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Eau Claire snowfall ties record for early February

If it seems like we’re getting a lot more snow than usual so far this month, your memory is not playing tricks on you.

The average snowfall for the first 10 days of February in Eau Claire is 3 inches — a relative drop in the bucket compared with the 18.9 inches dumped on the city for that period this year, according to the National Weather Service.

That ties with 2004 for the snowiest first 10 days of February since records began in 1893, said meteorologist Chris O’Brien of the Weather Service office in Chanhassen, Minn. Eau Claire received at least a tenth of an inch of snow on six of those 10 days.

For those residents hoping for a break from shoveling, blowing and driving in snow, O’Brien suggested there will be no rest for the weary anytime soon. Weather Service modeling is projecting Eau Claire could receive nearly 9 inches of new snow by the end of today, more on Thursday and likely even more in the weeks to come. A winter storm warning is in effect for much of west-central Wisconsin through midnight today.

“It looks like we’re stuck in this pattern for at least a couple more weeks,” O’Brien said.

Despite the heavy snow of late, Eau Claire remains slightly behind average for snowfall for the entire winter after an unusually dry start to the season. The city had received 29.4 inches of snow this winter through Sunday, compared with an average total through Feb. 10 of 32 inches.

Traffic trouble

The historic snowfall is wreaking havoc with travel and pushing Chippewa Valley plowing crews to the limit.

The Eau Claire Police Department alone responded to at least 32 crashes and 72 vehicle assists/slide-ins after significant snowstorms Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.

And that doesn’t even include the region’s biggest incident of snow-related mayhem — a massive crash Sunday afternoon that involved 33 autos and seven semitrailer trucks on a stretch of Interstate 94 between Osseo and Foster.

The chain-reaction crash started shortly after noon at mile marker 85 when a semi jack-knifed across the interstate after attempting to avoid hitting a Trempealeau County snow plow that was slowing to turn around at a crossover point between the westbound and eastbound lanes, Eau Claire County Highway Commissioner Jon Johnson said Monday.

Trempealeau County authorities reported to Johnson that the semi was in the passing lane, following in the snow cloud of the plow, when the incident occurred.

It’s a reminder that vehicles should slow down when their visibility is hindered by blowing snow and give ample room to plows trying to clear streets and highways, Johnson said.

The Wisconsin State Patrol reported that seven people were hurt in the crash, including one injury that was life-threatening.

The crash, which caused a traffic backup of at least two miles on I-94, closed the interstate for about 5½ hours, with vehicles being detoured onto U.S. 53.

“In slippery conditions like that, as soon as one thing happens in front of you and anybody starts hitting their brakes, it can lead to a chain reaction,” said Lt. Les Mlsna of the State Patrol. “In this case, it took 40 vehicles before everybody could figure it out.”

As far as Johnson and Mlsna know, it was the most vehicles ever involved in a crash in Eau Claire County.

“It was quite a mess,” Mlsna said of the scene that left cars and trucks spread all over the interstate on lanes going in both directions, as well as stuck in snow in the median and surrounding ditches after swerving to avoid striking other vehicles.

At least 12 wreckers were called to haul out damaged or stuck vehicles, and the Osseo-Fairchild school district helped out by busing stranded motorists to Osseo so they could wait in a spot that was warmer and safer than the snowy interstate, he said.

Some of the region’s largest snowfall totals reported by the National Weather Service in the snowstorm that began Sunday were: 8 inches in Mondovi, 7 in Boyceville, 6.5 in Menomonie, 5.5 in Rice Lake and 5 in Chippewa Falls.

Working overtime

With record-level snow so far in February, overworked plow crews haven’t had a chance to start hauling excess snow piling ever higher along streets and bridges. They’ve been maxed out just trying to keep roads as safe as possible.

“It’s starting to pile up, but the problem is it’s been snowing so much that we’re not getting enough time to do that cleanup,” Johnson said.

