Sunday, April 28, 2019

Oshkosh mayor unveils hundred-day action plan

Mayor Lori Palmeri is proposing to hold regular office hours once a week at City Hall.

By Miles Maguire
Mayor Lori Palmeri, who campaigned as “the choice for change,” has issued a 30-point action plan for her first 100 days in office.

The specifics of her plan range from some ideas that would seem largely uncontroversial to others that, if implemented, would challenge some of the assumptions about how business gets done at City Hall, mostly by calling for greater visibility for certain activities.

Common-sense, “good government” elements of her plan include her holding regularly scheduled office hours in City Hall and meeting with representatives of all 16 of the city’s recognized neighborhood associations.

Other proposals that might cause some bureaucratic discomfort include a call for a comprehensive audit of special events. Another one is a request that the Redevelopment Authority disclose what it wants to do with properties it has acquired outside of areas targeted for investment and consider whether some parcels could be transferred in a low-cost way to potential homeowners.

One element of the plan that has already been adopted is a modification of the Common Council agenda format to include status updates from staff to follow up on previously discussed issues.

The idea of a hundred-day plan is traced to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the sweeping initiatives he proposed to get the country moving from the depths of economic Depression. Palmeri acknowledged that Oshkosh is in a different situation.

Oshkosh “is a small city, relatively speaking, with a part-time council and mayor, and it’s not necessarily something that requires a hundred-day action plan,” she said. “I just thought it would be a good idea to show that I’m serious.”

Palmeri has mapped her ideas over the city’s 2019-2020 strategic plan and its six focus areas: strong neighborhoods, public safety and health, effective government, infrastructure, quality of life and economic development. In each area she has then identified plans or proposals according to the principles the city has adopted, such as accountability and transparency.

Many of the items on the list are actions Palmeri could take on her own, such as proposing “a Welcome Committee for the purpose of engaging/educating new residents.” But it’s unlikely that City Hall staff would take on additional tasks without direction from a majority of the council.

Palmeri’s election as mayor created an at-large seat on the council, which will not be filled until May 14. In the meantime other council members are taking a wait-and-see approach to her ideas.

Palmeri distributed her draft action plan by email to council members late last week, but none of the current councilors provided an immediate response to her. Deputy Mayor Steve Herman declined to comment for this article.

One potential source of controversy is over how far city government should go in promoting diversity and inclusion.

The city’s largest private employer, Oshkosh Corp., highlights the importance of diversity and inclusion as a key element of its corporate strategy, and Palmeri has included this topic as part of her approach to economic development.

But in previous discussions some council members have expressed unease about how best to address this issue.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the city is significantly less diverse than the country as a whole. As of July 2018, Oshkosh was 91.1 percent white while the United States was 76.6 percent white.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

UW Oshkosh graduation party is getting smaller as Molly McGuire's drops out of annual beer gardens

Photo by Miles Maguire
For the annual beer gardens event, Kelly's Bar fences off its parking lot and rents portable toilets and a stage.
By Miles Maguire
And then there was one.

Beer gardens, the traditional outdoor celebration of the end of the UW Oshkosh school year, will be taking place at only one off-campus bar this year as rising costs have prompted Molly McGuire’s to drop its request for a special event permit.

The Common Council voted Tuesday to allow Kelly’s Bar, 219 Wisconsin St., to hold a two-day “Graduation Beer Garden” on May 17 and May 18. The council’s approval is needed so that Kelly’s can keep amplified outdoor music going an extra hour past the usual limit of 11 p.m.

But Molly’s owner Tom Taggart said he was dropping out after sponsoring the event for about 25 years. “The costs make it impossible to do,” he said. “Every year the city’s costs go up and up and up.”

This year the city has estimated that the beer garden sponsors would have to pay $3,500 to cover costs, including police staffing as well as barricades and signs. Last year the cost was about $2,100, Taggart said.

Other expenses have also been rising, including rental fees on portable toilets and generators as well as fees for added insurance coverage and security, he said.

“It’s a business decision,” Taggart added. He said beer gardens used to include a total of four bars splitting the city charges. But recently the participants have just been Molly’s and Kelly’s.

UW Oshkosh commencement ceremonies are scheduled for May 18 at 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., just up the street from Kelly’s at Kolf Sports Center on High Avenue.

Each year for beer gardens Kelly’s fences off its parking lot and installs portable toilets and a stage. “It’s one of the busiest days of the year,” said Kelly’s bartender Damian Guenther. He said the bar will be even busier this year without Molly’s running a similar event. 

In recent years Oshkosh has been marketing itself as Event City, but the fees charged for providing police and other services have drawn complaints from organizations that sponsor special activities.

