February 7, 2009

The art of cookie-decorating (and cookie-eating)

There's an art to cookie decoration, and also to cookie-eating. (Who knew?)

We stopped over at the Spectrum Gallery's CookiePalooza! fundraiser at the DeKoven Center on Saturday and carefully watched Maya Flores Farley, who is 5 1/2, as she went through the various steps: Licking the frosting, burying the cookie in sprinkles, carefully testing it, and then chomping away for what we're guessing will turn out to be a day-long sugar high. Maya is the daughter of Tom Farley, news editor of the Journal Times.

Mason: Infant mortality program is moving forward

After his name popped up in a report raising questions about the city's Infant Mortality Prevention program, Rep. Cory Mason said Friday he was happy with how the program was progressing.

"It's moving forward," said Mason, D-Racine, who helped secure a two-year, $500,000 grant to reduce the number baby deaths in the city.

He said a meeting was held at Wingspread in the last month to plan the program, and organizers have been steadily working on implementing efforts to help at-risk pregnant moms.

But in the city's response to a Family Medical Leave complaint filed by Janelle Grammer, questions were raised about the status of the Infant Mortality program, including at least one by Mason.

In the complaint, written by a private attorney hired by the city, it says City Administrator Ben Hughes asked Grammer in April 2008 to hire a nurse or nurses to make home visits to begin field work and make home visits to pregnant women. Seven months later the nurses were not hired, according to the city's response.

This, apparently, caught Mason's attention. The city's response says Mason called Hughes to inquire on the program.

"Subsequent to the Nov. 5 meeting, Mr Hughes received a telephone call from Assemblyman Cory Mason expressing his concerns that this State-funded has not been implemented as timely and efficiently as he expected."

Mason said Friday he wouldn't comment on Grammer's situation, and that he was "happy" with how the Infant Mortality grant is being used. Money is the only problem organizers are facing, he said.

"We don't have enough funding for a comprehensive program," Mason said.

February 6, 2009

Drunk driver severely injures another on Spring St.

A drunk driver caused a serious accident on Spring Street Friday night, crashing at high speed into an eastbound car west of Luedtke Avenue.

Police said Derwin King, 42, of Racine crossed the center line and hit a car driven by a 30-year-old man who had to be extricated from his car and taken by Flight for Life to Froedert Memorial Hospital, suffering from severe leg injuries. Police will not identify him until after the weekend.

King, who suffered from hip injuries, also was taken to Froedert after the 5:09 p.m. accident. He was charged with causing injury by intoxicated use of a motor vehicle and operating without a valid license.

Per diems: Vos claims least; Gunderson most

Wispolitics.com has done the heavy lifting: The state's legislators claimed $831,050 in per diem payments in 2008.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel took the next step, tallying the fact that 19 of the state's 132 legislators claimed daily expense stipends of more than $10,000, with two -- one from Wisconsin Rapids and the other from Black River Falls -- each collecting $13,464.

But they've left it to little ol' us to tell you how much Racine County lawmakers claimed for their trek to Madison on legislative business. Here are the numbers:
  • Rep. Scott Gunderson, R-83, Waterford: 118 days = $10,384.
  • Rep. Bob Turner, D-61, Racine: 110 days = $9,680.
  • Rep. Cory Mason, D-62, Racine: 108 days = $9,504.
  • Sen. John Lehman, D-21, Racine: 83 days = $7,304.
  • Rep. Robin Vos, R-63, Caledonia: 76 days = $6,688.
Now, before you go "Whoa, that's a lot of money just for driving to Madison," consider this: the Federal mileage reimbursement rate is 58.5 cents per mile, meaning the IRS says driving the 200-mile round trip from Racine to Madison actually costs about $117. Of course, the feds aren't thinking about car pools -- or whether our lawmakers are having a Big Mac or vending machine peanut butter crackers for lunch, or a real meal and the occasional overnight stay at Motel 6 the Monoma Terrace Hilton. In any case, each of our lawmakers received the full $88 per day the state allows, as well as their $47,000 per year salary (which goes up to $49,000 this year.)

The full list of Assembly payments is here; Senate payments are here.

Water main break closes 21st Century Prep school

A water main break on Mound Avenue this morning shut off water to the 21st Century Prep School, forcing the school to close for the day.

The water was shut off at 9:30 a.m., and parents were called to pick up their children by 10 a.m.

Without water in the building the school had no operating restrooms, no water fountains, the inability to use water in the lunchroom and the danger of unsanitary conditions. The City Public Works Department was unable to estimate how long the repairs would take.

February 5, 2009

Property Transfers: Main St. home sells for $406,000

A home at 1530 S. Main St. in Racine sold for $406,000 on Jan. 29.

The house, owned by former City Council Alderwoman Cherri Cape, was assessed at $385,000 in 2008. It was listed for $425,000.

The five-bedroom lakefront home was one of just 17 property sales recorded last week. Click the link below for the full list.

Property Transfers, Jan. 26-30

Public Health Administrator skipped work, lost a $60,000 grant, city alleges in response to complaint

Update: Nothing yet from the JT on this story, despite two previous stories reporting Grammer's allegations against the city. Guys, a link to the city's response is at the end of this post ... you have the info.

Original Post: Racine Public Health Administrator Janelle Grammer didn't show up for work for days at a time and had long-standing problems managing her employees, according to the city's response to Grammer's discrimination complaint.

Grammer filed a Family and Medical Leave complaint against the city Jan. 26 alleging City Administrator Ben Hughes, her supervisor, unfairly reprimanded and criticized her for taking leave for a serious medical condition.

The city's response, filed with the state Equal Rights Division, offers a different story. The nine-page report written by private Attorney Susan Love, hired by the city, lays out a series of performance-related issues with Grammer dating back to August 2007. Former Mayor Gary Becker and City Administrator Ben Hughes dealt with several complaints from Health Department employees who alleged Grammer was not doing her job.

Specifically, Grammer didn't show up for work between Sept. 17 and Sept. 28, and never notified Hughes or anyone else with the city she would be gone, according to the city's response. She also didn't show up between Dec. 1 and Dec. 5, and failed to attend a city meeting on Dec. 8 to submit a needed grant application.

The city's response also says Grammer lost a $60,000 United Way grant, resulting in a city layoff, was slow in implementing a state grant to reduce infant mortality in Racine and didn't finish a state-mandated health survey.

