April 4, 2009

Election notes: Tracking campaign ads

Couple of notes from the campaign trail ...

Pete Karas was the first mayoral candidate to do TV. Here's the ad running on cable over the weekend:

Greg Helding put together a campaign video on You Tube. Here it is:

Karas and John Dickert are also running radio ads. Dickert here. Karas here.

(Note to readers: Let us know if there are other ads out there.)

Property Transfers: Shopping center sells for $1.8 million; Gas station for $1 million

The shopping center near the Pick N Save across from Regency Mall sold for $1.8 million in March. It was the largest real estate transaction in Racine County last month (Click here for the property transfers).

The shopping center at 6116 West Regency Drive includes Papa John's and Cousins.

Also in March ...

The Durand Avenue Mobil Mart, 8920 Durand Ave., sold for $1.056 million.

The J-S reported: Razor Sharp Fitness bought 5.7 acres of land from ARB Enterprises at 7418 Washington Ave. in Racine. The property sold for $840,000.

The above building at1042 College Ave. in Racine sold for $770,00.

Alignment by Klamm at7932 W. Washington Ave. sold for $675,000.

The home at 100 12th St. in Racine was the highest price home sale in Racine County in March. It sold for $362,000.

Racine's LGBT Center has successful opening

See photos from the grand opening.

Bruce Joffe sat contently behind a desk Saturday as more than 100 people wandered through the new LGBT Center he opened on Junction Avenue in Racine. The crowd was actually down from the 200-some that gathered outside of the center earlier to hear speeches and officially open the city's first center dedicated to the gay community.

It was impressive morning for Joffe. Not only had he managed to open the center, but he opened it with the strong support of some of the area's leading politicians. Mayor Tom Friedel, five mayoral candidates, State Sen. John Lehman, State Rep. Cory Mason and several aldermen were on hand to celebrate the center's opening.

But perhaps most impressive, one guest noted, was there was no opposition to the center. No one protested out front or caused problems inside. People who did attend were overwhelmingly positive about the center and its potential.

Joffe noted the center already had 87 individuals, families or corporations join as members, and another stack of emails from people who have expressed interest. The center also has a robust schedule of events planned for the next two months (see the daily schedule and upcoming events here.)

Ray Vahey, president of Center Advocates Inc. in Milwaukee, a group working for full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people of Wisconsin, attended the opening.

"It's a wonderful thing you've done here," Vahey told Joffe.

The center itself is nicely refurbished. It's decorated with art, including a small gallery in the back of the center. There's also a large flat-screen TV to show movies or just to watch television.

The building's exterior was cleaned up as required by the city's condition-use permit, which drew some opposition back in December.

But on Saturday, the center only drew support from the community.

Books is books, right?

In January, Regency Mall said goodbye to Waldenbooks, one of its first tenants.

Now say hello to Books for Less. In the same storefront, no less.

Books for Less opened a week ago, taking advantage of Waldenbooks' left-behind shelves and sales counter. About half of them were loaded with books and craft items for sale. But it is not the same mix of best-sellers and current magazines that Waldenbooks offered. Instead, the store will sell closeout, discontinued and remaindered books.

At discount prices.

Store manager is Kari Davis. Books for Less "is the first outlet of a new chain" that hopes to open more stores in many of Waldenbooks' vacated spaces. Partners in Books for Less are friends from Texas, North Carolina and Tennesee -- among other places -- who had been in the book-selling business. At least one of them was with the Giant Book Sale, another nationwide mall scavenger, which filled Regency Mall's vacated Linens and Things space for three months around Christmas.

Waldenbooks closed more than 100 stores in 2008, and the final 400-or-so appear to be endangered as well. Thousands upon thousands of retail stores of all stripes are expected to close across the country this year, giving mall managers everywhere fits. Regency also lost Steve and Barry's and Zales after Christmas. A story in the New York Times this morning tells how some malls are putting wave-making machines and even discount stores like Big Lots into empty storefronts, in an effort to attract kids -- and avoid totally dark retail spaces.No idea whether one of them might find its way here one of these days...

And speaking of Big Lots... ours, at 4101 Durand Ave. next to Piggly Wiggly, is due to close in May. Hmmmm.

Straw Poll 4/4: The final push

The candidates are tired, the forums are over and the election is just four days away. Time for our last Straw Poll to gauge whether candidates can mobilize online support. Vote for your candidate in the upper right. As always, there's no scientific accuracy to the polls. Just a fun little exercise leading up to Tuesday's election. Good luck to the candidates!

April 3, 2009

First Friday's music banishes the cold

Groove Factor rocked Monument Square

OK, let's be honest: It was a little too cold at barely above 40° to be wandering around Downtown Friday night. And Sunday's forecast of snow didn't help, either. But that didn't stop a surprising number of people -- bundled though they were -- from enjoying the street music, the galleries and many open shops during the season's First Friday celebration.

Yes, many were still wearing winter parkas, and carrying cups of coffee. Monument Square's beer tent didn't seem to be getting much business.

Two of the three sets of street musicians, in fact, took refuge inside for part of the evening. But the fact is, they warmed up the joint, and everybody had a good time.

Monument Square was positively rocking to the sound of Groove Factor. They had a little help from two propane heaters, but truth be told the three musicians put out plenty of heat on their own.

Totally taking refuge inside was Jay Harris, who accompanied his own vocals on the guitar and mouth organ inside McAuliffe's on the Square.

