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Paving the way

Under construction since mid-June, work is progressing on an Eau Claire road that serves as a main route between the city’s south side and both UW-Eau Claire and downtown. Some intersections along the nearly mile-long State Street project will open and close at different times, but the route as a whole will remain under construction into early November. Top: A new roundabout has been built at the Lexington Avenue intersection at the top of the State Street hill. Above: Jesse Jones, foreground, and George Frazier of Menomonie-based Pember Companies stamp concrete around the roundabout on Tuesday. View more photos at

Wisconsin elections officials scale back security proposal

MADISON — Wisconsin elections officials scaled back a plan Tuesday to buy scores of new loaner computers for local clerks using outdated systems open to cyberattacks, saying the proposal is too expensive when they don’t have a firm grasp on how many clerks really need new computers.

Wisconsin Elections Commission staff had proposed spending up to $300,000 on 250 new machines to loan to clerks who can’t afford to upgrade their systems. The commission agreed to buy 25 computers for $30,000 after learning that only five clerks out of 2,000 are using old systems.

“If they’re at risk we should help them,” Commissioner Mark Thomsen said. “(But) buying a machine isn’t the answer.”

The commission’s chief security officer, Tony Bridges, wrote in a memo released last week that “at least a handful” of clerks are logging into the state elections system using Windows XP and hundreds more are logging in using Windows 7.

Microsoft stopped supporting Windows XP in 2014. Free security upgrades for Windows 7 will end in January. Bridges wrote that it’s safe to assume a large percentage of clerks won’t upgrade and even clerks with current operating systems often fail to install security patches.

Bridges proposed spending up to $69,000 annually on software that can test clerks’ vulnerabilities each time they log onto the state election system, up to $300,000 on 250 loaner computers for clerks, and up to $100,000 to hire a technology expert to help clerks with the loaner computers. The money would come from a $7 million federal grant the state received in 2018 to upgrade election security.

He told the commission Tuesday that staff learned about the outdated systems by asking all 2,700 local clerks to log into the system one day and testing their connections. Commission spokesman Reid Magney said the test occurred a few weeks ago but didn’t have a date.

Bridges said 2,000 clerks logged in. Staff detected only five using Windows XP. Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe told the panel said she didn’t know who the five clerks were; Magney told a reporter after the meeting he didn’t know why the commission doesn’t have the names.

Bridges went on to say nearly 600 clerks were using Windows 7. Seven hundred clerks didn’t log in on the test day.

Thomsen complained repeatedly that he didn’t have enough data about clerk vulnerability to justify a loaner program. Commissioner Ann Jacobs balked at the $300,000 price tag, saying that works out to about $1,000 per machine when simple netbooks cost anywhere from $100 to $250. She also said a loaner program would reward clerks who don’t upgrade with new machines.

Wolfe and Bridges stressed the cost licensing, tech support, delivery and warranties. Wolfe called the loaner program an emergency stopgap designed to ensure elections can continue as cyberattacks increase.

In the end, Chairman Dean Knudson amended the loaner program language to authorize only 25 machines. The commission adopted the revised motion 4-2. Thomsen and Jacobs voted against it.

The commission voted unanimously to purchase the testing software and asked the board to implement it in time to produce at least some data for the commission’s Sept. 24 meeting. The panel also unanimously approved setting up the new technical support position but ordered staff to get the panel’s permission before posting the job.

Kelly Michaels, president of the Wisconsin Municipal Clerks Association, said she suspects clerks need more than 25 computers but there’s still time before the 2020 elections begin in earnest.

The commission also approved spending up to $341,000 to hire Madison-based advertising firm KW2 to develop an outreach campaign to combat disinformation about election security. The money will come from the 2018 federal election security grant.

City faces larger budget shortfall

Eau Claire faces the biggest shortfall it’s seen in recent years — triple last year’s figure — as it starts work toward a balanced 2020 budget.

The City Council got its first look on Tuesday at projections for next year’s financial picture and the early estimates show the city will be nearly $1 million short of anticipated costs to continue municipal services at their current level.

“We do have a gap. The revenues do not cover the expenses in 2020,” City Manager Dale Peters said at the onset of the Tuesday evening work session.

Finance director Jay Winzenz calculated a deficit of $935,000, compared to the $307,000 shortfall announced a year ago at the onset of 2019 budget talks.

While the city is facing a bigger number than it has in recent years, Winzenz assured council members that he and Peters will present a balanced budget proposal in early October.

