February 13, 2009

Here's what's in the stimulus bill for Wisconsin

The U.S. Senate Friday followed the House of Representatives' action earlier this week, and passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act -- better known as the stimulus bill. According to the White House, it will "create jobs, jump start growth and transform our economy for the 21st century. Across the country, this package will help businesses create jobs and families afford their bills while laying a foundation for future economic growth in key areas like health care, clean energy, education and a 21st century infrastructure.

Yeah, but what specifically is in it for Wisconsin? Here's what the White House says:
  • Creating or saving 70,000 jobs over the next two years. Jobs created will be in a range of industries from clean energy to health care, with over 90% in the private sector.
  • Providing a "making work pay tax cut" of up to $800 for 2,220,000 workers and their families. The plan will make a down payment on the President’s Making Work Pay tax cut for 95% of workers and their families, designed to pay out immediately into workers’ paychecks.
  • Making 63,000 families eligible for a new American Opportunity Tax Credit to make college affordable. By creating a new $2,500 partially refundable tax credit for four years of college, this plan will give 3.8 million families nationwide – and 63,000 families in Wisconsin – new assistance to put college within their reach.
  • Offering an additional $100 per month in unemployment insurance benefits to 553,000 workers in Wisconsin who have lost their jobs in this recession, and providing extended unemployment benefits to an additional 74,000 laid-off workers.
  • Providing funding sufficient to modernize at least 138 schools in Wisconsin so our children have the labs, classrooms and libraries they need to compete in the 21st century economy.

RADD holds Valentine's Dance

All photos by Linda Peterson

Record-breaking temperatures added to the excitement of the Valentine's dance at St. Patrick's Church McCarthy Hall Feb. 10, sponsored by Recreational Activities for the Developmentally Disabled (RADD).

Members of the RADD Dance Club were encouraged to wear red or pink in celebration of the holiday. Energetic favorites like "YMCA" and "The Chicken Dance" lured a large crowd to the dance floor. The DJ in charge was Roger Higgenbottom, from Higgy Baby Productions, who has over 15 years of experience bringing individuals to the dance floor. He kept members motivated and enjoys watching them smile.

RADD programs were developed to provide a spectrum of accessible recreational and social activities for residents of Racine County with developmental disabilities, while providing respite opportunities for their families.

Located at 300 Dodge St., RADD programs include dance club, bowling club, adult recreation and sunshine club. RADD also offers an eight week summer camp program, Camp Kinder. For more information, call 633-0291 or email at info@radd-cpa.org.

The next Dance Club dance will be held on March 10, with a Kickin' Country theme (wear your cowboy boots!)

The Bowling Club meets at Paradise West Bowling Lanes, 6501 Washington Ave. The next outing will be Feb. 28, from noon to 2 p.m.

Property Transfers: The $10,000 deal

1305 Grand Ave.

Here are this week's property transfers:
Property Tranfers, Feb. 2-6
No big sales this week. The biggest in the city was a home on Steeplechase Drive for $177,000. The biggest in the county was a home in Waterford for $420,000.

The deal of the week may have been a foreclosed home at 1305 Grand Ave. Records show the sale price at $10,000. Not bad for a home listed at $51,000.

February 12, 2009

Ryan is the anti-stimulus spokesman

With Congress expected to vote on a trillion dollar spending bill tomorrow, it's no surprise that Rep. Paul Ryan, R-WI, 1st District, has an opinion (negative) and is willing to articulate it.

What is somewhat of a surprise is where he's making his voice heard: on both the BBC and CNBC and on FoxNews.
  • We missed Ryan's FoxNews appearance tonight, a Special Report with Bret Baier, at 6:20 p.m. Eastern time. Maybe you can find it online.
  • The BBC World News Tonight will air at 11 p.m. Eastern. and will be picked up by BBC radio. Maybe you can find it here.
  • Ryan also will be on CNBC – Squawk Box Friday, Feb. 13, at 8:10 a.m. Eastern.

