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Rain, snow melt keep road crews hopping

This week’s rain and snowmelt have kept city and county road and street crews very busy.

“The localized flooding is the main issue,” Eau Claire County Highway Commissioner Jon Johnson said Thursday.

“If you can’t get the flooded spots cleaned up, then you get frozen spots when the temperatures get colder,” he said.

Crews have been breaking up ice on the sides of roads and using graders where there’s ponding to get water flowing, Johnson said.

“We’ve got (flooded) spots popping up quite a bit,” he said. “The eastern part of the county is a little worse.”

Recent snowfalls have been a bit heavier in the Augusta area. That has led to more drifting and snow at the edges of roads in that area, Johnson said.

Flooding has not resulted in any road closures in Eau Claire County, he said.

“The worst areas have about two inches of water across the road, and we’ve been using warning lights and signage in those areas,” Johnson said. “But there’s not been enough water to stall a car out.”

In the city of Eau Claire, as many as 50 employees a day have been devoting their time this week to clearing snow and ice from storm sewer catch basins to prevent water from ponding on streets, Eau Claire’s streets maintenance manager Steven Thompson said.

“We have been putting in 15-hour days to clear the catch basins, and we have been able to stay ahead of it,” he said.

City crews annually clear ice and snow from storm sewer catch basins, but this winter has been exceptional, Thompson said.

“It’s always something we’ve had to do but not with the resources and staff we’ve used the last four days,” he said.

City crews have used steamers, end loaders and skid steers to clear the catch basins. Pick axes and shovels have also been used by some employees, Thompson said.

“It’s good exercise. I was doing it (Wednesday),” he said.

If he could pick his weather for the next several days, Johnson would shoot for cloudy skies and highs in the mid to upper 30s.

“A slow melt is the best,” he said.

Besides flooded streets and roads, the rain and snowmelt have also caused a problem with potholes.

County crews are tending to potholes when they can, Johnson said.

“It’s real bad,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’ve not been able to get to that because of the flooding.”

With the rain out of the way, Thompson will put more city employees on pothole duty today than there were on the rainy days of Wednesday and Thursday.

“When it’s raining, the water gets in there and blows the (patching) material right back out,” he said.

Following last weekend’s snowstorm, the National Weather Service was predicting 1.25 inches of rain to fall in Eau Claire between Tuesday and Thursday, said Alexandra Keclik, a meteorologist with the agency’s office in Chanhassen, Minn.

As of noon Thursday, 0.82 of an inch of rain had fallen in Eau Claire this week, she said.

The weekend appears to have minimal chances for precipitation with highs in the mid to upper 30s, Keclik said.

EC school board candidates debate ahead of April 2 election

All candidates vying for seats on the Eau Claire school board this spring acknowledge that changing school boundaries proves to be a difficult decision — for any board, for any district.

But the four candidates — incumbents Aaron Harder and Eric Torres and challengers Tim Nordin and Erica Zerr — don’t agree on how the district is currently handling a proposal to shutter Roosevelt Elementary and re-purpose it into a center for 4-year-old kindergarten programming.

The candidates, who are running for a total of three at-large seats on the board in the April 2 election, squared off at a forum Thursday night at Chippewa Valley Technical College.

Elected candidates will serve three-year terms that start this spring.

While Harder, current vice president of the board, emphasized trusting the process of the district’s listening sessions and remaining “decisive while not being divisive,” and Torres, a current board member, said his decision rested on equity in educational opportunities, newcomers questioned the current board’s actions.

Zerr, a first-time candidate who works as an early childhood educator at a private Montessori school in Eau Claire, said parents deserve answers regarding the future of their neighborhood school.

“This is a hard decision ... how do we balance the protection of our neighborhood micro communities with the needs of the whole district?” Zerr said, noting the need to look at transitions in the case of a boundary change. “But I also think we need to make a decision. If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it, and we shouldn’t be having families at Roosevelt waiting an entire year to know whether or not they’re going to have a school next year.”

Nordin, a former high school science teacher who ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the board last spring, agreed with Zerr, stating that the board’s lack of a decision has made the proposal even harder on families.

And although the listening sessions the district has provided over the last couple of months are great for family engagement, Nordin wondered why so few board members attended the meetings to listen to the community’s feedback.

“This recommendation about Roosevelt and redrawing boundaries came up in October and still today there’s no decision being made,” Nordin said. “We need to be out there and listening and make decisions so that we don’t leave families in limbo. It’s hard enough to switch from one school to another, it’s another thing to sit with a year of uncertainty and not know what’s going to happen.”

Another topic that brought some contention among the candidates was the district’s ongoing budgetary woes. Despite a $5.8 million referendum that was passed in 2017, the district continues to struggle with a $125 million in unfunded liabilities.

