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Major north side routes on Eau Claire road work list

Potentially adding multiple roundabouts along a stretch of State Street have been the most contentious pieces of Eau Claire’s slate of 2019 road projects, but there are other parts of the city that will see orange cones when the weather warms.

The City Council got its first look Tuesday evening at the complete slates of alleyway, road and recreational trail projects, which will be the subjects of upcoming public hearings and votes in the coming weeks.

Among them are pieces of a couple of major roads on Eau Claire’s north side that connect neighborhoods and businesses to North Hastings Way that will be under construction this summer.

The city will replace parts of Eddy Lane and Melby Street close to the Union Pacific railroad tracks while the railroad makes safety improvements to crossings there this summer.

“As long as the railroad is in there, we figure we should be in there with Eddy and Melby,” city engineer David Solberg said.

He explained that if the city waited another year for the road work, there would be an additional cost to hire a railroad flagging safety crew to be on scene during the road construction.

Buried utility lines on those roads also date back to the 1940s and are due for replacement, Solberg said.

Because both Eddy Lane and Melby Street are major links to North Hastings Way, Solberg said one of them would remain open while the other is under construction. And during those projects, nearby Starr Avenue will be signed as a detour route.

The City Council will hold public hearings at upcoming meetings to get feedback on Eau Claire’s 2019 road projects before voting to approve them. Alleyway improvement projects are first up, scheduled for Jan. 21 public hearings followed by Jan. 22 votes. Road project hearings and votes will follow during February and March council meetings. For a map of 2019’s projects, go online to tinyurl.com/yd9ctdky.

The project that has gotten the most attention already is the city’s plans for revamping a nearly one-mile stretch of State Street, a major connection from the city’s south side to the UW-Eau Claire campus and downtown.

“This is going to be the most contentious,” Solberg said.

The city has already been holding open houses and meetings — including an appearance tonight at the 3rd Ward Neighborhood Association meeting — to gauge reception to early designs for revamping nearly a mile of the thoroughfare.

One of the changes that’s gotten the best reception is replacing the Lexington Boulevard intersection at the top of the State Street hill, which Solberg described as “objectively horrible,” with a roundabout. The latest design for that roundabout would eat into what is currently a small park behind Eau Claire’s Fire Station No. 5, 2500 Patton St., but not require land from any nearby homeowners.

“Everyone really sees that (intersection) as problematic,” Councilwoman Kate Beaton said, noting that there are often backups there when there’s heavy traffic.

But she also noted that constituents have expressed issues with other parts of the proposed plans and wanted to know the city’s rationale for proposing them.

Roundabouts also have been pitched for the Hamilton and MacArthur avenue intersections, Solberg said, to reduce wait times observed with the stop signs currently there.

Computer modeling shows that three roundabouts on State Street would take two seconds less to go through than it currently takes to go from Hamilton Avenue to Lexington Boulevard, Solberg said. Much of that is due to waiting at the four-way stop on Hamilton Avenue, he said, which would be reduced for drivers going in every direction if that’s changed to a roundabout.

But the part of the project that has been vexing city engineers most has been how to make State Street hill leading past the UW-Eau Claire campus and the 3rd Ward neighborhood safer without creating congestion.

“The public does not want a bottleneck on State Street,” Solberg said.

And key to those plans is finding a way to make the most crash-prone part of State Street — the Roosevelt Avenue intersection.

The city has drawn up designs for a roundabout there, but is still examining different methods to improve that intersection.

Another road project that may be done is several blocks of Forest Street north of East Madison Street in the downtown area.

Though considered a local street, the roadway sees a large amount of heavy vehicles including plow trucks leaving the city’s shops and semitrailer trucks going to and from the Cascades Tissue factory.

While that road work is happening, those trucks are expected to use a detour through residential streets in the North Barstow area.

However, the city is timing its Forest Street project to construction for a veterans tribute in adjacent public property. If the group fundraising for the tribute doesn’t meet its goal this year, Solberg said the road project would also be delayed to 2020.


