Jefferson County Board OKs solar project

By JAMES KATES / The Capstone

A new crop of solar-energy panels may begin sprouting on farmland in the Town of Jefferson as soon as this summer after the Jefferson County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved development of a 500-acre photovoltaic project by Crawfish River Solar LLC.

Supervisors approved the plan on a unanimous voice vote. Crawfish River Solar will build the facility and sell it to Alliant Energy Corp. of Madison, which will operate the site for its expected life of 30 years.

The 75-megawatt project will produce enough electricity to power 10,000 homes. It will consist of solar cells that will tilt to follow the sun during the day. Rows of solar panels about as high as cornstalks will be spaced far enough apart to allow pickup trucks and other maintenance vehicles to drive through.

The area will be planted with native grasses, and the leased farmland will be restored to its original condition when the project is decommissioned.

The project site is located south of state Highway 18 in an area bordered by county Highways G, J and Q. It is about two miles west of the City of Jefferson.

The facility will provide financial benefits to the county and the town. As with all power plants in the state, the Crawfish River project will pay state utility taxes, and those revenues will be shared with local governments. Jefferson County will receive about $175,000 per year, and the Town of Jefferson will get about $125,000 per year.

The area is home to a similar, larger proposed project also being developed by parent company Ranger Power. The 1,200-acre Badger State Solar project is on hold until 2023 while developers complete an environmental impact statement to qualify for federal financing. The Badger State facility, whose sites would be north and south of Highway 18, would produce electricity for the Dairyland Power Cooperative.

Courthouse renovations

In other action Tuesday, supervisors approved a $150,000 extension of a contract with consultant Potter Lawson & Partners to look at possible upgrades for the 60-year-old Jefferson County Courthouse.

Electrical, plumbing and heating / air conditioning systems in the courthouse are at the end of their useful life and are needing more maintenance. Renovations to courtrooms, the Sheriff’s Department and jail also are being weighed. Any new construction would have to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act to provide handicap access.

Absent a clear plan, no specific price has been put on the project, but an estimate last fall put the cost at $33 million, including $17 million for the new mechanical systems.

Supervisor Jim Braughler of Watertown expressed concerns about the project cost, saying he would vote against it in the long run if the price tag were not brought down. “We need to trim,” Braughler said.

Also on Tuesday:

  • The County Board heard from two circuit judges in support of the county’s Alcohol Treatment Court, which allows repeat drunken-driving offenders to avoid jail time by agreeing to undergo treatment, monitoring and counseling. Judge Ben Brantmeier expressed hope that the alcohol court could be integrated with Family Court, because many family-law cases stem from alcohol abuse. Judge Robert Dehring noted that the alcohol court reduced costs to the county and improved public safety. Once the offenders are “in and enrolled, it’s likely that they won’t reoffend,” Dehring said.
  • The board denied a claim by John Ebbott of Helenville for replacement of a mailbox destroyed by snowplowing operations. Ebbott spoke during the public comment period to suggest that snowplow operators be trained so they “don’t come along and wipe out mailboxes.” Highway Department officials said Ebbott’s mailbox was not hit by a snowplow, but rather was destroyed when a wall of snow hit it during plowing operations.
  • The board approved a proclamation congratulating the Lake Mills High School girls basketball team on winning the Division 3 state basketball championship.
  • Supervisors approved a resolution proclaiming April 2021 as Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Month.
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Council douses ban on smoking

By JAMES KATES / The Capstone

No one argues that smoking and vaping are good for health, but the Whitewater Common Council proved unwilling again Tuesday to ban the nasty habits in city parks.

After considerable discussion via a remote Zoom meeting, the council declined to vote on a smoking ban proposed by member Matthew Schulgit. The proposed ordinance was similar to one that Schulgit’s brother, James, urged when he served on the council two years ago. The earlier plan failed on a 5-2 vote.

Councilmember James Allen said he would vote against the plan because it was unenforceable, adding: “We beat this horse to death two years ago.” By the end of Tuesday’s debate, Allen said the council had “beaten it to death again.”

Others on the council were not as blunt, but they also expressed doubts that the ordinance could be enforced fairly. Member Carol McCormick said the ordinance could be viewed as “government overreach” in a time already full of political tension.