With the recent snow events, plow drivers are working an extraordinary number of hours, he said, pulling a timecard of one driver showing that beginning the week of Feb. 4 he worked shifts of 16, 18, 13, 16.5, 10, 0 and 16 hours for a total of 89.5 hours in a week. The county’s maximum allowable daily shift is 18 hours.

Eventually, county officials hope the region gets enough of a break between snowstorms to begin hauling truckloads of snow to a parking area south of Eau Claire on Highway 37.

The city of Eau Claire faces similar challenges and is making a list of places that need snow removed to promote safety and ensure streets are wide enough for efficient traffic flow, said street maintenance manager Steven Thompson.

“It is our plan to start hauling snow as soon as possible (to a storage site off Galloway Street), but today we are still cleaning up from the storm yesterday,” Thompson said Monday.

The street department has been pulling in people from a number of other city departments to help keep up with plowing demands, he said.

With more snow in the forecast, officials said, such extreme measures and work schedules are likely to continue for the foreseeable future.


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Chippewa County board chairman to step down in March

CHIPPEWA FALLS — Chippewa County Board Chairman Jared Zwiefelhofer plans to resign his leadership post next month after several board members urged him to do so in the wake of his conviction on three hunting-related infractions.

“At this time I would like to apologize to all of the county board supervisors, all of the county employees, and most importantly the citizens of Chippewa County,” Zwiefelhofer wrote. “On Nov. 19, 2018, I made a choice which resulted in me receiving three citations from the (Department of Natural Resources). I have no excuses and take full responsibility for what I’ve done, and for that, I am very sorry.”

Zwiefelhofer added that he knows it has been an “unwanted distraction,” and he hopes to re-establish the trust and respect he once had in the county.

While Zwiefelhofer said he will step down as chairman on March 12, it appears he intends to stay on the board.

“This (resignation as chairman) will open it up for the election of a new county board chair,” he wrote. “The decision of the county board will be final. If the county board re-elects me as chair, I will accept it. If the county board elects someone else as chair, then I will respect that decision and support whomever it may be.”

Zwiefelhofer, who was elected as chairman last April, has been on the board since 2010.

“I ask you to not let this one action completely overshadow my years of service to the taxpayers of Chippewa County,” he wrote to conclude his letter.

Board member Steve Gerrish of Lake Hallie, who is among the board members who publicly called for Zwiefelhofer to step down, said he’s pleased that Zwiefelhofer did so willingly, rather than force a vote from the board, where a majority would have been needed to oust him as chairman.

“I’m happy he’s accepted responsibility for what he’s done,” Gerrish said.

The board was slated to meet tonight, although it is possible it could be canceled due to snow. Gerrish said Zwiefelhofer should step down at the meeting.

“We want a chair in place, and he’s already made his decision,” Gerrish said.

The board’s vice chair is Leigh Darrow of the town of Eagle Point. Gerrish said that Darrow would temporarily run a meeting if Zwiefelhofer were absent, but Darrow doesn’t automatically become chair when Zwiefelhofer steps down.

In an email to media on Sunday, Gerrish was critical of Zwiefelhofer serving on the county’s Legal & Law Enforcement Committee. Zwiefelhofer also is the Bloomer police chief.

“It’s appalling to me that he can be on this committee anymore, as he doesn’t follow the laws of the state of Wisconsin himself,” Gerrish wrote in his letter.

Zwiefelhofer was named as police chief in August 2011. He started with the department as a reserve in 1992.

It remains unclear if Bloomer officials will reprimand Zwiefelhofer. After the citations were filed, Bloomer city administrator Sandi Frion said that the city’s Police Commission is responsible for handling any discipline of the chief.

The Police Commission hasn’t met to discuss any discipline, she added. Frion couldn’t be reached for comment Monday to see if a meeting will be held now that Zwiefelhofer has been convicted.

Zwiefelhofer pleaded no contest to the three hunting citations on Feb. 5: improperly placing bait, possessing a deer killed without bow on an archer tag, and operating an ATV with a loaded firearm. All three are citations. As a result of the convictions, Zwiefelhofer’s Department of Natural Resources privileges are suspended for two years and he must pay $878 in fines and court costs.


