Monday, April 15, 2019

Oshkosh arena developer falls behind on property taxes; city says incentive payments are protected

Photo by Miles Maguire
The city and the developer of the Menominee Nation Arena are working on a plan to limit environmental liability.


By Miles Maguire

The developer of the Menominee Nation Arena has fallen behind on property tax payments to the city amid continuing concerns about environmental problems at the site.

The land underneath the facility remains in the hands of the city’s Redevelopment Agency, which has been unable to transfer the parcel to the developer because of the government’s newfound interest in a class of contaminants called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances and known as PFAS.

These substances are no longer manufactured in the United States and have not been found at the arena site. But they are believed to pose significant health risks.

The problem for this project is that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has not yet developed guidelines for acceptable levels of exposure, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has suspended a liability program that covers reclaimed land such as what is found beneath the arena.

Without liability coverage, the developer, Fox Valley Pro Basketball Inc., cannot take over the land from the city. Without ownership of both the land and the structures there, the developer apparently cannot obtain the most favorable financing terms.

According to City Manager Mark Rohloff, the environmental and property tax issues are not related. “They’ve missed their quarterly payment, and they’ve given us no explanation,” he said, referring to the developers. “I’m not sure what cash flow issues that are there or aren’t there.”


The city’s interest in the project is protected because the developer is not eligible for incentive payments if it is behind on taxes, Rohloff said.

Greg Pierce, the president of Fox Valley Pro Basketball, did not respond to requests for comment.

Under the terms of the development agreement, Pierce paid for infrastructure improvements in the area with the understanding that he would be reimbursed by the city returning part of his future tax payments. These payments are not available if the property owner is not current on his tax bills, which is why the city expects the issue to be resolved.

The arena has an assessed value of $17.7 million. Its tax bill for the year is $438,719. One payment, for $108,629, was made Feb. 12, about two weeks late. A second payment, of $109,647, was due March 31 but was not made.

City officials do not believe PFAS were used at the arena site, which had been a furniture factory and went through an expensive decontamination process. They hope to get a letter from the Department of Natural Resources that will limit the overall environmental liability for the owner of the site.

The greatest concern about PFAS chemicals is groundwater contamination, which has been an issue in other parts of the state. But because the arena property, like most of the rest of the city, does not rely on groundwater, the danger from PFAS is considered lower in Oshkosh than elsewhere, Rohloff said.

PFAS "are found in a wide range of consumer products that people use daily, such as cookware, pizza boxes and stain repellants," according to the EPA. The substances have been linked to cancer, high cholesterol and disruptions to the immune and hormone systems. Because PFAS and related chemicals were so widely used and do not break down easily, most people in industrialized countries have some amount of the substances in their bodies.

Mayor-elect Lori Palmeri echoed Rohloff's comments about the city's incentive payments not being at risk. "Right now there’s no additional action by [the Common Council] that is needed," she said.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Oshkosh election upset puts city on path for change

This screenshot shows the mayor-elect's campaign website. She is working on a first hundred days action plan.

By Miles Maguire

When it comes to Lori Palmeri’s upset victory over two-term incumbent Mayor Steve Cummings on April 2, you can take your pick of possible explanations: shifting demographics, a hunger for change, growing support for female leadership or deep dissatisfaction with how decisions are made and city services are distributed in Oshkosh.

In a nonpartisan race, where fewer than a third of registered voters went to the polls, it’s hard to know what conclusion to draw from the balloting, which put Palmeri in a position to make history as the first-ever person of color, and the first directly elected female, to be chosen as mayor of Oshkosh.

“I don’t know” how to explain the election the results, said Matt Mugerauer, an incumbent Common Council member who did not have to run this year. “I don’t think there was any one issue that pushed voters one way or the other.”

The 2018 decision to sell part of Lakeshore Municipal Golf Course to Oshkosh Corp., the most bitterly divisive issues in recent memory, may have influenced the election—even though both Cummings and Palmeri voted the same way in support of the transaction.

Bob Poeschl, an Oshkosh school board member who knocked incumbent Tom Pech off the council in last week's election, believes that the Lakeshore controversy is still fresh in voters’ minds.

“As much as the community was supportive of Oshkosh Truck taking over the golf course for expansion, some people who supported that are still uncomfortable with how that decision came to be,” Poeschl said. “That’s still out there.”

Another area where Cummings, 74, and Palmeri, 51, seem to agree, at least on the surface, is on the importance of diversity and inclusion. But their approaches are different, perhaps based on their backgrounds.