“We just can’t handle the cost,” said Taggart. “Welcome to Event City, where no one can afford to have an event.”

Monday, April 22, 2019

UW Oshkosh Foundation wins federal court approval for reorganization, prepares to exit bankruptcy

Photo by Miles Maguire
The Board of Regents of the UW System is taking ownership of the Alumni Welcome and Conference Center.
By Miles Maguire
A federal judge has approved the reorganization plan of the UW Oshkosh Foundation, bringing its bankruptcy case to within a few procedural steps of a close.

In an order dated April 11, Chief U.S. Bankruptcy Judge G. Michael Halfenger confirmed the foundation’s plan, which was submitted in February.

His approval means the end may be in sight for one of the most contentious and complicated chapters in the history of UW Oshkosh. It also leaves most of the parties in significantly changed circumstances. Here’s a summary, primarily based on court documents, of where those parties now stand.

The UW System Board of Regents is:

  • Making a net payment to banks of $6.3 million, which will come out of administrative overhead funds retained from federal grants rather than using state tax dollars.
  • Gaining title to the Alumni Welcome and Conference Center and overseeing a change in name to the Culver Family Welcome Center (or something similar).
  • Taking ownership of the personal property and real estate improvements associated with the Witzel Avenue Biodigester and getting a no-cost lease on the underlying land.
UW Oshkosh is:
  • Taking on a debt to the system of $3.8 million and making payments of $200,000 a year for the next two decades.
  • Cleared to use and maintain the conference center and biodigester purchased by the regents.
  • Continuing to operate the Oshkosh Sports Complex with an acknowledgement from lenders that a related bond issue has been paid in full.
  • Moving closer to having its accrediting body lift the warning label that it has placed on the school.
The UW Oshkosh Foundation is:
  • Emerging from bankruptcy with almost $22 million in endowment and other restricted funds.
  • Retaining control over another $265,000 in cash and unrestricted accounts.
  • No longer holding an ownership interest in a biodigester that operates on the state’s largest dairy farm in Rosendale or the title on a historic home on Congress Avenue it once provided as a residence for the UWO chancellor.
  • Retaining rights to various pledges that have been made by donors.
  • Going to make a “best efforts” attempt to negotiate a merger with a newly formed fundraising nonprofit called the Titan Alumni Foundation.
  • Continuing to hold a partial interest in the Best Western Premier Waterfront Hotel in Oshkosh and at least for the immediate future continuing to serve as a financial conduit for other investors.
  • Able to use office space at the campus welcome center at no cost beyond basic maintenance and with the assistance of support staff provided by the university.
  • Paying a total of about $500,000 in professional fees for legal, accounting, financial management and real estate services during the bankruptcy.
Former Chancellor Richard Wells and Vice Chancellor Thomas Sonnleitner are:
  • Awaiting action on a civil suit against them in Dane County that has been on hold since January 2018.
  • Awaiting action on a criminal case in Winnebago County that been adjourned until June 21.
UW Oshkosh declined comment. “I refer you to UW System on this,” said Mandy Potts, the school’s director of communications.

But Provost John Koker told a meeting of faculty members last week that the Higher Learning Commission has accelerated its efforts to lift the university’s “on notice” status. The HLC had slapped the warning label on the school in the wake of the civil suit against Wells and Sonnleitner.

Because the HLC provides the accrediting necessary for students to receive federal financial aid, its approval is critical for the continued operation of the university. The HLC had planned to revisit the issue in November, but Koker said the matter may be resolved as soon as this summer.

The foundation declined to comment.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Oshkosh's Fourth of July fireworks show looks like it's moving to Pioneer Island from Menominee Park

The old Pioneer Resort and Marina is being demolished, and the site may be used for Fourth of July fireworks.

By Miles Maguire
The skies over Pioneer Island may be full of bombs bursting in air and rockets red glare come July 4th if a plan to move the annual Oshkosh fireworks display gets the OK.

“The July 4th fireworks show has historically been held at the Miller's Bay/Monkey Island area in Menominee Park in conjunction with Sawdust Days,” said Parks Director Ray Maurer. But this year extensive road work on Hazel Street along the western edge of Menominee Park could pose a problem.

“City staff has discussed concerns regarding getting thousands of spectators to the fireworks show at Menominee Park in and out safely,” said City Manager Mark Rohloff.

Separately the Oshkosh Rotary Club has come forward with a proposal for a Fourth of July celebration at Leach Amphitheater and Riverside Park. This event would help fill the void created by the demise of Sawdust Days, which has been held at Menominee Park but is ending its run after 47 years.

With the focus of holiday activities moving to the riverfront, “city staff began discussing the possibility of relocating the fireworks show to Pioneer Island,” Maurer said.

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.”