Farther down Sixth, we found hot jazz -- Coltrane among other greats -- energetically delivered by the Trip Tech Trio, using drums, a sax and a trombone to set the entrance to Blueberries on fire.

Next month will be warmer, but First Fridays, even in the cold, lived up to its reputation as the place to be early in the month.

Jay Harris ably accompanied himself

Cool jazz from the Trip Tech Trio

I have no clue what these two were up to, rushing Easter

Helding gets write-in opposition for council

All this time, Greg Helding thought he was unopposed for re-election to his District 11 City Council seat. Made his campaign for mayor against 10 opponents that much less stressful.

Well, that was then, this is now. Gloria Rogers, 66, who ran unsuccessfully for the council in 2005 and 2007, announced today that she is running a write-in campaign to unseat Helding, who has held the aldermanic seat for four years. Rogers says she is a semi-retired owner of a house cleaning service, and decided to run for the council after Helding announced his candidacy for mayor. Helding beat her in 2007, 349 to 188.

The job pays $6,900 a year. Helding said today he is optimistic about his chances in both races.

April 2, 2009

Committee backs summer jobs programs for teens

Some nights this democracy thing works.

Sure, there was some mayoral grandstanding and subtle digs, but the City Development Committee solved some problems Thursday night, got some people employed and fixed up some housing - all before Grey's Anatomy started.

The big problem of the night was getting people from Racine - mainly teenagers - down to Great America for summer jobs. In past years the amusement park in northern Illinois provided a bus up to Racine to get people to work. This year it canceled the bus, leaving a lot of people without access to a reliable employer.

Pastor Elliot Cohen, an advocate for the Great America program, tried to address the problem with a request from Project New Life to buy a bus to drive the employees to the jobs. But the committee tossed out that idea after City Development Director Brian O'Connell noted the available money typically isn't used to buy "things." It's usually used to provide needed services.

If the committee had approved Cohen's bus proposal, Project New Life would have had to return the vehicle to the city when it wasn't being used for the job program. O'Connell said the city wasn't interested in owning another vehicle, and the committee shut down the idea pretty quickly.

But Parks Director Donnie Snow offered an alternative idea to move people to the jobs on rented buses. It'd cost about $46,000 for the summer, but riders would be required to pay $15 per week to offset some of the cost. The remaining amount ($28,000) will come from the block grant money.

The committee backed the proposal, though Alderman Sandy Weidner raised a solid point when asking if it was the city's job to subsidize Great America $500 a day to carry their employees to the park. But the committee decided it was more important for the Racine residents to get jobs than to worry about a corporation making money off of the city.

Earlier in the meeting the committee had a lengthy discussion about another Project New Life proposal, this one more successful. Cohen and his staff proposed a summer internship program that would pay 20 teenagers from poor families $7.50 an hour to work for a local company for 10 weeks. They requested $30,000 for the project.

This one brought out the mayoral candidates. Aldermen Jim Spangenberg, Greg Helding and Q.A. Shakoor II shamelessly spoke (campaigned?) in favor of the proposal. More importantly, they voted for it. And, to be fair to all three, their points were well taken. All three said Project New Life's proposal was the type of program needed to help kids learn job skills and think about their career.

Spangenberg said it was the type of program that gave kids hope. Helding said he voted against the proposal the first time around, but was impressed Project New Life did its homework, re-wrote the proposal and brought back a solid program he could support. Shakoor added his support by saying Project New Life's proposal was the type of preemptive program needed to deter kids from making bad choices

Alderman David Maack cast the lone vote against the proposal. He suggested Project New Life look into a program that would put teenagers to work doing needed jobs, like landscaping or lawn mowing, and then teach them how to run a business.

Cohen responded that Project New Life has long-range plans to develop new programs for the city, but needed to start with the internship program to build trust and success in the community.

Snow shared a personal story about the program. In the '60s and '70s the city offered employment programs for teenagers in poor households. He participated in one of them and it helped develop his work ethic - and gave him some spending money while growing up.

United Way President Dave Maurer gave a brief presentation on the Advancing Family Assets program, which is designed to help families out of poverty (read our story about it here). The proposal for city funds ($19,000) easily passed the committee, with an aside from Alderman Aron Wisneski who noted the United Way proposal was based on a 10-year "Higher Expectations" plan passed by a committee led by Twin Disc CEO Michael Batten. That was a subtle dig at John Dickert, who is campaigning on a 10-year plan he'd put together as mayor.

The housing programs were passed with relative ease. The committee approved money for Habitat for Humanity ($225,000), Neighborhood Housing Services of Southeast Wisconsin ($278,000), Project New Life ($28,175 - they had a good night), Racine Housing and Neighborhood Partnership ($25,000) and a private rental rehab ($94,425).

Not to leave anyone out, Bonnie Prochaska pitched a $15,000 request to help pay for the "Back to the Root: An Urban River Revitalization plan." It passed with no discussion.

More newsroom and pay cuts at Journal Sentinel

More bad news for employees of the Journal Sentinel.

The third round of newsroom buyouts in a year and a half seeks to cut another 16 journalists, in an effort to shave $1.2 million from the payroll. Previous newsroom cuts reduced the staff by 10 percent and five percent; this would slice away another 8 percent.

