January 16, 2010

Bonfire tea party has a message for Washington: NO!

Organizers of Saturday's first-ever Bonfire TEA Party had hoped 500 people would show up at the farm of organizer Lora Halberstadt's parents in Franksville.

They were satisfied five or six times over. Crowd estimates varied between 2,500 and 3,000 -- it was impossible to count all the people, young and old, who crowded onto the lawn of what used to be a working farm. The bonfire was off in one corner -- it burned throughout the chilly afternoon and definitely was the place to stay, except that the speakers were on a stage facing in the other direction.

Joe Gamble leads the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance

The afternoon got off to a late start; buses were unloading people more than 20 minutes after the scheduled 3 p.m. beginning but singer Cheryl McCrary kept the growing crowd entertained with patriotic songs.

The speakers had similar messages: no to President Obama's healthcare plan; no to big government and taxes; no to climate change legislation; yes to the "the people" retaking control of the government.

Applause lines were plentiful -- they went to statements in favor of the Bill of Rights, gun ownership, term limits. One Wisconsin politician got more than his share of boos -- the mere mention of Sen. Russ Feingold galvanized the crowd, over and over. There were many flags waving, and many picket signs. The present administration took most of the lumps, but there was at least one sign knocking "Repulicrats."

Because Racine TEA Party, sponsor of the event, has a non-partisan designation, politicians and candidates from all parties were invited to make short statements. Feingold was invited, but he turned down the invitation; had he come he would have met a number of candidates who are running against him. TEA, by the way, stands for Taxed Enough Already.

Joe the Plumber

Star of the rally was Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, a k a Joe the Plumber, who came to fame during the last presidential campaign after questioning candidate Obama and later campaigning on behalf of John McCain (whom he later criticized). But his message Saturday was that the words "liars and thieves pretty much describes all politicians." Wurzelbacher spoke in favor of education and reading, carrying a large book bag to the podium -- books as varied as a biography of John Adams and novels by Ayn Rand.

Rev. David King, Rep. Robin Vos and WISN's Vicki McKenna

Larry Gamble, a retired Air Force Lt. Col., spoke on behalf of the Oath Keepers, which is comprised of military, police and firefighters who list the orders they will not obey: such as orders to disarm the American people, conduct warrantless searches on Americans, impose martial law on any state. (More here.) He noted that the Bill of Rights requires the "consent of the governed," and said "the governed are fed up."

Milwaukee Pastor David King, in his invocation, expressed the hope "that this nation will once again be for the people and by the people." He urged citizens "to take this country back."

Mark Block of Americans for Prosperity, which co-sponsored the bonfire tea party, noted the growth of such events since the first ones last April. (Racine's was on April 18; see here.) "If elected officials aren't listening," he said, "they will in November."

Adele Weeks, a teacher, spoke about climate change -- Al Gore's was another name guaranteed to garner a boo or a laugh -- and pointed out that the data from the University of East Anglia in England had been thrown away and misrepresented. She said CO2 -- a target of climate change legislation advocates -- "is beneficial to mankind."

State Rep. Jim Ott, R-23rd District (and former weatherman), ridiculed Gov. Jim Doyle's legislative proposals for windmills and the adoption of California emission standards with a comedy skit involving the governor and frozen grapefruits falling on his head in Florida. He said the governor's windmill plan involves generating more expensive electricity, and then buying it back and calling the purchase job creation. "It's feel-good legislation," he said. As for Doyle's plan to have the DNR administer the new regulations, Ott noted that "the DNR is having trouble merely counting the number of deer we have."

Racine County Board Supervisor Van Wangaard (a candidate for the state senate) condemned the present state budget, saying it added $3.2 billion -- "billion, not million" -- in new taxes and fees. "We need to take back our government," he said, asking if there was anyone in the audience who had received a 6.2% raise this year, like the state's. No one raised a hand. "We are being taxed enough already," he said. "Let's send a message."

Robert Taylor
, a candidate for the U.S. Senate from the U.S. Constitution Party, echoed the "take the country back" message, but then went far beyond the norm with a call to make English the official language of the U.S., dissolve all laws relating to the ownership of firearms, end the federal income tax, and on and on -- far longer than the allotted three minutes per speaker. "We need to get Washington out of our schools and leave education to us," he said. "We need to get the U.N. building off American soil..."

Dave Westlake, another candidate for Senate -- he's the Republican who campaigns in blaze orange -- told the crowd "the Founding Fathers would be proud of you. If they knew what was going on today, they'd be ashamed.... If they'd see a 2,000-page healthcare bill, they'd say, 'Burn, Baby,Burn.' If they'd see the efforts to control our lives, they'd say, 'Burn, Baby, Burn.' ..."