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Eau Claire County: Jail pod can be added, but too costly to staff

Eau Claire County can build a fourth pod in its jail, but it can’t afford staffing and operating the space, a county official said Tuesday.

“The real conundrum isn’t the build-out … it’s the ongoing, year-after-year costs of operating an additional pod in the jail,” county Administrator Kathryn Schauf said.

She and jail staff — attending the first meeting of the newly created Jail Population Review Committee — estimated that cost at more than $2 million annually.

“That is a huge amount of money,” Schauf said. “Within our levy limits, there is no way.”

Eau Claire County spent $200,000 to send inmates elsewhere in 2018 — six years after the county opened a new jail, and projections call for that figure to rise in coming years as the number of inmates outgrows available jail space.

“There are other counties shipping out inmates,” said Sheriff Ron Cramer, noting Eau Claire County has contracts with Chippewa and Dunn counties. “In the future, being able to find enough bed space is a concern.”

At its December meeting, the County Board directed the Criminal Justice Collaborating Council to complete a comprehensive analysis of the jail population and provide a report by June.

To analyze the increase in jail population and recommend alternatives to the board, the committee will:

• Conduct a cost-benefit analysis focusing on housing inmates out of Eau Claire County and completing and staffing the fourth jail pod.

• Review historical and projected jail population trends along with triggers for overpopulation.

• Provide an update on the state Legislative study committee on bail and conditions of pretrial release.

• Develop a sentencing program for medium- to medium-high risk defendants.

• Explore evidence-based programming options in the community.

• Work with the state Department of Corrections on inmate classifications, jail holds and after-hour holds.

• Review changes in projected demographics.

During the committee’s 75-minute meeting Tuesday, the more than a dozen people who attended touched on a number of topics.

In 2008, the average daily jail population was 261, District Attorney Gary King said. Nine years later, that average rose to 276.

In comparison, his office filed 832 felony cases in 2008 and 1,533 such cases in 2017.

“This notion that either the system and the community isn’t doing almost everything possible to not incarcerate people is flat false,” King said.

That said, the types of felony cases filed by his office involve much more violent offenders and more higher-risk people, King said.

Since building the jail, there have been changes in legislation that also have affected population, Cramer said.

“The Legislature has been very, very busy,” said Laurie Osberg, regional attorney manager for the state public defenders office, mentioning a proposed bill that would make first-offense drunken driving a crime.

If that happens, “I can tell you what that’s going to do to your jail population,” she said.


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AP
Trump pleads on TV for wall money; Dems say he 'stokes fear'

WASHINGTON — In a somber televised plea, President Donald Trump urged congressional Democrats to fund his long-promised border wall Tuesday night, blaming illegal immigration for the scourge of drugs and violence in the U.S. and framing the debate over the partial government shutdown in stark terms.

“This is a choice between right and wrong,” he declared.

Democrats in response accused Trump appealing to “fear, not facts” and manufacturing a border crisis for political gain.

Addressing the nation from the Oval Office for the first time, Trump argued for spending some $5.7 billion for a border wall on both security and humanitarian grounds as he sought to put pressure on newly empowered Democrats amid the extended shutdown.

Trump, who will visit the Mexican border in person on Thursday, invited the Democrats to return to the White House to meet with him today, saying it was “immoral” for “politicians to do nothing.” Previous meetings have led to no agreement as Trump insists on the wall that was his signature promise in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Responding in their own televised remarks, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D.N.Y., accused Trump of misrepresenting the situation on the border as they urged him to reopen closed government departments and turn loose paychecks for hundreds of thousands of workers.

Negotiations on wall funding could proceed in the meantime, they said.

Schumer said Trump “just used the backdrop of the Oval Office to manufacture a crisis, stoke fear and divert attention from the turmoil in his administration.”

