Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The chamber building - to buy or not to buy

For the last few weeks there’s been a renewed push by the local Chamber of Commerce and waterfront developer Tim Rikkers for the City of Oshkosh to buy the building currently occupied by the Chamber. The asking price is said to be in the $550,000 range, based on a previous appraisal of the building, which put its worth at $500,000, and an additional $50,000 as an inflationary adjustment. If its building gets purchased, the Chamber would then move into the new, upscale office building Rikkers is proposing along the waterfront.

Rikkers maintains an “if you build it, they will come” mindset. He and the Chamber folk say the Chamber moving in will jumpstart activity for new tenants to come out of the woodwork and express interest in making the office space their new home. To help demonstrate this, we’ve seen a law firm with extensive ties to the Chamber - Davis and Kuelthau – say in the last week that they will lease office space from the Chamber in the new office building. Here’s the rub: The Chamber says it will move into the new office building ONLY if the city buys its existing building. Sounds like modern day blackmail to me. What about you? To add insult to injury, part of the money for this purchase – about $100,000 – would come from tax incremental financing (TIF) funds already earmarked for street improvements and related costs.

This is a good deal, say some, and just what we need to get things going along the river; I have my doubts. As you may know, I have been a cheerleader for the Rikkers project in the past and would still like it to be successful. But like so many others in the last year, I’ve had my hopes in this project dashed and am now having some doubt about this particular piece of the project, mainly because of the developer’s failure to deliver what they promised. They seem to be holding the “build it and they will come” carrot in front of our noses just like our planning department continues to hold the TIF money carrot in front of developers’ noses.

A TIF can be an excellent development tool, when used appropriately and as a last resort, like state law requires them to be. They should not be the only thing a community uses to entice and spur development. That’s a lesson the City of Oshkosh has never quite learned. I don’t even know if it was in school the day that lesson was taught.

Would the Chamber building purchase be the catalyst this project needs to not only get going, but be successful? Since the council nixed the Chamber purchase last summer by a vote of 7-0 the Chamber has not been very successful in securing interest in this property. The disclosure of one name who would rent space from them in this complex does not instill confidence in their ability to rally business around them, nor does it ensure this complex will be any less a failure than it efforts to get it off the ground have been so far. Granted, none of us knows for sure what, if anything, will make this project successful, but there are many questions that need answers and concerns which need to be addressed. Those questions and concerns have been outlined by citizens, bloggers and the Oshkosh Northwestern’s editorial board several times in the last couple of weeks. Some of us were asking them even before that. They’ve also been asked by some of our common council members. Tonight, before any approval is given to purchase this building and start the next phase of this project, even before any tweaking is done to the current resolution before the council, it’s time those with their hands out for public assistance deliver some honest, complete and realistic answers to the community at large, especially now that we’re being asked to foot a part of the bill for this project.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Governor Doyle Protects School Aid Payments, Builds Reserve Fund and Cuts Spending in Budget Repair

MADISON – Governor Jim Doyle today issued vetoes and signed a budget repair bill that keeps the state’s commitment to pay vital school aid payments, increases cuts to state spending and builds a reserve of more than $100 million over the biennium. Governor Doyle faulted Assembly Republicans for refusing to secure Wisconsin’s fair share of federal Medicaid revenues, which would have helped the Legislature avoid accounting tricks corrected through his vetoes.

“Despite overwhelming support of the state’s major business and hospital associations, Assembly Republicans made the shortsighted decision to stop a hospital assessment that would have brought $450 million in federal money to the state and closed $125 million of the deficit,” Governor Doyle said. “That left the Legislature pushing off vital school aid payments that would risk significant cuts to education in the next budget and had them rely on a tobacco refinancing scheme that went too far.”

In making his vetoes, Governor Doyle followed four principles. First, a budget deficit should not be solved by pushing off bills such as the school aid payments. Second, dramatic spending increases can not be part of the answer. Third, the budget repair should make the most of market conditions. And finally, the state must build a reserve to protect against economic downturns.

The budget repair bill proposed lapses of just $69 million to address a budget gap of $652 million. In the 2007-2009 biennial budget, transportation spending was up approximately $350 million over the previous budget, and the Legislature’s budget repair bill would have increased that spending by an additional $180 million, for a total increase of $530 million, or 22 percent, over the last biennium.