But that's just the newsroom. Elsewhere in Journal Communications operations, a 6 percent wage cut has been imposed on all employees -- in return for an additional 10 personal days.

Meanwhile, closer to home at the Journal Times, we hear some better news. We had earlier reported that Lee -- following an industry trend -- had instituted mandatory furloughs for all employees this Spring. Well, either we were wrong or they've been canceled. According to a number of employees we've spoken to, there are no furloughs for JT employees at this time, thanks to the restructuring of the company's debt burden in February. And Lee's stock has clawed its way up to 35 cents per share, back from a low of 24 cents.

April 1, 2009

Mayoral forums in Council Chambers? Stay tuned

The non-issue -- to everyone but mayoral candidate and State Rep. Bob Turner -- of the use of City Hall for such public meetings as mayoral forums may be on the path to solution.

Turner, you'll recall, stormed out of a Realtors' forum last Wednesday night, and then refused to participate in Monday's YPR forum, both held in the City Council chambers, insisting "a political forum at City Hall at taxpayers' expense would be illegal."

Well, it ain't necessarily so, according to an opinion issued Wednesday by City Attorney Robert Weber, who also draws upon an opinion issued in 1999 by former city attorney Dan Wright.

Not that Weber makes it simple.

First, he says "the allegation that meetings in the City Hall Council Chambers might be illegal stems from an opinion issued by Dan Wright in 1999."

Then he says he agrees with that opinion.

But then he says, "However, I believe the essence of the opinion is that informational meetings for a civic purpose (such as the mayoral forums) are permissible." Weber points to a paragraph near the end of Wright's opinion, which says:
Reasonable regulations relating to rental or free use of Designated Public Forum meeting areas also need to be considered and uniformly applied to each particular area. For example, a policy might be imposed as follows:

Permitted activities: Social, civic, recreational and educational activities, meetings and entertainment (primarily benefiting City of Racine residents ??); candidate forums that offer an opportunity for all candidates for a specific public office to make presentations and/or respond to questions from the public during the campaign period."
As Weber notes, Wright "merely suggested that a policy be adopted." Although in 2001 a community center policy was adopted, "...no specific policy was ever adopted for the use of the Council Chambers."

Weber proposes a solution to repair that gap: he drafted a proposed policy, application form and resolution for the council to clear up whatever uncertainty exists. All the documents are here for those who want to read 'em in the original legalese. It's a 500 kb .pdf.

Stay tuned to learn whether anyone on the council, or the new mayor (unless that's Bob Turner!) thinks this is necessary.

United Way aims to take 50 families out of poverty

The United Way of Racine County elected new officers Wednesday at its annual meeting, honored departing board members and three exceptional volunteers and outlined a new program in development for more than a year -- Advancing Family Assets (AFA) -- that aims to bring 50 families out of poverty this year ... and hopefully 500 or more in the next decade.

Francisco Sanchez of Chase bank was named chair of the organization, a new title, replacing outgoing president Greg Anderegg of SC Johnson who led the board for the past three years. David Maurer, executive director for some 19 years, also got a new title: president and chief professional officer.

David Maurer, Mary Wyant and Greg Anderegg

As his last official duty, Anderegg presented the President's Award to Mary Wyant, who was ending her six years on the board with what Maurer said was the best attendance on record.

Maurer, Mark Mundle, Rakesh Popli and Anderegg

Rakesh Popli and Mark Mundle were named Volunteers of the Year.

Jeff Neubauer, chair of the AFA initiative, said the program will address the "paradox" of companies unable to find qualified workers like truck drivers, machinists and nurses in a community with persistent and high unemployment. "Not to overstate it," he said, "but how do we break the cycle of poverty?"

He ran off a series of unsettling statistics:
  • More than 20 percent of families with children in the city of Racine have incomes below the poverty level.
  • Out of those 2,017 families, 84% are single head of household families
  • Of the 1,664 women aged 15-50 who gave birth here in the past 12 months, 72% were unmarried.
Neubauer said the program -- which hopes to start in a few weeks with the first 50 families -- has a three-pronged strategy based on income, education and health -- attempting to improve all through "intensive engagement with coaches" using existing community resources.

"The rate of return on investment is much higher when you focus on the youngest children," he said, pointing out that typically the least amount of funds are spent on kids from birth to three, and the most on adults in prison.

The goal, he said, is to bring 95% of these families out of poverty. "We do it with married couples," he said. "If we can do it with these 2,000 families, bringing them from where they are to where they want to be, it's conceivably achievable" to do it with even larger numbers.

The United Way, Maurer said, has budgeted an initial $50,000, and will be asking the City Council for $20,000, along with a similar amount from the business community. Eventually, the United Way expects to budget $200,000 annually for AFA, he said.

"If we can move the needle, we'll want to refocus our resources," Neubauer said. Non-profit organizations and churches wishing to nominate eligible families for the program should contact Kimberly Payne, project facilitator, at the United Way.

New board members elected were Milous Adams, U.S. Navy, retired; Randy Baker, CNH Global; Sue Boland, Wheaton Franciscan-All Saints; Bruce Duerr, Great Northern; Ethel Gates, Service Employees International Union, Lincoln Lutherna; Mark Giesler, Johnson Diversey; Stephanie Hayden, Racine Unified; Ray Koukari Jr., Gateway Technical College; Steve McLaughlin, UW-Parkside; Paul Rohling, Johnson Diversey, retired; John Siegert, Design Parners; Fran Strickland, SCJohnson; and Helen Suda, Gateway, retired.

