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New city initiative gives public voice in how $300,000 is spent
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EAU CLAIRE — A new city initiative will give Eau Claire residents the opportunity to brainstorm and vote on up to $300,000 worth of public projects.

During its Tuesday evening meeting, the City Council voted 11-0 to approve rules for the new participatory budgeting program, which has been in the works for a few years.

“I’m really excited to see this have another layer of getting off the ground and running,” council Vice President Catherine Emmanuelle said. “This is a very happy day and thank you for your work everybody.”

Emmanuelle traced the idea’s roots back to her early days on council nine years ago when she was saddened to see only one person speak at an annual budget hearing. Determined to get more residents involved in local politics and budgeting, she became the leading voice for creating a participatory budgeting program in Eau Claire.

In fall 2018, the council took the first steps toward creating a participatory budgeting program by designating up to $25,000 to hire a consultant to help Eau Claire create such an initiative. Starting with the 2000 budget, the council has allocated $100,000 annually as money for projects that will be decided by the participatory budgeting process.

“This is something that has been worked on for many years,” said Councilman Andrew Werthmann, who also supported the creation of the new initiative.

And progress on it slowed down during 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This program has been delayed by the pandemic for a full year,” said Ned Noel, the city’s senior planner.

That slowdown means the participatory budget fund will reach $300,000 next year when the first slate of projects suggested by the public goes to a vote.

Projects eligible for the money can include city building or park improvements, upgrades to infrastructure or the purchase of new equipment or vehicles — as long as they show a benefit to the public.

Following Tuesday’s council vote, Noel said the city will begin soliciting ideas from the public this month. Events to get volunteers to help with the new initiative are also being planned, he said.

Ideas submitted by Eau Claire residents this fall will be refined by city staff and outside experts to turn them into concrete project proposals during winter. In spring, those ideas will be presented during community meetings and put to a vote to see which ones will get funding.

The rulebook approved Tuesday establishes the council’s role as a neutral party that is not intended to sway public opinion toward one project or another.

“You’ve set forth the program, but the people will be able to move forward with the projects,” Noel said.

City manager search

Five council members will do the legwork for the search for the next city manager, but the entire 11-person council will decide which candidates become finalists.

President Terry Weld, Emmanuelle and council members Emily Anderson, Kate Beaton and Roderick Jones were appointed by their peers to serve on an ad hoc committee that will handle the initial stages of the city manager search.

That work includes updating recruitment materials, working with an executive search firm hired by the city and making regular progress reports back to the entire council.

According to the resolution that created the ad hoc committee, the group of five council members will be required to recommend potential finalists for the manager job by mid-January.

Once the pool of applicants for the city’s top position is winnowed below 10, the entire City Council will become involved in decisions to select candidates from there.

“The full council should be looking at 10 or fewer numbers,” Councilman David Klinkhammer said.

On Tuesday, the council also voted unanimously to hire Washington, D.C.-based executive search firm Polihire to handle the recruitment process for city manager candidates. That contract is priced at $38,000.

This is the city’s second attempt to replace Dale Peters, who retired as city manager in October. The previous search ended in February when the council’s preferred choice opted to take a job elsewhere.

Other business

• The council voted 11-0 to approve purchase of a new video system for squad cars, police interview rooms and body-worn cameras from Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Axon Enterprises. The contract would not only furnish Eau Claire city police with the equipment, but also the Eau Claire County Sheriff’s Office. Local nonprofit organization PESI has offered to pay for the equipment and annual costs through 2025 — a donation valued at about $950,000.

Open for business

An open house house was held on Monday and Tuesday at the L.E. Phillips Senior Center in Eau Claire and will continue today with tours, thrift and craft sales all day, a ribbon cutting at 11 a.m. and a car show from 4:30-6:45. Some of the new additions to the facility include a ground floor fitness gym and a multi-purpose room, along with two lower level multi-purpose rooms and a lower level billiards room. Walt Schreiber, left, and Dave Cavanaugh play pool in the new basement billiards room on Tuesday.

COVID-19 cases climbing, wiping out months of progress

COVID-19 deaths and cases in the U.S. have climbed back to levels not seen since last winter, wiping out months of progress.

The cases — driven by the delta variant combined with resistance among some Americans to getting the vaccine — are concentrated mostly in the South.