Terrence Wall, a third Senate hopeful, said, "The American dream is being taken away from us by Washington." Sen. Feingold, he said, "campaigns one way in Wisconsin; then votes another way in Washington (doing what Nancy Pelosi says)." Wall, noting that Feingold had been invited to Saturday's event, said, "he doesn't like to listen." Wall owns property that Feingold leases for an office, and he laughed that the senator's aide tried to get out of his lease after Wall announced his candidacy. Whatever else happens, Wall said, he enjoys seeing Feingold's rent check each month.

Rob Kieckhefer asked of Feingold, "Who does this arrogant ass work for? He doesn't work for 'we the people.' "

Dr. Traci Purath, a neurologist who practiced in Ireland, compared that country's socialized medicine to the U.S.'s ... and found it wanting. "There's not enough to go around under socialized medicine," she said. She said Wisconsin and Ireland have comparable populations -- but there are 65 neurosurgeons in Wisconsin, but only 9 in Ireland. "There will never be another tax cut in the U.S. if this healthcare bill is passed," she said, because people will object to money being taken away from medical care.

State Rep. Robin Vos, R-Caledonia, criticized the Obama healthcare bill, saying it would not reduce costs and gave away "60 billion to the unions."

Vicki McKenna, the Milwaukee talk radio host, said "nobody would have believed that over 3,000 people would gather" like this.

Building Permits: Playmakers invests $100K in West Racine; Country club, All Saints build in December

Playmakers, a new shoe and clothing store in West Racine, is investing significant money into its new building at 3216 Washington Ave. Kevin Jones Builders took out a $100,000 permit on Dec. 18 to remodel the space. The city permit cost $2,052 $1,200.

The Racine Literacy Council began remodeling its office in December. Katt Construction took out a building permit on Dec. 15 to remodel the council's 1,830-square-foot office at 734 Lake Ave. The job was estimated to cost $24,000. The city permit cost $288.

The Racine Country Club's Pro Shop is getting a facelift. Bukacek Construction took out a building permit on Dec. 18 to remodel the shop at 2801 Northwestern Ave. The remodel is projected to cost $30,000 and the city permit cost $360.

The Blind Alligator Tavern, 1922 Sixteenth St., had some work done. James Hansen took out a building permit on Dec. 8 for a $2,000 renovation. The permit cost $60.

Offices at All Saints hospital had remodeling done in December. Riley Construction took out a $12,000 building permit on Dec. 8 to remodel Suite 230 in Professional Building B, 3801 Spring St. The city permit cost $144.

'Launching Green Businesses' conference attracts would-be entrepreneurs

Keynote speaker Tom Szaky at the Launching Green Business conference on Jan. 12 at UW-Parkside.

About 30 people sat around three tables at a "Launching Green Business" conference this week with ideas and questions. The ideas, all of them, were seeds for successful businesses in Racine and Kenosha that would create jobs. The questions, nearly all of them, were how to get from idea to reality.

I was there to write about the three-hour conference, but also to learn more about how RacinePost can grow into a successful business. So I was both journalist and participant, which creates the opportunity of writing about the conference as an "insider." (And, in case you're wondering, we consider RacinePost a "green" business in that we're entirely paperless.)

Fortunately, there were many better business ideas than an online newspaper. The man sitting next to me was an electrical engineer who used equipment to evaluate manufacturing plants and pinpoint where energy was being wasted. He can actually calculate how much money a company can save by making changes to their processes.

Two other people at our table saw homeowners searching for ways to cut their energy bills, but not sure where best to spend money on improvements. Their business would guide homeowners through the "greening" process and help them make smart decisions.

A woman at our table had a contact with the bamboo industry in the U.S. and was exploring ways to produce items made from bamboo, which grows from seed to a usable size in five years. Another woman wanted to convert an industrial building in Racine into environmentally friendly artistic space.

Other tables had an equally wide range of ideas spanning the industrial, commercial and residential sectors. But like anyone new to entrepreneurship, many were unsure how to get money to start a business, how to run a business once they get startup capital, and then how to market their products to customers.

Three participants at the Jan. 12 "Launching Green Businesses" conference at UW-Parkside

The conference offered resources to participants. First, along with the entrepreneurs, the room was filled with local small business experts who help new businesses get off the ground. Second, participants received an extensive list of grants, training opportunities and tax breaks for new businesses. Third, entrepreneurs were eligible to receive one of 20 free scholarships to a 13-week business planning class that typically costs $1,000 to participate.

The entire program was organized by UW-Parkside and its Small Business Development Center, the Racine County Workforce Development Center, RAMAC, RCEDC, green Racine, Gateway Technical College and the Wisconsin Women's Business Initiative Corporation.

Along with networking, conference organizers brought in two keynote speakers. Tera Johnson, CEO of Wisconsin Specialty Protein, discussed how she raised $14 million to build an organic whey protein plant in Reedsburg, Wis. The key for her company, Johnson said, was finding a niche in the dairy industry that was untapped by anyone else in the world. Johnson's company is the only company to produce organic cow and goat whey powders that can be used in baby formulas and nutritional products.

Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle Inc., impressed the audience with his story of building one of the fastest growing companies in the U.S. - all while being just 27 years old. Szaky's company helps consumers collect waste and then "upcycle" into thousands of products that are sold in Walmart, Whole Foods and other companies in five countries.

I left the conference impressed with the entrepreneurs and their ideas, and with the number of support organizations and experts interested in helping small businesses grow in Racine and Kenosha. With high unemployment rates and more businesses leaving than coming, entrepreneurship seems like a critically important way to build (rebuild?) the local economy.

One conference organizer said most entrepreneur's conferences are happy to get a handful of people with ideas for businesses. This conference had about 30 people with ideas, and those were just the ones who could attend.

But there's a big difference between an idea and a business. The challenge for all new businesses is to convert thoughts into reality. The "Launching Green Business" conference was an effort to do just that. For the sake of our local economy, let's hope it works.

Tera Johnson, CEO of Wisconsin Specialty Products

Winter walk along the Root River

One of the great additions to Racine in recent years has been the REC center along the Root River. The center, opened by UW-Parkside's Center for Community Partnerships, created an outpost for local residents to discover and enjoy a river that had largely gone ignored for decades (except by fishermen, who always knew the Root River as one of the best fishing spots in SE Wisconsin).

While the REC is largely enjoyed in warmer months - particularly the kayak and canoe rentals - it's a great starting point for winter adventures, as well. Positioned along the Root River Walkway, the center, located just off of West Sixth Street, is a great place to begin a snowy hike to parts of the Racine that, well, you won't recognize as Racine.

Theresa Ford (above) is an Americorps*VISTA volunteer through UW-Parkside and head of the REC center. She led an animal-tracking hike along the Root River pathway this month as an example of the outdoor opportunities available even on a frigid winter day.

Ford started the hike by noting the Root River is one of the cleanest rivers in SE Wisconsin, and therefore possibly the best suited to become a true environmental jewel not only for Racine, but for the entire region.

Along the way we spotted squirrel, rabbit, dog and deer tracks in the undisturbed snow.

The above photo is titled, "Is this Racine?" The answer is yes! It's one of many scenic views available to the anyone willing to pull on some boots and see a different side of our city. For parents, the trail is a great place to grab a sled and pull the kids along. Cross country skiers and snowshoers would also do well on the trail, which extends past city parks and the Washington Park golf course.

The Root River Pathway extends 4 miles east-to-west beginning at the Main Street Bridge and ending at Colonial Park. The REC is a nice place to connect with the trail because there's free parking, and you have the choice of heading east toward Downtown or west toward the golf course. Both offer nice views.

Even obvious signs of urban life take on a certain charm in the winter.

Theresa walks with Mary McIlvaine, program director for Neighborhood Watch, through a tunnel along the pathway.

One last photo ... graffiti usually isn't worth noting, but this tag seems to have come from a dedicated vegetarian. If only that's all our city gangs did ...

January 14, 2010

A bigger hotel tax to fund KRM? realracine objects

The Legislature has hit Dave Blank's hot button -- hard! -- by proposing that Racine County could fund the Regional Transit Authority with an additional 8 percent hotel room tax. On top of the 8% room tax we already have, which itself is on top of the 5.1% general sales tax. Adding up to a tax of 21.1%.

All to fund the RTA, and KRM commuter rail and better bus service.

The operative word here is "could." The Legislature also suggested three alternative funding methods for RTA: a wheel tax, a half-percent sales tax or a municipal membership fee.

Those three alternatives, of course, share a major flaw in legislators' and local officials' eyes: one way or another they impose a cost on local residents -- um, the voters they depend upon for re-election. Whereas a hotel tax, for the most part, takes the money from the pockets of business travellers -- visitors who do not vote in local elections. (See, tax, rental cars, for more on this approach.)

Maybe for that reason, all Blank sees is the hotel tax, which, if imposed, would raise Racine County's hotel tax to 21.1 percent, highest in the country. Blank, CEO of the Racine County Convention and Visitors Bureau -- now known by its new lower case moniker, realracine -- points out that the hotel tax proposal, if adopted, "would hurt our chances to attract more visitors." Even without an additional tax, county room rentals were down in 4% in 2009.

realracine's newsletter notes that a 21.1% hotel tax would add $7 more (on a room costing $100) to the bill than a room in, say, Milwaukee or Lake Geneva. "The Board of Directors of realracine opposes the inclusion of the hotel room tax to help fund the RTA. We do not want to slam the hotel door on business travelers and tourists who can find lodging in Lake Geneva, Milwaukee County or Lake County, Illinois, at 7 per cent less! We need people, for business and pleasure, to come to Racine County, spend money visiting and enjoying our county, including staying in our hotels and motels."