Board members re-elected included Tom Burke, Modine Mfg.; Mike Goebel, CWA Local 4611; Brad Goodwin, SCJ; Adrian Schoone of Schoone, Leuck, Kelly and Pitts; Alicia Tanguma, PA Staffing Service; and Scott Terry, Fuel Creative.

Campaign Chair for 2009 is Chris Antonneau of David Insurance.

Ryan takes on Obama with Republican budget proposal

Rep. Paul Ryan continued his Obama-esque rise through government ranks today when he presented the Republicans' alternative budget to Congress. The tax-cut-heavy proposal (featured in a Ryan editorial in the Wall Street Journal) has no chance of getting passed, but it does offer a clear alternative to President Obama's budget proposal. It also is just the latest sign that Ryan is a national leader for Republicans and - dare I say - a legitimate contender for the GOP's presidential nomination in 2012.

The Washington Post suggests this year's Republican budget is important because of the party's scathing criticism of Obama's spending plan. But the Journal-Sentinel notes Ryan's plans would require deep spending cuts on popular programs, like Medicare.

Here's Ryan in his own words:

      “America is coping with a deep economic recession today, and facing a tidal wave of debt tomorrow. The President’s budget exploits the current economic crisis to justify trillions in new spending, taxes, and debt. Worse, by failing to address the looming insolvency of our entitlement programs, his plan puts our nation on a path to an even more dire fiscal catastrophe in the future.

      “Republicans must not only act to stop this disastrous course, but offer the American people a better choice. Our budget alternative provides a path out of our current crisis – by restoring economic growth and job creation, controlling spending and deficits – and by lifting the crushing burden of debt and taxes from future generations.

      “The House Republican budget alternative reflects the firm belief that America’s greatest strengths lie in Americans themselves. Empowering Washington to micro-manage our personal affairs threatens prosperity; encouraging the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit of the American people restores prosperity. The stakes of this budget debate could not be higher; and the choice for a stronger, more secure, and more prosperous future could not be more clear.”

Local news website makes bad April Fool's joke

I posted a story here earlier meant as an April Fool's joke involving former Mayor Becker and the upcoming primary election. A Milwaukee TV station picked up the story as legitimate and it ended up being a lot more confusing than intended. Apologies to readers and thanks for the quick response on a bad joke gone awry. -Dustin

LGBT Center opening in Racine on Saturday

It'll be a who's who local politics Saturday at the grand opening for the LGBT Center 1456 Junction Ave. in Uptown.

Mayor Tom Friedel, City Council President David Maack and Alderman Michael Shields will be joined by County Supervisor Diane Lange, Aldermen Bob Anderson and Greg Helding, State Sen. John Lehman and State Rep. Cory Mason.

The center, billed as the Racine/Kenosha LGBT Center, is also expected to bring Kenosha Supervisor Dayvin Hallmon and Alderman Anthony Kennedy. LGBT stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

The grand opening is from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and will include a tour through center and its art gallery.

Local businesses, professionals and organizations – including members of the Uptown Merchants Association that formally endorsed the LGBT Center’s special day – are welcoming their newest neighbor with sales at their stores and giveaways at the Center.

Door prizes ranging from gift certificates to dinners for two have been provided by Corner House and Out of the Pan restaurants, the Racine Merchandise Mart, Antique Junction, Avenue Antiques, the Brass Monkey, Schmitt Music, Uptown Transfer, and Dr. Richard Kemper.

Following the ribbon-cutting and open house, a "Pink Tie Gala Dinner" will be held at Kenosha’s Club ICON to honor and support the Center. Featuring food prepared and presented by some of the area’s leading restaurants and caterers, the gala also includes entertainment and a silent auction boasting original artwork, getaways, autographed books, and Armani sculptures. All proceeds will benefit the LGBT Center.

In addition to the April 4th festivities, programs during the LGBT Center’s opening month include an art gallery comprising distinguished works organized by the Lemon Street Gallery; a discussion of the film Fried Green Tomatoes; “The History of Drag: A Peculiar Retrospective,” presented by UW-Parkside’s Rainbow Alliance; “Dancing with the Stars” a demonstration of popular ballroom and disco dances; and “How Healthy is Your Relationship?” a discussion and support group led by relationship expert and Women’s Resource Center Director Cherie Griffin.

May’s activities already include a workshop on goal-setting led by Karen Carnabucci, LCSW; the first monthly LGBT Domestic Abuse Support Group meeting; a discussion of the favorite gender-bender film Steel Magnolias; the initial meeting of an LGBT Teens group; and “The Age of Eros?” the first in the LGBT Center’s Distinguished Speaker Series sponsored by Educators Credit Union.

The Center is open daily from 2:00 – 6:00 pm (except Tuesdays and Sundays) for drop-ins by teenagers and students seeking a safe place to meet, do their homework, conduct research using free Internet access as well as a large library of LGBT-specific books and periodicals, and get together in an affirming and supportive environment. The Center is also open from 10 am until noon daily (except Tuesdays and Sundays) to welcome anyone who would like to stop in.

Special events, open to the public, are held on Wednesday and Thursday evenings.