Despite complaints, city officials allege they gave Grammer several opportunities to improve her performance, but she declined to take them. She filed her discrimination complaint after Hughes reprimanded her and after she was approved to take Family Medical Leave.

The city's response to Grammer's complaint asks the state to throw out Grammer's complaint because it without merit, and because it was not filed by a state-mandated deadline.

Read the city's full response is here.

Artists Gallery opens in new site on Main Street

Downtown's newest art gallery opened today, just in time for its grand opening during Saturday's Gallery night.

The ten-year-old Artists Gallery, the city's only cooperative, has completed its move from Sixth Street, and held a quiet, "soft" opening today -- drawing its first customers to the new location at 401 Main St. This is the gallery's second move in as many years; long located at 414 Sixth St., it moved to 312 Sixth in 2007, into space previously occupied by Martha Merrell's bookstore. That site will soon become another artist's gallery, with his home upstairs.

The site was most recently occupied by 716 Gallery, but older Racine residents will remember the corner building at Main and 4th Street as the longtime home of Eitels, a women's clothing store for decades. (Really old Racinians also remember the Walgreen's next door, but that's another story.) The brick building itself dates from the 1860s.

Artists Gallery is staffed by the 35 artist-members, each of whom has at least two pieces hung in the new space, which has been attractively redone to comply with the landlord's edict that no holes be driven into the brick walls. The artists met that requirement by installing panels of white-painted sheetrock, and also hung three simple, attractive display cabinets on the walls, that let the brick show through. Built by member Ed Kalke, they are attached to the building's strategically placed wooden expansion joints.

Bank of Elmwood under federal, state scrutiny

Mick Burke at the JT and the folks over at Racine News are reporting the Bank of Elmwood is in some trouble.

The bank entered into a "Written Agreement" on Jan. 14 with the Federal Bank and the state Department of Financial Institutions. The agreement was made public on Tuesday.

So what does this mean?

It's not good news for the bank. Burke reports Elmwood is the only Wisconsin bank in years to sign this type of agreement, and notes the bank laid off 25 employees last month.

He interviewed Bank President Jess Levin, who blamed the collapse on the economy (but doesn't explain why no other banks had to sign a written agreement). He also answered on question I had: What about the former Zahn's building on Monument Square? The bank owns the building, but hasn't been able to sell it for years.

Levin said it was a "small part" of the picture.

But as we note below, it looks like the bank will have to do something with the property because it's worth more than $200,000 (the building sold for $2.5 million).

Here's a recap of the 15-page Written Agreement requires the Bank of Elmwood to:

1. Strengthen its Board of Director's oversight, including establishing a "culture of safe and sound lending practices."

2. Hire an independent consultant to assess the bank's staffing needs and performance of senior management.

3. Write a new management plan based on the consultant's findings.

4. Correct documentation and credit information deficiencies reported in an August 2008 report by the state Department of Financial Institutions.

5. Under the heading, "Asset Improvement," the bank isn't allowed to lend to anyone who has had a loan written off as "lost," or who is classified as "doubtful" or "substandard."

6. Repay, sell or somehow deal with all of its loans or assets worth more than $200,000, including real estate that is past due or on the bank's "problem loan list." If any real estate worth more than $200,000 falls behind on payments, the bank has to submit a report within 30 days on how it will deal with that loan.

7. This parts gets technical and involves the bank's Allowance for Loan and Lease Losses, or ALLL, methodology.

8. Submit a plan to maintain sufficient capital at the bank.

9. Submit a plan to improve the bank's liquidity position.

10. Revise its investment policy.

11. Submit a plan to improve the bank's overall position and come up with a realistic 2009 budget. The bank also needs to submit an annual strategic plan to the Federal Reserve and the state DFI.

12. Not pay dividends without the written approval of the Reserve Bank and other agencies.

13. Not guarantee loans or buy back its stock without written approval.

14. Take actions to correct violations of the law cited in the state's August 2008 report. (Note: It's unclear what that's referring to).

15. Submit a plan to address information technology deficiencies.

February 4, 2009

Public education funding reform plan offered

Dr. Jack Parker, deputy superintendent of Racine Unified, talks Feb. 4 at
Walden III School in favor of changing the state's school financing system.

By Paul Holley
For RacinePost

An ambitious, comprehensive and expensive state public education funding reform plan was introduced in Racine Wednesday by the School Finance Network. The plan’s backers conceded, however, that they’ll face challenges from a financially beleaguered Wisconsin Legislature.

SFN, which bills itself as a coalition of educators, school board members, parents and business interests, unveiled the plan at a mid-morning press conference held at Walden III Middle and High School. Nine similar events were scheduled throughout the state on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“If the current system was working, we wouldn’t be here,” said Jack Linehan, a retired school administrator and executive director of the Southeastern Wisconsin Schools Alliance. “The (funding) system we have in place once worked but it’s no longer valid. The urgency to change is there, recognizing the economic environment we’re in.”

More than two years in the making, the SFN proposal controls property taxes, increases state aid to local school districts, promotes economic equality among districts and addresses students, particularly the neediest – low-income, special education and immigrants, he said.

Linehan also pointed out that the proposed reforms already have broad-based support. SFN members include labor (AFT-Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Education Association Council) and management (Wisconsin Association of School Boards and the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators). “Crises bring out the best in people,” he said. “You get the best ideas and you get people talking and working together.”

The 12-page SFN proposal calls for reforming the local school revenue controls enacted by the Legislature in 1993-94 that critics contend unfairly squeeze public education budgets. The proposal would tie school revenue controls to income growth instead of the Consumer Price Index and boost state aid for services where costs have risen more rapidly than the state-mandated revenue increases.

The plan also addresses how tax dollars are distributed among school districts; state aid to a laundry list of programs (i.e. low-income students, special education, English language learners, four-year-old kindergarten, transportation, security); increased efficiencies; property tax relief; the Qualified Economic Offer, and measurement of how the funding reforms affect school success. The SFN recommends a five-year phase-in period for some of the reforms. (The proposal and additional details can be found here.

When asked to place a dollar amount on the proposal, Linehan said a 1 percent increase in state public education spending would come in at $550 million a year for four years. He acknowledged that increased public education funding will be a tough sell among many state lawmakers.