The existing 8% hotel tax primarily funds the RCCVB... um, realracine, whose mission is to attract more visitors "who spend money throughout the community and therefore replenish the fund," realracine says. "Funding mass transit will not do this."

Ouch! It's that last statement, I think, that gets RTA proponents' knickers in a knot, although as we all know, money is the root of most disputes. (And realracine supports KRM, so go figger.)

State Sen. John Lehman told the Journal Times that Blank is over-reacting. And Kerry Thomas, executive director of Transit Now, pointed out that the choice of which alternative to impose is up to local decision-makers. The sales tax would require a referendum; the others could be enacted by local government.

Blank told us, "We would prefer not to see a room tax as an option at all. In the grand scheme of things it can only be a small part of the funding." Neither legislators nor Transit Now should have been surprised by realracine's position: tourism officials, who have been following the proposal since October, told them of their opposition early in December.

One statement in the JT's story really caught my eye. "Lehman pointed out that Racine County could raise more than enough for an RTA and commuter rail by using a tool it already has: the right to add a 0.5 percent sales tax."

WHAAA??? Wasn't Lehman the lawmaker who most forcefully opposed a county sales tax this summer, when the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee, on which he is the ranking Democrat, was trying to fund the RTA, finally coming up with a $16 car rental tax? Yes. See here. Didn't help that that deal was a middle-of-the-night compromise ... much like the middle-of-the-night sell-out giveaway that saddled Racine County with a piece of the stadium tax forever, costing George Petak the very same Senate seat that Lehman now occupies.

Just for reference-sake, here are the room taxes imposed by other communities, as supplied by realracine:
Kenosha County 21.5% (proposed) -ouch
Racine County 21.1% (proposed) –ouch!
Indianapolis 16%
San Francisco 15.58%
Chicago 15.4%
Cleveland 15.25%
Philadelphia 15.2%
New York 14.75%
Milwaukee 14.6%
Washington 14.5%
Boston 14.45%
Baltimore 13.5%
Las Vegas 12%
Source: Boston’s Office of Budget Management, July 2009

January 13, 2010

'Hopenhagen': While climate change treaty fell through, Racine delegate finds hope in youth movement

Jamie Racine's message from 'Hopenhagen'

Jamie Racine left for Copenhagen, Denmark in early December in hopes of witnessing, even helping to create, an international agreement to reverse global warming.

While the negotiations didn't go as she hoped - no agreement was reached - Racine returned from the climate change conference with a wealth of knowledge, insight and confidence in the strength of a worldwide movement to protect the planet and everyone who lives here.

Racine traveled to Copenhagen - renamed "Hopenhagen" by some during the climate change conference - as part of a Midwest youth delegation organized by the Will Steger Foundation. She was one of 2,000 youthes from around the world, including 500 from the U.S., who organized in Copenhagen to influence the global treaty and to speak on behalf of millions of youthes around the world who are concerned about the catastrophic environmental degradation that us under way.

While the delegation was young, it came prepared. Using an ingenious array online tools, organizational skills and creativity, youthes attended negotiations, pinned down the heads of state on key issues and reported back to communities around the world about their hopes for what Racine described as a "bold, binding and just treaty."

"We saw US youth quoted in Chinese papers, Chinese youth in Indian papers and Indian youth in US papers," Racine said. "It didn't matter what country we represented. We were working for the future across lines."

Racine herself blogged, Tweeted and recorded daily during the three-week long trip. She wrote for The Journal Times (read here and here), and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune (read here), interviewed Gov. Jim Doyle, held video conference calls with students from Walden High School, and was quoted in three Copenhagen-area newspapers.

Racine was also part of closed-door meetings with US government leaders, sat in on treaty negotiations, and joined 100,000 people in their march through Copenhagen. The challenge for the youth movement, Racine said, was to display its energy, while also coming off as meaningful participants in the negotiations.

"There was some concern and discussion about how we are perceived in media and by the negotiators when planning actions," Racine said. "We wanted to show passion, livelihood and fun, but also be taken seriously."

To overcome any prejudices, many of the youthes became experts on policy and immersed themselves in the negotiations. Some participants actually got language added to the treaty - a major accomplishment that requires the approval of over 100 countries, Racine said.

Locally, the intensity of youth interest in the climate change negotiations - and the concern for the global environment - was apparent in Walden High School students who followed Racine, and the Copenhagen conference. They watched issue briefings online, followed daily/hourly news and advocated for a

Racine said she wasn't surprised. "Youth are under great criticism because of their age, so they become more knowledgeable," she said.

For all their work, though, the youth movement couldn't sway world leaders to a final agreement. One of the most important, and for Racine, disappointing, hold outs was President Obama.

The president was scheduled to speak at the conference on a day when the public - including the youth delegation - was not able to attend. Racine watched from her hotel room as Obama, basically, doused any hope of a treaty during a lifeless, perfunctory speech.

