EAU CLAIRE – The fall saw Wisconsin face the biggest outbreak of the COVID pandemic thus far, with numbers far exceeding anything that had come before. But the news wasn’t all bad. Plans began for life after the pandemic and some measures actually showed surprising returns. It all played out with a hotly-contested election taking place.
The Eau Claire school district said it had a $7.7 million surplus, a result of the truncated 2019-2020 academic year.
Area COVID numbers continued to rise at area hospitals, setting off some concerns among area health officials.
The Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce came out in opposition to a controversial health ordinance proposal. Businesses around Eau Claire were hit with fake quarantine placards, an apparent protest against the ordinance. The ordinance was eventually postponed.
Wisconsin activated an emergency field hospital to help care for rising numbers of COVID patients.
Solar panels were ready to go at Memorial and North high schools, with an anticipated Dec. 1 switch-on date.
State data showed liquor store sales were way up compared to 2019. Bar sales, predictably, were down significantly.
Absentee voting requests were up in the Chippewa Valley as voters looked to avoid possible crowds at polling places on Election Day.
Rock Fest unveiled its lineup for the 2021 festival. Most of the acts from the canceled 2020 event were signed up.
The Pereira family brought a Brazilian specialty to area grocery stores. The bread proved a hit with fans.
Authorities discovered a woman’s body in a suitcase in Chippewa County. The case remains under investigation.
An early snowstorm hit the region, bringing significant amounts to the Chippewa Valley. Eau Claire officially recorded 8.4 inches, enough to set a new record for the snowiest October.
Drive-through voting proved popular with Eau Claire residents, another pandemic innovation in a year that saw many such changes.
Dale Peters retired as Eau Claire’s city manager. Peters had previously delayed his retirement to help the city cope with the pandemic.
The Chippewa River Water Trail was designated as a national recreational trail.
Maples mobile home park sold. The troubled park had seen numbers drop significantly due to condemnations.
The L.E. Phillips Memorial Library started looking to lease a temporary location for use during its renovations.
Chippewa Falls schools went virtual as the number of new COVID cases accelerated sharply. Deaths also began rising.
The Eau Claire County Sheriff’s Department said it had a surplus.
YMCAs opened learning centers in the area to help students.
A very close election in Wisconsin saw Joe Biden flip the swing state back to Democrats. Ron Kind, who represents the 3rd Congressional District, survived the strongest challenge of his career.
Eau Claire County recorded 12 COVID deaths in a single week.
Statues honoring veterans and their families arrived for display prior to their installation at the Chippewa Valley Veterans Tribute.
Area nonprofits received grants designed to support them during the pandemic.
Dunn County officials asked residents to stay home as cases continued to rise.
Veterans Day celebrations were scaled down.
Eau Claire County said revenue in 2020 was down, but so was spending.
Both the Marshfield and Mayo Clinic hospitals in Eau Claire announced they were full, with all staffed beds occupied.
Menomonie schools went virtual.
Chippewa County had more than half of its COVID tests come back positive. The 55 percent rate was far in excess of the state’s average, even as Wisconsin surged to near the top outbreaks nationally.
Traffic at the Chippewa Valley Regional Airport was down significantly.
The University of Wisconsin system went online for classes.
Bill Bauer continued to brighten people’s days with his holiday decorations. It’s a tradition he has participated in for seven decades.
Country Jam announced its 2021 lineup.
Vaccine trials showed success in protecting against COVID, raising hopes for efforts to end the pandemic.
Concept art was released for the new Children’s Museum.
Hospitals said they faced a critical situation as COVID numbers continued to spiral upwards. Hobbs Ice Center closed to the public due to the pandemic.
Local theaters received state pandemic grants, offering a much-needed lifeline in 2020.
Near-perfect weather led to a strong opening to deer season in Wisconsin.
Eau Claire helped set up a quarantine area in the community’s homeless shelter.
Visit Eau Claire said it would repay excess CVB funds.
An Eau Claire woman said she was happy to be alive after a freak shooting left her with major injuries.
Thanksgiving arrived as Wisconsin neared 8,000 new COVID cases per day. Officials feared a holiday COVID surge as families gathered. That didn’t wind up happening in the state, though it did in other areas, and numbers began declining again.
CVTC submitted building plans for its transportation facility, a result of the successful referendum earlier in the year.
The Children’s Museum got an offer for their property in downtown Eau Claire. The bid was considerably faster than expected when the property was put on the market.
Local hospitals began preparing to receive shipments of COVID vaccines, which were widely expected to get approval within weeks.
Readers responded warmly to the story of Jack, a miniature horse being trained for a possible career as a therapy animal.
Nestlé announced a $50 million investment and expansion into its facilities in Eau Claire.
First responders gathered outside hospitals to applaud doctors and nurses at shift changes.