At this point, at least, the SFN offers no funding specifics for the plan beyond a statement that lawmakers and the governor might consider “eliminating existing tax loopholes and tax breaks. . .or exploring possible federal funding.”

“I think a wise person will look at this as an investment in our educational future,” Linehan said. “I would counter that we can’t wait until the economy improves. I’m hearing more and more that there is a realization that we need to do something. And, I recognize that a debate has to occur.”
That debate will take place within a few weeks. Rep. Sondy Pope-Roberts, D-Middleton, Chair of the Assembly Education Committee, has agreed to hold a hearing on the SFN proposal on March 24.

Organizers of the Racine event turned out a varied contingent of public supporters. Speaking in favor of the SFN efforts were: Jack Parker, Racine Unified School District deputy interim superintendent; Herb Katt, owner of Katt Construction; Lisa Scott Ptacek, a parent and PTA member, and Julie Fornary, a Walden teacher.

Attending from RUSD were Superintendent Jim Shaw and School Board members Gretchen Warner, Don Nielsen and Julie McKenna.

The SFN has a created sophisticated grassroots mechanism that includes the organization’s website plus Facebook, MySpace and Twitter pages that promise video, podcast and blog updates. Representatives from a public relations firm were on hand to shepherd media members at the event.

“Today, marks the first step,” said Linehan. “I can’t say what is going to happen but at least we’re going to have a huge discussion about reforming education funding.”

Doyle delays budget; 74,000 WI jobs in stimulus?

Wisconsin will find 74,000 new jobs (or saved jobs) in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan -- the so-called stimulus package costing $850 - $900 billion (whatever) proposed by President Barack Obama.

So sayeth National Economic Council Director Larry Summers, as the White House today released state-by-state data outlining the jobs impact of the program.

You can read it all here, and compare the Wisconsin job figures to other states (Illinois, 158,000, but still none for Rod Blagojevich; Michigan, 116,000).

Meanwhile, as we wait -- along with everyone else -- for the stimulus bill to be passed and parsed, or rejected and reformulated, Gov. Jim Doyle announced today that he is delaying introduction of the state budget by a week, from Feb. 10 Feb. 17, to give time for details of the state's share to come into clearer focus. Latest estimates say the federal bill will provide about $3 billion to the state -- biting a big chunk out of our expected $5.7 billion budget deficit.

The bill has passed the House -- no thanks to Rep. Paul Ryan, R-WI, 1st District, and awaits action in the Senate.

And, with full awareness that the Democratic Policy Committee is a partisan organization, here is their analysis of what the stimulus bill has in store for Wisconsin. Here's a detailed breakdown of how the state's approximately $3.1 billion would be allocated, if...

February 3, 2009

DRC presents annual achievement awards

The Downtown Redevelopment Corporation held its annual meeting Tuesday night, and incoming chairman John Busey and outgoing chair Denise McKee presented Achievement Awards to the following:

CPR Showcase Award went to Chad Alexander
and Marco Anderson, for the rehabilitation of 304 Main Street.

Mike Pilger of the Racine Heritage Museum won the Downtown
Showcase Award for the museum's Underground Railroad exhibit.

The Corporate Citizen Award went to Porter's of Racine,
the city's oldest retail business, founded in 1857. Porter's was one
of the first stores in the country to display furniture in room
settings. The award was accepted by Micah Waters.

The Best New Retail Award went to Michael Hefferon and Brad Cuttress,
who opened Upurea on Main Street this summer.

The Downtown Champion Award went to Jo Labre of Dover Flag
and Map, who organized the merchant's gift certificate promotion
this winter, making over 400 phone calls in the process. Jo couldn't
attend, due to the illness of her husband, John, so the award was
accepted for her by Mary Osterman and Dorothy Ward.

Mr. Mayor: Tom Friedel will hold the job just 91 days

Tom Friedel tries out the mayor's seat for the first time

By a unanimous vote, the Racine City Council elected Alderman Tom Friedel as mayor tonight -- a post he'll hold exactly 91 days, until his successor is elected on May 5.

The council's action came just 20 days after Mayor Gary Becker was arrested on child sexual enticement charges, and exactly two weeks since Becker resigned the position he'd held for five years.

Friedel was sworn in at 8:05 p.m. the high point -- though fully expected -- of an otherwise desultory council meeting. The only other actions of any importance were agreement with the Plan Commission's rejection of a 55-apartment West Racine project and a decision to reject the Committee of the Whole's recommendation to hold the mayoral election on June 2. The Council moved the election back to May 5 -- a move Friedel had argued against -- with the primary to be held with the regular spring elections on April 7. All those votes were 14-0.

After he was sworn in, Friedel said he was glad the city could now put behind it "the minor incident of one individual."

"We'll work together," he said, on brownfields, on getting state aid and grants, on other city issues. "My sincere hope is that at the end of four months we'll have an election and you'll hardly know I was here."

He gave credit to the city staff for their handling of city business in the interim, and said, "To the citizens, I promise no less than the best of my ability. I don't always get it right, but I will listen to you."

Council members and citizens gave him a round of applause after he took the oath of office from City Clerk Janice Johnson-Martin and handshakes and hugs from members of his large family: wife, daughter, three brothers, a sister and cousin who were all in attendance.

Friedel came in for some good-natured kidding after his opening remarks. Ray DeHahn said he had heard rumors "of two cars in every garage, and a chicken in every pot." Q.A. Shakoor II asked the usually casual Friedel, "What are you doing with a tie on?" Jim Kaplan thanked Friedel for stepping in, and said, "I couldn't be more proud." Jim Spangenberg also praised Council President David Maack for his "honor and dignity that brought us through this, and the phone calls in the middle of the night."

As the meeting broke up, Friedel said, "The burdens will come later, but I don't feel any different right now."

"It's an honor," he said, "but not a time for celebration. These are not the circumstances anyone would want. It's not an election."

Copacetic helps St. Cat's with clothing sales

The word of the day is "cause marketing."

We learned it from Mary Osterman, who owns Copacetic at 409 Main Street, a store specializing in hats, t-shirts and dog toys (three necessities of a happy home).

Her store also has another line of goodies: Clothing with St. Catherine's High School logo: t-shirts, sweatshirts, garment bags, blankets and such. Everything the well-appointed St. Cat's alum would need.

What interested me about the St. Cat's goods at Copacetic is the fact that the store sells them not for profit, but solely to help the school. All proceeds of the St. Cat's sales go back to the school. True, Mary and her husband, Monte, have a daughter, Emily, at the school. But there's more to it than that.