"What we saw on Friday, was the president fly in, came in through a backdoor, talk to heads of state, and leave out of back door," Racine said. "He appeared disengaged. He didn't talk with the level of passion we've seem him speak."

"Initially it was a vast disappointment," she said. (Read Racine's account of Obama's speech here.)

Back in the states, Racine's disappointment with the conference's outcome gave way to hope for the coalition she witnessed forming across international boundaries and above and beyond a handful of leaders. The heads of states may still be struggling with global warming, but millions of people around the world are taking action to prevent the catastrophic changes we could see in our lifetimes without meaningful action.

"Our results cannot be defined by the heads of our governments," she said.

The reason? Global climate change is too important of an issue to leave to politicians.

"We're not talking about a far off issue," said Racine, who keeps her 2-year-old daughter in mind when thinking of a world that could look vastly different in 50 years if temperatures continue to rise. "We're talking about our ability to grow food and house the human pouplation. Millions of people will be displaced."

There are plenty of opportunities to take action, Racine said. The state Legislature and the U.S. Congress are scheduled to vote on climate change legislation this year, and the next international climate change summit is scheduled for Mexico City in December.

Racine said she's hoping to attend the Mexico City summit. There's already talk of a bike trip from the Midwest, and she hopes to be part of it.

Interested in having Jamie Racine talk to your class, group or organization? Contact her at: jamier@willstegerfoundation.org

January 12, 2010

Carnauba lands in SC Johnson's new Fortaleza Hall

The Carnauba has landed.

A replica of the airplane that launched SC Johnson's fortune is clearly visible inside the new Fortaleza Hall on the company's Racine campus. And it looks pretty impressive.

The glimmering plane hangs from the ceiling of the sleek, cylindrical building near the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed research tower. Sam Johnson and his sons, Fisk and Curt, flew the Carnauba to Brazil in 1998 to retrace the route HF Johnson Jr. - Sam's father - used to discover carnauba wax that became SC Johnson's first major product.

Fortaleza Hall is part of SC Johnson's $40 million "Project Honor," which is a tribute to Sam Johnson. The company hired Lord Norman Foster and his London-based Foster + Partners firm to design the building.

In addition to Fortaleza Hall, which will serve as an educational facility, Project Honor also includes a Community Building for SC Johnson employees. The building will include a dining room, fitness center, bank, company store and concierge service. (See more details about the project here.)

Construction is scheduled to be finished this month.

Now you see it... now you don't.

The plane was gently lowered...

...into the basement Tuesday night.

RUSD, teachers reach salary agreement, sans QEO

The QEO is gone, and the Racine Unified School District and Racine Education Association have reached a tentative 2009-2011 Teacher Labor Agreement.

No details have been released, so Unified taxpayers will just have to wait a little longer to see whether the state's repeal of the 1993 Qualified Economic Offer has also eliminated what many perceived as a spending cap. The law allowed school districts to dictate a contract, avoiding arbitration, as long as they offered teachers a 3.8 percent increase in salary and benefits. The QEO was widely believed to have held down teachers salaries and was a major target of teachers for years -- until it was repealed this summer during state budget negotiations.

The proposed contract will not be made public, according to a joint statement sent out by Unified and the REA this afternoon, until the REA ratifies it. Then the taxpayers will have three days to consider the tentative agreement, until RUSD's board meets to vote on it.

The statement from Unified says:
The settlement will become official after the Board of Education and the REA have ratified the tentative agreement by a majority vote. The REA ratification meeting is on Jan.21. If the REA ratifies, the tentative agreement will be released for public review on Jan. 22. Subsequently, the Board of Education will consider the tentative agreement during its scheduled meeting on Jan. 25.

To facilitate the discussions, the parties used a problem solving approach to negotiations. The tentative agreement supports the North Star Vision and provides solutions to tough problems such as the current economic environment and closing achievement gaps.
Before the QEO was enacted, school boards and teachers' unions often engaged in heated battles. Long-time Racinians recall the two-month teachers' strike in 1977. Supporters of the QEO have insisted that, without it, teachers will demand higher and higher salaries, irrespective of the local economy. Others, however, say this will not be the case. State Sen. John Lehman, who was a teacher before entering the Legislature, says teachers will be reasonable.

He told the Racine Taxpayers' Association in July, "I have said to my teacher friends, 'Recognize that these are tough times and don't get greedy.' "

Wanted: Mentors to work with Racine Unified sixth-graders

This is the first of several posts in the next two weeks about an exciting new program at UW-Parkside with the potential to radically change community involvement in the Racine Unified School District.

Parkside's Center for Community Partnerships is organizing an ambitious community-wide mentoring program for students entering sixth grade. Organizers from local nonprofits, including Big Brothers Big Sisters in Racine, plan to recruit 120 mentors in Racine over the next three years to help sixth-graders make the transition from elementary to middle school. Research has found this is a critical age for at-risk students, and a positive influence at this age can lead them to finishing high school and going on to further education.