Investigators released preliminary information that identified the officers and man killed in a November officer-involved shooting.
Area hospitals said they had fewer patients, but were still well above normal levels. While new COVID cases were falling, many of those sickened in the November surge still needed care.
Wintertime in the City went ahead as a scaled-down event.
Nine local sites received grants designed to help music and entertainment venues survive the pandemic.
Eau Claire sued to force closure of the Regency Inn & Suites hotel, saying it far exceeded other area hotels for the number of criminal complaints, and that efforts to resolve the issues had failed.
Local officials followed state and federal guidelines in recommending shorter quarantine times for those exposed to COVID.
Wisconsin Farm Technology Days confirmed it would return to Eau Claire in 2021. It had been scheduled to visit this year, but was one of many events canceled by COVID.
Dick Hebert, longtime parks director for Chippewa Falls, announced his retirement.
The Blue Angels, the U.S. Navy’s flight demonstration team, confirmed plans for an appearance in the Chippewa Valley in 2022.
The Hobbs Ice Center stayed closed, but not because of COVID. Necessary repairs to equipment delayed the planned reopening.
Railynn Barnard’s request from the Make-A-Wish Foundation was granted, and it was an unusual one. She asked that the foundation help make sure others in the area had a bright Christmas.
A man died after being stabbed in Eau Claire on Thanksgiving.
Experts called domestic violence a “shadow epidemic,” saying the need for services had increased during the pandemic along with challenges in providing assistance.
UW-Eau Claire said it was clearing out a second dorm for COVID quarantine space for the university’s spring semester.
Memorial and North high school band members performed for hospital workers.
The first shipments of a COVID vaccine arrived in the Chippewa Valley. Health care workers were the first to be vaccinated.
A Ladysmith couple’s Christmas Village offered a walk-through experience in exchange for donations to help local charities.
The Blue Ox festival announced its 2021 headliners.
Bruce Barker announced his retirement from CVTC, which means the school will seek a new president in 2021.
A tiny home village was planned for Chippewa Falls.
Eau Claire announced the names of finalists for the position of city manager.
Wisconsin’s flagship university system said it would have students back on campus for the spring semester.
EAU CLAIRE — The Eau Claire County Sheriff’s Office investigation into the Eau Claire County Department of Human Services appears to be at an impasse.
What started seven months ago as an inquiry into DHS financial practices has progressed into a criminal investigation that includes a forensic audit. There is no end in sight to the process, though it could continue if the sheriff’s office receives approval from a judge for further investigation.
It is unclear exactly when the inquiry turned into a criminal investigation, but on Dec. 14 Sheriff Ron Cramer said he notified County Administrator Kathryn Schauf, Eau Claire County District Attorney Gary King and Eau Claire County outside counsel Rich White that the sheriff’s office has “what we believe to be probable cause of criminal activity” as part of its examination of DHS.
Because the sheriff’s office suspects wrongdoing, the district attorney’s office can bring forth criminal charges if it determines they are warranted. King has declined to comment on the ongoing investigation.
Some details remain hidden, but many aspects related to the investigation are known. An overview of the notable occurrences this year helps clarify what led to a closer look at the department that employs more than 200 people and is charged with caring for the county’s most vulnerable residents.
2017-19: DHS annual operating losses reach more than seven figures in each of these three years and total about $7.5 million. In 2017, losses were $1.9 million. In 2018, overages equaled $2.5 million. The deficit was $3.1 million in 2019. All of those overages were covered by the county’s general fund, its de facto savings account. Those DHS numbers were early cause for concern among some county officials regarding the department’s financial health.
No one explicitly criticized DHS services, many of which it is legally mandated to provide regardless of cost. DHS programs mainly assist vulnerable and low-income residents and may be more urgent than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Criticism of how DHS handles its finances has occurred, though. Some county supervisors have attributed the significant overages to mismanagement and fiscal negligence, but DHS and county officials maintain that the department is enacting cost-mitigation strategies that take time to show results. They have also mentioned increasing difficulties stemming from poverty, substance abuse and mental health challenges during the past several years.
This year appears to show that the mitigation strategies are working, as DHS has losses of about $40,000 through the first 10 months of 2020, a substantial improvement from the previous three years.
May 26: County supervisors are informed of a $1.29 million reimbursement projection error as part of the DHS 2019 budget, bringing annual losses to $3.07 million. County Finance Director Norb Kirk discovered the mistake, which involved a difference in what DHS projected to receive from the state in reconciliation money and what it actually received for Comprehensive Community Services, which assists people with mental health and substance use challenges. DHS Director Diane Cable called it a rare human error in projecting funds that DHS would receive from the state.