Cummings, who says age and gender contributed to his defeat, has built relationships with leaders of the city’s diverse communities and developed an annual celebration called “Unity in Community.” By contrast Palmeri, who identifies as a “first-generation Latina of Colombian descent,” has approached the issue on a “street level, ... what’s really going on,” Poeschl said.

Palmeri said one of her first acts as mayor will be to propose either a board or commission to focus on diversity and inclusion issues.

In his job as a property manager for the Oshkosh/Winnebago County Housing Authority, Poeschl said he frequently finds himself in poorer and more diverse parts of the community. While there he has observed that city services seem to be provided at a lower level, a situation that becomes particularly apparent during a hard winter like this past one.

While acknowledging that the city has a street clearing plan based on traffic volumes, Poeschl said differences appear to exist across various neighborhoods.

“I live on Washington [Avenue], so I can pretty much relax in knowing that my street will be plowed,” he said. “But that person who lives in that poor neighborhood cannot relax and assume that their street is going to be plowed. They have to worry about getting stuck.”

He believes that racism and “classism” have become bigger factors in a community that traditionally has been known as overwhelmingly white and largely middle income. Over the years the city has become “a much more diverse community than we believe it is,” he said. “When you tap that resource, it can change the makeup of how elections can take place.”

A review of voting tallies shows that Cummings had his sharpest loss of support, compared to the 2017 election, in Ward 7, which is bounded by Bowen Street and Lake Winnebago between Washington Avenue and a part of Murdock Street.

Palmeri, who collected a total of 4,681 votes, had her strongest comparative showing in the Middle Village neighborhood, where she lives, and also did well in other nearby wards as well as in older neighborhoods south of the river towards the lake.

Cummings, who collected a total of 4,359 votes, had strong showings in Westhaven and other areas west of I-41. He also did well in the Millers Bay and Northshore neighborhoods, encompassing the streets around the far eastern end of Murdock.

In all races a total of 9,763 votes were cast out of 35,073 registered voters, for a turnout of 27.8 percent.

Palmeri ran on a platform of transparency and accountability, and she says has been working on ways, and will continue to work on ways, to make it easier for citizens to contact City Hall and to know that their message has gotten through.

One recent change that Palmeri pushed for is an interface that allows citizens to email all councilors at once without having to send individual messages to each member. “We are seeing more people emailing because of that,” she said. “When you are contacting your representative, no one wants to have to click through each name individually.”

Some people have criticized her push for this change as an example of micromanaging City Hall, an accusation she rejects. “It was just a matter of asking [staff], ‘Can you please work on this?’ And now it’s there.”

Cummings said he is “concerned, very concerned” about the future of Oshkosh. “Staff is concerned” as well, he said. In Oshkosh the mayor has a limited role in day to day operations and a largely co-equal role on the council with the other members. Cummings said he fears that Palmeri does not understand the scope of her powers.

Pech echoed this worry that Palmeri and Poeschl are “going to take the city the wrong way.” He ticked off a list of accomplishments that occurred while he and Cummings have been on the council, including the renovation of the Oshkosh Convention Center and the reopening of the adjacent hotel, the expansion of the Riverwalk and the replacement of the derelict Buckstaff factory with the Menominee Nation Arena.

“It’s a weird, weird political environment,” Pech said.

Incumbent Council Member Steve Herman, who did not have to stand for re-election this year, said other factors at work in the election include a national shift toward liberal policies as well as the desire of local voters to see new faces.

During the campaign Palmeri positioned herself as “the choice for real change” and can run through a list of ways she thinks City Hall could be made more accessible to citizens. But she is realistic about the limits of whatever mandate she has.

“Half of the voters didn’t vote for me,” she said. She takes this to mean she needs to be “sensitive and considerate of those who are not interested in change.”

Still she is developing an “action plan” for her first 100 days in office, which she will unveil after April 16, the date she will be sworn in along with the newly elected and re-elected members of the council.

An important variable for the common council is the filling of Palmeri’s at-large seat. Interested residents have until 10 a.m. on May 9 to complete a questionnaire. Candidates will have an opportunity at the May 14 meeting to make a presentation to the council, which will select a replacement that evening.

Mugerauer said he thinks Palmeri will “do great” in her new role. But other council members are withholding judgment on how well her proposals will go over. Some degree of change “may be to the good,” said Herman. “Let it play out, and hopefully we don’t lose any momentum.”

“At the end of the day the mayor, who is the face of the city, is only one vote” in council decisions, said Deb Allison-Aasby.

She was re-elected to the council with 5,012 tallies in her favor, more than any of the other candidates in either of the city races. About the elements of Palmeri’s action plan, Allison-Aasby said, “I’m anxious to hear what they are and see if it is something I can wrap my arms around and support.”