Governor Doyle’s vetoes allow a $24.8 million increase to address higher county highway maintenance costs brought on by one of the worst winters in Wisconsin history. And Governor Doyle retains an $18.6 million increase to address caseload increases in the state’s child care assistance program. Overall, however, state spending is reduced by $270 million with Governor Doyle’s vetoes.

Refinancing the tobacco settlement fund must take full advantage of market conditions, and Governor Doyle’s vetoes ensure that the bond refinancing will be structured to deliver the greatest savings to the state and avoid relying too heavily on up-front savings.

Finally, Governor Doyle used his veto to improve the state’s fiscal stability by building a general reserve fund of approximately $100 million. The Legislature’s proposed level of $25 million was not prudent even under good economic conditions.

Governor Doyle’s full veto message is available at: http://www.wisgov.state.wi.us//docview.asp?docid=13749.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Hintz Opposes Fiscal Recklessness

Contact: Representative Gordon Hintz
May 14, 2008

Budget Band-Aid is No Cure

Hintz Opposes Fiscal Recklessness

MADISON– On Wednesday, the State Assembly passed the March Special Session Assembly Bill 1, the Budget Repair Bill, by a vote of 51-46. Representative Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) voted no on the bill.

“The failure to provide stable revenue to fund existing programs in the original budget has been made worse by the decision made in today’s budget repair,” said Hintz. “Instead of addressing our shortfall responsibly, we have pushed off tough decisions into the future and continued a bad habit of borrowing, using one-time money, and accounting gimmicks. In less than a year, a new budget will be introduced and considered, but the same problems will remain.”

The actions taken in the budget repair bill actions include:

* Borrowing an additional $209 million against the state’s tobacco settlement

* Transferring $57 million from the Budget Stabilization Fund to the General Fund

* Delaying an additional $125 million in school aid payments

“Fiscal responsibility is not cutting taxes while increasing spending or borrowing and piecing together money to get through the year. In almost every case, raising revenue or cutting spending would be a more fiscally responsible approach to governance than what was done today. “

The original budget and budget repair included a hospital assessment supported by the Wisconsin Hospitals Association and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce that would have brought in $125 million of new revenue to help fund increasing medical assistance costs and increase reimbursement rates to physicians. This ongoing revenue would have reduced the structural deficit and provided a stable revenue source for one of the state’s fastest growing programs.

Assembly Republicans killed the hospital assessment proposal used by more than 20 states. Despite their calls for cutting spending, not a single program cut was identified by Assembly Republicans during the budget repair bill process.

“Spending future money on present expenses ends up destroying our long-term stability. When we need to make investments in the future, we won’t have the money to do so.”

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Heilmann hoopla a disgrace; participants shameful and embarrassing

By now anyone who has read, seen or listened to the news, is aware that earlier this year Oshkosh Area School District Superintendent Ron Heilmann was the subject of an investigation. That investigation was conducted after an anonymous tip was given to the school district’s law firm. I am not going to further damage this man’s reputation as some have seen fit to do by repeating what the allegation was, but suffice it to say, at the conclusion of the investigation it was determined there was nothing to the so-called tip and the school board put the issue to rest. Furthermore, I’m told that because it was a personnel matter taken up in closed session, specifics of that investigation were unable, under the law, to be discussed by board members or revealed to the public or media.

In the last week or so, the rumor mill has been working overtime, seemingly having started in Eau Claire – not so coincidentally the location of Heilmann’s new job beginning next month – and then reverting back here, I suspect by design. Such an uproar this gossip and unsubstantiated innuendo started that Heilmann made an emergency trip to Eau Claire yesterday to talk to the school board there and conduct a press conference afterward. Bottom line: The Eau Claire school board is satisfied that there is nothing to these rumors and Heilmann’s job offer there remains intact. One could say: All’s well that ends well, but that’s hardly the case. This “story” has problems far beyond its original allegations and they have to do, in my opinion, with busybodies who are apparently filled with such contempt and hatred toward a man who has done nothing to them that they have to blog about it and call his character – and that of the school board for not disclosing the matter to the public – into question. One of those who’s done a lot of blogging about it is a three-time school board candidate whose “facts” frequently have mud on them and whose motives I most always find questionable at best, and despicable at worst. But she is not alone in this particular flurry of busybody activity.