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Gordy's assets to be auctioned

CHIPPEWA FALLS — The assets of six Gordy’s Market Inc. grocery stores will be auctioned off March 6, with the sales finalized two days later, according to the attorney overseeing a plan to dissolve the grocery chain.

Milwaukee attorney Michael Polsky, who was appointed in January as receiver after food distributor Nash Finch filed a lawsuit against Gordy’s, has filed paperwork in Chippewa County Court, laying out how the assets of the stores will be handled.

Polsky filed a motion to sell “substantially all of the assets of Gordy’s Market Inc., free and clear of all liens,” a court document reads. “The receiver will accept qualified bids from qualified bidders for certain GMI assets.”

Gordy’s president Jeff Schafer declined to comment on Monday.

The assets referred to in the filing are for six Gordy’s locations: Chippewa Falls downtown, Chippewa Falls on Lake Wissota, Cornell, Ladysmith, Chetek and Barron. The Eau Claire store on Clairemont Avenue, which closed and later re-opened, is not included in this lawsuit, as Gordy’s does not obtain its groceries for that store from Nash Finch.

The auction will be at 10 a.m. March 6 at the law offices of Godrey & Kahn in Milwaukee. On March 8, Polsky will present the sale offers to Chippewa County Judge James Isaacson for approval.

To become a qualified bidder at the auction, a company must include an “earnest money deposit of $100,000,” which Polsky will place in escrow in a non-interest bearing account. Qualified bidders must submit their deposit by March 1 to be eligible to participate in the auction. Companies wishing to bid on the six stores should have an appointed agent attend the auction. Bids for portions of a lot will not be considered.

The auction will be done in rounds, with each company having 15 minutes to submit a bid, the court document states.

Polsky is working with Illinois-based Silverman Consulting “for the purpose of overseeing the operations of GMI and assisting the receiver in marketing and negotiating the sale of GMI’s asset,” the court document reads. “The receiver and Silverman have contacted potential purchasers in order to market the assets of GMI in a commercially reasonable manner and maximize the value of the assets for the benefit of GMI’s creditors.”

Polsky has set a deadline of April 24 for any creditors of Gordy’s to enter claims with the court if they seek to participate in any dividends. Another new filing is a 49-page document with a list of multiple interested parties, including companies who are making a claim against Gordy’s.

In a filing last month, Gordy’s requested the lawsuit be dismissed and a jury trial be held.

In the Nash Finch lawsuit, the food distributor claims that Gordy’s owes a total of $46.2 million: $43.2 million in a rebate-able incentive, a $1 million note, and $1.9 million in accounts receivable.

In August 2017, Nash Finch filed an $86 million lawsuit against the grocery chain. By Dec. 7, 2017, 1,400 separate creditors filed proof of claims totaling an additional $50,753,000, and Settlers Bank filed a claim of $5 million.

By the end of the year, 20 of the 26 Gordy’s Market locations had either been sold or closed, with the Eau Claire location later re-opening.

Jeff Schafer, who returned to the company in March 2017 after a half-year sabbatical, is now leading the new, smaller team. The Schafers acquired the six stores in December 2017 through an auction and working out an agreement with SpartanNash, the new corporate name of Nash Finch.

SpartanNash was the highest bidder, buying the six stores at the auction for $19.8 million. The food distributor then agreed to assign its interest in the purchase to Gordy’s Market Inc. This agreement allows the Schafers to retain ownership of the six stores and keep 340 employees on the payroll.

Some of the other 20 stores, like in Stanley, were never sold. Others, like Chippewa Falls south and Rice Lake, remain shuttered and aren’t reopening as grocery stores.


L-T has early press run

A winter storm warning in the state prompted an early Leader-Telegram press run so some meetings and sporting events Monday night finished after the newspaper’s deadline.

Coverage of those events that finished after deadline can be found on our web site at www.leadertelegram.com and will be in Wednesday’s print edition of the newspaper.