December 24, 2009

Kohl: Health care bill 'is good for Wisconsin'

By a 60-39 straight party-line vote Thursday morning, the Senate passed sweeping health care legislation. The bill now must be reconciled with the House version, facing another vote in both chambers. President Obama hopes to sign it into law before the State of the Union address in January. Sen. Herb Kohl, D-WI, issued the following statement soon after the vote:

By Sen. Herb Kohl, D-WI

As the first decade of the new millennium comes to a close, we stand on the edge of passing historic health care reform legislation. This week the Senate passed its health reform bill. With every step of this process, we get closer and closer to improving a health care system that has become untenable for so many Americans.

Though the health care debate has been long and at times rancorous, in years to come we will not remember the disagreements, the harsh rhetoric, or the misinformation that has been spread. Just as with the creation of Social Security in 1935 and Medicare in 1965, both of which were nearly waylaid by detractors and critics, the changes and improvements that result from this legislation will drown out the faint echoes of dissent.

We will remember the passage of health reform as the time we finally put American patients ahead of the insurance companies. We will celebrate how we took the first difficult steps to make bankruptcy due to illness a thing of the past. We will hail the legislation that moved us toward universal coverage, something that all other industrialized countries take for granted.

Reforming the nation’s health care system is no easy task – this is as complicated as it gets. In crafting legislation, we have factored in the unique health care needs of millions of Americans. We have made sure that those who are happy with their current coverage can keep it. And we have also considered how reform will affect a variety of small and large businesses.

I have voted for and stand by this bill. Some of the provisions included in health reform have been studied, perfected, and championed by experts for years. And some are just plain common sense. With this bill, we are helping both young and old. For instance, those age 26 and under will immediately be eligible to join their parents’ insurance plan. And the bill will provide free preventive services for over 870,000 seniors in Wisconsin while shoring up Medicare, making it solvent for an additional decade.

Certain provisions will benefit everyone, regardless of age. We are leveling the playing field by putting a stop to insurance company abuses, providing more choice and competition in health care coverage, and reining in health care costs. The term “pre-existing condition” will be a thing of the past. Patients will be able to appeal to an independent board if their claim is denied. Insurance companies will not be able to drop a policyholder when they get sick and need coverage the most.

Not only will individuals benefit from these changes, but so will the small businesses that often provide their coverage. We understand that health care costs are breaking the bank for small businesses. These business owners are the ones who know their employees by name and know their families. They want to do right by their people. Yet it often becomes a choice between unaffordable health insurance, or staying afloat and providing a paycheck to workers.

Beginning next year, a great number of small businesses will be given tax credits to help provide health insurance to their employees. For those that do not currently offer insurance coverage, the bill will create a marketplace for their workers to purchase insurance.

This bill is also good for Wisconsin, which has always been ahead of the curve in terms of providing health care coverage to our most vulnerable. The bill will provide additional federal funds for BadgerCare, alleviating some of the burden on our state budget and preserving access to care that so many depend on.

As we all know, Wisconsin boasts some of the best health care systems in the country. They serve as models because they prioritize the value of the care they provide over the amount of care they provide. They understand that duplicative testing and treatment do not result in better health outcomes. In this health reform bill, changes to the Medicare reimbursement system will reward efficient systems of care such as those found in our state.

These are provisions I have fought for, among many others. Health reform will also do a great deal to improve long-term care, reduce the cost of prescription drugs, and enhance consumer protections, all in a fiscally responsible way. While this bill does a lot to reduce health care costs, we cannot stop here. This is only the beginning, and we will remain committed to the issue of cutting health care costs in the years ahead.

Nevertheless, this legislation is an outstanding first step. Over the next ten years, this bill will reduce America’s deficit by $132 billion. By insuring 95 percent of Americans while reducing the deficit, this legislation achieves what many thought was impossible, and I am proud to have been able to cast my vote in favor of it. I believe that, as was the case with the creation of Social Security and Medicare, history is on our side.

December 23, 2009

'Twas the week before Christmas... bah, humbug!

Holiday traditions come in all shapes and sizes. One tradition of Racine's Downtown Rotary Club is hearing the following poem shortly before Christmas each year. The poem was written in 1990 by John Crimmings, who notes that, unfortunately, it is as applicable and timely today as when written almost 20 years ago.