More to come on this program, called Mentor Kenosha & Racine, but the important date to know is Jan. 28. Organizers are holding a New Mentor Orientation in the UW-Parkside Student Center Ballroom from 5:30-7:30 p.m. All are invited, but should know it's a big commitment. They're looking for volunteer mentors to go through training and work with students for an entire school year. Mentors will work with one student, once per week.

If you're interested, plan on attending the New Mentor Orientation on Jan. 28. A second orientation is planned for Feb. 17. If you know someone who is interested, spread the word. Local officials have talked for years about increasing public participation in our school district. Here's a chance to actually follow through on all that talk.

For more on the program, visit here.

As city thinks about limiting new bars, a committee splits on how many bars Racine should have

One alderman's attempt to limit the proliferation of bars in Racine is headed for a showdown before the City Council.

At issue are the number of Class B liquor licenses the city issues, and how much applicants have to pay for one of the licenses.

Alderman Greg Helding wants to make it more expensive to get a Class B liquor license - the one needed to run a bar or a restaurant with a bar - if the license exceeds the state-set quota on liquor licenses in the city.

OK, that's a mouthful. Let's break it down.

State law says Racine can give out 128 Class B liquor licenses and 22 "reserve" Class B liquor licenses. So what does that mean? There's two ways to see it:

1.) The city has a limit of 128 liquor licenses. The 22 "reserve" licenses are special and should be treated as such.

2.) The city has 150 Class B liquor licenses. There's no difference between regular and reserve licenses.

(There's actually a third option: The city could set a limit on its Class B licenses lower than the state-set limit, which is based on population. This may be the direction is headed this year.)

Right now, the city follows option No. 2. Racine has given out all of its regular licenses, and is now issuing reserve licenses. There is a $10,000 fee to get a reserve license, but the city refunds $9,500 of the fee, meaning the reserve license costs the same as a regular liquor license. (The city also doesn't treat reserve liquor license applications any different from regular applications. The only difference between the two is you need $10,000 upfront with the understanding most of the money will be returned.)

OK, this all sets up Monday night's Public Safety and Licensing Committee meeting. Helding proposed eliminating the $9,500 refund for the reserve licenses. The city is allowed to do so under state law, Helding said, and it would create a special, more expensive tier for Class B liquor licenses. In essence, it would be aligning the city option No. 1 above: the city has 128 liquor licenses, and if someone wants to exceed that number, it's going to cost them.

Helding's proposal ran into opposition. Aldermen Bob Mozol and Jim Kaplan voted against the measure saying it could cost new businesses, like a restaurant, too much money to get started.

"That $9,500 could be another piece of equipment in the kitchen," Kaplan said.

Aldermen Sandy Weidner and Aron Wisneski voted in favor of the proposal, but it still failed on a 2-2 vote. Alderman David Maack, who sits on the committee, was not in attendance.

The committee then voted unanimously to "receive and file" Helding's proposal, which heads to next week's City Council without the Public Safety and Licensing Committee's support. But that doesn't mean the proposal is dead.

It now heads to the full City Council, which can vote to override the committee's vote. Helding said Monday night he's not sure if he'll push for the council to consider his proposal or regroup and consider other ways to limit Class B liquor licenses in Racine, such as making it more difficult to exceed a locally set quota on Class B liquor licenses.

January 11, 2010

Racine's Friends of Seniors get two-year lease extension in city building

The Belle City Senior Center is close to staying put in a city building for another two years.

The city's Finance and Personnel Committee voted to offer the Friends of Seniors a two-year lease extension in the former Lakeside Community Center at 201 Goold St. The Friends pay the city $20,000 a year to rent the space; they also cover utilities and have made improvements to the building since taking it over in 2004.

Dick Hinsman, of the Friends of Seniors, appeared before the committee Monday to request a lease extension. The Friends' lease is up in April or May, Hinsman said.

The committee's main discussion was whether to give the Friends a one or two-year extension. Alderman Jim Spangenberg, chair of the committee, said Mayor John Dickert favored a one-year extension.

The committee added a second year to the lease after committee members reported the Racine Zoo appeared to have lost interest in the building.

Hinsman said the two-year lease will help the Friends increase its membership because it shows stability for the senior center. He added that if another opportunity comes along - like a regional senior center for eastern Racine County - the Friends can leave the city's building with a 30-day notice.

Not that that's likely. Hinsman said he's been trying to get Racine, Caledonia, Mount Pleasant and Sturtevant officials together to discuss a regional center for the past year, but no one seems interested.

For now, he said, the Friends are happy at the Belle City Senior Center.

"1,100 seniors thank you," Hinsman told the Finance and Personnel Committee after its vote.