"We're looking at the kind of people they graduate," Mary said. "The business community needs people with their high standards, and so we help to sustain their future. We believe in them."

There's a bit of a win/win as well. The school notes in the school newspaper that Copacetic sells school clothing, so when students or alumni can't purchase directly from the school, they come to her store. And maybe they buy something else as well. But Mary says she's also noticed something else: "It's amazing how many of our customers are St. Cat's alums ... you an tell them from their higher standards."

Miller House foreclosure sale cancelled

For the second time in two weeks, a high profile foreclosure auction of a Main Street landmark was cancelled

Last week, it was the Christmas House. Today it was the Miller House. No reason was given for either cancellation.

The Miller House, located at 1110 South Main Street, is owned (was owned?) by Rickey and Shea Leech who, according to the court filing, owe $672,948. Its current assessment is $415,000.

Preservation Racine members who toured the house last week said even that lesser number is far overstated. They shake their heads sadly at the condition of the house, pointing to features that once adorned the interior, but which are no longer present. Such as a carved fireplace mantel and a cast-iron "birdcage" elevator. Gone, they say. Another said a recent appraisal valued the 1899 mansion at barely $100,000, a perfect definition of a fixer-upper.

JavaVino put up for sale

JavaVino's window now sports a for sale sign

Main Street is in danger of losing a comfortable hangout.

The owners of JavaVino -- Ramez and Cecilia AbdulNour -- are looking for a partner to run the wine and coffee shop at 424 Main St., or someone to buy the business entirely. The wine and coffeeshop often hosts music and movie events.

Reason: The couple, who came to Racine two-and-a-half years ago as newlyweds, have just had a daughter, Angelina. "We had our first baby girl last week," Ramez says. "It is such a wonderful thing. We have been spending as much time as possible with her and watching everything she does."

"This is not an easy decision," Ramez says.

Babies, as any parent knows, take up all available time, and Ramez and Cecilia have had to reduce the hours JavaVino is open: Tuesday and Wednesday, from 7:30 a.m. t0 3:30 p.m.; Thursday and Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. (later on nights with scheduled events); Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The cafe is closed on Mondays.

The couple moved here from Baghdad, Iraq, when Ramez, an engineer, was hired by Modine Manufacturing. He left Modine in September and now works in Franklin. JavaVino's location was -- ever so briefly -- Harry's Cafe, opened when the Harry Schwartz Bookstore moved into the then-newly renovated space now occupied by Monfort's Fine Art Gallery. Later it became the All Star Sandwich Company, and finally JavaVino in 2006.

The sale includes equipment and fixtures but does not include the real estate. It is being handled by Marty Defatte (262) 498-8608 or John Ryder (414) 350-8630 from Century 21.

City owes $195,000 in debt service this year on vacant West Racine lot

Rejecting a proposed $7 million affordable housing development in West Racine leaves the city with $195,000 in debt service on the TIF district.

The city spent $2 million in 1996 tearing down old buildings on the site to make way for new development. But the demolition came right as the construction economy tanked, and resulted in few suitors for the land coming forward.

Heather Hammond, of the Seattle-based HammondLand, found the parcel last year and teamed up with the North Carolina-based Landmark Group to propose a 55-unit mixed use development on the site. That project was turned down by the Plan Commission Monday and likely will be rejected by the City Council tonight.

The repercussion of the deal is the city is sitting on a $2 million loan with no source of revenue to pay it back. The TIF district allows the city to collect all tax dollars on any development to pay back the loan, but with no development, there's nothing to collect on.

If the city agreed to the affordable housing development it would have made about $150,000 a year in property taxes to pay down the debt. This year's payment requires $75,000 to be paid on the principal and $120,625 to be paid in interest.

Critics may say the city shouldn't have spent the money to tear down the buildings in the first place. But the real tradeoff is between leaving up decrepit structures with little hope of development, or spending the money to knock them down and attracting a developer to pay off the loan. In 1996, demolition was a good idea. In today's economy, there's not much of a market for even prime real estate (see Pointe Blue).

So the city likely will wait out the down economy and hope an acceptable development comes along. But that may be a tough task in a well-organized neighborhood that is demanding a park. It's up to officials to convince residents the city has already spent $2 million to create that space, and it needs to collect its money back.

More pain for Journal Times employees

Lee Enterprises is taking an axe to the expense side of its balance sheet, and some of those whacks will affect employees at the Journal Times.

Lee announced late last week the imposition of a company-wide pay freeze and the elimination of all matching company contributions to 401(k) retirement plans. It also "allowed" individual publishers at the company's 50-some dailies to order unpaid furloughs for all employees.

Well, we've had no "official" word from the JT -- not that we ever do -- but the word from the troops is that Publisher Rick Parrish has followed his counterparts at other Lee papers, like the flagship St. Louis Post-Dispatch -- whose $1.4 billion purchase in 2005 brought about this mess -- and ordered the week-long furloughs, to be taken by spring.

Nor is the pain limited to Lee's working stiffs: reporters, pressmen, ad sales reps and the like. Lee's top execs also are suffering... although everything is relative, right? Mary Junck, Lee's President and CEO, saw her pay cut from the $3.7 million she received in 2007 to last year's $2.5 million. Ouch! Her base pay of $850,000 is frozen, along with everyone else's, but that unpaid week off will cost her $16,346 -- enough to fund a young reporter's job for almost a year.

The unkindest cut of all was noted in the company's proxy report for its upcoming annual meeting. ""The Company's CEO informed us she would not accept any bonus for 2008." (What sycophant would even suggest one, given the company's dire straits -- other than those doofuses on Wall Street?)

In any case, the big news expected to come from Lee's March 10 annual meeting is the size of the reverse stock split: Lee is mulling turning five shares of its stock into one share, or maybe ten shares into one, thus raising the market price of each share from its current low of 30-odd cents per share to something over a buck. A five-to-one split would raise the price to about $1.50; ten-to-one would bring a $3 price.

That would satisfy one of the New York Stock Exchange's two listing requirements, but not the second: that a company have a market capitalization over $25 million. The NYSE lowered that cap requirement to $15 million -- but just until April 22. Lee hit 34 cents per share this morning, which brought its market cap to $15.33 million, but whether it will stay there is a question. There's nothing on the horizon -- you can just cut expenses so much, after all -- that would bring the cap back up to $25 million.