While one-time hot spots like Florida and Louisiana are improving, infection rates are soaring in Kentucky, Georgia and Tennessee, fueled by children now back in school, loose mask restrictions and low vaccination levels.

The dire situation in some hospitals is starting to sound like January’s infection peak: Surgeries canceled in hospitals in Washington state and Utah. Severe staff shortages in Kentucky and Alabama. A lack of beds in Tennessee. Intensive care units at or over capacity in Texas.

The deteriorating picture nine months into the nation’s vaccination drive has angered and frustrated medical professionals who see the heartbreak as preventable. The vast majority of the dead and the hospitalized have been unvaccinated. That has proved to be a hard lesson for some families.

“The problem now is we have been trying to educate based on science, but I think most of the education that is happening now is based on tragedy, personal tragedy,” said Dr. Ryan Stanton, an emergency room physician in Lexington, Kentucky.

In Kentucky, 70% of the state’s hospitals — 66 of 96 — are reporting critical staff shortages, the highest level yet during the pandemic, the governor said.

“Our hospitals are at the brink of collapse in many communities,” said Dr. Steven Stack, Kentucky’s public health commissioner.

The U.S. is averaging over 1,800 COVID-19 deaths and 170,000 new cases per day, the highest levels respectively since early March and late January. And both figures have been on the rise over the past two weeks.

The nation is dispensing about 900,000 shots of the vaccine per day, well below the peak of 3.4 million a day in mid-April. On Friday, a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel will meet to discuss whether the U.S. should begin dispensing booster shots of the Pfizer vaccine to shore up people’s protection.

On a positive note, the number of people now in the hospital with COVID-19 appears to be leveling off or even declining at around 90,000, or about where things stood in February.

The outbreak in the U.S. topped out in January at an average of about 3,400 deaths and a quarter-million cases per day. That was just weeks into the nation’s vaccination drive. A precipitous drop followed, extending into the spring before creeping back up with the rise of the more contagious delta variant.

Last week, President Joe Biden ordered all employers with more than 100 workers to require vaccinations or weekly tests, a measure affecting about 80 million Americans. And the roughly 17 million workers at health facilities that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid also will have to be fully vaccinated.

“We read about and hear about and we see the stories of hospitalized people, people on their deathbeds among the unvaccinated over the past few weeks,” Biden said in announcing the rules. “This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

The requirements have met with resistance and threats of lawsuits from Republicans.

Stanton, the ER doctor in Kentucky, said he has admitted families where the delta variant has swept through generations, especially if the older members are unvaccinated.

“Now in Kentucky, one-third of new cases are under age 18,” he said. Some children brought it home from summer camp and spread it to the rest of the family, and now, “between day care and schools and school activities, and friends getting together, there are just so many exposures.”

In Alabama, hundreds of COVID-19 patients fill intensive care units, and one hospital contacted 43 others in three states to find a specialty cardiac ICU bed for Ray Martin DeMonia. It wasn’t fast enough. The 73-year-old died Sept. 1.

“In honor of Ray, please get vaccinated if you have not, in an effort to free up resources for non-COVID related emergencies,” his family pleaded in his obituary.

In Hidalgo County, Texas, along the Mexican border, about 50 patients were in the hospital with COVID-19 on a given day in July. By early August, the number had soared to over 600.

“Back in July we were almost celebrating. Little did we know,” said Ivan Melendez, public health authority for Hidalgo County. The situation has improved somewhat, with just under 300 people hospitalized for COVID-19 on Monday, but ICUs are still above 90% capacity, Melendez said.

“We have not turned the corner,” Melendez said. “Double digits of people, double digits are dying every day.”

The biggest surge over the summer occurred in states that had low vaccination rates, particularly in the South, where many people rely on air conditioning and are breathing recirculated air, said Linsey Marr, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech.

Heading into colder months, states farther north with low vaccination rates, especially in the Midwest, are likely to see upticks.

“I don’t think it’s going to come all the way back down,” Marr said. “I think it’s going to kind of stay at the simmering level as it works its way through the unvaccinated population in the other states. And it’ll work its way north because in the wintertime, people are heating and then you get that same issue of recirculating the air indoors.”