City Notes: Racine police plan upgrade to video capabilities; RCEDC contracts renewed

The Racine Police Department is preparing to upgrade one of its crime-fighting tools.

The department is set to purchase video file management software that will help its officers use video cameras to monitor and record criminal activity. The program will help the department - and eventually all city departments - organize photos and videos for easy access, said Deputy Chief Tom Christensen, who presented the software to the Finance and Personnel Committee Monday night.

For police, that will mean storing evidence for trials and ongoing investigations. It will also mean officers will be able to access neighborhood video cameras on laptops from their squad cars and catch suspects in the act from blocks away. Videos can be saved for up 90 days, which will allow investigators to review surveillance cameras.

Christensen said the Racine Unified School District and local businesses, like banks, may also be able to link into the system to help police monitor activity.

The committee voted unanimously to allow the police department waive formal bidding to buy the software from the Tough Solutions company. The city's information systems department researched the software and confirmed it was compatible with existing systems, Christensen said.


The Finance and Personnel Committee voted to renew the Racine County Economic Development Corp.'s contract with the city for 2010. The $69,400 contract will be paid out of the shared revenue from the city's sewer agreement with its neighboring communities. The City Council will vote on the contract next week.

RCEDC, part 2

The committee also voted to renew RCEDC's $55,000 contract for brownfield redevelopment. "Brownfields" are polluted lands unsuitable for development without cleansing. RCEDC coordinates efforts to clean up brownfields in Racine, which includes identifying properties that need remediation and finding grants to pay for the remediation.

RCEDC plans to focus on the former Racine Steel Castings and Walker manufacturing sites for its brownfield program, according to Tina Chitwood, a community development specialist with RCEDC.

The committee voted unanimously to renew the contract. The City Council will vote on the proposal next week.

Breast feeding grant

The city's Health Department is set to receive $17,656 from the state for a breast feeding peer counselor. The counselor is part of the city's WIC program, which serves 1,700 clients in Racine. The Finance and Personnel Committee voted to accept the grant, which requires no city money. The City Council is set to finalize the grant next week.

City fee goes down

Here's a change: A city fee is going down. The area's household hazardous waste program will cost local property owners $2.40 this year, down from $4 in 2009, according to Keith Haas, general manager of Racine's utilities. The drop in price is because the program's $100,000 annual cost is now spread over all communities east of I-94.

The Finance and Personnel Committee voted to accept the decrease, and the council will finalize the price next week.

City committee reverses itself, votes to give money to Racine homeless shelter, literacy council

HALO in Racine

HALO and the Racine Literacy Council will receive federal money from the city this year after changes a committee's vote last week.

Racine's Community Development Committee voted Jan. 7 to reverse its own decision to exclude the homeless shelter and literacy council from Community Development Block Grant dollars.

The committee freed up a portion of the $2.1 million it received from the federal government by removing $50,000 it had set aside for the Flat Iron Mall on Douglas Avenue, $20,000 for the Foundation of Life nonprofit and $15,000 for Project New Life's Project Nehemiah.

The city divvied up the $85,000 for a variety of uses. Along with HALO and the literacy council, the city also gave an extra $435 to the Racine County Economic Development Corp. for commercial corridor staffing, an extra $15,000 for planting trees, $5,000 more dollars for a plaque to mark the Underground Railroad in Racine, and $30,000 more for crosswalk ramps in the city.

Click here for a list of projects city officials recommended for CDBG money. The City Council is scheduled to vote on the proposal next week.

The committee's changes came after it collected public input on its preliminary recommendations on how to spend the block grants. HALO and the literacy council both pushed for funding after getting shut out of the initial recommendations. HALO's exclusion was somewhat surprising because the homeless shelter had received at least $50,000 the last three years.

The shelter's actions were mildly successful. HALO had requested $76,000 in CDBG money, but will receive less than a third of its request.

The Racine Literacy Council will receive $15,000 for its English as a second language program tutoring program.

The big loser in the committee's vote was the Flat Iron Mall, which stood to gain $50,000 to renovate the aging building. The committee narrowly voted to defund the project, with Mayor John Dickert casting the deciding vote against the project.

Opponents pointed out the city's own plans questioned the Flat Iron Mall's long-term viability on Douglas Avenue. Supporters said the mall served as an incubator for small businesses and needed a facelift.

Ryan: Not running, but going to New Hampshire...

Watch what I do, not what I say?

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-WI, 1st District, is certainly sending out mixed signals.

Last week, he was all, "There's a zero chance I will be seeking the Republicans' nomination for president in 2012," in a press release.

This week it's been announced that Ryan will be in New Hampshire next month -- site of the traditional first presidential primaries -- to do some fund-raising.

Long before the Iowa caucuses mattered, the Granite State's 1.3 million population got the first opportunity to shake the hand of every presidential wannabe.