Feds want minor changes to fair housing ordinance

We're at the Affirmative Action Commission's meeting tonight. Here's the report:

(Background on the story here and here.)

4:30 p.m.

Walked in with Fair Housing Director Morris Reece. Chairman Ron Thomas was here, and there's question on whether they'll reach quorum. The big issue this afternoon is the federal government's response to the city's proposed Fair Housing ordinance. The ordinance will allow the city to handle fair housing complaints in house, meaning they don't have to send them out to Chicago or Madison. Right now, there are 31 complaints pending before four different state and federal organizations.

4:35 p.m.

We're one person away from quorum. Alderman David Maack and Alderman Ray DeHahn are absent tonight. Both called ahead are excused.

4:38 p.m.

The gang's all here - or at least enough of it to hold a meeting.

4:40 p.m.

The minutes from last month's meeting aren't ready, so approval is put off to next month. No controversy here.

4:41 p.m.

Reece is giving his monthly report. The city ran a test for discrimination on two properties in the city. It sent a single African-American woman (trained to do this sort of thing) to apply for apartments on the northwest side and the southwest side. No discrimination detected.

A bunch of routine business is covered.

Reece handled three complaints in the last month. One involved a Mexican flag, one involved a dog in an apartment building and one involved a predatory loan in the city by a Realtor who moved out of state. The last one bothered Reece. "It's a bad situation," he said. "There are some bad circumstances. People are losing their jobs."

4:54 p.m.

Jerry Scott says he's received 350 applications for 15 job openings in the city. Good news on a bilingual position in the Health Department; Scott may have filled the position. (RacinePost wrote about this opening last month. Coincidence? Probably.)

4:56 p.m.

Deputy City Attorney Scott Letteney is on. He has an 11-page response from the federal government. Letteney oversimplifies the response: We're not there yet. Most changes are non-substantive.

"It's 11 pages, but it's not 11 pages of action," he said.

The one major change in the proposal is to simplify the city's investigative process. Letteney said it shouldn't be a problem.

Municipality doesn't have the authority to impose criminal laws. We can get civil forfeitures, or it may be possible that the city agrees to refer possible criminal acts to the US Attorney's office. "That will be the most significant change, but frankly it won't be that big of a deal," Letteney said.

Thomas asks for a copy of the letter, then says, let's copy it now. So Reece is taking it to his office to make a bunch of copies for the commission.

Letteney says he plans to send the letter back to the federal government next week. The feds will then, hopefully for the commission, give the go ahead to present the ordinance to the City Council.

5:03 p.m.

While they wait for copies, Thomas says former Affirmative-Action Commission member Doris Ingram is interested in rejoining the commission. Members also hope to appoint Raquel Freeman to the commission. Both names are headed to Mayor Tom Friedel for nomination.

5:08 p.m.

The commission is heading into closed session. That's it for the public part of this meeting.

Mayor's race

What do we know (or not know) so far about the mayor's race?

1. A lot of people think they can do the mayor's job.

2. Alderman Greg Helding and Jody Harding appear to be the two bonafide conservatives in the race. Hard to say what that means in a local election, other than the formidable support of State Rep. Robin Vos, former State Sen. Cathy Stepp and County Executive Bill McReynolds.

3. Pete Karas may raise tens of thousands of dollars to run. Green Party or not, that makes him a force in this race. But can he win business support?

4. Is Rep. Bob Turner going to give up his seat in the Assembly if he wins the mayor's office? That's an interesting question.

5. Who's the dark horse? There's a lot of big names hanging out there.

6. Gary Becker's legacy may not be through. Sources say there's something "big" still out there simmering. So far, no one's saying what's what.

7. What happens to City Administrator Ben Hughes after the election in May? Close as people say Hughes was to Becker, sources close to both say that may not be true. According to city sources, they warned Hughes when he first came to town to watch out for Becker. Hughes may be learning what they meant.

Kenosha's Todd Price is the progressive voice in Superintendent of Schools race

Photo: Todd Price, with his 2-year-old son, Enze

When it comes to public education in Wisconsin, Professor Todd Price is a radical.