May 29: The sheriff’s office begins a fact-finding inquiry into DHS financial practices. Supervisors Mark Beckfield and Steve Chilson, representing what they said was a double-digit number of supervisors who had similar concerns about DHS, spoke with Cramer, who determined there was enough information to warrant a fact-finding inquiry. The inquiry is led by two members of the sheriff’s office and has involved interviews with county employees and DHS service providers.
Beckfield said they went to the sheriff requesting an inquiry “as a last resort” after being notified of the seven-figure reimbursement projection error and previously attempting to have county officials more closely examine DHS.
County Board Chair Nick Smiar said he was not informed of the inquiry request. Smiar has maintained that Beckfield and Chilson acted improperly by speaking to Cramer as representatives of the County Board and requesting the inquiry.
Aug. 10: Kirk informs the Finance and Budget Committee during its meeting that the accounting firm CliftonLarsonAllen found a reconciliation error totaling about $230,000 while nearing the end of its 2019 audit of DHS. The entry was recorded in the 2020 budget, adding a six-figure deficit for DHS to deal with this year.
Aug. 11: Zer Yang Xiong Smith, a former DHS employee, makes her initial appearance in court and is charged with four felony counts of fraudulent writings by a corporation officer and five misdemeanor counts of fraudulent use of a credit card. The case is ongoing, and a court hearing is scheduled for Jan. 5.
Prosecutors said Smith used her county credit card for personal purchases between November 2018 and August 2019 and falsified email records related to those purchases. That included buying and using gift cards intended to be spent toward a county program to assist at-risk youth.
According to the criminal complaint against Smith, she purchased 43 Visa prepaid gift cards each worth $500. DHS records only show receipt or approval of 17 gift cards, potentially leaving $13,000 unannounced for. The criminal complaint also stated that DHS did not keep clear records of Smith’s purchasing activity.
Supervisor Colleen Bates, chair of the DHS Board, conceded the financial errors and criminal charges were a “double whammy” for the department but said employees continued working hard amid challenges during the pandemic.
“We’re holding our breath hoping that we all get through this really difficult time and hoping we can get back to really focusing on the jobs we do well,” Bates said.
Smiar acknowledged the gravity of the allegations against Smith but said they involved a relatively small amount of money.
“I do think the Zer Smith case has been blown out of proportion,” Smiar said. “I’m not making light of it. It shouldn’t have happened. But that’s not Larry Lokken.”
Indeed, Lokken was involved in stealing more than $1 million, while the allegations against Smith appear to involve low five-figure amounts.
Lokken, a former county treasurer, pleaded no contest in 2015 for embezzling taxpayer money with his deputy Kay Onarheim. Charges in the criminal cases against Lokken and Onarheim were linked to money stolen toward the end of their careers, before both retired in 2013. An Eau Claire Police Department investigation showed they took $1.39 million of taxpayers’ money over the course of a dozen years.
Aug. 12: County supervisors request a forensic audit of DHS. A forensic audit analyzes an organization’s financial records specifically to search for illegal activity.
The requests came because of the seven-figure annual losses at DHS from 2017-19, the $1.29 million reimbursement projection error uncovered in May, the $230,000 reconciliation error discovered in August and criminal charges against Smith. At least three supervisors believed those incidents warranted a further examination of the department. Other supervisors, including Smiar, believe there is no basis for a forensic audit and that the separate occurrences combined to form “a perfect storm of three or four errors.”
Beckfield and Chilson proposed a resolution that would require spending up to $100,000 to conduct a forensic audit of DHS. The resolution was supported by Cramer, King and County Treasurer Glenda Lyons.
“I want honesty, I want transparency and I want the facts to come out,” Chilson said. “I’m tired of this nonsense and this dancing around in circles and not getting any answers because we don’t want to have the truth.”
Separately, Supervisor Jerry Wilkie proposed an action item that included conducting a forensic audit of the department; granting Kirk, the county finance director, “authority and responsibility for the DHS financial unit effective immediately;” evaluating internal procedures for handling gift cards; and conducting an in-depth audit into DHS 2019 spending.
Neither of the two resolutions ultimately received County Board approval.
Sept. 15: The County Board postpones voting on a resolution that would have authorized the county to fund a program audit and a forensic audit of DHS at a cost of up to $100,000. A program audit looks at an organization to determine if it is meeting its performance goals. Supervisors voted 19-10 to postpone the vote to October in order to have time to verify where the money for the audits would come from if approved.
During the meeting, several supervisors voiced opposition to the resolution. Supervisor Judy Gatlin said more discussion should occur about the services DHS provides and the challenges the department has faced in recent years.
“How can you put metrics on saving people?” Gatlin said.
Sept. 22: Eau Claire County retains White, former Eau Claire County district attorney who is now in private law practice with Weld Riley, as outside counsel to represent the county and assist the sheriff’s office in its examinations of DHS.