Meanwhile, there are other fish to fry: debt covenants. The company has only until Feb. 6 to renegotiate a reprieve on this year's portion of a $306 million debt payment.

Meet Tom Friedel

Alderman Tom Friedel is expected to be named interim mayor tonight. Here's some background on Friedel:

* 59 years old. Lives at 1904 Dwight St. He's worked at Twin Disc for 37 years. He's married to his wife, Linda. They have two children.

* Third-generation Racine resident who grew up up on the city's near north side.

* Graduated from St. Catherine's High School in 1968.

* Served with the Army in Vietnam for 23 months.

* Elected to the School Board in 1986 and served three-consecutive terms. Left the board in 1995.

* Elected to the City Council in 2000, beating Charmaine Harrison 537 to 330 in the 10th District race in 2000. He raised less than $1,000 in the election. He replaced now State Sen. John Lehman, D-Racine, who left the council in 2000 after serving 12 years as alderman.

* Said in 2000 his main issue was taxes. He wanted to lower taxes by focusing on development. He also wanted to reduce crime and develop parks.

* Backed giving seniors their own center in 2000. (Local seniors, whho may lose their current home at the former Lakeview Community Center, are still looking for a permanent location.)

* Active in the city's redistricting debate in 2000. He tentatively backed creating a 16-member City Council. The council settled on a 15-member board, and it was Friedel's plan that avoided a court fight with the county.

* Defeated Keith Fair in 2002 to remain on the council. Has not had a serious challenge for re-election since.

* Backed a ban on train whistles in the city.

* Mayor Gary Becker appointed him chairman of the Finance Committee in 2003 - a move that six years later results in Friedel becoming interim mayor.

* Took on the president of the Racine Police Association in a 2005 commentary. He argued the president, William Chesen, intentionally confused the public on local budget issues.

* Served on a committee to hire Racine's first city administrator.

* Created the proposal to make Monument Square free for people to use.

* He has no record in CCAP.

* He's paid his property taxes every year.

* Current committees include: chairman, Finance and Personnel Committee; chairman, Economic Development Committee; commissioner, Water & Wastewater Commissions; president, Library Board of Trustees

* Past committees include: President of the City Council; Public Works; Safety and Licensing; Board of Health; Re-districting Committee.

* Volunteer for United Way of Racine County; Member of Root-Pike Watershed Initiative; Sustaining member of Riverbend Nature Center.

Special election timetable

The JT reports today the City Council is poised to move up the special election to pick a new mayor. The aldermen realized they could save $36,000 by holding the primary on April 7, the same day as local elections. The general election would be May 5.

The likely decision is an early loss for soon-to-be appointed Mayor Tom Friedel, who had advocated for a May 5 primary with a June 2 election. Friedel argued city residents need more time to pick a new mayor.

It also means Friedel's short stay in the mayor's office will be even shorter. Moving up the election date effectively cuts Friedel's term a month short (a significant amount of time when you're looking at a max of four months in office to begin with).

Moving up the date also shortens the amount of time candidates will have to collect the 200 signatures needed to run for office. If the primary is held April 7 and the General Election is May 5, candidates need to turn in their signatures by March 10. If the primary election is May 5 with the General Election on June 2, candidates can begin circulating papers on March 18 and have to turn them in by April 7.

Here's a breakdown of the timetable from City Attorney Rob Weber.

With violence swirling, city bar turns in liquor license

A bar that had violence swirling around it late last year has turned in it liquor license rather than improve security.

The city had its eye on Cash Money, 901 S. Memorial Drive, after police reported three major crimes near or in the bar between Aug. 31 and Sept. 29.

Cash Money's owner, Tommy Daniel, appeared before the Public Safety and Licensing Committee on Jan. 26 to explain his bar's role in a murder, a shooting and a battery that all occurred between Aug. 30 and Nov. 29.

The murder occurred about 2:15 a.m. on Aug. 31 outside of the bar where a 26-year-old man was gunned down in the 1400 block of 9th St. Amattola Feemster, who was celebrating his 26th birthday, was shot after an argument on the street.

The shooting occurred on Nov. 29 outside of the bar. A 23-year-old man was shot in the lower back and survived.

The battery occurred inside the bar on Oct. 18 after the victim had run in asking Daniel to call the police. He refused and the woman's boyfriend came in and attacked her with a bar stool, according to police.

Daniel defended his bar to the committee by noting he was closed when the two shooting occurred, and claimed he didn't hear the woman asking him to call police. A police department representative responded that both shootings occurred immediately outside of Cash Money, and one of the victims had been in the bar prior to getting shot.

"This didn't happen two-thirds of the way down the block, but outside the front door," the police rep said.

Daniel said he did his best to control the crowd. If he senses things getting out of hand, he'll close early to cool things down. He's also installed eight security cameras to deter criminal activity. "I try to stop it," Daniel said about violence, "but if two people just walk in, I can't stop it."

"If I see somebody doing something, I call the police," he added. "I don't want anyone to get hurt."

But when it came time to write a security plan with the city, Daniel turned in his liquor license. Cash Money is now closed.

February 2, 2009

Snowdance helps out-of-towners feel at home

John Adams, portraying Racine’s long-loved Monument,
is surrounded by the Snowdance ensemble, with
Rick Ditter bringing the ceremonial Snowdance Snowcone.

Here's the dirty little secret about the Snowdance 10-minute Comedy Festival at the Sixth Street Theatre: The laughs don't stop every ten minutes.

Ten plays, each ten minutes long. That's what I signed up for. Nobody told me there'd be comedy between the plays, supposedly to introduce each new play but also an excuse to hold up a funhouse mirror to Racine; inside jokes that only Racinians would get.

Would you believe that just one day after the City Council picked an interim mayor, the Snowdance actors made light of the situation? Well, they did. And we all laughed.