Ryan does not say he's going to N.H. to test the waters for himself -- but rather to headline a Feb. 26 fund-raiser for the state's Republican Party and another for the state's Young Republicans. The Journal Sentinel says state party officials asked Ryan to raise funds for them because of his fiscal conservatism, which plays well in a state noted for its refusal to enact either a state income tax or a state sales tax.

More here.

Wanggaard criticizes Lehman's support of 'Felon Early Release' program

Van Wanggaard, Republican candidate for state Senate, criticized Sen. John Lehman over the weekend for supporting the state's "early release" program for felons.

Gov. Jim Doyle proposed the program in his last state budget as a way to reduce the state's $5.7 billion budget deficit. The program allows felons convicted of non-violent crimes to earn a day off of their prison sentence for every two days they serve without violating prison rules.

Twenty-one inmates released last week were the first inmates released under the program. Their crimes include retail theft, driving while intoxicated, operating a vehicle without consent, forgery, burglary, drug possession and disorderly conduct, according to a Green Bay Post-Gazette story.

Wanggaard, a former police officer, said the program jeopardizes public safety. he noted Lehman voted for the budget, which contained the proposal.

Wanggaard said in a press release:
This policy was snuck into the budget bill without public debate, and it directly undermines the justice system by taking sentencing power out of the hands of judges and placing it in the hands of government bureaucrats.
As a former police officer, I am concerned that these dangerous criminals will return to their communities and end up committing the same crimes, a concern shared by Racine’s own police chief. With the city of Racine facing the second highest unemployment rate in the state, and the county of Racine struggling with nearly 10% unemployment, sending felons back to the community where law-abiding citizens are having trouble finding work is a recipe for disaster and an invitation for them to reoffend.
Wanggaard encouraged Lehman to support efforts to repeal the early-release program.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, repealed a similar program in Illinois last month after it was discovered at least 50 early-release felons committed crimes or parole violations shortly after getting out of prison.

Quinn is now taking heat for the program, which was passed to help offset his state's budget deficit.

January 10, 2010

Budding Racine filmmaker needs our votes

UPDATE, Jan. 21: Close, but no cigar. The winners have been announced, and Kat Clark isn't among them -- although she was encouraged to see a clip from her entry used in the finalists announcement video and promises to keep working on film projects.

A budding filmmaker from Racine needs our help in winning the opportunity to film a short movie in New Zealand for Peter Jackson, director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which earned something like $3 billion and 17 Academy Awards. (No pressure.)

Kat Clark, a 2008 graduate of the Prairie School (she edited the yearbook) and now a college student, has written a screenplay and made a short video clip as part of her entry for Jackson's 100% Pure New Zealand Your Big Break competition. Five of the hundreds of worldwide entrants -- four chosen by a panel of Academy Award-winning filmmakers and one by the popular vote (which is where you come in!) -- will receive $75,000 to make their three-minute movie in New Zealand.

Clark, 20, is a sophomore at Swarthmore studying English literature, photography and film production; she hopes one day to be a film director. "I've loved writing and film since I was a little kid, so it seems natural for me to go out and make my own movies," she says. "Other girls would imagine getting an Academy Award for Best Actress, but I wanted the Oscar for Best Director or Best Screenplay."

She wrote in her entry that filmmaking "has been my passion since the age of 14, when I started directing shorts with whatever resources I could find... and it is my dream to keep doing so until I am too old and decrepit to handle a camera."

She told us, "I think great films have the power to invoke change and to truly move people. I've always wanted to move people that way. I have an incredible drive to do so and I'm not quite sure where it comes from."

Clark said she "stumbled across Your Big Break while searching for film opportunities in New Zealand. "I took a break from the grueling search to check my Facebook, and there in the sidebar was a little advertisement that said, “Come film in New Zealand!” So here I am. Thank goodness for creepy intuitive advertisements."

Clark's entry, entitled Proof, is designed, she wrote, as a stand-alone film, and also a promotion for New Zealand, in keeping with the contest's instructions to write a screenplay that "captures the spirit of New Zealand -- 'the youngest country on earth.' " It is "an illustration of how many people function inside 'the box,' whether that be a job, a way of living or a state of mind -- and how the spirit of New Zealand (and the environment in general) serves as a way to get outside that box." You can read her screenplay and view the storyboard HERE. Besides air fare, a film crew and funds to make the movie, winners will see their films on U.S. TV "and will become famous," the contest promises.

Two young children, a boy and a girl, make up the cast of Clark's proposed film. She writes that she has "a lot of experience working with children," and she does: for the past three summers she has worked as a counselor for the developmentally disabled at Camp Kinder at DeKoven Center.

Clark, knows how tough the competition is, but thinks she has a good shot at being a finalist because of the number of views her entry has received (12,418 at last count, a lot more than most entries) and positive comments. "It's exciting!" she says. "I need as many people as possible to vote by this Friday at 1:59 p.m. CST."

To vote, go HERE.