By John P. Crimmings
’Twas the week before Christmas
And all that I’ve seen
Are decorations all up
Since before Halloween

The lights are all bright
And the trees are in place
And there seems to be glitter
In every conceivable space

But the economy’s bad
And sales are way down
St. Nick, himself
Seems to be wearing a frown

People are trying
To spread the good cheer
But it seems to be harder;
More difficult each year.

The same kind of problems
Keep rearing their head:
Trouble here and abroad
People need to be fed.

The Spirit keeps slipping
Year after year.
There’s So much uncertainty,
Commercialism and fear.

Remember the Holidays
Of years long since past
And how you would yearn
For that Spirit to last?

It went so much deeper
Than “Good girls and boys.”
It had much more meaning
Than glitter and toys.

Adeste Fideles,
Oh! Holy Night,
Away in the Manger
And Silent Night.

The music is special.
The message is clear.
The problem is living it
Year after year.

It’s the feeling within us
That keeps it alive;
The Spirit of sharing
To which we must strive.

So this is the challenge
To each of us here.
To foster good wishes;
To broaden the cheer.

To carry the message
Of Christmases past.
To continue the Spirit.
To make the love last.

’Twas the week before Christmas
And all that I’ve seen
Are decorations all up
Since before Halloween.

But, if it’s the hoopla
That brings Christmas cheer
Let the trees, wreaths and lights
Stay up the whole year.
John P. Crimmings is General Sales Manager & Vice President, First Weber Group, Southern Wisconsin LLC.

Marcus announces run for City Council

Eric Marcus formally announced Wednesday he's running to replace Alderman Bob Anderson on the Racine City Council. Anderson declined to seek re-election in the April 6 election. So far, Marcus is the only candidate to publicly declare for the Second District seat.

Here's Marcus's statement announcing his campaign:
Marcus Runs For Alderman

(Racine) Eric Marcus filed as a candidate for alderman in Racine's 2nd District. He collected nearly three times the number of required nominating signatures in less than four days.

Marcus lives and started a business in the 2nd District.

“A lot of people talk about creating jobs,” said Marcus. “I have a record of actually creating more than 20 new jobs in the District. Marcus has more than 25 years of business management experience. He currently serves on the City Plan Commission.

"The people of this District told me they did not want a restrictive historic district. They said they did not want a residential facility for teen fathers in a district neighborhood. I worked hard to defeat both of them.” Marcus led the public hearing on the proposed Southside Historic District and made the motion opposing its creation. He led the Plan Commission's opposition to the residential facility.

"Racine has a rich history as a center for business and innovation", said Marcus. “I'm running for alderman because I want to make Racine a vital player in the 21st century economy, to assist entrepreneurs and small businesses, and to create new jobs."

Marcus participated in drafting a 25-year plan for Racine targeting business development, housing and transportation. “As an alderman I can bring even more leadership and experience to the city. My goal is to generate new ideas, new hope, and a plan for Racine's future in which every person counts," said Marcus.

Marcus is a veteran and is active in community organizations. He is serving his second term as president of Preservation Racine, taught a course in Racine history at UW-Parkside and was a volunteer income tax preparer. Marcus and his wife reside on College Avenue.

Alderman McCarthy settles in on Finance Committee

Alderman Terry McCarthy is proving to be a thoughtful member of the City Council's Finance and Personnel Committee - arguably the council's most powerful committee.

On Monday, McCarthy raised questions about a collective bargaining agreement with the city's public health nurses. At a glance, the contract seemed straight forward. The nurses agreed to a 1 percent raise in 2009 and a 0 percent increase in 2010. That adds about $4,100 to the 2009 budget and zero dollars next year.

But McCarthy spotted a provision that would allow city nurses to be paid for unused sick days if they're laid off or their job is outsourced. The clause in the contract is relatively minor. The city rarely lays off or outsources employees, and the payouts for sick days are actually credits for health insurance, not cash payments.

But McCarthy also discovered the nurses would be the first employees in the city to receive this benefit, and the contract could possibly set a precedent for other city unions. Uncomfortable with that possibility, McCarthy voted against the contract.

