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Board of Health, county Administration Committee approve local mask ordinance
  • Updated

EAU CLAIRE — Two local entities on Tuesday passed an ordinance that would require face masks in public in Eau Claire County if a state mask mandate expires or is struck down.

The Eau Claire City-County Board of Health and the county Administration Committee during a joint meeting both approved an ordinance that would require people ages 5 and older to wear face masks in public buildings to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The ordinance also would require businesses to post notices that masks are required.

Exceptions to the ordinance include when people are eating, drinking, receiving dental work or performing work that is unsafe with a face covering. Other exemptions include people with breathing problems, other medical issues or disabilities. The ordinance also includes the ability of a local health officer or law enforcement officer to issue $200 citations for individuals who fail to comply with the ordinance.

The Board of Health passed the proposal by vote of 6-1, and the Administration Committee passed it by vote of 3-2.

The committee and board received 39 written public comments opposed to the ordinance and 34 written comments in favor of the ordinance. Five of the people who wrote in opposition spoke during the public comment portion as well.

During the joint meeting, Lieske Giese, Eau Claire City-County Health Department director, called masks a small but “critically important” tool to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. She reiterated that people who consistently and correctly wear a face mask that is fitted to their face and covers their mouth and nose will reduce the risk of spreading potentially infected respiratory droplets to other people, since a mask catches the droplets.

“It’s not a perfect solution, but when we do it consistently and we require that that be done, it does become an effective strategy with reducing spread of disease,” Giese said. “It’s about protecting those around us.”

In the local ordinance, citations would likely be used essentially as a last resort if an individual repeatedly fails to comply with the mask ordinance. Giese said local entities have not issued any fines so far related to the state mask mandate. She said the state mandate has mainly been used as an educational tool for shared community expectations of face mask use.

The local ordinance would only apply if a state mask mandate is not in effect. The ordinance is very similar to the existing state mandate, but it includes the requirement for businesses to post mask notices, which is not part of the state order.

The approvals Tuesday are the first steps of many before the potential passing of local mask ordinances, which have nearly identical language for the city of Eau Claire and Eau Claire County. The City Council will hear public comments regarding the ordinance during its Jan. 25 meeting, have a first reading of the ordinance on Jan. 26, hear public comments on Feb. 8 and vote on the ordinance during its Feb. 9 meeting. The County Board will have a first reading of the ordinance during its Jan. 19 meeting and vote on the ordinance at its Feb. 17 meeting.

If approved, the local ordinance would end on June 30. The County Board and City Council also have the option to repeal it at an earlier date.

The mask ordinances are separate from potential changes to communicable disease ordinances considered in fall 2020 by the City Council and County Board. Neither entity voted on communicable disease ordinances, instead deciding to form a 19-person task force to recommend potential changes to the communicable disease ordinances. That task force will have its first meeting later this month or early February.

The next County Board meeting is scheduled for Jan. 19.

Zeke Carroll of Black River Falls ice fishes from the comfort of his heated portable shelter Tuesday on Lake Altoona. View more photos at LeaderTelegramPhotos.com.

In State of State speech, Evers targets broadband, fixing unemployment

MADISON (AP) — Gov. Tony Evers, in his State of the State speech Tuesday delivered virtually for the first time in state history, called on the Legislature to update Wisconsin’s antiquated unemployment payment system and spend nearly $200 million to expand broadband access, two problem areas the coronavirus pandemic laid bare last year.

Evers pre-recorded the speech which was broadcast on his YouTube and Facebook channels while lawmakers sitting at their desks in the Senate and Assembly chambers watched.

Traditionally, the governor would deliver the speech in the Assembly in front of lawmakers from both chambers, members of the Supreme Court, the governor’s Cabinet and other guests. Concerns about spreading the coronavirus scuttled such plans this year.

Evers announced he was calling a special session for the Legislature to fix the beleaguered unemployment system, which was overwhelmed with record numbers of people filing claims when the pandemic hit. It’s proven to be a huge political liability for Evers, who fired the agency secretary in charge and has sustained months of Republican criticism over how he handled the backlog in claims that have left some without unemployment checks for months.

Now Evers, a Democrat, is trying to shift responsibility to the Republican-controlled Legislature by forcing them into a special session to take up his plan to modernize the system to speed the processing of claims.

Evers said if the Republican-controlled Legislature doesn’t address the problem, “the people of this state will hold them accountable at the ballot box.”

But Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, in a response delivered inside the Assembly chamber with no Democrats present, said Evers’ failure to lead was to blame, not an antiquated system.