The Kenosha native and resident, one of five candidates for state superintendent of schools, actually believes public education can benefit the state’s future. He supports spending more money on public schools, rethinking how we approach education and paying teachers more to draw in more qualified applicants.

He also doesn’t believe Democrats or Republicans have shown they’re up to the task. He blames both parties for supporting a school funding formula that’s shifted tax burden from businesses to homeowners, and allowed Wisconsin’s schools to slip in national rankings in recent years.

In short, and cliché as its become, Price is running to bring real change to Wisconsin’s schools. Real change, he said, starts with changing the way the state pays for schools.

“Everybody is feeling the pinch right now,” he said in a recent interview in Racine. “We have to think about where we spend our money. Right now we spend seven times more on inmates than education. That should tell you something.”

Price, who is married with two young children, is running to replace School Superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster, who is leaving the largely advisory position after two four-years terms. He’s running in a primary election on Tuesday to advance to the general election on April 7; the top two candidates advance.

Price isn’t shy in saying the state needs to spend more on education. He criticized Gov. Jim Doyle for using the budget crisis as a reason to cut education funding.

“We can’t not have money for schools,” Price said. “No increase is not the new increase. That’s ridiculous. … This isn’t a raise-taxes, not-raise-taxes issue. You need a long-term view. We can’t fund by referendum anymore. We can’t sustain it.”

Racine Unified is a good example. The district struggles on an annual basis to balance its budget without making significant cuts to programs or going to referendum for extra money. It’s led to a contentious relationship between the district and the public, left schools in disrepair and resulted in relatively poor student performance.

Price said it’s time for businesses, and politicians, to pick up the slack. “They’re not ponying up to the table and paying their fair share,” he said, though adding businesses aren’t to blame for the funding shortfall.

“I blame the politicians,” Price said. “Why should a business pay taxes if they’re not held accountable?”

One area he wouldn’t advise turning to: property taxes. Home and property owners are already paying too much to fund schools, Price said, adding: “People are being priced out of their homes.”

Price brings a background of research to his run for office. After attending several state universities and earning a bachelor’s degree from UW-Eau Claire, masters degrees from UW-Stout and UW-Madison and a PhD from UW-Madison. He’s now an associate professor at National-Louis University.

Price did a lot of research in Ohio, which he described as one of the worst funded public school systems in the country with incredible disparities between school districts. The gap between rich and poor districts is as much as $11,000 per student.

The disparities are the result of a 20-year fight over public education funding in Ohio. He sees a similar, destructive trend developing in Wisconsin.

“We’re seven years in now, and we’re starting to see the dents,” Price said.

One major dent that needs to be fixed is in the federal No Child Left Behind Law. The law was designed to create a national testing system and hold schools accountable for student performance. In reality, it’s undermining student performance, Price said.

Teachers are teaching to the test, and in some cases, it results in short-lived improvements. But any gains in elementary and middle school erode as the students get older because there’s no substance behind the teaching, he said. Students can pass the tests, Price said, but they don’t really learn.

Meanwhile, principals are left in an awkward position because they have to massage the numbers, and teachers are leaving the profession because schools are turning into pressure-cookers more interested in test results than education.

“I don’t mind that in business, or in my job, but I don’t want it to be a pressure cooker for our kids,” Price said. “We want to build a love of learning. I don’t believe testing does that. … We’re using a system that’s 150 years old.”

Among the talked about school reforms, Price is adamantly opposed to school vouchers, which allocate state funding for students who choose to attend private schools. He said voucher programs in their current form serve a narrow ideological interest and has nothing to do with the kids. That said, Price said he would support a voucher system that gave every student a $20,000 annual voucher to attend the school of their choice.

“If voucher supporters agreed to that, I would rethink my position,” Price said. “That would be an exciting and interesting position.”

While the superintendent’s race is nonpartisan, Price associates himself with the Green Party. He said the state should take on an aggressive program to retrofit and build environmentally green schools. He added the state’s funding formula creates such a disparity in Wisconsin’s schools altering it is a matter of social justice, which is another Green Party value.