Council President Lynn Binnie noted that only three Wisconsin cities – Oshkosh, La Crosse and Wisconsin Dells – currently ban smoking in city parks. He said more specific laws, perhaps banning smoking within 20 feet of children’s playgrounds, might be more appropriate.

Schulgit promised to revisit the ordinance to look at less restrictive versions. He said a smoking ban was timely because of the current spate of respiratory illnesses surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

Scooter plan

On another issue, motorized rental scooters might soon be zipping around the streets of Whitewater, but not before city staffers and the Common Council take a closer look at the possibility.

City Manager Cameron Clapper withdrew a proposed memorandum of understanding with Bird Rides Inc., saying city staff needed more time to study all aspects of the plan before presenting it to the council.

The proposed agreement calls for Bird Rides to supply at least 100 electric scooters in the city. Users could access the scooters via a smartphone app that would bill their credit cards. Scooters could be ridden on streets and bike paths, but not on sidewalks.

Bird Rides would collect the scooters, maintain and recharge them, and redistribute them at sites around the city each night.

Based in Santa Monica, California, Bird Rides has deployed scooter fleets to more than 100 cities around the world.

Proponents say the scooters provide eco-friendly transportation for college students and others. Opponents cite safety concerns and annoyance to pedestrians.

In other action at Tuesday’s meeting:

  • Members heard a presentation from the Whitewater Arts Alliance, which is providing socially distanced arts exhibitions and participatory events during the pandemic. Alliance Board President Kristen Burton and Vice President Megan Matthews updated the council on virtual and limited in-person arts shows. More information, including video interviews with artists, is at whitewaterarts.org. The alliance operates out of the former Carnegie Library next to the Birge Fountain on Main Street.
  • The council voted to pay off just over $2 million in tax-incremental financing bonds eight years early, a move that will save the city more than $60,000 in interest. The bonds helped finance construction of housing, and the tax district had raised sufficient cash from property taxes to retire the debt.
  • Citizens and stakeholders can learn the latest on the lake drawdown project via a Zoom meeting at 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 24. Clapper told the council that revised timetables and progress reports for the project would be presented at the meeting. The dam near Main Street has been opened to draw down Cravath and Trippe Lakes, which will be dredged and refilled to improve water quality and aquatic habitat. More information is on the city Web site, www.whitewater-wi.gov.
  • Council members agreed to continue holding meetings via Zoom given the pandemic. Binnie noted that overall Covid cases had dropped markedly in recent weeks, but he expressed concern about emerging variants that could bring a surge of new infections.
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Whitewater’s urban forester is honored

By JAMES KATES / The Capstone

Whitewater’s retired streets and parks superintendent was honored Tuesday for another role that added to the city’s attractiveness – that of urban forester.

Chuck Nass, who held the forestry position along with his streets and parks job, received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wisconsin Urban Forestry Council during a meeting of the Whitewater Common Council.

“Chuck was instrumental in a number of projects,” including saving trees from the emerald ash borer and recruiting volunteers for beautification efforts, City Manager Cameron Clapper told the council.

Jeff Roe, urban forestry team leader for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said Nass’ work had helped draw attention to the often-overlooked role of trees in everyday settings.

“Trees are everywhere,” Roe said. “If you look around your city, they make better places to live. They bring in oxygen, beauty, economic value, stormwater mitigation – but mostly we just like them. They help give us a sense of place.”

Dwayne Sperber, a member of the Urban Forestry Council, said Nass had helped expand the definition of urban forestry by, for example, helping street crews use trees to beautify routes that Whitewater citizens travel every day.

Nass “has demonstrated true leadership,” Sperber said. “It was a very easy nomination to make. He’s leaving quite a legacy.”

Library report

In other business Tuesday, the council heard the annual report from Irvin L. Young Memorial Library Director Stacey Lunsford.

The city library had more than 66,000 visitors last year, Lunsford told the council. It has 3,771 registered resident users and 2,941 nonresident users. In 2019, it was a net lender of interlibrary loan items, “which speaks to the quality of our collections,” she said.

