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40-vehicle crash shuts I-94

A massive crash on Interstate 94 on Sunday afternoon between Osseo and Foster in Eau Claire County involved 40 vehicles and left seven people injured.

According to the Wisconsin State Patrol:

The crash happened at about 12:30 p.m. Sunday on I-94 at mile marker 85.

Forty vehicles were involved: seven semitrailer trucks and 33 automobiles. Among the seven injuries was one that was life-threatening.

All traffic was rerouted from the location of the pile-up. I-94 eastbound traffic was rerouted at mile marker 81 eastbound Foster exit to U.S. 53. I-94 westbound traffic was rerouted at mile marker 88 westbound Osseo to U.S. 53.

Traffic on both directions of I-94 was moving again by about 5:30 p.m.

The news release cited snow creating slippery road conditions and advised motorists use extreme caution in such conditions. A winter weather advisory was in effect through 9 p.m. Sunday.

Evers unveils dental care proposals

Gov. Tony Evers is unveiling a $43.4 million dental access initiative as part of his 2019-21 biennial budget, which will be released later this month.

“There is a lack of access, particularly in our rural communities,” said Evers’ spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff. “During the campaign, the governor talked a lot about access to health care. Access in rural areas is a challenge.”

The proposal features using $21.8 million in state dollars, with the other half coming from federal aid. The $21.8 million includes an additional $9.6 million in general purpose revenue in 2020 and another $11.6 million in 2021, according to an outline Evers’ office released.

The largest component is increasing the Medicaid dental access incentive payment, which totals $7.8 million in 2020 and $8.7 million in 2021, the outline states.

“Dental providers would receive increased reimbursement rates if they served a certain percentage of (Medicaid assistance) patient base,” the document reads. “Non-profit providers would receive a 50 percent reimbursement increase if they serve a patient base of at least 50 percent. For-profit providers would receive a 30 percent reimbursement increase if they serve a patient base of at least five percent.”

State Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Lake Hallie, said the plan seems unnecessarily complicated, but she generally endorses the idea of increasing the reimbursement rate. Bernier said she’s sponsored similar measures in the past.

“We don’t necessarily have a shortage of dentists yet, but they don’t get paid enough,” Bernier said. “This (reimbursement increase proposal) would be an excellent use of the surplus. Every dentist I’ve spoken to said they’ll take the Medicaid patients, but they can’t lose money on it.”

The governor’s proposal also includes creating a “dental therapist licensure,” allowing for a midlevel dental provider. Several states, including Minnesota, already allow for this provider. That proposal doesn’t cost any additional state dollars.

Baldauff said data indicate there is a shortage of dentists statewide.

“The most updated estimate is 204 dental providers needed to remove health shortage area designations,” she said, adding that a Kaiser Family Foundation report recommends one provider for every 5,000 residents.

Another component of the plan is a rural dental loan repayment, costing $60,000 each year of the biennium. It is an award for dentists and physicians who elect to serve in rural areas. “This initiative would provide funding for three dentists at the same level as physicians.”

Low-income dental grants would expand, with an additional $425,000 in 2020 and $850,000 in 2021. The proposal states these dental clinics are “safety nets that provide services to low-income Medicaid recipients and the uninsured.” Each year, about 20 clinics apply for these grants, but only 11 receive the awards. This proposal would increase the number of clinics that would win grants.

The final measure includes a “Seal-A-Smile” care, providing preventive services to children in grades K-12. That proposal would cost $275,000 in 2020 and $450,000 in 2021.

“This will be included in the governor’s budget, which will be released Feb. 28,” Baldauff said. “We are releasing some of the initiatives early. We want to bring attention to some of the pieces now, so they don’t get lost in the budget conversation. We’re proud to be able to do this comprehensive package.”

Chippewa County Board members call for chairman to step down

CHIPPEWA FALLS — Two Chippewa County Board members said Sunday that board Chairman Jared Zwiefelhofer should step down from the position after he was convicted last week of three hunting infractions in Burnett County Court.

Supervisor Steve Gerrish of Lake Hallie sent an email to area media Sunday evening, calling for Zwiefelhofer to step down.

“I don’ think it’s serious enough for him to resign, but he should step down as board chair,” Gerrish said. “I think the board chair should obey the law. It’s all about what is best for the county.”

Zwiefelhofer was reached Sunday night, but he declined to comment.

Gerrish said that if Zwiefelhofer doesn’t step down, the board may decide to vote to remove him, but he hopes it doesn’t come to that. The board will meet 6 p.m. Tuesday in the Chippewa County Courthouse.

Gerrish also noted that Zwiefelhofer — who also is Bloomer police chief — sits on the county’s Legal and Law Enforcement Committee.