Price also said the Democrats and Republicans are poor on education issues. Even Democrats want to save the No Child Left Behind Law, he said.

“The intervention of the federal government is totally inappropriate,” Price said, noting the federal government demanded accountability from schools while underfunding education across the country. “Where’s the accountability to fund their law?”

“Frankly, I’ve been disappointed in Democrats and Republicans in their support of public education,” he said.

Price said the federal government is taking an increasing role in deciding what local schools should teach to their students. The centralized authority raises issues about who should control what’s taught in communities. “It’s totally inappropriate,” Price said about federal laws that require teaching certain material. “Once they (federal government officials) get involved in the schools, I’m sorry, but it seems like North Korea.”

If there’s hope in Wisconsin, it’s that public officials are waking up to the reality of a decaying system, Price said. As the state’s public schools slip in national rankings, there seems to be interest in reworking the formula that determines how much money is spent on schools.

Outside of a high-level issues, like funding, Price said he’d like to see more individual attention for every student. He supports having an individualized education program for every student. The plan would be crafted by the student, their parental figures and school officials to help students layout long-term goals and schools develop customized programs to match students’ interests and abilities.

As for teachers, he wants to make the profession more attractive to more people by increasing salaries. Good teachers make a big difference in student achievement, Price said.

“We know students achieve when they have great teachers in the classroom,” he said. “I’m interested in making teaching a desirable profession.”

Price is also interested in shaking up the debate over public schools in Wisconsin. While his opponents lay out safe positions on educational issues, he’s not shy in pushing progressive viewpoints on issues. He’s hoping his outright advocacy for education in the state will win supporters on Tuesday.

“We have the will to rethink how we fund education in the state,” Price said. “It’s catching on. People realize we don’t have a year to wait.”

Full disclosure: Price is an advertiser on RacinePost.

Career Industries adds new program

Careers Industries is now offering Integrated Employment for people with developmental or similar disabilities.

Called Partners in Employment (PIE), the program assesses each participant’s preferences, abilities, interests, strengths and limitations. This assessment is then used as a basis for the work experiences and paid internships a participant takes part in while preparing for Integrated Employment

Careers will be working closely with the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR), which is the entry point for the new program, and will provide job coaching for program participants. PIE plans to partner with local businesses to identify their business needs and then match those needs with the varied interests and capacities of PIE participants.

For more information, contact Mary Beth Popchock at 752-4100. Careers Industries enriches the lives of people with disabilities through work, care, community. It has facilities at 3502 Douglas Ave. in Racine and 161 Industrial Dr. in Burlington.

Seat belt law could mean millions for state

Gov. Jim Doyle laid out plans yesterday to cut $167 million off of the state's $593 million budget deficit. Here's another way Doyle could make some money: ticket people for not wearing seat belts.

Ohio and a few other states are reportedly working on new seat belt enforcement laws to earn more federal dollars. The rub is states have to allow officers to pull over drivers who aren't wearing seat belts, which is known as primary enforcement. Twenty-seven states allow this.

Right now, Wisconsin only allows seat belt tickets if you're pulled over for another reason, and then caught belt-less. This is called secondary enforcement, and Wisconsin is one of 23 states in the nation with this type of law.

The difference between the laws is millions of dollars. If Ohio passes its law, it could receive about $27 million more in federal funding. Wisconsin would have received $17.3 million last year if it had a primary enforcement law. The many could have been used for highway construction.

Here's the fallout:

1. People don't like to be told what to do in their cars. This would require them to wear a seat belt or risk getting pulled over.

2. Getting pulled over is a big deal for people out on warrants. It can lead to arrests, fines and the loss of a car, even if they're wanted on relatively minor crimes. It would give police another tool, but would throw more people into a jail and prison system that's already overcrowded and very expensive.

3. Some people really don't like wearing a seat belt.

So these are trade offs starts are facing these days. Do they sell away people's individual rights for money? Or do they defend their own laws and lose out on millions of dollars that could be used to create construction jobs?

