choosing Smith would allow the Council to avoid the "King-Maker" effect some members feared if they picked a sitting alderman as interim mayor... one who might then run for the post as the de facto incumbent. It would also avoid the problem any alderman would have relinquishing his or her district seat to take the Mayor's chair for just a few months, thus having to run again for alderman.

Keep in mind the irony if Smith does succeed Becker, even if just as Interim Mayor for a few months. City Hall watchers remember well the incident in 2006 in which Smith's wife, Joyce, called then-Police Chief David Spenner, to say she thought they'd seen Becker driving drunk. The inconclusive handling of that report led shortly to the departure of Spenner.

But whether City Council egos could be subsumed with such a selection is in question, especially as so many have already filed for the election, or are still considering filing. So far, the Council has voted to hold that election on June 2, but it won't be formally set until the Council meets again on Feb. 3. Smith said he had heard from three aldermen suggesting he offer himself up as Interim Mayor. I talked to another tonight -- one who wished to remain anonymous -- who said he thought it was a plausible idea; and this is an alderman who said he had clashed with Smith on many matters when they served together.

The council meets tomorrow at 6 p.m., as a Committee of the Whole, to decide how to move forward.

Lehman joins proposal targeting drunk drivers

Sen. John Lehman, D-Racine, and two other senators are proposing a "multifaceted, commonsense legislative approach" that targets "drunk drivers on numerous fronts to protect Wisconsin citizens.

Under the proposal, thousands of repeat offenders would be in jail or prison instead of behind the wheel. The legislation promotes prevention and includes statewide expansion of the successful Winnebago County “Safe Streets” pilot program, which directs some offenders into alcohol treatment programs. The proposal also expands the use of Ignition Interlock Devices (IID), one of the tools that government has to prevent drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel.

“There is broad agreement on the importance of revisiting our laws on drinking and driving. This bill takes a comprehensive approach to meet our shared goal of making Wisconsin roadways safer and provides a good means to enact needed changes,” said Lehman.

The proposed legislation would:
  • Make the third OWI offense within five years a felony
  • Make all fourth OWI offenses a felony
  • Close the 1st offense .08 fine loophole
  • Expand Winnebago County’s successful “Safe Street” pilot program
  • Require the Judicial Council to develop statewide sentencing guidelines for OWI offenses
  • Mandate Ignition Interlock Devices (IIDs) or immobilization if second OWI offense is .16 or
  • above and for all third offenses
  • Prohibit IID contractors from cancelling an IID contract without an order from the court and provides penalties.
The other two senators are Jim Sullivan, D-Wauwatosa, and Jeff Plale, D-South Milwaukee.

Last session, Sen. Sullivan passed legislation that provided incremental penalties for drunk drivers. This package further strengthens the tools and options available to Wisconsin’s law enforcement and court systems, the release said.

Maybe I'm missing something here, but what about that first OWI conviction? And the second OWI conviction? And the third OWI conviction regardless of the time frame? There's still too damn much coddling of drunk drivers, as the recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel series graphically showed.

Rep. Cory Mason will NOT join race for Mayor

State Representative Cory Mason, D-Racine, announced today that he will not run for Mayor of Racine in the special election this Spring.

"While I am honored to have so many wonderful people ask me to consider running for mayor, I know I will be able to better serve the Racine community where I am now," he said.

Mason was first elected to the state Assembly in 2006. Earlier this month Speaker Mike Sheridan appointed him to the Legislature's Joint Committee on Finance.

"I believe I can do more for Racine, Mt. Pleasant, Sturtevant, and Elmwood Park as a member of Joint Finance than I can as mayor of Racine. As a legislator, there are things I would like to be part of accomplishing for our community: establishing KRM, increasing job training to get people back to work, holding down property taxes, investing in our schools and expanding access to affordable health care, just to name a few," Mason said. "Committing my full attention to the budget and legislative process will help ensure my vision for Racine is achieved."

When I spoke to Cory this weekend, he was clearly debating: "Am I a bigger asset to Racine staying where I am on the Joint Finance Committee, affecting some regional issues like taxes, KRM ... or being the mayor. I don't have the answer yet."

"Keeping the city moving forward is a really important job," he said. "It's an unfortunate set of circumstances we're in. You've got to have a captain."