The contract still passed 2-1 with Alderman Q.A. Shakoor II and Mike Shields voting in favor. Alderman Jim Spangenberg, chairman of the committee, didn't vote because there wasn't a tie. Alderman Bob Anderson, who sits on the committee, wasn't in attendance.

McCarthy's questions, while unsuccessful from his perspective, brought the provision to the public eye and opened it up for debate. Without his inquiry into the contract, it would have passed without consideration. His attention to detail, and willingness to act on that attention, seems to be a good fit for a finance committee that's in charge of taxpayer dollars.

December 22, 2009

Super School Stars: Students at Wadewitz Elementary School

Jacob and Gretchen show off their new hairstyles,
which were the handiwork of Michael Chaney (right.)

When students at Wadewitz Elementary School, 2700 Yout St., met a challenge to collect at least 1,000 lbs. of food to benefit the Holy Communion Lutheran Church food pantry, student Jacob Sprecksel and PTA vice president Gretchen Berthiaume were ready to shed their locks. The two had their heads shaved at a Dec. 14 assembly as the Wadewitz student body looked on.

Every day students and teachers excel in our local schools. RacinePost will highlight a few of these successes with a weekly series called "Super School Stars." Do you know a student or staff member who deserves recognition? Contact us at:

Becker hearing in photos

(Photo - above) Gary Becker waits for Tuesday's plea hearing to start in the (ironically?) Juvenile Court Room. He was there to plead guilty to child enticement and attempted sexual assault of a child. He's sitting next to Channel 12's Colleen Henry.

(Photos - above, below) The media out-numbered lawyers, judges and plaintiffs in the courtroom Tuesday. All of the Milwaukee TV stations, the JT, the J-S, WRJN, WGTD and (of course) RacinePost were all represented at the hearing.

(Photo - above) Becker's fate now rests with this man. Judge Stephen Simanek will sentence the former Racine mayor on March 3. Simanek is leaving the bench in April after deciding not to seek re-election.

(Photo - above) Following the hearing, Henry asked Becker "Do you have anything you want to say to the people of Racine? How about to your family?" Becker stormed past without saying a word.

Becker admits to child enticement, attempted sex assault of child; former Racine mayor looking at 45 years in prison

A fairly empty courtroom for a high-profile hearing

Former Racine Mayor Gary Becker could receive 45 years in prison after pleading guilty Tuesday to one count of child enticement and one count of attempted sexual assault of a child.

Becker appeared before Judge Stephen Simanek to change his not guilty plea to guilty on the two felony charges. In exchange for the plea, District Attorney Mike Nieskes agreed to dismiss six felony counts against Becker, including possession of child pornography and misconduct in public office.

Gary Becker and his attorney, Pat Cafferty, watch DA Mike Nieskes

Becker was arrested Jan. 13 at Brookfield Square Mall after attempting to rendezvous with a 14-year-old girl he met in an Internet chat room. The "girl" turned out to be a state agent who lured Becker to the mall and busted him. The arrest brought national attention to Racine, abruptly ended Becker's second term as Racine mayor and led to his wife divorcing him.

With the guilty pleas, Becker could be sentenced to 20 years in prison for the attempted sexual assault and 25 years for child enticement. Simanek is scheduled to sentence Becker on March 3. Becker remains free on parole bond pending sentencing.

Following the hearing, Nieskes, left, said he was happy with the plea and would recommend prison time for Becker.

"He has 45 years of possible exposure," he said. "I think that is adequate."

The surface of Tuesday's hearing was mundane. Becker appeared with his attorney, Patrick Cafferty, and Nieskes appeared as the lone representative of the DA's office.

Simanek ran through a series of procedures to ensure Becker understood what he was admitting to and that there would be no trial. Becker answered most questions with, "Yes, your honor."

Attention now turns to the sentencing hearing, where Becker could receive anything from 45 years in prison to probation, depending on Simanek's ruling.

The sentencing hearing will be a mini-trial in itself. Nieskes said he intended to introduce into court further evidence of Becker's online habits, including child pornography and additional online chats.

Nieskes also laid out a potential strategy for Becker to argue for a lesser sentence. He asked the court to require Cafferty to provide any of Becker's medical records he intended to enter at sentencing. The records would include any findings of the doctors at the Philadelphia clinic where Becker was treated for sex addiction.