City Manager Mark Rohloff said: “I have enjoyed working with Council Member Palmeri and appreciate her being so conscientious in her duties as deputy mayor. I look forward to pursuing our strategic goals with her as mayor.”

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Wisconsin 'serious incident reports' provide fuller view of Oshkosh foster home where child neglect is alleged

This is an excerpt from one of nearly 50 "serious incident reports" filed in connection with a local foster home.

By Miles Maguire
In the last five years, nearly 50 “serious incident reports” have been filed with the state in connection with the Oshkosh foster home that prosecutors say was the site of felony child neglect.

The reports describe multiple instances of runaways, suicide threats, aggressive behavior, one account of sexual contact and some low-level criminal activity, such as disorderly conduct, shoplifting and apparently the possession of a small amount of marijuana by a foster child staying at the home. The residence is on 11th Avenue.

But the operator of the home, Alan D. Small, believes that these reports, as well as the criminal charges against him, create a misleading impression because they do not reflect his record or the condition of the children who have been staying with him.

“I’m working with kids that nobody else wants to work with,” he said. “These are the hardest level of kids that are not in institutions.” He said many of his former foster children stay in touch with him after they leave his care. “My kids do well.”

It is not clear what happens with the serious incident reports once they are filed with the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families. A spokesman for the agency did not respond to a request for comment.

Small has been working as a Level 4 foster parent since 2009, records show. To qualify he had to complete specialized training to prepare him for working with children with extreme behavioral issues, which may include physical aggression, sexual promiscuity and self-harm.

According to DCF records, Small has been trained in trauma-informed care and nonviolent crisis intervention, including how to apply certain kinds of physical restraints that can keep aggressive behavior from spinning out of control.

Small was charged Feb. 27 with three counts of felony child neglect after police were told of living conditions that included a lack of access to the bathroom and alarms on bedroom doors.

Small’s point about dealing with youth who could not be taken in elsewhere is borne out by some of the incident reports. In a 2017 case, Oshkosh police became involved when a student from the Small home showed up at South Park Middle School with bite marks. The student was from Washington County.

When the social worker from that county was alerted to the situation, the case was “screened out,” meaning that no further action was deemed necessary, according to state records. But the police officer assigned to South Park wanted to know why so many of the children sent to Oshkosh are from other parts of the state.

The officer contacted Laura Phillips, clinical director at Macht Village Programs, a foster child referral company in De Pere that oversees the Small home. 

Phillips explained that the Oshkosh foster home was used because it had been rated at Level 4, meaning it could take in children with severe behavioral problems. “Foster homes that can adequately support children with intense needs are a scarce resource,” Phillips said, according to a report she filed with the state about the incident.

Other residents at the Oshkosh foster home over the last five years have come from Brown, Kenosha and Oconto counties, according to state records.

In a January 2014 incident that began at the Gem Roller Rink in Appleton, police were called when a 10-year-old foster child became upset and ran outside into the below-zero night without a coat or hat. The boy was apparently outdoors for more than an hour and was taken by police to St. Elizabeth’s.

Police said he was “banging his head, kneeing himself in the face, biting himself, running around the hospital, screaming, swearing, demanding to go to jail,” according to a DCF incident report.  Eventually the situation was resolved with the boy returning to the Small foster home.

Phillips, who wrote the incident report, noted that one Appleton police officer said “he had never seen a child be so out of control and have a foster parent want to take care of the child.” The officer told Phillips he was very “impressed … with Mr. Small and his ability to stay calm in such an intense situation.”

Small denied the accusation that children in his care used “toilet buckets” as described in the criminal complaint against him. “There were commodes … with handles and toilet seats,” he said.

He acknowledged that feces were dumped in the yard but described that as a lapse in judgment by his mother, Barbara R. Peterson, who assists him in running the foster home.  Peterson, who has also been charged with child neglect, did not respond to a request for comment.

Small and Peterson are currently free on $1,000 signature bonds and due back in court April 8.
                                               
Small acknowledged that foster children in his care have been confined to their rooms, which are equipped with alarms, but he said this was a safety precaution. The two boys who triggered the police investigation had previously run away from the home, and one had attempted sexual contact with the other, according to state reports.

After an August runaway incident, the Macht company required Small to “install door and window alarms throughout the home,” according to state records.   

“If I wasn’t doing that, then I could see them charging me with neglect,” Small said. He added that all of the “serious incidents,” which are defined by state rules, that have occurred at the house have been documented and reviewed by a social worker.

“I’m not doing anything illegal or trying to hide anything,” Small said. “I wouldn’t put these kids in harm in any way, shape or form.”