Speaking of disgraced Mayor Gary Becker, he said, "Gary did some positive things for the city; you did have to acknowledge that he had a direction for the city. That's what made his personal conduct so doubly painful... setting the city back."

Mason is a lifelong resident, "born and raised here, went to Case High School, had family here for five generations. The Racine story was always that every generation got to do a little bit better than the generation before." As the father of a month-old daughter, he said, "that's what motivates me."

January 27, 2009

Wisconsin farmer vies for White House Farmer post

A Madison farmer, Claire Strader, is in a tight race in the voting to pick a White House farmer. Out of a field of 49 candidates, she trails the leader -- Carrie Annie Little from Washington state -- by just a few hundred votes out of 17,000 cast so far.

The idea of a White House Farmer originated in a New York Times article by Michael Pollan, who suggested turning five acres of land on the White House grounds into an organic fruit and vegetable garden. The website WhiteHouseFarmer.com was created by the Brockmans, a family farm in Illinois, and the contest was born.

Claire's nomination says she "...is just the woman to turn five acres of the White House lawn into the nation's premier urban farm. Claire has worked in small-scale organic agriculture for 15 years, including her 8 years at Troy Community Farm where she turned a 5-acre parcel of weedy urban landscape into a highly productive and wonderfully beautiful vegetable farm. Not only does Claire produce food for CSA, market, and wholesale on this small urban farm, she also educates college students, high-school youth, and adult volunteers through the farm's internship programs." Read a story about her in the Capital Times.

Voting ends at midnight on Saturday, Jan. 31. What are you waiting for? Vote HERE! The top three vote-getters will be submitted to President Obama, although it must be admitted up front that there are no guarantees he will go along with the program.

Quilts on Barns readies for Year 2, seeks sponsors

Ed Stone and Amigo at their barn in Rochester

Racine County's "Quilts on Barns" project is gearing up for its second year, and looking for sponsors.

The project, overseen by the Racine Arts Council, has chosen the barns throughout Racine County for 2009's "quilt" installations and groups are ready to put their artistic skills to work by painting the colorful quilt patterns on the sign boards.

Quilts on Barns is looking for sponsorship from businesses, organizations, groups of friends or family, anyone who might be interested in helping to fund this year’s group of wonderful Racine County barns. The cost for sponsoring a barn is $750 for full sponsorship, or $350 to share the sponsorship with another business. This donation covers the cost of sign board, paint, wood, mounting supplies, gas, and the self-guided driving tour map.

In return, sponsors receive a sign posted at "their" barn with the name of the quilt pattern, the sponsor and the group who painted it, and a listing on the “Quilts on Barns” self-guided driving map. Sponsors will also be listed on the Quilts on Barns website, with a link to their business or organization. The Racine Arts Council is a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation and all donations are tax deductible. Questions should be directed to Jessika Mikol, Executive Director of the Racine Arts Council; checks should be made payable to Racine Arts Council, 316 Sixth St., Racine, WI 53403

Our stories and pictures 0f 2008's Quilts on Barns are HERE.

And so it goes: $1 billion, $2 billion, $3.9 billion...

For a while Tuesday, I tried to keep track of all the additions to the latest economic recovery package coming hot and heavy from Sen. Herb Kohl's office.

Press release after press release arrived in my inbox, each touting billions that Herb "worked to include" through one committee or another in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill of 2009. The House of Representatives is expected to vote on its version of the measure Wednesday. Kohl's additions will first be considered by the Senate in its own deliberations.

Here are his headlines; below that are most of the specifics he provided. You be the judge whether these are economic stimulus measures or something else.

Kohl works to include $3.95 billion for law enforcement in economic stimulus bill, read one headline. That came from the Appropriations Committee, of which Kohl is a member. "Few government programs can claim such a direct connection to job creation as the COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) Hiring Program. This funding will put more people in this country to work. In addition to reducing crime, this investment can serve as a direct injection of money into the American economy,” Kohl said.

Kohl announces boosts for nutrition, rural area resources in stimulus bill, said another headline, from the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, of which he is chairman. "“With people losing their jobs, it is essential substantial resources remain in place for struggling families throughout the country to put food on the table,” Kohl said. “It is also important we promote job creation and economic stability in our rural communities, among the areas hardest hit by the slowdown. With this legislation, we can do that and help Americans during these tough economic times."