Torres, an education professor at UW-Eau Claire who has been on the board since April 2017, emphasized the need at the state level to change the school funding formula and said the board is working to address the issue.

“So far we do not have a clear path to solve this problematic situation in the most equitable and comprehensive way. We have asked faculty and staff to provide input and are waiting to see their ideas,” Torres said. “But we will continue to be in the same situation if the current school funding formula continues to constrain our finances.”

Harder, an Eau Claire schools graduate who owns a web software business, said district funding is currently divided at about 80 percent for payroll and 20 percent maintaining facilities and “everything else.” Though he believes “that’s how it should be,” the board will need to make difficult decisions in the future.

“It should be 80 percent — it’s a people business and it’s all about the staff that works with our students every day,” Harder said, referencing the board’s continued plans to restructure district retiree benefits, though the board recently delayed a decision to cap health and dental rates. “But because it’s 80 percent, it’s a controversial and painful thing when we have to tweak it. Whether it’s OPEB (other post-employment benefits) or other changes to the compensation program ... it’s important that we do it quickly and decisively.”

Nordin agreed that more budgetary decisions need to be made quickly, while also emphasizing the need to involve educators in the conversation.

“We need more of the school board digging into the budget to make those hard calls, and we need our teachers and the community as a whole involved,” Nordin said.

Zerr said the district needs to make hard decisions, but with “its people” and equity as the top priorities.

“We can have the fanciest computers and the fanciest windows and the fanciest buildings and kitchens in the district, but if we don’t have our people, we don’t have anything,” Zerr said. “We also need to be financially responsible. We are going to have to make cuts ... but they need to be made in a diverse way. It can’t all be made in one place, it can’t be on the backs of one side of the district.”

Evers calls proposed $1.3 billion tax increase 'small'

MADISON — Gov. Tony Evers said Thursday that the state budget he proposed is “pretty close” to not raising taxes, even though it would increase them by $1.3 billion over two years.

Evers, in an interview on WTMJ radio, said that there “may be some small tax increases.” The comments drew an incredulous reaction from Republican legislative leaders.

“Is this a joke?” Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald tweeted. “The governor’s budget contains over $1 billion in tax hikes after he told Wisconsin voters he planned to not raise taxes at all.”

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos tweeted that it was indisputable Evers wants to raise taxes and, “It’s unfortunate that (Evers) can’t even admit it.”

Evers promised during the campaign not to raise taxes, only to then put forward a budget that would raise the gas tax and some vehicle registration fees and reduce tax credits available to manufacturers and wealthier tax filers with capital gains.

In total, taxes and fees would increase by about $1.3 billion under his plan, based on an analysis by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum.

Evers was asked during Thursday’s interview about his campaign pledge not to raise taxes.

“We’re pretty close, to be honest with you,” he said, before adding that there may be “some small tax increases.”

His spokeswoman, Melissa Baldauff, said Evers’ point was that the impact of any tax increase on most people would be small. An independent analysis of Evers’ budget and the impact on taxpayers is pending from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

Baldauff defended his proposals, saying Evers wants the money to invest in the state’s priorities such as roads, schools and health care while also cutting income taxes for the middle class.

“The governor’s budget produces a fairer and more progressive tax system where tax relief is broadly shared instead of narrowly concentrated for certain filers,” Baldauff said.

In the radio interview, Evers described himself as a pragmatist and said he believes he can reach a deal with Republicans to pass and sign a budget close to the June 30 deadline.

“I have no animosity, but I also understand the need to huff and puff and that happens on both sides,” he said. “That’s unfortunately the way it works.”

Republicans have said they expect to reject much of what Evers is proposing as they work on a budget they can support. In addition to opposing the tax increases, Republicans have spoken against increasing funding for special education by $600 million as Evers wants, legalizing medical marijuana, freezing enrollment in private voucher schools and expanding Medicaid.

Evers defended the budget as realistic, citing support he heard during listening sessions held across the state and responses from Marquette University Law School polls showing support for many of the proposals.

On Foxconn, Evers said the state Department of Natural Resources had completed its review of air quality permits issued to the Taiwanese company for its planned development in southeast Wisconsin and determined that no changes were necessary.

Those permits were issued under former Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s administration and Evers campaigned on promising to review them amid concerns about the environmental impact of the project, which includes a display screen manufacturing facility.

Evers reiterated Thursday that his primary concern with Foxconn is that the company’s intentions be transparent to taxpayers, who could be on the hook for about $4 billion in tax credits if the company invests $10 billion and hires 13,000 people.

Foxconn executives insist they remain on target to do that, though critics say the company’s shifting plans for what it will manufacture at the Wisconsin plant point to a much smaller investment in money and employees.