County Corporation Counsel Tim Sullivan said he recommended hiring an outside attorney because he had a conflict of interest. The sheriff’s office and DHS, both of which are county departments, have competing interests in the investigation, meaning Sullivan could not properly advise both departments.
Cramer in November denied White was working with his office.
“We did not ask for his assistance,” Cramer said.
Schauf said the county is paying for White’s services from its Human Resources personnel budget for contracted services and that the county is retaining White on a project-by-project basis. The county was billed $3,900 by Weld Riley for White’s work in September and October. Billing figures for November and December have not been made public yet.
Sept. 23: Cramer informs the Judiciary and Law Enforcement Committee that his office transferred $100,000 from its overtime account to its investigative services account with the intent of conducting a forensic audit of DHS.
Oct. 6: With Cramer planning to fund a forensic audit, the county board tables the resolution from its Sept. 15 meeting authorizing the county to fund a program audit and a forensic audit of DHS. The level of support for a forensic audit among supervisors was unclear, since the County Board never voted on whether the county should fund a forensic audit.
October: The Sheriff’s Office hires the accounting firm Wipfli to conduct a forensic audit of DHS. Cramer said the forensic audit will likely focus on tax levy money spent by DHS.
The four Wipfli employees conducting the forensic audit are based in Minneapolis. Cramer said he wanted to work with an organization outside of Eau Claire County to eliminate the possibility of financial involvement from local taxpayers with an “ax to grind” against DHS or the county.
Dec. 14: Cramer says the county has largely not cooperated during the first six months of the inquiry that is now a criminal investigation. Cramer said his office has been “stonewalled,” mainly regarding attempts to obtain DHS financial information.
Cramer also mentioned two search warrants that have taken place as part of the investigation. One occurred locally in October, though Cramer declined to elaborate on it. The other involved a company based in Minnesota that Cramer said “worked with and for Eau Claire County” that failed to comply with a records request.
Dec. 15: White updates the County Board on his legal work since being retained by the county about three months earlier. White characterized the ongoing investigation into DHS as highly unusual and an example of government dysfunction. He also said the investigation has created negative public perceptions of DHS, echoing comments from Smiar and others in recent months.
White said the Sheriff’s Office has requested overwhelming amounts of DHS financial documentation that DHS isn’t required to provide without legal basis. If the Sheriff’s Office believes something criminal has occurred, further information regarding those potential crimes should be pursued through the judicial system rather than records requests, White said.
To continue the investigation, Cramer’s office will likely need search warrants and/or subpoenas, which are issued by a judge only if it is determined that probable cause exists.
While the sheriff’s office determines its next step, DHS will continue to provide critical services to area residents, and supervisors, county officials and citizens will watch for subsequent actions in the investigation.
As Chilson said recently, everyone is now “waiting for something to happen.”
EAU CLAIRE — The number of new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all declining in Eau Claire County, and Public Health Director Lieske Giese is asking for patience as vaccines are slowly rolled out across the state.
“We will get vaccines. It will be slow,” Giese said during her weekly press conference Wednesday afternoon. “We will do it as quickly as we can.”
The county has now received doses of both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, she added. About 47,000 people have been vaccinated statewide, and those numbers are rising daily. Most of those vaccinated so far are health care workers in hospitals or other health-related settings, she said.
“They are working hard to get their teams vaccinated,” Giese said.
While vaccines are rolling out, Giese urged people to continue to wear masks and practice social distancing measures.
“2020 has been a memorable year, in many ways,” she said.
“The start of 2021 doesn’t flip the switch.”
Eau Claire County is now averaging about 39 new COVID-19 cases daily, Giese said.
“The good news is the case number per day is going down,” she said, adding the goal is to bring that number to about 10 per day. A lower number allows businesses and schools to remain operational.
“It’s much improvement, but we’ve got work to do to get to our goal,” she said.
There are currently 330 active coronavirus cases in the county. An additional 12 people have been hospitalized in the past week, bringing a total to 292 county residents having ever been hospitalized.
In the past week, four more county residents have died from the virus, bringing the total to 75.
“It’s a slowing rate, the number of deaths, but still higher than earlier in the pandemic,” she said.
Statewide, about 14,000 more people have been infected in the past week, bringing Wisconsin’s total to 477,292. About 4.4%, or 33,000 of those who have tested positive, have ever been hospitalized, resulting in 4,818 deaths statewide.
Giese said the area hospitalization numbers are also flat right now, and she’s hopeful that will lead to a similar decline in new deaths.
Giese urged people to avoid gathering for New Year’s Eve, in hopes of keeping the daily case numbers at their present rate, or lower.
“We hope that number doesn’t creep up,” she said.
Chippewa County has seen a similar drop in cases in the past week, with just 149 new cases since Dec. 30, and no new deaths, with the level remaining at 65.