February 11, 2009

Racine acupuncturists offer help to veterans

Serious acute traumatic stress may afflict combat veterans. Flashbacks, panic, insomnia, suicidal ideation and other symptoms continue their daily assault. According to an April, 2008 Rand study, one in five Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from PTSD or major depression.

In response, Acupuncturists Without Borders started a free community-style acupuncture program for veterans and their family members. Acupuncturists nationally offer free veterans clinics, demonstrating how acupuncture helps heal stress and trauma. Treatments of five small needles placed in each ear last 20-40 minutes.

Two local acupuncturists Christie Kern and Linda Stengel, began their free Veterans Clinic in November. It continues on Wednesdays, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. throughout the year. Their clinic is located at 4344 Douglas Ave.

Community Style Acupuncture offers treatment to reduce stress and anxiety; help with sleep and restore a general sense of well being. It occurs in a quiet, supportive group setting; it is not “talk therapy.” All needles are pre-packaged, sterile, and disposed of after use.

Acupuncturists Without Borders began by treating residents, volunteers, relief workers, first responders and military personnel in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Treatments are free; donations are accepted to help fund supplies and support new Veterans Clinics. For more information, check the AWB website.

For more information on the Racine Veterans Clinic, call 939-0111 or 639-3000. Walk-ins are encouraged; no appointment is necessary.

Wheaton-Franciscan stands to gain from state budget fix bill

Wheaton-Franciscan Health Care stands to gain $41 million a year under a partial budget fix announced by Gov. Jim Doyle on Wednesday.

Racine's local hospital would see an increase in its Medicaid reimbursement rate under the plan, according to State Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine. Ironically, the increase in federal dollars would come from assessing hospital revenues to bring in $78.5 million.

But the increase in Medicaid payments more than offsets the hospital assessments, Mason said, commenting: "The hospitals are big winners in this."

Doyle's proposal is part of a plan that would chop an estimated $167 million off of the state's projected $593 million deficit this year. The rest of the deficit will have to be made up in the next state budget, Mason said.

Doyle's plan cuts state spending $125 million, increases business taxes and requires a sales tax on all online purchases.

The increase in business taxes comes from closing a tax loophole that allows businesses to operate in Wisconsin but claim residency in states with lower tax rates. The governor's plan closes this loophole, Mason said. It's expected to increase state revenue $27.7 million.

"It's something that's been annoying people for a long time," he said.

The sales tax on online purchases is considered an equity issue. If you have to pay sales tax on something bought in a store, why wouldn't you pay taxes on something bought from Amazon? The change is expected to raise $9.4 million.

State Rep. Robin Vos, R-Caledonia, said Doyle's proposal unfairly raised taxes in the current recession.

“Though predictable - given the tone of Governor Doyle’s State of the State Address last
month – it’s still unfathomable to me that Governor Doyle could possibly consider
raising taxes on families and small businesses in the middle of the deepest recession of
the post-war era," he said, adding: "I certainly cannot support more Doyle tax increases that only add to a problem he has spent the last six years creating.”

Mason also noted Doyle's budget fix may create jobs in Racine. There's $1 million for worker training at technical colleges, tax incentives for business investments and no cuts that will benefit the potentially lucrative I-94 reconstruction project through Racine County.

Mason said the state needed to address lost jobs now, instead of waiting until a new budget is passed in July.

"The question is how do we get people back to work now?" Mason said.

Eight arrested by gang task force

A massive law enforcement sting resulted in eight arrests Tuesday in Racine.

Officers, deputies and agents nabbed eight of nine targeted individuals on federal charges. The FBI headed up the Greater Racine Gang Safe Streets Task Force.

Large amounts of cash, marijuana packaged for sale and some crack cocaine were seized in the raids. Those arrested included:

Timothy Brewer
Larry Ellison Sr
Mark Etinne
Gertrude Gordon
Shandrika Gordon
Tarvis Gordon
Charnelle Hicks
James Higginbottom
Brenton Burnette-Johnson
Darnel King
Johnny Mares
Michael Tucker
Donald Wilson

Racine police are still looking for Kye Bass, of Racine.