“In my experience I’ve started out with deficits in that range before and we’re able to get that gap substantially closed,” Winzenz said.

After seven weeks of finding ways to trim costs, the budget proposal will reach the council on Oct. 4.

There will then be a series of meetings and public hearings until the council adopts a 2020 budget in mid-November, including projects that were approved earlier this summer by the council.

“All of these numbers are going to get refined during the process but it’s important for council to know where we’re headed,” Winzenz said when presenting his projections.

While the city will be allowed to collect more property taxes next year, that won’t be enough to cover growing costs.

Based on the 1.89% the city’s value grew recently through new construction, state-imposed limits will allow Eau Claire to increase its property tax levy by a total of $550,000 next year.

But that won’t entirely make up for the $1 million that personnel costs are expected to grow between employee raises and health insurance price increases.

Winzenz also presented a mix of growing costs and savings that ultimately got to the shortfall figure.

That included an area the city is expected to see a savings — projecting its gas and electric bills will be $55,000 lower in 2020.

A few of the projections Winzenz made cancel each other out. The city anticipates the asphalt it uses will be $30,000 cheaper next year, but road salt will cost $30,000 more.

Presenting the early figures to the council on Tuesday was intended to give the city’s elected officials an idea of the financial challenges in the budget and seek policy ideas to help shape city spending.

Councilwoman Jill Christopherson suggested that as the city begins drafting its budget, it makes technology advancement a priority. She added that technology projects should show they will provide a net savings for the city and increase efficiency.

Councilman Andrew Werthmann brought back an idea he’d advanced before — improving wages for the city’s lowest-paid employees who work on a seasonal or part-time basis.

“All those positions I would like to see them make a little bit of a higher wage,” he said.

Werthmann acknowledged that might not be possible in 2020 based on the early projections, but said the city should come up with a multiyear plan to get toward raising those wages.

Other council members spoke about improving early voting, making public transit more affordable and providing some money for neighborhood associations.

As the work session ended, Peters reminded the council that introducing new programs or expenses would mean cutbacks elsewhere, especially when the city is starting with a deficit.

“Wherever we add, we have to take away from somewhere else,” he said.

City seeks to break even on affordable housing development

The city is looking to break even with a small affordable housing development it is planning on Eau Claire’s west side.

On Tuesday afternoon, the City Council approved buying about 20 acres of vacant land near Jeffers Road for $150,000.

Next year the city plans to install a street, water and sewer pipes, which finance director Jay Winzenz said should cost “in the neighborhood of $400,000 to $500,000.”

The city anticipates that selling lots in the new development to builders who would then make small single-family homes there should recoup public dollars spent on the project.

“The proceeds from the sale of the lots would be used to offset the costs of those improvements,” Winzenz said.

How many lots will be created is not yet known, but Winzenz estimated there will be between 25 and 30. To ensure the homes are affordable, the city will create rules builders must follow when it comes to the size and sale price of the homes in the development.

About half of the land is unbuildable due to a steep hill.

Councilman Jeremy Gragert viewed the hill as an opportunity for the city to conserve some wooded land and even create a spot for hiking.

“There’s more here than an affordable housing opportunity,” he said. “There’s a lot of different ways we can look at this.”

The property is located off the east side of Jeffers Road, tucked behind existing homes between Truax Boulevard and Union Pacific railroad tracks. Decades ago it had been partially platted — planning an as-yet unbuilt road called Andy Lane off of Jeffers Road to provide access to the new homes.

The city is buying the property from Paul Del Torto.

The council voted 10-0 in favor of the land buy with council President Terry Weld abstaining. Weld, who works as a real estate agent, had represented the property for three years, but withdrew himself from the listing when the city showed interest in the land. Following Tuesday’s meeting, he said he recused himself from the vote to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest and confirmed that neither he nor his employer will receive any commission from the sale.

Other Business

Also during Tuesday’s meeting:

• Though it didn’t reject Valley Media Works’ offer of just $100 for the former Fire Station No. 10, 559 N. Hastings Way, the council did decide in a 9-2 vote to get the building tested for asbestos and then market it in the future for other potential offers.

• The city accepted a $19,950 grant from the Presto Foundation, allowing the Eau Claire Fire Department to buy two gear extractors — essentially high-tech washing machines — that clean contaminants, including carcinogens, off of clothing worn when fighting fires.

• Annexing 40.8 acres of land at the southwest corner of Old Town Hall and Graff roads in the town of Washington into Eau Claire city limits was approved in an 11-0 vote.