EAU CLAIRE — The Eau Claire County Board’s decision to delay voting on an amendment to a resolution authorizing the county to conduct a forensic audit into the county Department of Human Services followed about two hours of discussion, including input from the Eau Claire County Sheriff’s Office.
On Tuesday night the board postponed consideration of the amendment until its Oct. 6 meeting in order to have time to verify where the money for actions in the amendment would come from. The amendment, which was postponed by a 19-10 vote, proposes spending up to $75,000 to conduct a program audit of DHS and up to $25,000 “to hire forensic experts to pursue the full scope” of alleged credit card theft related to an ongoing criminal case against a former DHS employee.
Supervisor Kevin Stelljes drafted the amendment to allow the Sheriff’s Office to investigate potential criminal activities and, separately, to conduct a thorough program audit of DHS. The alleged credit card theft refers to a case against former DHS employee Zer Smith, who was charged last month with nine counts of fraud relating to credit card purchases at DHS between November 2018 and August 2019. A court hearing in that case is scheduled for Nov. 10. If approved, the Sheriff’s Office investigation would “include heretofore unreported thefts or other persons involved,” according to the amendment.
According to Stelljes’s amendment, a DHS program audit would focus on three areas: evaluation of DHS management controls and improvement recommendations; evaluation of accounting and forecasting practices; and evaluation of program effectiveness to determine how successful DHS is in delivering services.
The County Board also approved an amendment to Stelljes’s amendment noting that if either the $25,000 forensic examination or $75,000 program audit go over budget, they would be referred to the Administration Committee and Finance and Budget Committee.
A program audit is different from a forensic audit. A program audit looks at an organization to determine if the organization is meeting its performance goals. A forensic audit analyzes an organization’s financial records specifically to search for illegal activity.
Supervisor Steve Chilson, co-author of a resolution that would authorize the county to spend up to $100,000 to conduct a forensic audit of DHS, said community confidence in DHS is low and a forensic audit would help restore that confidence.
Indeed, the County Board received 30 public comments Tuesday night supporting a forensic audit of DHS.
“We owe it to the taxpayers to do everything we can to find out everything we can and take corrective action,” Chilson said.
The Eau Claire County sheriff, district attorney and treasurer support the resolution. Chilson urged supervisors to listen to those law enforcement and financial experts and move forward with a forensic audit.
Supervisor Mark Beckfield, the resolution’s other co-author, said the total amount of money potentially unaccounted for in the Smith case is at least five figures, since the criminal complaint against Smith states that she purchased 43 prepaid gift cards each worth $500. DHS records only show receipt or approval of 17 gift cards, leaving at least $13,000 unannounced for. That unaccounted for money should be enough to justify a forensic audit, according to Beckfield.
“This is not small potatoes that we’re talking about,” Beckfield said.
Supervisor Carl Anton said the County Board owes clarification to county workers regarding the financial situation of the department, and that clarity cannot happen without a forensic audit.
“We need to get to the bottom of it for the sake of our employees,” Anton said.
Supervisor Robin Leary agreed.
“If we don’t do this, we’re not going to know, and it’s going to continue to be a question,” Leary said. “While I don’t like having to do this, I think it’s necessary.”
Several supervisors voiced opposition to Stelljes’s amendment. Supervisor Judy Gatlin said more discussion should occur about the services DHS provides and the “perfect storm” of challenges the department has faced in recent years, including substance abuse, mental health challenges and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“How can you put metrics on saving people?” Gatlin said.
Supervisor Don Mowry spoke against the amendment, saying there is no known criminal activity in DHS besides Smith’s case.
“Why are we doing this?” Mowry said. “Where’s the evidence that there’s more wrongdoing in the department?”
In order to make a comment regarding the resolution, County Board Chair Nick Smiar stepped down from the chair position while the resolution was discussed, and Supervisor Colleen Bates, the County Board vice chair, took over as chair.
Smiar spoke against the resolution, saying the ”entire matter has the appearance of a whisper campaign with the sole purpose of damaging, intimidating, and bullying both DHS and this board.”
Separate from Tuesday’s meeting, in a recent open letter to all DHS employees, Bates expressed support for their ongoing work “in the most complex department in county government” amid several challenges.
“You continue to serve in a time of increased community needs due to an opioid and meth epidemic, the COVID-19 pandemic, increased homelessness and a major economic downturn,” Bates wrote. “You continue to serve in an environment of flat funding for well over a decade. You serve, in times of hurtful criticism. There are those who will use rare and unfortunate events to cast blame and engage in accusations that are harmful to the leadership and staff who (have) served our community so well. You continue to do the work you love. It is your passion, expertise and time that is such an essential ingredient in implementing best practices and creating a community that cares.”