Kohl works to include $1 billion for job training in economic stimulus bill, read another. This one is also from Appropriations: "In these difficult economic times we need to focus on basic needs rapid response, and putting people back to work is a fundamental component to get the economy moving,” Kohl said. “With new and updated occupational skills, people are more likely to find good paying jobs to support their families. Job training initiatives also help America’s employers by improving their business’s efficiency and effectiveness so they can successfully compete in the global economy.”

Kohl expands stimulus to support health IT funding for long-term care facilities, says another, this one from the Senate Special Committee on Aging, of which he is chairman. "Health IT has been shown to save lives and save money,” said Kohl. “Long-term care facilities are an important part of our health care system. It was crucial that they be included in the national push to adopt health IT.”

The $825 billion stimulus bill -- if that amount is even close to its present level -- is supposed to create or sustain 4 million jobs, primarily by investing in infrastructure, strengthening federal programs and tax credits for vulnerable families, and providing aid to state and local governments. In addition, about one-third of its price tag is for a broad range of tax cuts. Here are some of the specific programs Kohl is touting:

For law enforcement:
  • $1 billion for the COPS Universal Hiring program
  • $1.5 billion for the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program
  • $440 million for Byrne competitive grant program
  • $300 million for VAWA (Violence Against Women Act) programs
For nutrition initiatives:
  • $16.562 billion for a temporary increase in Food Stamps. Most economists agree that a food stamp increase, because of the way food stamps are distributed and spent, is one of the quickest ways for government to put resources into economic circulation;
  • $500 million for WIC;
  • $198 million to help school districts pay for school breakfast and lunch equipment; and
  • $150 million to help food banks meet unprecedented demand (67,000 local food pantries utilize TEFAP to help 25 million households nationwide).
For agriculture and rural communities:
  • $1.375 billion to support loans and grants of $3.8 billion for rural water and waste disposal;
  • $395 million for watershed rehabilitation and flood prevention operation to provide for construction of flood prevention and water supply facilities;
  • $17.530 million to support $400 million in direct and guaranteed farm ownership loans;
  • $24.9 million to support $250 million in direct and guaranteed farm operating loans;
  • $200 million to support $11.5 billion in single-family housing loans that will assist about 105,000 low income rural households with home ownership or foreclosure avoidance;
  • $127 million to support $1.5 billion in loans and grants for Rural Community Facilities including hospitals, health clinics and public buildings;
  • $150 million to support $3 billion in loans and grants to support rural business expansion;
  • $200 million for biorefinery funds to assist in development of advanced biofuels;
  • $50 million for Rural Energy for America Program to promote energy efficiency on farms and rural small businesses; and
  • $200 million to support $993 million in loans and grants for distance learning, telemedicine and the broadband program.
To support the core missions of USDA:
  • $300 million for replacement, modernization and upgrades of laboratories and other USDA buildings;
  • $100 million for competitive grants under the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI); and
  • $4 million for Farm Bill administration to ensure that farm bill programs are properly carried out.

First District candidate Dzindzeleta launches campaign website

Attention local elected leaders: It's time to follow Mercedes Dzindzeleta's lead.

The First District aldermanic candidate launched a blog Tuesday in support her campaign for City Council. It's an idea that's underutilized in local politics. Blogs should be the new political yard sign.

Dzindzeleta's site is a simple Blogger layout that's easy to maintain and free to setup. More importantly, it gives her an easy way to publish thoughts and stances throughout her campaign.

One of Dzindzeleta's first posts was a well-reasoned call for city officials to prevent erasing former Mayor Gary Becker's budget address and state of the city on the City of Racine website. She writes:
Records of the mayor’s work within the community should be preserved so that current and future leaders can be address city issues properly and with perspective, she says. Secondly, voters and others in community positions should have such information available as well.
Blogs give city officials and candidates opportunities to address their constituents in a timely manner, and to offer their personal insight into city business. They're a great opportunity to bring transparency to city government and to clue the public into issues simmering out of public view.

They're also an opportunity to bring added depth to reporting on City Hall. Try as local reporters might, there's always another story worth telling. City Council members could do voters a real favor by maintaining active local websites that promote dialogue and raise the level political discourse in the city.