Lunsford said the library was expanding on its efforts to become a community gathering space by hosting the City Market during winter months and by hiring a programming and makerspace librarian. That person will lead efforts in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) for the community.

Lunsford said e-books and audio books continue to gain popularity, but she doesn’t expect print materials to disappear anytime soon.

“There are still a lot of people who like print books, a lot of people who read magazines. We are seeing a trend of people going more to digital, but they’re using it in addition to print. They just like to have all those options.”

Also on Tuesday:

  • Parks and Recreation Director Eric Boettcher told the Common Council that work on the new Cravath Lakefront Park amphitheater is ahead of schedule due to the warmer weather. Completion is targeted for June 13. The facility will be named for the Frawley family, who donated $50,000 for construction along with $30,000 from the Rotary Club.
  • The council approved spending $63,560 for a Wachs valve-turning machine from Jet Vac Environmental. The machine will be used to open stuck water valves during periodic maintenance and in emergencies such as water-main breaks. It includes a torque indicator that will apply pressure to the valves selectively to prevent breaking the valve stems.
  • Council members supported the Police Department’s application for a federal grant that would help fund a second school resource officer to work with the Whitewater Unified School District.
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UWW students flock to the polls

By BRAD ALLEN / Webhawk News

Before a collection of absentee ballots were accounted for and Democratic candidate Tony Evers rode a so-called “Blue Wave” to victory in the Wisconsin 2018 gubernatorial election, students at the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater kept their eyes glues to their phones and TV screens to watch the results unfold.

Some students gathered in Timothy J. Hyland Hall in room 1302 to participate in a watch party hosted by the UW-Whitewater College Democrats. When the winning vote was called at 8:03 p.m. for U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Democratic incumbent, several students rose from their seats and cheered as the room erupted with thunderous applause.

Other students were just leaving the polls in the University Center’s Hamilton Room, which closed at 8 p.m.

“It’s a huge issue getting students out to vote,” said junior Megan Martin, chairwoman of the UW-Whitewater College Democrats. “A lot of students I’ve talked to early-voted or absentee voted. There was a huge turnout in early voting this year.”

Senior Isabel Guerrero voted in her second-ever election experience. She said there was no irregular draw to the polls, other than to exercise her right.

The waiting line wasn’t too bad for Isabel, whose voting ward had the shorter of two lines.

“Towards the end, I know they get busy, just ’cause there’s fewer workers,” Guerrero said.

But for sophomore Jack Bolog, the line to enter the polls was much longer.

He encountered “unfortunate odds” of being in the line for Wards 1-9 and persons with last names beginning with letters A through L.

But, he said, “I think that’s outside of their [the poll workers] control.”

“I think it’d be cool to see an independent party win,” Bolog said of his hopes for election results. “I voted for Maggie Turnbull [for governor] because she’s big into upholding the environment and being a good person, and I also like those ideas.”

Bolog said he decided to vote around 7 p.m., just one hour before the polls closed, because a friend teased him into going.

“I didn’t want to be a terrible American, I didn’t want to be an adequate American,” Bolog said. “I’ll settle on being a subpar American.”

Bolog was voter No. 1,077. Guerrero was No. 1,074.

Last year, UW-Whitewater had approximately 12,000 students enrolled who are of legal voting age and citizenship status, according to a 2017 report. Those numbers remain somewhat consistent with this year, with only a slight decrease in student enrollment reported in September.

Junior Casey Seltrecht said it was “pretty easy” for him to register and vote Tuesday. The process took him all of a half-hour.

He also decided to vote about an hour before the polls because “this really, really cute girl told me I should go vote, so I did.”

It was his first time voting.

Seltrecht said he’s usually “very informed” on elections issues, and he didn’t feel his vote was cast without sufficient thought put into candidates’ positions.

“I feel like I would want to see Tony Evers win,” he said, correctly guessing the outcome of the gubernatorial race. “I don’t hate Scott Walker, but it’d just time for somebody new.”

Junior Darius Sanders voted for the first time Tuesday. He tried voting in the 2016 presidential election in Milwaukee, but was unable to do so because he went to the wrong polling place for his address at the time.

He felt inclined to vote this time around because “being black in America, I’m afraid, and if there’s anything I can do to be less afraid, I think voting is the best way to do that. African Americans’ voices don’t always get heard.”