Others expressed ambivalence during Tuesday’s meeting. Supervisor Heather DeLuka said she is not against a forensic audit but said supervisors don’t have enough information to determine if a forensic audit is warranted.
Supervisor Katherine Schneider asked County Administrator Kathryn Schauf if she thinks a forensic audit is necessary. Schauf said more information is required before she can respond one way or the other.
“It’s hard to say yes or no,” Schauf said. “I know that’s a non-answer, but it’s the best I can give for now.”
Schauf also said a program audit of DHS “may have value.”
Sheriff inquiry update
Information was also provided at Tuesday’s meeting regarding the ongoing Sheriff’s Office fact-finding inquiry into DHS financial practices that began May 29.
Supervisors questioned Joel Brettingen, Eau Claire County undersheriff and captain of field services, about the inquiry. Based in part on the inquiry’s preliminary findings, Brettingen said a forensic audit should “absolutely” occur.
Smiar asked Brettingen what evidence the Sheriff’s Office has to support a forensic audit. Declining to go into specifics about the ongoing inquiry, Brettingen said the Sheriff’s Office knows of several “irregularities” and “anomalies” in DHS that cannot be answered without a forensic audit.
During an interview with the Leader-Telegram Wednesday, Sheriff Ron Cramer reiterated his support for a forensic audit of DHS. Cramer said the inquiry is still in the fact-finding phase and is not yet a criminal investigation.
“We have issues that we need to delve into further before we can absolutely talk about criminality,” Cramer said.
Cramer said his office has interviewed DHS employees in person about operational financial issues as part of the fact-finding inquiry. He declined to say how many DHS staffers have been interviewed. Cramer also said his office is waiting to hear back from some DHS workers about making appointments to talk with his office for the inquiry.
DHS staffers are allowed to have a personal attorney present when they are being interviewed, but Cramer said that probably isn’t necessary if they have correctly done their jobs.
“If you’ve done nothing wrong, if it’s taxpayers’ money, let’s be transparent and let’s get this done,” Cramer said.
Going forward, Cramer said the Sheriff’s Office will follow the evidence gathered during the inquiry until his office does or does not determine it has enough information for the Eau Claire County District Attorney’s Office to review. Cramer did not give a timeline for when the inquiry will end, but he said that when it concludes a discussion with the County Board may occur to discuss the inquiry’s findings.
The County Board approved the removal from the county bridge plan of a part-time administrative associate in the Eau Claire County Clerk’s Office. The removal would allow the clerk’s office to hire a part-time worker to help with several activities, including those related to the November election.
The County Board approved the removal from the county bridge plan of a full-time fiscal associate position in the County Finance Department. According to the resolution fact sheet, the position “is necessary to leverage day to day operations to allow high-level fiscal staff in the department more time to provide guidance and consultation on financial matters with DHS as well as other departments.”
The next County Board meeting is scheduled for Oct. 6.
EAU CLAIRE — A new Children’s Museum of Eau Claire took another step forward Wednesday morning when the city’s Redevelopment Authority signed an agreement to sell land for the building.
Getting unanimous approval from the RDA’s board of directors and already approved by the museum’s leaders, the agreement calls for the new two-story, 23,000-square-foot building to be open by the end of 2022.
The new building would be built on vacant land along North Barstow Street, immediately adjacent to a city parking ramp the museum will rent spaces in.
The museum will lease 25 stalls in the ramp, starting at $40 a month. Specific spots will not be reserved for the museum, but signs above some spots stating they are “family friendly” will indicate they’re close to the museum’s entrance.
RDA board member Connie Pedersen questioned if there is enough room available in the city’s four-level ramp for all the current and future users.
Royal Credit Union and Jamf are primary users of the ramp, though numerous employees are currently working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to the museum’s planned usage of the ramp, the city recently approved a five-story building nearby with apartments and commercial space that will use some spaces in the parking structure as well. The RDA is in ongoing talks with Monarch Ventures for a building next to the ramp with a restaurant and office space, which is also expected to need parking.
City Attorney Stephen Nick said the expected use from all of those won’t exceed the ramp’s capacity, but it doesn’t expect to have many spaces left open.
“There is sufficient space for all of those users,” he said.
City Economic Development Manager Aaron White noted that the various ramp users have different times when they’re busy. For example, the office workers park there during weekdays, while the restaurant and apartments planned in the area would drive usage on nights and weekends.
“We feel like this should accommodate their needs,” White said of the parking ramp.