Vaccination rates are not as low in some of the Northern states, but “there’s still a lot of unvaccinated people out there. Delta is going to find them,” Marr said.

And vaccinated people are still not in the clear. Shri Amarnath said her father got sick during a business trip to Georgia just before his Aug. 31 retirement and had to miss his last day of work and retirement festivities.

After he had been symptom-free for 48 hours, the family left for a lake house in Tennessee. Everyone was vaccinated. But Amarnath’s mother started feeling sick during the trip and tested positive.

Everyone else is quarantining and planning to get tested or retested, said Amaranth, who lives in Indianapolis.

“Everyone is kind of like on alert, waiting to see who’s next,” she said.

County committee approves $2.75M ARP allocation
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EAU CLAIRE — Eau Claire County is proposing a second allocation of the money it received from the American Rescue Plan Act.

The county Administration Committee during a meeting Tuesday approved a resolution allocating $2.75 million to be spent in four areas. Of that total, $2 million would be for businesses and nonprofits; $250,000 would go toward responding to the COVID-19 pandemic; $250,000 would be for county property infrastructure; and $250,000 would go toward program administration.

The seven-figure allocation requires final approval from the County Board during its meeting next week. If approved, the resolution will allow the county to spend the funds in the future.

“It opens a pathway for the expenditure of the money,” County Board Chairman Nick Smiar said.

Those figures are not necessarily the only funds the county will allocate toward those four areas. For example, $2 million is the minimum amount the county intends to spend to help businesses and nonprofits.

“We’re going to reserve at least that much,” County Administrator Kathryn Schauf said. “It may be more, but it gets us started.”

The county currently has about $17.5 million in unspent ARPA funds that it must allocate by the end of 2024. If approved, the resolution would be the second allocation of county ARPA money and bring the unspent total to about $14.8 million. The County Board in July allocated $2.8 million for broadband development.

The $250,000 to respond to the pandemic would go toward “the costs associated with direct COVID public health response including isolation and quarantine processes administered” by the Eau Claire City-County Health Department. It could also cover additional staffing at the Health Department and lodging and food for people who need to quarantine.

The $250,000 for county property infrastructure would go toward improving physical aspects of county buildings, such as repairing part of the District Attorney’s Office.

The $250,000 in program administration costs would be spent on hiring three outside administrators to assist with specific areas of ARPA funding: programmatic coordination, third-party grants and broadband.

The programmatic coordinator would figure out what could be covered by ARPA money and proactively determine state funds for which the county could apply.

“We don’t want to leave those funding sources untapped if they make sense for us,” Schauf said.

The third-party grant administrator’s responsibilities would include creating application criteria for business and nonprofits, helping organizations apply for grants and maintaining reports on how much grant money was awarded. Essentially, the administrator will handle “how we spent the money, what we spent it on and that it was actually spent on what we said it was going to be spent on,” Schauf said.

The broadband administrator would assist the county Broadband Committee in allocating up to $2.8 million in matching funds for town broadband projects.

Schauf noted that the allocation of the ARPA money will be an ongoing process over the next three-plus years.

“We want to be responsive to the needs of our communities and start moving some of this money into our community,” Schauf said. “At the same time, we want to be a little bit cautious about identifying all of our priorities today … They may change, because we’re still in the pandemic.”

County redistricting

The Administration Committee approved a redistricting plan for the 29 county supervisor districts, which occurs every 10 years. District maps will be redrawn this year based on population changes in the 2020 Census.

A tentative redistricting plan is completed, but there is still time for changes before it is finalized.

The tentative plan now goes to the County Board to consider at its meeting next week. During that meeting, there will be a public hearing for the board to receive input. If the board approves the tentative plan, the new district maps will go to county municipalities for review and then be brought back to the board for final consideration in November.

Peter Strand, county geographic information system administrator, has overseen the redistricting process. He said the county did its best to keep supervisor districts similar to their current boundaries. A few changes did occur; three rural districts increased in land size to maintain similar population levels. The same was true for a district in the northern part of the city of Eau Claire and for two districts near UW-Eau Claire.

According to the tentative redistricting plan, the average district contains 3,645 people. Even with new boundaries, each district should have a comparable number of people as they currently do, with district populations increasing or decreasing by 4% at most under the tentative plan.