Sanders said he voted mostly Democratic this election, but he feels even split on party affiliation.

“I just want an actual, honest politician that has a plan that makes sense,” Sanders said. “People’s politics really come from what makes them most comfortable. The super poor always gets the brunt of the stick. … the disbarment of the middle class is a threat to the economy.”

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Ruffians, beware! City may impose bigger fines

By JAMES KATES / Webhawk News

The Whitewater Common Council is poised to bring the hammer down on a variety of misbehavior in the city – or maybe not, and in any case not quite yet.

The council on Tuesday, Oct. 2, voted to table a proposed ordinance that would have set a fine of $1,000 for anyone damaging a designated city landmark. The move followed a decision in September to delay action on raising fines for a host of offenses, from obstructing an officer to using improper identification.

The council acted after member Lynn Binnie said a $1,000 fine for landmarks damage could have “unintended consequences.” Besides highly visible publicly owned properties such as Birge Fountain, city-designated landmarks include about a dozen private homes.

Binnie wondered whether a misguided reveler might end up facing a hefty fine for “knocking over a birdbath” outside a landmark home. City Attorney Wallace McDonell said police have the option of charging only disorderly conduct for a small offense such as that.

Patricia Blackmer, who owns a landmark house at 445 W. Center St., told the council that “We have had significant damage to our property. … This ordinance needs to go forward.”

However, some council members questioned the fairness of higher fines for damage only to certain private homes. Members Jimmy Schulgit and Stephanie Vander Pas voiced doubts over whether such an ordinance would deter vandals.

The current fine for property damage is $450 to $700, plus restitution for repairs, council members said.

Council members agreed to look into what other cities are doing about vandalism issues before moving forward. City Manager Cameron Clapper said the matter probably would be delayed until after approval of the city budget at the end of November.

2019 budget unveiled

As revealed by Clapper on Tuesday, the 2019 city budget proposes general-fund spending of $9,658,650, up about $344,000 from the current year. Clapper said most of that extra money was found by eliminating inefficiencies in city spending.

The total city budget, including services such as sewer and water that are paid for with user charges, would be $26,259,403.

On a home assessed at $150,000, the 2019 budget would impose a city tax of $985.56, an increase of $75, within Walworth County; and $973.83, an increase of $53, within the Jefferson County portion of the city.

Clapper noted that limits on state shared revenue are forcing the city to rely more on the property tax to support local services. The tax levy has risen about 3 percent a year over the last decade, a pace faster than overall spending has gone up.

The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, which is exempt from property taxes, makes a payment to the city each year for municipal services. The payment in 2019 will be $281,417, which covers only about 38 percent of the actual cost of services provided to the university, Clapper said.

Major projects in the works for 2019 include Milwaukee Street reconstruction, drawdown and dredging of Cravath Lake, and street-light repair and updates with energy-efficient LED fixtures.

The board’s Finance Committee will review the budget in open meetings on Oct. 11 and 18 at 6 p.m., and the full Common Council will examine the plan at its meetings Nov. 8 and 20 at 6:30, with final approval scheduled at that last meeting.

In other action Tuesday:

  • Clapper presented organizers of the annual CROP Walk with a proclamation recognizing their efforts. The CROP Walk, to be held Saturday, Oct. 6, raises money to fight hunger in Whitewater and around the world.
  • The council approved an ordinance banning the sale of electronic cigarette “vaping” devices to minors and prohibiting minors from possessing such devices.
  • Council members approved a ban on parking from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. on the west side of Church Street from West Center Street to West Forest Avenue. Area residents have complained of noise and littering in the area after bar time.
  • The council approved a bid of $38,689 from F.J.A. Christiansen Roofing to replace the roof of Building 200 at the wastewater treatment plant.

 

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After fire, cat shelter near reopening

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Jefferson welcomes Harry Potter Festival USA

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UWW officials explain parking policies

By JAMES KATES / Webhawk News

The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater rolled out its top brass Tuesday, Oct. 3, to explain its controversial new parking policy and to mend fences with the city’s Common Council.