Judge Stephen Simanek

Ostensibly, Cafferty could argue Becker was suffering from a medical condition at the time of his arrest and should, because of treatment, receive a lesser sentence.

Nieskes said he was satisfied with the plea deal because Becker plead "guilty" instead of "no contest" to the charges. While it's something a semantic difference, Nieskes said Becker's plea means he accepts responsibility for his actions.

If he plead no contest, Nieskes said, it would mean the prosecution could prove its case, but he wasn't actually admitting to the crimes. Tuesday's hearing means Becker admitted to the crime and will now be sentenced for it.

District Attorney Mike Nieskes answering reporters' questions after the hearing

Racine likely to get $1.4 million to help neighborhoods; But where to spend?

The city of Racine is line for another $1.4 million to buy old homes and refurbish or demolish and rebuild them. The contentious question heading into 2010 is what old homes to buy?

Members of the City Council's Finance Committee previewed a future debate Monday night by questioning the strategy of targeting government money to a specific neighborhood in hopes of dramatically improving an area.

Alderman Mike Shields questioned city plans to focus on the neighborhood south of Downtown at the expense of other areas. "If we continue to build on the south side, we're going to have other areas suffer," he said.

Alderman Terry McCarthy backed Shields. "His advice is well taken," he said.

At issue is the complicated process of trying to maximize the effect of state and federal money in a city that has needs in all directions and neighborhoods. Clearly the central city, or Riverview, as the Mayor likes to call it, has the most distressed homes in the city. But the foreclosure crisis has hit neighborhoods hard throughout Racine.

The policy decision then becomes do you target poor neighborhoods in hopes of making significant improvements? Or do you go into poor or even wealthy neighborhoods and root out problem properties before they spread?

Without getting into specifics, I have family living in a traditionally middle class neighborhood in the city that happens to be in Shields' district. Three neighboring homes are in foreclosure or on their way into foreclosure, and two more are for sale. If you go down the block, another 5-10 homes are for sale. It's clearly an area on the edge. Sadly, this is just one block in a city with high unemployment in an economy with little hope of turning around in the next five years.

The $1.4 million that's available to the city is part of a surprise $6 million pot of state money. (WHEDA returned $4 million to the state it didn't need and the Department of Commerce had $2 million set aside for this type of program.)

Heck said the $1.4 million allows the city to buy 10 homes and refurbish eight of them; The other two would be demolished and rebuilt. The city is also using $1.9 million in federal stimulus money to buy another 14 rundown homes to refurbish or demolish. That gives city development two dozen opportunities to pull a problem home off the market, and, in theory, turn it around into an owner-occupied property.

Shields argued Monday night city development should look throughout Racine to find the problem properties, rather than focus on one pre-selected area. But Alderman Q.A. Shakoor II pointed out a targeted approach can work. He lives in the West Sixth Street area, which the city focused on and turned around from a high-crime area into a solidly middle-class neighborhood.

"It can work," Shakoor said in response to Shields.

Heck told the committee that the 10 properties the city would buy with the state money - Racine still has to apply for the grant, but is likely to receive the money - have not been selected. It won't be hard to find qualifying properties everywhere in the city, he said.

"Look out the window and you can practically find 10 houses that need work," Heck told the committee.

The city's grant for the $1.4 million is due on Jan. 14. The grant will include a list of 20 potential homes to buy. The list would be narrowed to 10 once the city receives the grant, Heck said.

A decision from the state should come quickly. Work on the homes needs to start by mid-June, he said.

Favorite Son: Ryan's 'exclusive' deal with the JT

Milwaukee Magazine examines the unusual arrangement between Rep. Paul Ryan, R-WI, 1st District, and the Journal Times ... in which the newspaper is given "exclusive" rights to the congressman's column -- in return for ... what?

(Need we point out that all of us are Ryan's constituents, and all of us pay taxes to keep him in Washington, not just the newspaper's subscribers? No.)

Erik Gunn's article is HERE. Some further points that didn't make it into the printed article are HERE.

And unlike the JT, which prohibits comments on Ryan's column, feel free to weigh in.