So get started! Head over to Blogger and you'll have a site up and running in 15 minutes. Send us an email and we'll let people know you're out there. Then, it's just up to you to let your news and views be heard.

Inauguration Trip: Final thoughts

The dot on the right side of the picture is President Bush leaving D.C. on a
Marine helicopter following the inauguration on Jan. 20.

Well, Barack Obama has been our president for exactly one week. How's it going?

I'm pretty sure he hasn't solved all of our problems yet. I'm also pretty sure he hasn't ruined the country yet, either. (People will probably disagree on both points, but so it goes.)

Looking back on the inauguration, my biggest surprise was how unemotional the day was. Yeah, I've seen the pictures of people crying and read the stories of how meaningful the day was. No doubt it was a truly historic moment for many people.

But I don't think that was the story of the inauguration. I don't even think Obama was the story. It was all about George W. Bush.

Obama's big nights came when he won his first primaries, won the nomination and then won the presidency. Through that whole time, Obama's election was in doubt and his victories led to tremendous releases of excitement from his supporters.

The inauguration was different. He'd already won, named his cabinet and was working on a stimulus plan. Obama taking the presidential oath was inevitable, and inevitability doesn't make for compelling theater.

Nope, the inauguration was a villain's tale. Long before the ceremony began, I realized people were going to boo President Bush. I hoped they wouldn't, but you could feel the animosity building as Carter, Bush Sr. and Clinton walked in. When Bush finally appeared, the crowd hammered him.

It was a sad, classless moment. But I don't blame the crowd. The economy is in ruins, we have two forgotten wars and the planet pretty much hates us. It takes real effort to create so many grave problems in such a short amount of time. Bush and Cheney earned those boos.

The inauguration wasn't about swearing in our nation's first African-American president. It was about saying good-bye to one of the most unpopular presidents in our nation's history.

The moment I'll most remember from the inauguration is standing on the National Mall after the ceremony and seeing a green helicopter appear over the Capitol and fly west toward the Lincoln Memorial. Scattered groups of people waived their hands and shouted good-bye to George Bush as the Marine helicopter carried him away.

Who knows what lies ahead for President Obama. It maybe a similar exit in the wake of a Republican hopeful elected to reshape the nation for the better. But for one moment, the empty rhetoric of change felt real as standing on the ground. A week later, it's faded, replaced by politics, infighting and growing unemployment.

Obama isn't our first African-American president. He's our president, and that entails. Feel-good emotions ended Nov. 2. Now, it's time for everyone to get down to work.

Assembly fast-tracks extended jobless benefits

Still no official word on whether Rep. Cory Mason will sit out the mayoral fracas in Racine, but we did receive this press release from his office today, about the Assembly's Joint Finance Committee, on which he sits, fast-tracking a bill to extend unemployment compensation.
Representative Mason Acts to Expedite Unemployment Assistance;
Joint Finance Committee Fast-tracks Bill to Extend Unemployment Compensation
MADISON, WI – Today state Rep. Cory Mason and his colleagues on the Joint Committee on Finance moved to fast track a bill to extend unemployment compensation for Wisconsin residents facing layoffs and a tough job market. Both houses of the Legislature will act on the measure this week.

“I am pleased that we were able to act quickly to help workers access unemployment insurance,” said Mason. “Additional benefits for displaced Wisconsin workers are needed before our state funds are depleted – a scenario that would leave thousands without help in the midst of troubling economic times.”

Assembly Bill 5 suspends Wisconsin Supplement Benefits program and shifts unemployment benefits funding to the federal government. The measure will also enable those in need to access extended federal unemployment benefits from the current 8-week schedule to 20 weeks.

Last December, unemployment in Wisconsin hit a 20-year high, and claims for unemployment assistance have risen faster than at any time in recent history. These harsh economic realities are putting pressure on the Wisconsin Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund. Department of Workforce Development officials estimate this move will save the Wisconsin Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund more than $44 million.

“While unemployment benefits are only a temporary solution to this substantial economic problem, it is crucial that those who are unemployed have the support they need in the interim,” Mason said. “I receive several calls each day from constituents facing difficulty accessing their unemployment benefits. I am pleased we are able to help extend their benefits, but I want to be clear: This is only one step in my agenda to create Wisconsin jobs and grow the Wisconsin economy by supporting Racine businesses and helping Racine workers.”