The mission of the LGBT Center of SE Wisconsin is two-fold:

(1) To provide a safe and supportive environment through which LGBT people, their family, friends and allies from Racine, Kenosha and surrounding areas can access needed community, social, educational, and health-related services; and

(2) To link the LGBT population of Racine and Kenosha with the many non-profit and cause-oriented organizations operating in this area and across the state.

A 21-member Board of Directors led by President Steven Brown, Ph.D., will guide the new organization in its efforts to provide needed services and to integrate it within the larger community.

Other Racine directors of the LGBT Center are Michael Dobrowski, Lisa Thielke, Julie Anne Dresen, Sylvia Acheson, Mark Bridgeman, Rev. Dr. Tony Larsen, Charles McDonald, Christopher Scott Rosen, Steve Wanberg, Russell Warren, and Steve Wingert.

Kenosha directors include the Hon. Dayvin Hallmon, Len Iaquinta, Clint Jones, Dr. Chris Renaud, Chantal Smith, Franco Tarsitano, Rev. Georgette Wonders, and Neil Zeltinger.

Complete details about the purposes, programs, services and activities of the LGBT Center of SE Wisconsin are found (and updated) regularly on its Web site: www.lgbtsewisc.org. Telephone: 262.664.4100. Fax: 262.664.4104,

For more information, to arrange an interview or tour of the facility, please contact Executive Director Bruce Joffe at 262.995.5084. E-mail: execdirector@lgbtsewisc.org.

March 31, 2009

WRJN forum now online

RacinePost helped out WRJN tonight with the first mayoral forum to include all 11 candidates competing in the April 7 primary election. It was a really well put together forum with specific questions on the issues, good discussions and some revealing responses from the candidates. Find out for yourself over at WRJN's Web site, which features the forum broken up into four parts.

Or download them with the following links:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
One quick note on the forum ... WRJN's Tom Karkow is a great moderator. He and Janet are, hands down, the hardest working journalists in Racine and they really know their city issues. If you're looking for a candidate to support, do yourself a favor and check out their forum.

One other note ... the JT didn't sponsor or get involved with any of the candidate forums leading up to next week's election. What's that about?

Cynthia McKinney endorses Karas for mayor

The Green Party's presidential candidate for 2008, former Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, has endorsed Pete Karas for mayor.

This should come as no surprise to anyone: Karas is a member of the Green Party who campaigned on McKinney's behalf.

On the Green Party Watch website, McKinney is quoted today as saying:
Racine is lucky to have Pete Karas as a candidate for mayor and will be even luckier when he becomes mayor. Now that’s the kind of change we can believe in.

Secure that kind of future for Racine. Let Racine become the beacon for sustainability and community that we so desperately need in these times.

I know Pete Karas and trust him. Please donate what you can to Pete now.

Imagine a grocery bag with 30,000 pounds of food...

More than 30,000 pounds of food were donated to the Racine County Food Bank during two recent food- and fund-raisers.

The Boy Scouts' Scouting for Food drive last Saturday collected 26,601 pounds of food -- an increase of 14% over last year.

Thoughts for Food, the musical benefit held on March 6 and 7 (our pictures are here), collected 3,483 pounds of food (along with $16,000). The amount of food collected was nearly identical to last year; the cash proceeds were down by 23%, a decline attributed to the organizers' decision to lower the admission price from $15 to $10 in light of the difficult economic times.

In an after-event celebration held at George’s Tavern on March 22, Dan Taivalkoski, the Racine County Food Bank’s executive director, called the events "a huge success.”

The Racine County Food Bank distributes over a half million pounds of food, free of charge, to food pantries, emergency shelters, community meal programs and social service agencies throughout Racine County every year.

Careers Industries names new executive director

Careers Industries, Inc., an organization that provides day services and work opportunities for individuals with disabilities, has named Joe Greene as executive director. Greene succeeds Susan Wesner who retired after 19 years of service.

Greene has 20 years' experience in the field of rehabilitation. He was president of Handishop, a vocational rehabilitation organization in Tomah; he serves on the Governor’s Advisory Council for the DNR and is a founding member of the Wisconsin Ability Network.

Careers Industries serves about 260 adults with disabilities through two programs -- Fulfillment Services and Integrated Day Services. Its work sites are at 3502 Douglas Ave., Racine, and 161 Industrial Dr., Burlington. To volunteer, call 262-752-4100.

Mayoral candidates report raising $76,000 ... so far

Eight of Racine's eleven mayoral candidates filed their first campaign finance report on time -- the deadline was yesterday. The City Clerk is still waiting for reports from Jaimie Charon, Raymond Fay and Lesia Hill Driver; Assistant City Clerk Donna Deuster noted that a postmark before the deadline is still acceptable. ("The check is in the mail," is what she actually said.)

UPDATE, 4/1: Two more reports have been received. Details below.
UPDATE, 4/3: And now the last one...see below

All told, they report raising $76,157 -- more than the mayor's yearly salary. Final reports are due 10 days before the May 5 special mayoral election -- but will, no doubt, be amended after that.