Downtown Racine's Piranha Gaming resets broken video game consoles

Jason Jarstad, owner of Piranha Gaming, 234 Main St. in Racine

Local kids - and more than a few adults - are counting down the days to opening presents under the Christmas tree and finding a new video game system.

Nintendo Wii, Sony PS3 and Microsoft's Xbox 360 are once again the hot gift of the holiday season. An estimated 24.6 million game consoles will be sold around the world in just the 4th quarter alone.

That's good news for one local business that's finding success in an area most people don't think about when they look at their shiny new console in the box.

Jason Jarstad, owner of Piranha Gaming at 234 Main St. in Racine, fixes broken video game systems. There's more business in the market than you'd think. Video game consoles regularly fail, and owners are forced to send the system into the company or buy a new system. Jarstad offers a third option.

He'll fix broken machines in a day for $35. There's been enough demand for the service since he opened in November that Jarstad has signed a year lease for the Main Street store. He can thank Microsoft's poor quality for the work.

(Photo-right: A piranha in the fish tank at Piranha Gaming.)

The computer giant's Xbox 360 registered an abysmal 54.2 percent failure rate in a survey of by the magazine Game Informer. To be clear, that means more than one out of every two Xbox 360s fail. The most common cause is gruesomely named "red ring of death," which refers to lights on the console that light up when the machine fails.

Jarstad said he's fixed several "red ring of death" errors in the past few months. Some customers have driven an hour for his service.

The video game repair market is relatively untapped in southeastern Wisconsin, Jarstad said. Several people advertise on services like Craigs List and work out of their home, but Jarstad is one of the only businesses of its kind in the region.

Along with 360s, PS3s and Wii's also fail, though at much lower rates than the Xboxes. The PS3 failure rate is somewhere around 10 percent (still pretty bad for home electronics, which typically fail at a 3-5 percent rate), while the Wii is under 5 percent.

Microsoft has extended the warranty for Xbox 360 owners to three years, but many people don't want to wait the 2-3 weeks it takes to get their machine repaired, Jarstad said. There's also no guarantee owners will get back their same machines from the company, he said.

Jarstad has been repairing video game consoles for years. He started in middle school and just never stopped. A few years ago he realized people would pay him to fix machines and started working out of his home. Just as word of mouth spread about Jarstad's services, he got laid off from his job managing food service at Marquette University. With jobs scarce in the down economy, he decided to go out on his own.

He opened Piranha Gaming in early November, complete with a fish tank full of, you guessed it, piranhas.

Along with his repair service, Jarstad's store sells video game systems and used video games (from Atari to PS3 and all systems in between), all at competitive prices. Jarstad noted he has over 100 Wii games for sale for $24.99 or less. A refurbished Xbox 360 (which Jarstad will service, if needed) is $169.99 with a wireless controller and games included.

In the new year, Jarstad hopes to expand his niche business into repairing computers, TVs and other equipment. He'd also like to sell computers and accessories, and generally expand his offerings into a full-fledged home technology store.

For now, he's focusing on video games. Ironically, Jarstad, at least lately, isn't much of a gamer.

"I don't have any time," he said. "I'm too busy with the store."

December 21, 2009

Diane Lange leaving County Board; handful of contested elections shaping up

Long-time County Board Supervisor Diane Lange will not seek re-election to the County Board this spring, according to the County Clerk Wendy Christensen.

Lange is leaving after 12 years in elected office. She serves in the Third District, which is on the northeast side of Racine. Monte Osterman, the owner of Osterman Granite and Marble, took out papers to run for Lange's seat, Christensen said.

All 23 County Board seats are up for re-election on April 6. Candidates have until Jan. 5 to file papers to run for office.

Five other County Board seats may have contested elections this spring. They include:

14th District

Two people have taken out papers to run for the late Mike Miklasevich's seat. Mary Carrington and Mark Hjortness are considering a run for the seat. Carrington is a former member of the Mount Pleasant Town Board. Miklasevich died Dec. 13.

15th District

Incumbent Ken Hall may be challenged by John Lieber, who took out papers to run. Lieber previously ran for a seat on the Racine Unified School Board.

19th District

Incumbent Joseph Bellante Jr. may face a challenge from Donna Deuster, who took out papers to run.