My favorite between-the-plays skits was a series of suggestions to help an out-of-towner feel at home in Racine. Performed around a living version of the statue in Monument Square -- who is that, anyway? -- actors ran in and out, declaiming these helpful tips:
  • If your idea of a good pickup line is “Case, Park, or Horlick,” you might be a Racinian
  • If you know the names of five Piggly Wiggly employees, you might be a Racinian
  • If you get up earlier on the Fourth of July than you do on Christmas, you might be a Racinian
  • If your friends still talk about how awesome Chi-Chi’s was, you might be a Racinian
  • If you have fond childhood memories of swimming in Lake Michigan, and you haven’t been in the lake since, you might be a Racinian
  • If you spent more on your high school prom than on your education afterward, you might be a Racinian
  • If you had your wedding registry at Seven Mile Fair, you might be a Racinian
As for the plays themselves, you'll have to take my word for it: they're side-splittingly funny. I don't want to give anything away, but think about this for a while: What would you say to your wife after she stabs you in the stomach with a steak knife? Hint: It'll really make her mad!

The best part of Snowdance plays is the 10 minutes part. There's no build-up; they just start right in the middle of the action, bang! The worst part of the festival is that there are just 19 performances, and then it's over for another year. The first four performances of the 2009 festival already are history -- all sellouts -- and many of the coming weekend shows are all-but sold out, too. The good news is that Snowdance added three Wednesday shows this year -- Feb. 4, 11 and 18 -- and, best yet, three Memorial Hall shows with plenty of seats, on Feb. 21 and 22.

If you miss it, you won't forgive yourself. And you'll always wonder why everyone else is walking around with a smile, even the guy with a steak knife sticking out of his stomach.

Need more information? Check out our earlier story, listing all ten of this year's plays and their authors, with brief outline, and all the date and time necessities for reservations.

West Racine thwarts low-income housing project

The developer of a proposed $7 million low-income housing project appeared at a key
meeting Monday by speaker phone. City staff pointed the above microphone at
the speaker to amplify the developer's voice. The commission rejected the proposal.

UPDATE, Feb. 3: With no debate, the City Council voted 14-0 to accept yesterday's Planning Commission's recommendation, formally killing what Alderman Greg Helding called "the infamous West Racine project." In the public comment section of the council meeting, five citizens spoke against the project, and one presented another 200 signatures on a petition opposing it.

Original post:

The Plan Commission, at the urging of a grassroots neighborhood movement, knocked out a proposed $7 million affordable housing development proposed for West Racine.

The commission voted unanimously Monday afternoon to deny the 55-unit apartment complex, which included commercial development.

The North Carolina-based developer did little to help its case at Monday’s meeting when it failed to send a representative to the meeting. An employee chimed in on a conference call, but dodged a poignant question claiming only another employee could answer it. Not exactly helping out concerns that you’ll be absentee landlords, folks.

The proposal moves ahead to the City Council, but is likely DOA. Chalk one up for participatory democracy. Dozens of opponents packed a public hearing last week to oppose the project. They turned in a petition with over 200 names on it objecting to the low-income apartments, and swayed a commission that appeared to be leaning in favor of the proposal.

Not that this is good news for the city. The vote puts developers and planners back to square one on a piece of (supposedly) prime real estate in one of the city’s most prosperous neighborhoods. It also means a loss of about $150,000 in property taxes, which could go to paying down the $2 million in debt needed to demolish buildings for redevelopment.

Here’s a recap of the meeting:

4:04 p.m.
City Council President David Maack calls the meeting to order. It’s his last Plan Commission meeting. He’ll hand over the gavel to Tom Friedel after Tuesday night’s City Council meeting. Maack reminds the crowd of about 30 there’s no comment during the meeting. Roll Call: Four members are here, but no Judley Wyant.

4:05 p.m.

Matt Sadowski, of the city planning department, is trying to get the developer on speaker phone … and there she is. It’s an odd sight. One of the City Council microphones is pointed down at a speaker to amplify the developer’s voice. I think the company knows this is a lost cause.

4:07 p.m.

Alderman Greg Helding asks for city staff’s recommendation. Sawdoski reads it off … staff recommends approval. So that sets up the showdown: the city’s development professionals vs. a riled up group of West Racine residents.

Aldermen Aron Wisneski, Sandy Weidner, Bob Anderson, Robert Mozol and Jim Spangenberg are in attendance. So is County Supervisor Van Wangaard.

4:11 p.m.

Helding moves to deny the project’s conditional-use permit (the commission is actually voting on giving the developer a permit to build on the land). Crickets. No one seconds the motion.

4:11 p.m.

Plan Commission member Brent Oglesby has some questions for the developer. Oglesby was for the proposal at the last meeting. (Wyant walks in.)

Oglesby asks the developer to prove they can’t build a smaller development and still make money. He points out they’re not putting in any of their own cash, because they’re using state tax credits to fund the project.

The developer, Heather Hammond, hems and haws about the numbers and then says she wishes “Jim” was available, because he could explain it. But Jim’s not here, and the question goes unanswered.

Oglesby then wonders if the developer actually has the money they say they have. Here’s the deal: the state tax credits this year are worth a lot less than tax credits from previous years. Why? Because everyone is losing so much money there’s no need to invest in credits that are essentially a tax write-off. Essentially, real losses mean there’s no need for fake losses.

The developer says they have a national network of investors who will cover the project’s cost. Oglesby openly shakes his head in disbelief, which is funny because the developer can’t see him.

4:15 p.m.

Helding again moves to deny the request. He wants to say why, but he needs a second. Oglesby seconds, recluctantly.

Helding says the development is too dense and there’s not enough parking. He says parking is an issue, because West Racine may fill up one day and need a lot of parking. (It’ll be interesting to see how important parking is if a 55-unit condo or senior housing development is proposed for the same site.)

Helding adds there’s already too much rental housing in the city, and points out that residents seem pretty strongly opposed to this.

“We have these public hearings for a reason … they can’t just be symbolic,” he says.

4:17 p.m.

Commission member Elaine Ekes-Sutton is worried the development is too dense. She says the idea is good, there’s just too many apartments. She’ll vote no.

4:18 p.m.

Oglesby says he’ll vote no. That’s a change from last week. He encourages the developer to resubmit a smaller plan, saying the state may give out two or three rounds of WHEDA tax credits this year. “I would not take this as a death shot,” he said.

4:19 p.m.

Wyant asks: Is this the best the city can do, or will something better come along? He thinks something better will come along.

4:20 p.m.

It’s unanimous. The commission votes against the conditional-use permit. The City Council could overturn the commission’s decision Tuesday night, but it’s probably won’t. The project may not get a single vote.

4:21 p.m.