Here's the quick-and-dirty from the pre-primary filings:

Robert Turner:
Raised $10,329
Spent $5,391
Donated to himself: $4,000
Received $100 from State Sen. John Lehman
Jody Harding:
Raised $3,0936
Spent $2,792
Donated to herself: $500
Has an $800 loan
Another large donation: $500 from Fred Young
Jim Spangenberg:
Raised $8,125
Spent $4,959
Loaned himself $1,686
Q.A. Shakoor II:
Raised $6,138
Spent $5,101
Loaned himself $4,000
Received $200 from Jim Eastman of Merchant's Moving, and $300 from his boss at Twin Disc, Mike Batten.
Kim Plache:
Raised $8,403
Spent $2,149
Loaned herself $1,000
Two large contributions: $800 from Regine Peterson, general manager of an Omaha, TV station; $803.20 from Jeff Neubauer, owner of Kranz Inc.
Pete Karas:
Raised $11,900
Spent $10,197
Loaned himself: $3,500
Among many $25 donations, there were a couple of big ones: $600 from Yorgan for Mayor, and $600 from People for Todd Price.
Greg Helding:
Raised $13,514
Spent $6,334
Donated to himself: $2,300
One of his largest contributors was Reince Priebus, state GOP party chairman, who gave $500. Other contributors included Cathy Stepp for Senate, $600; and the Racine County Republican Party, $200. Others who donated $800 included campaign treasurer David Namowicz, Alderman Robert Mozol and Charles Johnson, chairman of the city's Police and Fire Commission.
John Dickert:
Raised $14,655
Spent $5,288
The Journal Times initially reports that Dickert filed an incomplete report, but it appears instead that the City Clerk's office failed to notice part of his .xls spreadsheet filing, which was sent via email.
Update, 4/1: Two of the three missing candidates' reports came into the City Clerk's office Wednesday morning.

Jaimie Charon:
Raised $0
Spent $299.54 on yard signs
Raymond Fay:
Raised $930.
Spent $492.30
Update, 4/3: The Journal Times reports this morning that the final candidate has filed.

Lesia Hill-Driver:
Raised $1,623
Spent $1,485.35

March 30, 2009

Local executives back KRM at the Joint Finance Committee hearing

Here are photos from Monday's Joint Finance Committee hearing at Case High School:

It was a great event for Racine that drew most every local leader one could imagine.

Perhaps the key moment for local residents came early on when RAMAC's Roger Caron and the heads of Racine's major employers got up and publicly backed KRM before the committee.

Rep. Robin Vos, R-Caledonia and not much of a commuter rail supporter, asked the business leaders if tax increases in the state budget were too high. But Twin Disc CEO Michael Batten wouldn't bite. He simply affirmed the business leaders' support for KRM.

More of what they had to say HERE.

Crowd packs City Hall for YPR's mayoral candidate forum

YPR and Leadership Racine drew a standing-room crowd Monday night for their candidate forum at City Hall. It was a strong showing for the organizations and a testament to their growing impact on the local political scene.

State Rep. Bob Turner was not among the 10 candidates who participated in the forum, which was moderated by Janet Days and Scott Terry. Turner sent a message that he had a prior commitment in Madison and could not attend.

Turner refused to participate in the last mayoral candidate forum at City Hall, claiming it was against city ordinance to hold a forum in the City Council's chambers. Mayor Tom Friedel and the City Attorney's office said forums in the chambers were fine.

Lesia Hill-Driver was the new candidate in the mix. She was unable to participate in previous forums because of a family emergency.

Now, to the forum. It was the fourth time the candidates got together to talk issues and each of them seem settled into their message. Here's a look at my impressions of the first four questions of the forum:

Jim Spangenberg

The four-term alderman seems to be growing in confidence as the primary approaches. He used his story again about Dubuque, Iowa luring an IBM plant as a model for Racine and emphasized his experience as a politician and business owner (he owns Johnson's Home Furnishings in West Racine). He supports KRM.

Greg Helding

Alderman Helding had another round of solid answers to questions. On specifics, he talked about using the City Council's Alcohol and License Committee to crackdown on problem taverns in Racine. He said it was an example of him making "real changes" instead of nibbling around the edges.

Pete Karas

Karas flashed the charisma and confidence of a candidate who's thought through his campaign and the local issues. He brought up his public power proposal as a specific he'd do as mayor, and backed it up with key stats like 82 other communities in the state have their own power plants utilities. A woman sitting by me whispered in response: Is that true? I'm guessing people like the idea of public power, but they're not sure if it's possible. He backed KRM, noting gas prices alone may force people to look for alternative transportation.

John Dickert

Dickert said he's the guy to break the stalemate over KRM in the community. He likes the idea, and says more people will buy in if they realize the development potential of a train station in the city. He emphasized his local, state and federal experience.

Kim Plache

Plache said the city needs strong leadership, and she's the candidate to bring strength to the job. No doubt her state experience, both in the legislature and with WHEDA, will help her as mayor. She was the only candidate to point out the top business leaders in the Racine area testified in favor of KRM Monday at the Joint Finance Committee meeting at Case High. She also noted Racine's low housing prices will make it an attractive buy once the commuter rail station opens.

Raymond Fay

Fay emphasizes his County Board experience and reiterated his support for KRM. He has an interesting idea of having members of a Regional Transit Authority elected to office. He opposed an appointed board to levy taxes to support mass transit in the Racine area.

Jaimie Charon

Charon split from the field Monday night by voicing his opposition to KRM. He joined Jody Harding as one of two candidates opposed to commuter rail in Racine. He supports expanding bus service. Charon also noted he's a former Coast Guard officer

Q.A. Shakoor

Shakoor brought his crisp professionalism to the forum. It's clear he loves Racine - he's lived in the city for 55 years - and mentioned the Boy Scout program he leads in the city. He's a KRM supporter and would like to save property tax payers money by having the RTA funding the bus system with a sales tax. Other candidates agreed this would be a good way to improve mass transit while lower property taxes.