Local police departments, the Sheriff's department, the DA's office, the FBI, the Department of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco, the State Patrol and the US Attorney's office were all involved with the bust.

February 10, 2009

Lehman wage protection bill passes Senate

If your company declares bankruptcy while owing you up to $10,950 in wages ... well, you may be able to get paid, thanks to legislation written by state Sen. John Lehman, D-Racine,21st District, and passed by the Senate Tuesday.

Under current law, workers have a priority over other creditors for only the first $3,000 in unpaid wages, a figure the Department of Workforce Development says is often exceeded.

“In these tough economic times it’s important to make sure state law helps, not hurts, hard-working families. The current law is keeping workers from getting the wages they’ve earned, and that needs to be changed,” Lehman said.

“Losing a job and having to find a new one in this economy is tough enough. Workers and their families shouldn’t also have to go unpaid for the work they’ve already done or lose benefits they’ve already earned. Passage of the Wage Protection Act in the Senate today is a big step toward putting state law back on the side of the people of Wisconsin by making sure that a day’s work equals a day’s pay,” he said.

The bill passed by the Senate requires that the recoverable amount be adjusted annually by increases in the consumer price index. The new $10,950 cap and inflationary indexing provision is consistent with federal bankruptcy law.

Silent: Court enters not guilty pleas for Becker

Gary Becker's silence told the story in court today.

The disgraced former mayor stood mute on eight charges filed against him following the Internet sex sting that nabbed Jan. 13. That left Judge Stephen Simanek to enter not guilty pleas for Becker on eight felony counts, including two new charges for possession of child pornography.

The arraignment hearing last about three minutes. Becker appeared in person with his attorney, Patrick Cafferty. District Attorney Michael Nieskes and Assistant District Attorney Bob Repischak appeared for the state.

Becker's next court appearance is scheduled for April 3. He remains out of jail on bond.

The additional child pornography charges came from a desktop computer found in Becker's car the night he was arrested at Brookfield Square Mall by agents from the Department of Criminal Investigations, Nieskes said.

The images show graphic pictures of clearly underage girls, said Nieskes, who added additional charges may be filed against Becker. Investigators are waiting to hear back from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, an agency that researches child pornography cases.

Aside from Cafferty, Becker appeared at the hearing alone.

Atty. Pat Cafferty and Gary Becker at arraignment

February 9, 2009

Infusino All Sports called in for review

Infusino All Sports, 3458 Rapids Drive, was called before the city's Public Safety and Licensing Committee Monday night for recent incidents at the north side bar.

Police detailed at least nine incidents at the bar, including several fights, in recent months. Representatives from the bar, including owner Egidio Infusino, said they'd taken several steps to address the problems, which they said were caused by a handful of troublemakers. The bar uses a scanner to check all IDs, hires bouncers and has a video camera system.

But committee members said several reports of really drunk patrons causing problems suggested the bar needed to do a better job of cutting off people before they became dangerous.

The bar owners are due back before the committee in two weeks to discuss changes to reduce the number of police incidents at All Sports.

Committee approves $572,000 to improve police department's impound lot

Police investigators may soon be searching suspect's vehicles for clues in comfort.

The city's Personnel and Finance Committee approved spending $572,000 on upgrades to a building at the police department's impound lot.

The project, funded by leftover money from other construction projects, would fix the roof on a building used to house suspect vehicles in homicides and other serious crimes. Police are required to store vehicles used in homicides basically forever, Police Chief Kurt Wahlen told the committee. The vehicles are parked in a building and occassionally reviewed for additional evidence in unsolved crimes. But a leaky roof and general disrepair of the structure, called the "South Building," makes it unpleasant.

"There isn't a place in the entire South Building you could stand and not get wet in a rain storm," said Wahlen, who appeared at the building with Public Works Director Rick Jones. "It's a nasty, nasty building."

Along with basic repairs, the project calls for indoor, heated bays for police to investigator vehicles for clues. The bays will be an improvement over the existing office, which is unheated and has bathrooms that don't work.