That’s it. We’re adjourned. You have to wonder if this project fares better if Mayor Becker was still around. I suspect he backed this project and wanted to get things moving in West Racine. After all, a vacant lot with $2+ million in debt isn’t exactly a help to the city budget. (It’s also worth noting high-quality low-income housing is needed in the city. There are thousands of hard-working families in the city who make between $23,000 and $43,000 a year who could use a decent place to raise children or just come home to.)

But Becker is gone, no one was willing to standup for the project, and now it’s kaput.

Without newspaper oversight, who's watching?

For a while now, I've been meaning to write a different kind of piece about newspapers.

One that says, in no uncertain terms, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has become one hell of a newspaper.

Oh, sure, we've all seen its staff cuts, its ad linage decrease, the demise of the never-very-good Racine section. But in all that bad news have we missed what a fine watchdog the Journal Sentinel has become?

I've not kept track of all the good investigative journalism coming down from Milwaukee, but last week's series on Wisconsin Shares brought it home again. Remember right after the inauguration? The Journal Sentinel pointed out that two Milwuakee County supervisors went to the party on the taxpayers' dime (more like $4,000, if I remember correctly). Ding! They gave the money back.

The paper won a local reporting Pulitzer last year for its exposé on Milwaukee County officials rigging the pension system to pad their own benefits. There was another story early this year -- a throwaway, almost -- in which the Journal Sentinel revealed a deal some legislators had figured out, to avoid their pension meltdown. Theirs, not ours.

Also in 2008, the paper revealed the carcinogenic chemicals in plastic used for baby bottles.

And then two weeks ago they ventured down into Racine County, and in two days showed us the hundreds of thousands of dollars being stolen, in part thanks to sloppily written legislation and total lack of oversight, by four Racine sisters who charged the state $540,000 over three years for babysitting each other's children. And thousands more by another Racine woman who appears to have pretended to have a job she worked at seven days a week for almost a year -- even on the day she gave birth -- to collect more than $3,000 a month in child care while she allegedly worked for less than minimum wage.

In all, the Journal Sentinel found more than $700,000 worth of fraud traced to Racine County alone, and millions elsewhere. The proverbial tip of the iceberg.

How could they find this? The state spends $340 million a year on Wisconsin Shares child care, but hasn't audited it since 2001. Racine County's own fraud discovery unit was disbanded years ago -- to save us money. (How's that workin' for ya?) Instead, we pay $50,000 a year to a private investigation firm in Germantown. State money, doncha know, not local money, so it's a great deal for the county. Except the reality is that no fraud is being investigated -- in a program that spent $55 million here in the last five years to help low-income working families pay for child care..

There's enough blame to go around: County Executive Bill McReynolds eliminated the fraud investigation unit. Equally damning, he appeared to deny the Journal Sentinel's findings entirely when they first came out. The Journal Times' headline after the first County Board meeting at which McReynolds discussed the matter, read: "No county inadequacy over child care system, McReynolds claims." The story then said McReynolds "defended allegations that county workers failed to stop fraudulent child care payments."

But then Mac appeared to come around to the reality of the situation: the county will not tolerate fraud, he said, and will cooperate with any state investigation. Oh, sure, he also wants to investigate how the Journal Sentinel got its information -- the kill the messenger syndrome -- but that's always one of government's first responses.

Now everyone is on board. Legislators are clamoring to be part of the promised state audit, and are "in full agreement ... that Wisconsin Shares requires close scrutiny. The people of Racine County and all of Wisconsin deserve no less." That's from a letter jointly signed by McReynolds and Rep. Robin Vos. We've heard from the Democrats, too. The first hearing of the legislative committe looking into the program is scheduled for Feb. 18.

And how did the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel dig out this mess? Reporter Raquel Rutledge dug through 2,500 records and documents over four-months, looking for whatever seemed suspicious. She did this in the face of the usual difficulties thrown up against investigative reporters: limited access, denials, people unwilling to talk. Ah, what she might have found with subpoena power or access to all the relevant paperwork! And yet, she still found "a trail of phony companies, fake reports and shoddy oversight."

All this from a newspaper industry that's been far too narcissistic lately, chronicling its own demise, to a public that, frankly, my dear, doesn't appear to give a damn. Reporters and editors are being laid off right and left; newshole cut; foreign news bureaus closed; state capital reporters called home; entire newspaper staffs ordered to take one week, unpaid furloughs this spring. (All 31,000 employees at Gannett newspapers, for example. Furloughs are coming to the Journal Times as well... even as we heard of four more local layoffs last week.)

My point, though, is that without newspaper oversight, there's often no oversight. Editor and Publisher magazine, the newspaper industry's trade paper, today named Martin Kaiser, editor of the Journal Sentinel, its Editor of the Year. From our perspective, the award is well deserved. Sadly, we need many more Marty Kaisers, at a time when the industry and the economy are giving us far fewer.

Polar bear? No. But how about snuggler Eliza...

Given the winter weather, we asked Countryside Humane Society whether they had any polar bears available for adoption.

Alas, no. But they do have Eliza, a 1-year-old Pekingese and Chihuahua mix.

Eliza is a white and beige female, who's a little shy at the shelter, what with all the noise and activity. But she warms up quickly when taken out of the kennel area.

She's a small dog and would do best with a family with teen-age children. Both of the breeds she is mixed with can act like a large dog in a very small body; they can be bold at times, and submissive at other times. But Eliza is a real snuggler who only needs to know you a few minutes to show this side of her.

Come meet Eliza at the Countryside Humane Society, 2706 Chicory Road, or call (262) 554-6699.

Controversial West Racine development up for a vote tonight

Update: I just did the tax on the property taxes generated by the development. Once complete, the project would bring in about $152,000 a year to the city (based on a mill rate of $21 per $1,000 of assessed property value). Does anyone know if this is a TIF district? If not, that's a nice addition to the city's general fund.

Update 2:
Just talked with City Development Director Brian O'Connell. This is a TIF district. The city borrowed $2 million to knock down old buildings and prepare the site for redevelopment. Tax revenue from the development will go to paying back that debt. Once that's paid back, the tax revenue will go to local governments.

O'Connell made another important point. There's not much development going on anywhere in the state (pretty much the whole country) right now. This may be Racine's best shot at redeveloping this parcel for several years.