21st District

Incumbent Gilbert Bakke may be challenged by Patrick Lee Haley, who took out papers to run.

Christmas photos

We're opening up a few posts this week to people's Christmas photos. If your church, family, business or organization has holiday photos they'd like to share, send them to:

We'll start things off with some photos I took Sunday at the Wisconsin Lutheran School's annual Christmas Service at First Evangelical Lutheran Church, 728 Villa St.

December 20, 2009

UPDATED: Consultants or equipment for Racine's cable-access station?

Update 2: We learned more about CAR25's future on Monday night. The Finance and Personnel Committee voted unanimously to use $30,000 set aside in the 2009 budget for a part-time employee that was never hired to help the cable-access channel move into a larger office in the City Hall Annex. (CAR25 is now in the Annex's basement.) The move will start on Jan. 4.

What remains unclear is how extra money in CAR25's 2010 budget will be used. One idea is to buy equipment to tie the station into the AT&T Uverse package, which would also allow the city to stream CAR25 online and broadcast live from the City Hall. Another idea is to use the money to hire a consultant to create programming for CAR25.

Here's a few more specifics on CAR25's budget. The city budgeted $80,860 for CAR25 in 2009. That number jumped to $115,903 in 2010. The bulk of the increase came under "operating expenditures," which jumped from $4,125 in 2009 to $44,375 in 2010. "Inter-Departmental" costs increased from $8,618 in 2009 to $14,500 in the 2010 budget. To offset some of the increase, "Salaries & Fringe Benefits" were cut from $67,891 in 2009 to $57,028 in the 2010 budget.

Original: CAR25 is getting attention from city leaders.

At issue is how to spend an additional $35,000 in the cable access station's 2010 budget. The money came from allocating an additional 5 percent from the city's telecommunications franchise fee paid by cable TV subscribers.

We're told some would like to use the money to hire consultants to create new programming for the station. The mayor's budget proposal alluded to this by suggesting the additional money will be used to pay for informational videos regarding "water, parks, streets, fire, police, health and other matters of public concern."

Insiders tell us the new programming would be used to hire consultants to create the informational videos. But some are skeptical. They'd rather see the money used to buy new equipment, tie the station into AT&T's cable system (CAR25 is currently unavailable to AT&T subscribers) and create the ability for live CAR25 broadcasts (for example, to broadcast City Council meetings).

Some are also worried about past efforts to hire consultants for CAR25. Former Mayor Gary Becker spent $30,000 on consultants with little to show for the money, according to insiders.

So the debate appears to center around spending the money on consultants or equipment for CAR25. Look for a decision to be made on the money in the next few weeks. The city's Cable TV Commission meets Jan. 18 and we're told a decision will be made before that meeting.

Snow sculptures bring smiles Downtown

Just a portion of the sculptures Downtown -- there until the thaw

Fred Gardner was a two-time winner in Racine's Winterfest snow-carving competition.

Winners: Jeff Shawhan, left, 2nd Place;
and Fred Gardner, center, 1st and Sculptors' Choice

His 19 co-competitors -- with many state and regional carving champions among them -- voted his "Blind Date" carving, right, the Sculptors' Prize. It carried only $100 with it, but much prestige for the long-time carver (and a champion himself, see our earlier story).

As if that wasn't enough, Gardner, a retired engineer from Caledonia, IL, also won the People's Choice vote conducted among visitors to the Monument Square display. This prize carried a heftier $500 check. His winning sculpture was entitled "Blind Date," a lovable troll with a bouquet of flowers (and a pig, for dinner) in his backpack. "It's big and bold," Gardner said, "something people enjoy." The pig, he added, clearly makes the event "a dinner date."

The vote for second prize turned out to be a tie, so DRC came up with two awards: One went to Jeff Shawhan of Racine, last year's lone snowcarver in Monument Square. , and last year's Chicago and Wisconsin state champion. He won for "Feed me, Seymour."

The other second prize went to Jeff Olson for his "Kiss" sculpture, a re-creation of the iconic end-of-World-War-II Times Square smooch. Both second prize winners received checks for $400 from Devin Sutherland, DRC executive director.

Jeff Olson's 'Kiss' becomes the backdrop for a couple's photo

Jeff Shawhan's 'Feed me, Seymour'