The pandemic also underscored the problem of broadband access in rural areas and the “digital divide” across the state, Evers said. He declared 2021 the “Year of Broadband Access” and said his state budget to be released next month will include nearly $200 million for broadband improvement. That is five times what was invested over the past three state budgets combined, he said.

Expanding broadband is an issue that has typically found bipartisan support in the Legislature.

Much of Evers’ address focused on the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic in what he called an “unrelenting” 2020.

Evers asked for a moment of silence and dedicate the speech to the more than 5,000 people who have died from COVID-19 in Wisconsin to date.

“We’ve made it through a difficult year, folks,” he said. “While it was discouraging, we aren’t defeated. While it was trying, we’re tough.”

Evers was fought by Republicans over many of his efforts to address the virus, including a safer-at-home order the Wisconsin Supreme Court threw out in May. The court is currently weighing a challenge to Evers’ statewide mask mandate.

Republicans have also been critical of Evers’ vaccine distribution plan, saying it’s not getting the vaccine out quickly enough.

“Wisconsin is an embarrassment compared to other states,” Vos said.

Evers and other Democratic governors are urging the federal government to distribute vaccines more quickly, while cautioning that the public likely won’t be inoculated until June.

Evers’ speech came on the same day the state Senate, on a bipartisan vote, passed a COVID-19 relief bill. Evers praised it as a compromise and called on the GOP-controlled Assembly to pass it, but that appeared unlikely. Vos implied that senators caved to Evers’ demands and vowed to continue working toward a deal.

Evers will release his two-year state budget plan next month, laying out in detail his priorities for the second two years of his term, which will consume much of the Legislature’s time this spring and into the summer. The Legislature is also tasked with the once-a-decade task of redistricting this summer.

Evers last year in his State of the State speech announced the creation of a commission to draw maps that will serve as an alternative to what the Republican-controlled Legislature creates. That commission has been holding meetings across the state to gather feedback.

Evers said his budget will include requirements for the Legislature to consider the maps his commission creates and force lawmakers to create their maps in public. Republicans will almost certainly quickly reject those requirements.

Sam’s Club gets small refund
  • Updated

EAU CLAIRE — Bulk goods retailer Sam’s Club sought a deep discount in the property tax bill for its Eau Claire store, but settled with the city for a 2% refund.

On Tuesday, the City Council voted 10-0 — Councilwoman Mai Xiong was absent from the meeting — to approve an agreement that gives the Arkansas-based company $2,535 back out of the $132,322 it paid in property taxes for 2019.

City Attorney Stephen Nick called the settlement “a very modest” adjustment that reinforces the accuracy of the city’s method for assessing property values for tax purposes.

“That less than 2% adjustment reaffirms the correctness of that valuation,” he said.

The settlement will conclude a lawsuit that Sam’s Club filed during summer 2019 in Eau Claire County Court. The retailer contested that its store at 4001 Gateway Drive should be valued at $3.6 million for tax purposes — not the $6.58 million the city has assessed it at.

But in the settlement already signed by a representative for Sam’s Club before the council approved it, the assessed value of the building for 2019 would only be trimmed by $125,000.

Sam’s Club is the most recent retailer to settle a lawsuit brought against the city claiming excessive taxation because Eau Claire valued its retail stores too high.

Last year the city settled cases out-of-court with Menards, Walmart and a hotel on Eau Claire’s south side now branded as a Best Western. Though they had sought much larger reductions in court, each settled for significantly less. Menards got about a 9.5% cut on taxes for its Eau Claire stores, Walmart received a 4% discount and the hotel got about a 9% refund.

“We have seen settlements be relatively modest,” Nick said.

Other excessive taxation lawsuits brought by Scheels All Sports, Oakwood Hills Mall and Festival Foods owner Skogen’s Foodliner are still open, according to Wisconsin’s online court records system.

Other business

Also during Tuesday evening’s City Council meeting:

• The city will apply for a $200,000 to $250,000 grant from a state-run renewable energy project program to help pay for a geothermal heating system that is planned as part of L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library’s upcoming renovation and expansion project.

• Eau Claire is supporting the creation of the Chippewa-St. Croix Rail Commission, a group of government officials representing the area where a passenger rail line has been planned. The council voted unanimously to seek a seat on the multi-jurisdictional commission and help the effort through the use of some employee time.

• The city agreed to give a bulk discount rate to Royal Credit Union for the 230 stalls it rents in a city-owned parking ramp. The Eau Claire-based credit union will pay $41.40 per stall each month compared to the full price of $46. This replaces a prior agreement where RCU was paying $38 per stall, but it was going to increase to the full price this year.

• Action on a rezoning request to allow new apartment buildings on the 700 block of Water Street was delayed until the council’s Feb. 9 meeting.