Chancellor Beverly Kopper, Vice Chancellor for Administrative Affairs Grace Crickette and UWW Police Chief Matt Kiederlen assured the council that the university does not want to hurt the “town and gown” relationship with the new plan, which requires UWW permits for parking on Prince and Prairie streets.

Citizens have complained that the plan deprives them of parking spaces near UWW and imposes “double taxation” for anyone who parks on streets that already are paid for in the city budget.

“Our parking assets are getting more and more stretched,” Kiederlen said, noting that the university will lose an additional 200 parking spaces in Lot 9, on Warhawk Drive near the Kachel Fieldhouse, when construction of a new residence hall begins.

Lots on the south side of campus routinely are 90 percent filled on weekdays, Kiederlen said. He added that the university is trying to ease the parking crunch by, among other things, allowing students with north-side commuter stickers to park anywhere on campus after 5 p.m.

Crickette explained that UWW wants its parking operation to be “self-sustaining” so the university can devote its money to its core mission of educating students.

The cost of most annual parking permits went up $20 this year. Daily permits rose from $3 to $5, and parking tickets went from $15 to $25.

UWW is paying the city $45,000 a year for rights to control the spaces on Prince and Prairie streets, and is reaping at most $30,000 a year in revenue from the related permits, Crickette said. Both she and Kiederlen said parking fines are not a moneymaking scheme but are meant to ensure that the rules are followed.

No immediate action was taken, but the UWW officials and the council indicated they were open to future talks to change the agreement. Council member Stephanie Goettl asked that the matter be placed on a future council agenda for possible action.

City budget

In other business Tuesday, City Manager Cameron Clapper presented a first look at the proposed 2018 city budget, which calls for spending about $30,000 less than this year.

The budget – which still is subject to committee meetings, a public hearing and approval by the Common Council – envisions spending of $9,174,846 in 2018, compared with $9,204,722 in 2017.

About half that money is intergovernmental revenue, mostly from the State of Wisconsin, and about 37 percent comes from property taxes. The rest comes mostly from fines and fees.

City employees will get a wage increase of 1.5 percent, but they will have to pay more for health insurance, covering 15 percent of the cost of coverage as opposed to 12 percent currently.

Clapper told the council that the budget picture is not as smooth as it might first appear.

“To the average person there is not much evidence of financial trouble,” but holes are being plugged with money that really should be set aside for long-term maintenance, he said.

In the long term, the city is hamstrung by state revenue caps that sharply limit increases in property taxes, Clapper said.

He said the city must look to alternate revenue sources, such as economic growth that would generate more tax revenue. The city’s news financial consultant, Ehlers & Associates, will help with planning, he said.

After a series of Finance Committee meetings on Thursday nights, the full budget will be presented to the council at its Nov. 7 meeting. A public hearing and a vote of approval are set for the meeting on Nov. 21.

Landmarks Commission

Also on Tuesday, a protest outside the Municipal Building portended a possibly explosive debate about designation of city landmarks, but the tension fizzled as soon as the issue was more fully explained.

Voting 6-0 with member Carol McCormick absent, the council approved an ordinance proposed by member Christopher Grady that would require the city Landmarks Commission to notify the city manager and Common Council when considering conferring landmark status on any city-owned property.

Grady explained that the Common Council had been caught off guard when the Landmarks Commission declared the city-owned Walton Oaks Park a landmark in August.

Grady said landmark status might impose some excessive costs on the city if, for example, a landmark was destroyed in a storm and the city was required to rebuild it.

Other council members expressed skepticism about this concern but voted for the ordinance because they said it would make the designation process more open and clear.

A second ordinance introduced by Grady would have allowed the council to strip landmark status from any city-owned property. That ordinance failed. Grady moved for its adoption, but his motion was not seconded.

Before the meeting, about 20 protesters had gathered outside the Municipal Building with signs reading “Protect Cultural History” and “Save Our Landmarks.”

 

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Watching the solar eclipse

IMG_5680About 200 people gathered Monday at the UW-Whitewater Observatory to view the solar eclipse. Skies were only partly sunny, but the clouds parted several times to let observers view the eclipse through dark glasses and homemade projectors. Click here for a short video of the event.

 

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Podcast: Detecting ‘Fake News’

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