The committee approved the request with minimal discussion. Alderman Michael Shields only asked that police protect vehicles impounded for minor crimes. Those cars and trucks are left outside, and are occassionally broken into - at the owner's expense.

Wahlen said there's not much police can do to stop people from breaking into cars in the impound lot.

"As long as we have an impound lot, people will come on the lot and take stuff," he said.

In other news from the Personnel and Finance Committee:

* The committee may have a tough time reaching quorum for the next few months. Committee Chairman Tom Friedel is off being mayor and won't attend, and Vice Chairman Alderman Jim Spangenberg was gone Monday night. That left Shields and Alderman Bob Anderson to handle a bulk of the voting, with Alderman David Maack serving as chairman.

* Anderson and Shields split on a vote Monday night over a 1997 Chevy Monte Carlo that was hit by a city plow and totalled. That may sound like something the city should pay for, but the car was completely buried under a pile of snow and parked on the wrong side of the street for alternate side parking. The plow driver simply thought there was a pile of snow, according to Deputy City Attorney Scott Letteney. Shields said both the car owner and plow driver were at fault and voted against a motion to dismiss the car owner's claim. Anderson and Maack voted to dismiss.

* City concert band members may not be city employees much longer. The committee voted to direct Letteney to work out a deal to sever the concert band from city operations. The city will still support the organization. The move is proposed to limit the city's liability in the event of an accident or theft involving the band.

Mayor Friedel's first act ...

Mayor Tom Friedel has been on the job a couple of days now, and he looked good tonight at City Hall in his new role as Racine's chief executive. (Interesting discussion at the Personnel and Finance Committee meeting about Friedel's title. One alderman suggested it was Interim Mayor, but city staff corrected them. It's just mayor, no qualifier even though he'll be on the job for about three months).

So here's a little Racine trivia: What was Friedel's first act as mayor?

Answer: Shortly after being sworn in, witnesses tell us Friedel left the meeting and suggested the city swap a refrigerator full of plastic water bottles for a more cost-effective, and environmentally friendly, water cooler. He reportedly asked Assistant Public Works Director Tom Eeg to look into the best way to get water to City Council members and city staff.

Eeg said the mayor asked about a water fountain or possibly a water cooler.
"He was just looking for a more efficient means to get drinking water as opposed to using bottled water and not necessarily pushing for a water cooler if not needed for this or if it was not more cost effective," Eeg wrote in an email to RacinePost.

An alderman who witnessed Friedel's first act tells it this way:
"His (Friedel's) first, official, order was to tell Tom Eeg, asst DPW commissioner, to get rid of bottled water, and put a water cooler in the council chambers. San Francisco did this last year, to cut down on the mountains of recyclables that occur from this. This was just after we walked into the Mayor's office, at the end of the meeting, and he (Friedel) was giving a tour."

No word on if the change has yet been made.

The most valuable penny in Racine

This Thursday -- Feb . 12 -- as every schoolchild should know, is Abe Lincoln's birthday.

This year, the day is even more special: It's the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, and the 100th anniversary of the Lincoln penny, the first U.S. coin stamped with the image of an actual person.

It's also the date the U.S. Mint -- for the first time in 50 years -- is changing the penny: replacing the image of the Lincoln Memorial that's been on the reverse since 1959 with one of four designs highlighting different stages in our 16th president's life.

Billions of the new pennies will be produced -- at a cost that's been estimated at 1.4 cents each, which may help to explain the financial mess we're in. (It costs seven cents to make a nickel, so eliminating the virtually useless penny, as some have suggested -- Have you tried to buy anything for a penny lately? -- isn't all that's wrong with America's coinage.)

More on the new penny in a moment, but for now we went in search of a more valuable example of the Lincoln cent ... and we found what may be the most valuable penny in Racine, one worth $1,800!
Note the "S" under the 1909 date...