Jody Harding

Harding noted she committed to running for mayor last August - months ahead of any other candidate. Of course, she was planning a couple of years to run for office, not a couple of months. But she's clearly been thinking through her stance on the issues. Like Charon, she's opposed to KRM. She said local government would translate any savings from an RTA into property tax reduction. Harding says she does support mass transit, though.

Lesia Hill-Driver

It's her first forum, but Hill-Driver debuted solid. She's looking to help people, and seemed confident she could do that as mayor. She's a KRM supporter.

Good news in real estate (mostly for buyers)

Believe it or not, there's much good news in the real estate market.

If you're a prospective buyer, you're aware of this, of course. Lots of choices; frequently low prices; interest rates at historic lows; a fantastic first-time home buyers' tax credit. Let's take those in order:

CHOICES: There are 1,439 houses on the market today, in Racine County. In February 2007, there were only 513 single-family homes on the market.

LOW PRICES: On average, prices are down, which actually might mean nothing (except that cheaper houses are being sold), but we've got some startling specific examples from as recently as last week proving that bargains exist.

INTEREST RATES: Last week, rates for a 30-year mortgage fell to 4.85% -- the lowest rate ever recorded by Freddie Mac, the government-backed mortgage financing company.

TAX CREDIT: There's an $8,000 tax credit in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, for qualified first-time home buyers purchasing a home before Dec. 1 of this year.

But even sellers need not despair, despite the horror stories they've seen nationally -- horror stories like in the Fort Myers, FL, area, where thousands of foreclosed homes on the market have brought prices down to one-third or one-fourth of what they were three years ago. If you want to live in Florida. There's even some (relatively) good news buried in the latest foreclosure statistics. American CoreLogic, a national real estate reporting service, notes that Racine's foreclosure rate of 1.5% in February -- up one-tenth of a percent from last year -- is still lower than the national rate of 1.7%. But 4% of all mortgages in the city are at least 90-days delinquent ... although that, too, is less than the national rate of 5%.

Let's start with some local statistics, pertaining only to single-family homes in Racine and Racine County:

Single-family homes only; does not include condos, vacant land,
duplexes or commercial property. Source: Multiple Listing Service

Two things stand out, of course: fewer sales and lower prices. (That 19% year-over-year drop exactly matches national figures.) But sellers need to take those price figures with a grain of salt. Despite those averages, a house in the county that sold for $180,000 last year is not necessarily selling this year for $146,000, according to Michael Voss, president of the Racine Board of Realtors.

What is happening is that more first-time buyers are getting into the market -- and more lower-priced homes are selling. "First-time home buyers are buying homes more in the range of under $155,000," he says, "so those houses are moving faster than those in the $200,000 - $300,000 range." Voss didn't just pluck that first figure out of the air; $155,539 was the average price of homes sold in the county during January. Two years ago, in January 2007 -- during what Voss calls a "sellers' market" -- the average price of homes sold in the county was $163,164. That's a decline of just 4.6%, compared to the one-year 18% and 19% figures above.

"Upper end homes," Voss says, "are not as affected, just as vacation homes in some areas are not as affected as others are. If a home is very unique, it is kind of on its own."

Voss insists that prices have "pretty much stabilized and settled to where they should be selling at right now, around their assessed amounts. When the inventory and foreclosures are cleaned up and sold, it will be back to more of a normal market. We are already seeing more buyers coming out and activity is up from a couple of months ago."

Realtors are, by nature, optimistic. But this week's property transfers from the Racine County Register of Deeds both supports and contradicts Voss' position. In Racine, eight houses sold for prices ranging from $20,000 to $87,000, with five priced at $33,000 or below. There were only two sold over the $155,000 average (one of them a multi-family apartment house) -- but the majority sold for far less than their assessed -- and presumably fair market -- value.

Here are the prices of the even dozen properties sold in Racine during the week of March 16-20, compared to their "fair market value" assessments from Zillow.com or the Register of Deeds:
  • 1624 S. Memorial Drive, right, sold for $20,000; assessed at $72,000
  • 1617 Rapids Drive, sold for $27,000; assessed at $97,000
  • 1827 Green St., sold for $31,000; assessed at $107,300
  • 1426 William St., sold for $32,900; assessed at $108,300
  • 2214 Geneva St., sold for $33,000; assessed at $133,800
  • 1609 Quincy Ave., sold for $53,000; assessed at $112,400
  • 3205 Pierce Blvd., sold for $55,000; assessed at $118,500
  • 1031 Florence Ave., sold for $87,000; assessed at $141,000
  • 726 Yout St., sold for $88,000; assessed at $113,000 (not a residence)
  • 3514 Osborne Blvd., sold for $152,000; assessed at $164,500
  • 932 Roosevelt Ave., sold for $193,800; assessed at $162,400
  • 1042 College Ave., right, sold for $770,000; assessed at $755,000 (a 3-story apartment building)
The 10 single-family homes went for an average of $69,000, and there's probably a story behind the buyer and seller of each of 'em. What is striking is the large divergence between the assessor's idea of fair market value compared to what the marketplace decided this month. Much of that difference, no doubt, can be attributed to the lag time between when the properties were assessed more than a year ago, the current inventory glut and the present real estate market collapse. It also raises a question about the city's decision a few years ago, now being reconsidered, to reassess every two years rather than every year. (And, no: our property taxes won't go down just because our assessment are too high. Assessments will be/should be lowered to something approximating the fair market price, but the mill rate will go up a commensurate amount to fund local government at the level to which it has become accustomed.)