A final purchase price for the museum land was not yet specified as it depends on an upcoming survey to determine the exact square footage needed for the building.
However, the agreement states the museum will pay $10 per square foot and the area planned for the facility is about 20,000 square feet, which would result in a sale price of $200,000.
That price may be adjusted down by the RDA through with up to $105,000 in credits the developer of the site would get for costs incurred for dealing with environmental issues encountered when preparing the land for construction.
In late August, the museum listed its current location for sale with an asking price of $1.4 million.
Whoever buys that building at 220 S. Barstow St. will be subject to property taxes, unlike the museum, which has tax-exempt status.
The deal signed Wednesday with the RDA specifies that the old building will have a minimum assessed value of $500,000 on the tax rolls starting in 2024. That will result in a tax bill of at least $11,528 that needs to be paid in 2025.
Having taxable property in that section of downtown is important to the city as it is in a tax increment financing district.
“We will see a net gain in the TIF,” White said.
Taxes on properties in that area help pay for improvements the city makes there to encourage new development.
The children’s museum has been closed for the past 1½ months due to financial challenges tied to operating during the COVID-19 pandemic. The onset of the pandemic caused the museum to close from mid-March to early July, but it closed again at the end of July to prevent it from depleting cash reserves while attendance and sponsorship were both down.
Talks continue for eatery, offices
The RDA also decided Wednesday morning to continue talks with a developer planning to build a restaurant and office space next to the planned children’s museum.
The board unanimously voted to extend its memorandum of understanding with Monarch Ventures of Hudson through the end of this year.
“They’re still very interested in the site,” White said. “They’re still looking or tenants in the office space.”
He attributed the extended talks to delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which have greatly impacted the restaurant industry.
Still seeking developers
Seeking to inspire and attract developers to build on a downtown surface parking lot, the RDA reviewed a new batch of conceptual designs for what’s possible on the site.
Five different concepts created by local architectural firm Ayres Associates were presented Wednesday, showing different combinations of buildings and structured parking for the lot.
Conceived mostly for apartments, designs for the buildings included some ground-floor commercial space.
Ayres recommends the development be two separate buildings so it can be built in phases. The firm suggested that a total of 150 apartments, 5,000 square feet of commercial space and structured parking would be an ideal size for the project.
The firm estimates that will cost a developer $31.5 million to build.
The RDA has been marketing the block at the northwest corner of North Barstow and Galloway streets for several years and had previously signed agreements with developers. However, those previous plans have faltered over cost concerns with the RDA’s requirement the development include underground parking cited as a major issue. The land has been a temporary parking lot since 2013, originally paved to serve the area before the neighboring parking ramp was completed.
EAU CLAIRE — John Menard, founder of the Menards home-improvement chain of stores and a 1963 UW-Eau Claire graduate, is giving $3 million to the university for a five-year initiative regarding the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment rights.
The funds “will expand the opportunities available through UW-Eau Claire’s Center for Constitutional Studies, now renamed the Menard Center for Constitutional Studies,” according to a UW-EC news release.
“The center is a nonpartisan organization created in 2016 that aims to educate the campus community on issues that relate to the U.S. Constitution.”
The center hosts presentations and events covering constitutional issues and serves as the point of contact for the media or the public with questions related to the Constitution. The UW-Eau Claire Foundation will receive and manage the gift.
“This new support provides an incredible opportunity for our students and faculty to lead and engage in critical research and programming around First Amendment issues, topics that are crucial to every American,” UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt said in the release. “As I have said many times ... we all benefit from a fuller understanding of what the U.S. Constitution requires and protects when it comes to free speech and tolerance, and universities clearly have an important role to play in furthering this understanding.
“We are very grateful to the Menard family for supporting us as we work to be a leader in promoting research, education and community outreach in these important matters.”
A portion of the donation will bring Cornel West, professor at Harvard University and professor emeritus at Princeton University, and American attorney and George Washington University Law School professor Jonathan Turley to campus in next year for discussions about free speech and the U.S. Constitution.
“Our family has deep roots at UW-Eau Claire and we are excited to support the important work and research happening on campus related to the U.S. Constitution,” said the Menard family in a statement. “Investing in the future of the communities where our employees, customers and business partners live, learn and work is a core value. Our hope is to empower as many people as possible to have the opportunity our family did to use their innate abilities to learn, contribute and succeed.”
With the donation from the Menard family and $747,000 in new funding from the Charles Koch Foundation, UW-Eau Claire will hire two new faculty members; offer new courses; create new speaker forums and series that provide multiple points of view; offer research symposiums; support faculty; and make possible new educational programming.