As for comparisons to Jacato Drive, O'Connell said there was no comparison. The Jacato Drive apartments were built to 1970s standards, which are a far cry from modern standards of quality and energy efficiency. He added that Jacato Drive was built at the end of an airport runway, while the new development is planned for a vibrant neighborhood. "I have a real difficulty seeing the comparison," O'Connell said.

Update 3: Here's a PDF of the petitions opposing the West Racine project. Colt may be right: Any prospective mayoral candidate (ie. Helding, Spangenberg) may have a difficult time voting for this project.

Original post: The City Plan Commission is scheduled to vote this evening on a $7 million low-income housing project planned for West Racine.

The project pits city staff against residents over the vacant plot of land at Washington Avenue and West Boulevard. At a public hearing Wednesday, City Development Director Brian O'Connell spoke in favor of the project, which includes 55 apartments and commercial space. But 26 people spoke against the proposal at the meeting, and opponents turned in petitions with at least 200 signatures. Eight people spoke in favor of the development, which is proposed by a North Carolina-based company.

The city knocked down old buildings on the site to make way for new development, but initially had hoped for a restaurant and a mixed-use development that blends with West Racine's buildings. The architecture on the new development arguably fits with the area, but there's no restaurant in the plan. Opponents are worried the low-income housing - available to families who make between $23,000 and $43,000 a year - will attract crime to West Racine.

The Plan Commission put off a vote at its meeting on Jan. 28 because it ran out of time. Members scheduled a special meeting for tonight because the developer faces a Feb. 17 deadline to win approval for state tax credits. The City Council meets Tuesday and needs to approve the development for it to move forward.

At least one Plan Commission member is in favor of the project. Brent Oglesby said at the last meeting he intended to vote for the development. The project needs three votes to win the Plan Commission's recommendation.

February 1, 2009

Root River: Snowmobiler's raceway for a while

The Root River is well into its winter season. The canoes are put away, the fishermen are home watching the Outdoors channel on TV, or perhaps freezing their butts off for a few hours of ice fishing in the harbor.

Good thing, because the snowmobilers are out in force, as this picture shows. Taken Saturday afternoon about a half-mile south of Four Mile Road, it shows a trio of snowmobiles following what looks like a well-worn track. There is a thin ice spot on the Root downstream, so the presence of these guys means they have found a way around it. Or was it just dumb luck? Let's hope not.

Warm temperatures this weekend -- it actually hit 37 degrees -- are once again just a memory, according to the National Weather Service forecast. Monday's high isn't expected to top 29 degrees, and Tuesday will drop again between 3 degrees and 17. That should make life a little safer for the river snowmobilers ... but it won't last. Thursday's high will be 35.

Racine Unified would gain $19.4 million under feds' stimulus plan

Note: Well that's embarrassing. Pete covered this story a week ago. I'll leave this one because there's some new info, about Milwaukee and Kenosha. But count me as demonstrably slow on this one.

Racine Unified could receive $7.5 million for new construction under the stimulus program passed by the House last week. (See the statewide breakdown here.)

The construction money is part of $19.4 million in total additional aid for the district over the next two years. It's the second highest total amount of aid among all districts in the state, but is a paltry sum compared to the Milwaukee Public School System's $204 million, including $88.6 million for new construction.

The Journal-Sentinel reports MPS would get 28 percent of the stimulus dollars set aside for education in Wisconsin, despite having no plans for new construction and 15 vacant school buildings.

In additional to construction funds, Racine Unified would receive $11.9 million in 2009 and 2010 for special education.

By comparison, Kenosha Unified is scheduled to receive $14.8 million over two years under the stimuls plan, including $5.4 million for new construction.

The J-S story raises the question about what "construction" means in the stimulus plan. It doesn't necessarily mean new buildings, according to a federal official.
Rachel Racusen, spokeswoman for the Democratic majority on the House Education and Labor Committee, said "school modernization" might be a better label than "construction." That could include renovation of existing facilities, she said. Improving energy efficiency, dealing with environmental hazards such as asbestos and repairing roofs might all be included.

Why is Brian Urlacher scowling? You would be, too!

Brian Urlacher has a number of reasons for scowling.

First, of course, there's the fact that he's not in today's Super Bowl. Was it really two years ago the Bears got beaten by the Colts? The wound still hurts.

Second, Arizona vs. Pittsburgh? Who really cares? Give us the Packers, the Bears -- even the Vikings. Cardinals vs. Steelers just doesn't get the blood boiling.

But no, that isn't why Urlacher's angry. Mostly, it's because he's about to be renamed by Jeff Shawhan, Racine's champion snow sculptor, who was putting the finishing touches on the Bear's All-Pro Linebacker's image this morning, carved out of an eight-foot tall block of snow. After much debate, Shawhan decided to rename No. 54 Girlacher, and was about to carve a tutu into the base of the statue as a finishing touch.

It's all for the amusement of the patrons at Scores Sports Bar on Washington Avenue, which is owned by Jeff's "little" brother Rich (who, while younger than Jeff, is quite a bit bigger). The game starts at 5:20 p.m. today, but the party begins whenever you arrive.

Just be sure to say hello to Brian Urlacher... um, Girlacher, when you come in by the main door off the parking lot in back. And if you see Jeff, be sure to wish him luck at the Chicago snow sculpting championships in two weeks.

Toga Party brings out the fun-loving Romans

There was no special significance to the Toga Party at Peg and Lou's Bar and Grill last night.

It was not a celebration dating from Pope Gregory, best known for reforming the Julian Calendar and having it named after himself back on Feb. 24, 1582. There was no special confluence of Mars and Jupiter to make note of. No famous Romans born or killed on Jan. 31 to remember. No toga-centric anything that anyone could recall.

Just an excuse for a party at a neighborhood bar ... but it drew out the best from the locals, many of whom showed up in hand-crafted togas (they no longer sell 'em at Target) -- some made from sheets, others from ... ahem, drapery material. If you weren't there, you missed a good time, in a place very much like the Sam and Diane's Cheers, still in reruns somewhere:
Where everybody knows your name,
and they're always glad you came.
Peg and Lou's has been owned for three years by an actual Peg and Lou, Peg and Lou Larson, who've fashioned a bar for the locals up on Douglas Avenue, a fun place that's not expensive, that's always trying to liven things up. That's Peg dressed as Cleopatra in the front row, with Lou at her side. In a month or so, they'll be hosting a beach party -- complete with sand. Bring your own Speedo.