Overall, Trump largely restated his case for the wall without offering concessions or new ideas on how to resolve the standoff that has kept large swaths of the government closed for the past 18 days. Speaking in solemn tones from behind the Resolute Desk, he painted a dire picture of killings and drug deaths he argues come from unchecked illegal immigration.

Trump ticked off a string of statistics and claims to make his case that there is a crisis at the border, but a number of his statements were misleading, such as saying the new trade deal with Mexico would pay for the wall, or suggesting through gruesome examples that immigrants are more likely to commit crime.

Shifting between empathetic appeals and the dark immigration rhetoric that was a trademark of his presidential campaign, Trump asked: “How much more American blood must we shed before Congress does its job?”

Trump, who has long railed against illegal immigration at the border, has recently seized on humanitarian concerns to argue there is a broader crisis that can only be solved with a wall. But critics say the security risks are overblown and the administration is at least partly to blame for the humanitarian situation.

Trump used emotional language, referring to Americans who were killed by people in the country illegally, saying: “I’ve met with dozens of families whose loved ones were stolen by illegal immigration. I’ve held the hands of the weeping mothers and embraced the grief-stricken fathers. So sad. So terrible.”

The president often highlights such incidents, though studies over several years have found immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the United States.

Trump has been discussing the idea of declaring a national emergency to allow him to move forward with the wall without getting congressional approval for the billions he’s requested. But he did not mention that Tuesday night.

With his use of a formal White House speech instead of his favored Twitter blasts, Trump embraced the ceremonial trappings of his office as he tries to exit a political quagmire of his own making. For weeks he has dug in on a signature campaign promise to his base voters, the pledge to build an impregnable “beautiful” wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The partial government shutdown reached its 18th day, making the closure the second-longest in history. Hundreds of thousands of federal workers are going without pay, and government disruptions are hitting home with everyday Americans.


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Chippewa Valley business leaders learn more about Designated Economic Opportunity Zones

Designated Economic Opportunity Zones have the potential to be “huge” for rural and low-income areas in west-central Wisconsin.

That’s according to Barron County Economic Development Corp. director Dave Armstrong, who was one of just over 100 Chippewa Valley business and economic leaders — investors, developers, bankers, accountants, builders, property owners and others — who gathered Tuesday at the Pablo Center at the Confluence in downtown Eau Claire for a seminar to learn more about opportunity zones.

“It’s huge, really,” Armstrong said following the seminar, “especially when you look at other things that can be done with it. ... This is another great tool for rural areas.”

Former Gov. Scott Walker approved 120 opportunity zones across 40 counties in rural, urban and tribal areas in April in order to present an opportunity for private, tax-free investment into economically distressed communities over the next 10 years.

Nine of those 120 zones are located in west-central Wisconsin. Three of the nine zones are located in Eau Claire — in the central downtown business district, an area that encompasses the Randall Park neighborhood and the portion of Menomonie Street where the Sonnentag Event and Recreation Complex is planned, and the North Riverfront neighborhood along the east side of the Chippewa River plus an area along Madison and Birch streets.

Other regional zones include areas around Chippewa Falls, Menomonie, Rice Lake, River Falls and Ladysmith.

This brought forth the need for further education about and awareness of the program, said James Hanke, a business development representative at Market & Johnson.

The seminar, hosted by Market & Johnson, Wipfli and the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce, included general information about opportunity zones, as well as where they’re located, who should invest, the proper way to invest and the tax advantages.

“It’s a unique program in my mind, as it’s a win-win,” Hanke said. “It’s a win for communities, seeing that redevelopment in areas that are underperforming or underserved, and it’s a win for investors. I like it a lot.”

Rusk County Economic Development Corp. director Andy Albarado said the session answered many of his questions and he’s excited to see what can come from the zones in his county.

“Out in the rural areas, we don’t have as much of an investor community in private development projects, so this is just another tool to drive some investment,” Albarado said. “I think everyone’s been in the same place — we’ve been sitting around and waiting to see what happens and how it works.”