First, one should ask themselves this question: How many people in the general public with only an average interest in school district matters would really know who the district’s law firm is to give a “tip” to them? It seems that only those connected to the district in one way or another, or those paying very close attention for some reason would know that. I also wonder if the same person who tipped off the local law firm also tipped off the Eau Claire media. It makes me more than just a little suspicious about the motives of such individuals.

Next, I have to question some of the Eau Claire media for its coverage of this situation. Most of what I saw provided no quotes from anyone with any first-hand knowledge of the investigation at all. They took the approach that the school board was concerned because it didn’t know about the investigation. But if there was nothing to it, what was there for them to know? And why have something unfounded or unsubstantiated clouding other issues of importance?

Another curious observation: The three-time school board candidate says the Eau Claire media contacted her. I doubt the media contacted her in quite the way she says it happened; there’s probably more to the story than we know. But that is really irrelevant when compared to why the media would bother calling her anyway. She claims it’s because of her blog. So what? She hadn’t blogged about this issue before; she did not serve on the school board at the time the alleged incident took place; she did not serve on the school board when the investigation was conducted; she does not serve on the school board now (and with any luck, she never will). So what credible information could she possibly have to offer any responsible news organization?

Then she uses her blog to post items which call Heilmann’s character into question by writing, the following, among other things: “Some people, myself included, who heard the rumors questioned if they should be concerned about their own children and questioned Dr. Heilmann's character.”

Why the concern? If there had been something inappropriate going on, I feel certain Heilmann would have been disciplined. And if it rose to the level of something criminal, he would have been charged. Even if some would be inclined to cover up criminal activity, as some may suggest, others in the community would push for charges being filed. After all, look how much they carried on when there was nothing to the gossip and rumors. And it’s interesting that the Eau Claire school district’s “exoneration” of Dr. Heilmann after speaking with him satisfies some people, but an actual investigation conducted by people in his own district or community didn’t. That shows nothing more than bias on some people’s parts.

The school board member wannabe also writes: “Some on the BOE thought keeping silent would save Dr. Heilmann suspicion and embarrassment. Keeping silent also allows rumors to spread and grow if left on their own with no comment from those with the answers. In this instance, the secret OASD investigation that was to save Dr. Heilmann humiliation, caused suspicion and almost cost him his job.”

What makes her think anyone on the BOE thought keeping silent would save him suspicion and embarrassment? Does she have proof of that? Or is it just that some are more inclined to respect confidentiality laws than others? And here’s a newsflash: The investigation was completed in March; this is now May. There didn’t seem to be any rumors spreading until a few things started showing up on blogs. She even says the Eau Claire media contacted her “because of” her blog and goes on to say: “I can also show you emails from people in Eau Claire who state that they contacted me because they googled Heilmann and found my blog. They contacted me despite nothing appearing about an OASD investigation, any rumors, or any other type of investigate on my blog.” If that last sentence is true, then again, why would they bother calling? Math was never my strong suit, but even I can see that some things just don’t add up. Furthermore, there didn’t seem to be humiliation nor did Heilmann’s new job seem to be in jeopardy until the rumor mill and tabloid blogging started. It seems to me that the most embarrassing stuff and damage was done by busybodies and wannabes, not by a board following the law about executive sessions and personnel matters.

Jonathan Krause has blogged about this issue as well, and you can find his very reasonable explanation for why this was probably not covered by the Oshkosh media here.

In closing, in her most recent rant, the three-time board candidate and local blogger offers this “advice” to the school board, just in case similar situations occur in the future: “Most certainly do what you need to do, but realize that there is a way to communicate with your community what did or did not happen without humiliating either accuser or accused and without violating confidentiality and Executive Session laws.” Wow, I wonder how she would meet all those conditions. At the end of the day, school board members usually can’t say anything about such matters, and even if they can say just a little, it will only be enough to whet someone’s whistle and people like her will still scream there’s a cover-up and they need to know more. I don’t believe people like that will ever be satisfied, unless they can destroy those they abhor for one reason or another.