“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.

Supervisor Glen Sikorski of the town of Arthur wrote Zwiefelhofer a letter on Friday, also requesting Zwiefelhofer step down. Zwiefelhofer wrote back, saying he didn’t intend to do so.

“We are too good for this,” Sikorski said Sunday night. “If it had been me, I would have sent in a letter of resignation and walked away. We don’t want to look like buffoons. I think (stepping down) would save him and the county a lot of embarrassment. This is a black eye for Chippewa County.”

The board is slated to vote on an ethics policy on Tuesday, and Sikorski said at the very least Zwiefelhofer should abstain from voting on the measure.

It is unclear if Bloomer officials will reprimand Zwiefelhofer. After the citation charges 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 Sunday 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 state Department of Natural Resources privileges are suspended for two years, and he must pay $878 in fines and court costs.

The incident occurred Nov. 19, court records show. The Burnett County district attorney’s office was contacted after the citations were filed, but officials there didn’t have an incident report.

Zwiefelhofer was elected to the County Board in 2010, when he defeated incumbent Duane Boettcher; he was elected as County Board chairman last April. He was named police chief in August 2011. He started with the department as a reserve in 1992.

Evers wants nearly $70M in bonding to address water quality

MADISON — Gov. Tony Evers will call for allowing state environmental and agricultural officials to borrow nearly $70 million more over the next two years to combat water pollution and replace lead pipes in his first state budget, following through on his pledge to attack drinking water contamination during his first year in office.

Evers is expected to unveil the full two-year spending plan on Feb. 28 but gave The Associated Press a broad preview of his water quality initiatives. The governor called his plan an investment that will improve water quality across the state.

It’s unclear how the proposals will go over with Republicans who control the Legislature. They’ve formed their own water pollution task force and are drafting their own bills to attack many of the same problems.

Still, Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters lobbyist Jennifer Giegerich called Evers’ budget plans “a good first step to addressing our drinking water crisis.”

“We are very supportive of increasing bonding for these programs,” she said.

State agriculture officials would be allowed to borrow another $3 million over two years to fund grants to farmers for building infrastructure that reduces pollution from agriculture. The agency currently is allowed to borrow $7 million.

The state Department of Natural Resources, meanwhile, would be allowed to bond for about $65 million more. The money would go toward grants for local governments to reduce pollution; cleaning up contaminated soil along the Milwaukee and St. Louis rivers; and loans to municipalities to cover half the cost of replacing lead pipes.

Evers also wants to spend an additional $300,000 on studies on water pollution management and implementing new manure-spreading restrictions the DNR enacted last year along Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan shoreline, where porous Silurian bedrock allows contaminants to seep into groundwater more easily.

He wants to spend $1.46 million on other initiatives, including educating farmers, establishing a pollution best management practices website and developing software to help farmers use fertilizer.

The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation was still analyzing Evers’ proposals. WFBF lobbyist Karen Gefvert’s response was guarded.

“Increased funding for northeast Wisconsin’s (Silurian bedrock) areas would help farmers implement the new performance standards,” she said in an email. “In order for farmers to implement best management practices increased funding for education and outreach is important.”

The governor also wants to create four new DNR positions to speed up implementation of new water quality standards in the Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Rock and St. Croix river basins.

Wisconsin has struggled with groundwater contamination for decades. A survey conducted by county health departments between 2007 and 2010 found 47 percent of nearly 4,000 wells used by low-income families with pregnant women or young children had levels of contaminants that exceeded water quality standards. A third of the wells in Kewaunee County tested in 2015 had unsafe levels of nitrates and bacteria. A November survey by the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Geological Survey found 42 percent of 301 randomly selected wells in Iowa, Grant and Lafayette counties exceed federal standards for bacteria.

Meanwhile, at least 176,000 Wisconsin homes and businesses get water through lead service lines. Lead from the lines can flake off into the water and cause permanent brain damage in children. Replacing a single line can cost thousands of dollars.

Evers pointed to the problems in his State of the State address last month, declaring 2019 the year of clean drinking water.

It’s unclear whether Evers’ initiatives will survive the Republican Legislature. After he introduces the spending plan later this month, Republicans lawmakers will spend the spring and early summer revising the document before sending it back to Evers for his signature.

Kit Beyer, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester, and Alec Zimmerman, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau, didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Evers’ plans.

Republican reaction to Evers’ declaration in his speech was guarded. Vos last month formed his own water quality task force and Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Allouez, said he’s crafting what he called “major water initiatives” of his own, including a bill that would shift the full $345 annual factory farm water pollution permit fee to the DNR. Right now $95 goes to the agency for permit enforcement and $250 goes to the state’s general fund.