Jim Ladwig, Racine County register of deeds, says, "I don't necessarily disagree with you on the assessed value of some of the homes being high, as the real estate values have declined during the economic downturn" and he points out -- correctly -- that the register of deeds is not responsible. "Each municipality has their own assessor... I know they have statutory guidelines they must follow."

With the "leveling off" -- Voss' term -- of home prices over the past year, "home buyers are at an advantage," able to be incredibly choosy and buy "the right home at a more realistic price."

So what's the good news for sellers? The main reason the average price of sold houses is so low, according to Voss, is the large number of homes in foreclosure, and those first-timers buying less-expensive houses. Not all homes are selling at a deflated price, Voss says. "For the most part, a homeowner who keeps his house updated and makes normal home improvements will see that home hold its value, or even appreciate."

Price appreciation also depends upon when they bought their house: a homeowner who just bought a home two or three years ago, will probably not see any appreciation in that short a time, Voss says, emphasizing that a home is a long-term investment. "You buy a home, live there for many years, and then can expect to sell it at an appreciated value." For example, he says, "back in January 2000, the average price of a home sold in Racine County was $125,578. If you sold that home today at the average price of $155,539, you would see a profit of $29,961 -- so you have lived in your house for nine years, had a roof over your heads and still come out walking away with over $29,000. This is proof that a home is still a great investment."

Voss' message is clear and direct: "The time to buy a home is now," he says ... over and over.

But maybe not so much the time to make a killing selling one...

March 29, 2009

Video: Mayoral candidates talk about their top issues

RacinePost caught up with the mayoral candidates for brief interviews before Community for Change's mayoral forum on March 23. Here's the candidates:

(Jim Spangenberg, Pete Karas, John Dickert, Q.A. Shakoor, Raymond Fay)

(Greg Helding, Jody Harding, Jaimie Charon, Bob Turner, Kim Plache)

Special thanks to Marie Block for editing the videos.

What would you ask the mayoral candidates?

We're 10 days out from the April 7 mayor primary and the mayoral forums are coming fast and furious. YPR has one scheduled for tomorrow night at City Hall. (It'll be interesting to see if Bob Turner participates.)

RacinePost and WRJN are hosting the only radio forum of the campaign season on Tuesday night, and we need your help. What do you want to know from the candidates? What questions would you ask? Post them in the comments and we'll consider them for the forum.

Like all of the forums so far, the numbers issue is going to make it difficult to dig into where candidates really stand on what they'd do as mayor. But we'll give it our best shot, with an toward the month leading up to the May 5 general election as the time to really get a sense of what the remaining two candidates have to offer.

With that in mind, what do you want to know from the candidates?

City rallies for KRM, as prelude to budget hearing

KRM supporters rode our trolley-bus Downtown

Racine awoke Sunday to weather not at all conducive to thoughts of a long commute. But by the time the KRM rally took place at 1 p.m., roads were clear and minds were focused on the future.

A future with commuter rail service from Racine to Chicago and Milwaukee, bus service from here to wherever jobs are, and a fixed-rail trolley around downtown.

The rally at what once was Racine's State Street train station, transformed a few years ago into a local bus depot, was a prelude to what organizers hope will be a good turnout tomorrow when the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee holds a budget hearing at Case High School and hears local testimony about the city's strong desire for millions of dollars in public financing for commuter rail and a regional transit authority to take over and improve local bus service. Gov. Doyle's budget has proposed to finance that with stimulus funds and a half-percent sales tax.

Mayor Tom Friedel, right, led the first of two trolley rides around downtown along the State Street-Main Street-Sixth Street-Marquette Street loop he would like to see a fixed-rail trolley some day. "This is the last, best chance Racine has to get on board with the rest of the country, with a good transportation system," Friedel said.

Focusing on jobs, and how to bring workers to them, he said, "A lot of the buses that leave our station do not go where the jobs are. A rail connection to Chicago and Milwaukee would bring our workers access to hundreds of thousands of jobs there."

Friedel said Racine's big employers "are telling us they need a regional transportation system to bring workers here. It's time; it's way time," he said. "We've been talking about this for 15 to 20 years."

Three mayoral candidates attended the rally: Kim Plache, Jim Spangenberg and Q.A. Shakoor II, but only the latter two rode the trolley around downtown. Spangenberg said "KRM is definitely part of our vision for Racine. This city is so great: great housing stock, the lake. There's no reason this city can't be more than it is now."

Shakoor pointed out the improvements and reduction in crime that have come in the last few years to his 8th Aldermanic district -- location of the State Street rail station -- and noted, "We hope we can push this across the finish line."

Petitions in support of KRM were available for signing at the rally, organized by Sandy Petrykowski of Community for Change. There were also cookies in the shape of train engines, with "KRM" written on them in frosting. (Too bad we ate them; might have made a difference with the legislators!) The Joint Finance Committee budget hearing at Case High School runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, March 30, one of half-dozen conducted around the state.