In numismatic terms, it's a 1909-S VDB penny. 1909 was the year it was minted; S stands for the San Francisco Mint where it was made; VDB are the initials of the engraver, Victor David Brenner. We found this penny at American Coin and Jewelry, 4625 Washington Ave., where Bill Spencer presides over a coin collector's heaven.

Spencer, who pulled the 1909-S VDB penny out of the safe for us, said it's been sold ... but is on layaway as the new owner pays a portion of the price weekly, as he can. The penny is in good condition, but the VDB on the reverse is "weak," in the terminology of the American Numismatic Association Certification System -- by which I mean that my old eyes could not make the initials out at all, even with a magnifier, down near the outer edge below the big One Cent and the two wheat sheaves that adorned Lincoln cents until 1959. The S shows up fine on the front, right under the date next to Lincoln's profile.

An "uncirculated" version of the coin would be worth $3,000-$4,000, Spencer says, but good luck trying to find one of those after 100 years. The VDB is rare enough: halfway through the Lincoln cent's first year of issue the VDB was removed (not to return until 1917, when the initials were added to Lincoln's shoulder). There are three other versions of the 1909 cent: There's one with just an S, minted in San Francisco; one with just a VDB, minted in Philadelphia, the U.S.'s main mint, which doesn't use any location initial on its coins; and a "plain" with no other designation on the coin than its year of issue. More than 27 million of these others were produced, compared to only 484,000 of the 1909-S VDB.

Compare those numbers to today's production: In 2007, 2,613,600,000 pennies were minted. And yet, pennies made today may still become valuable someday, Spencer says, because the current copper plated/zinc mixture they are made from "deteriorates so very fast," so any kept in good condition may become rarities. Pennies were all copper until 1857; 95% copper until 1982 (except for the all-zinc ones in 1943 during WWII); but have been 97.5% zinc with a 2.5% copper plating since then. At current copper prices, a pre-1982 penny contains more than 2.5 cents' worth of copper -- but in 2006 it became illegal to melt down nickels and pennies.

Spencer has been a coin collector since he was 12 (he's now 71), starting when he began delivering the old Racine Journal to a route of 110 customers. He'd go through his route receipts and fill up coin collection books with his various "finds." He later became so knowledgeable he contributed articles to "the Red Book," Western Publishing Co.'s bible of numismatic values. But he didn't become a coin dealer until after his time in the service, and 20 years as a quality control inspector for American Motors.

Although American Coin and Jewelry offers a wide variety of coins and paper money for sale, not many folks are buying in these days of high unemployment and vanishing retirement funds. Instead, his business is mostly devoted to buying gold jewelry, so the gold can be melted down into its cash equivalent. Gold this morning was selling for $899.90 per ounce, a far cry from 2002, when it went for $300. (14 karat gold, by the way, is just 50% gold; 18 karat is 75% and 24 karat is pure.)

Asked if there are any coins with value we should look for in our change, Spencer just laughed. "There's nothing left," he said. Pressed, he said dimes, quarters , half-dollars and silver dollars minted before 1964 were made of 90% silver, so if you find any of them, you've found something of value. (A silver dollar has 3/4 ounce of silver and is worth $12.)

OK, back to the new Lincoln penny: There will be four versions of the new penny this year, a different one released every three months, each one celebrating a different aspect of Lincoln's life. The first, due Thursday, shows a log cabin and reflects Lincoln's birth and early childhood in Kentucky. Next will come Lincoln sitting on a log, representing his formative years in Indiana. After that, Lincoln at the state Capitol in Illinois, and finally the half-finished U.S. Capitol dome. Sometime in 2010 a fifth version is promised, but that design hasn't been finalized yet, according to the U.S. mint. Some 5-7 billion of the pennies are expected to be minted this year.

While you wait for each of the new designs -- and also for a new Lincoln commemorative silver dollar due this week -- keep going through your change. Despite Bill Spencer's pessimism, you never know what you might find ...

ONE FINAL NOTE: The Racine Numismatic Society will hold a Coin Show on Sunday, Feb. 22, at South Hills Country Club, East Frontage Road in Franksville, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. There's free admission and free parking.