Friday, October 25, 2019

Archaeological dig at Oshkosh headquarters site yields 20,000 artifacts, eight sets of human remains

The global headquarters of Oshkosh Corp. is nearing completion overlooking Lake Butte des Morts.
By Miles Maguire
The remains of eight Native Americans, believed to have been buried at least 800 years ago, have been recovered from the site of the nearly completed global headquarters of Oshkosh Corp.

Initially city officials said researchers had found two and then four sets of human remains. But a newly released final report on the recovery of skeletons and fragments at the old Lakeshore Municipal Golf Course shows the higher number.

The report also notes that there is a “high probability” that burial locations could be found on other portions of the study area. The company opted to retain some mature trees and to forego additional excavation that might have disturbed more grave sites, city documents show.

The archaeological dig began before the site was formally designated a burial location. But the discovery of prehistoric graves did not come as a surprise to Jeffrey Behm, a retired anthropology professor at UW Oshkosh.

“I would not have been surprised if many more had been found,” Behm said. He pointed out there are dozens of documented burial and archaeological sites on the shores that ring Lake Butte des Morts.

More than 20,000 artifacts have been recovered from Lakeshore, said Jennifer Haas, who is a senior archaeologist at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Cultural Resource Management and who served as principal investigator on the excavation.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Oshkosh agrees to help arena owner with cash flow issue by cutting a check early

A new court filing says the Menominee Nation Arena owner will get paid a little early.
By Miles Maguire
The city of Oshkosh has agreed to accelerate the payment of a tax incentive payment to the developer of the Menominee Nation Arena as a way of addressing an immediate cash flow problem.

The city’s early payment, expected to be about $385,000, allowed the developer, Fox Valley Pro Basketball Inc., to delay taking on additional debt as it tries to come up with a financial reorganization plan.

“The debtor appreciates the city’s cooperation that has saved expenses for the debtor, and thanks the city for its cooperation,” lawyers for Fox Valley said in an Oct. 15 filing.

The city had originally agreed to pay the developer $430,000 by Nov. 1 and then said it might hold on to the money. The final agreement allows the city to deduct some money that it is owed and requires the developer to pay some outstanding utility bills.

City Manager Mark Rohloff downplayed the significance of the move. “Part of the payment is to settle prior accounts, so we are just moving forward,” he said.

The early payment, which was due Nov. 1, does not fundamentally alter the challenges that Fox Valley has in paying its bills, but it does signal a more cooperative atmosphere among the various parties in the arena’s bankruptcy case.

Fox Valley still expects to require more financing, but that may come from selling off future payments that are due from the city under its development agreement.

“While there are no commitments yet, the debtor believes the prospects are promising,” Fox Valley said in its court filing.

The filing also said that the developer is in talks “with an investment banker that specializes in raising funds for sports teams and complexes.” No decision has been made about seeking additional funding in this way, “but raising funds would provide the Debtor with more options in proposing a plan of reorganization.”

Sunday, October 20, 2019

UW Oshkosh enrollment falls past projections, with sharpest drops at its two-year campuses

UW Oshkosh finished last year in the black by $4.2 million but says it does not have financial "flexibilities"
By Miles Maguire
Enrollment at UW Oshkosh has fallen below the projected low that had been set as the turning point in the school’s multiyear effort to repair its financial condition, raising the possibility of even deeper budget cuts.

The Oshkosh enrollment numbers, showing a decline of 3.4% at its main campus, are worse than the trend for the entire UW System, a drop of 2.6%, and they contrast sharply with data from UW Green Bay, which reported an increase of 9.7% for its main campus.

At the two-year schools that have been merged with UW Oshkosh the enrollment numbers are even worse. The Fox Cities campus, in Menasha, has seen a 30.5% drop in students, to 1,132, while Fond du Lac reported a 24.9% percent fall to just 435.

“UWO’s latest enrollment snapshot is not surprising to us,” said Oshkosh Chancellor Andrew J. Leavitt. “We just about hit our overall enrollment expectations this fall.”

The official explanation for the systemwide decline in enrollment is based on demographics and the strong economy. “Amid a strong jobs market, enrollment in colleges traditionally dips,” said UW System President Ray Cross.

But some classroom instructors see a different explanation. “The cause of this is the chronic underfunding of the UW System by the Republican legislature,” said Jim Feldman, the director of UWO’s Environmental Studies Program and the president of the campus chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.

He called the current situation a “manufactured crisis” that has been compounded by the “absurdly poorly planned and poorly thought out merger” of the UW System’s four-year and two-year schools.

Early last year Leavitt said he expected the Oshkosh campus to hit a low point this semester before starting a rebound in enrollment. He projected a student body of 8,500, but the actual number this fall was 8,410. These numbers are “full-time equivalents,” which is a way of measuring enrollment size that takes into account students who are carrying a full course load as well as those who are part-time.

Because of a decline in state aid, all of the UW campuses are much more dependent on tuition revenue than was historically the case. Fluctuations in headcount have a powerful impact on the financial health of each institution, according to university officials.

The competition for students has also become more intense, and the opposite experiences of Oshkosh and Green Bay beg the question of why one school is declining while the other is rising.

The two schools are just an hour’s drive apart, have similar program offerings and both stress their service to Northeast Wisconsin. Green Bay has a higher acceptance rate than Oshosh, but its requirements are similar. Reported scores on the ACT for both schools are roughly the same, according to the UW System.

“We are on a mission to serve the needs of this region with distinct programs that support the economy in areas such as engineering, education, nursing and business, while we continue to invest in the cultural resources that make our 16-county footprint one that is desirable for graduates to live and work [in],” said UWGB’s provost, Michael Alexander. The school is currently without a permanent chancellor.

A spokeswoman for Green Bay emphasized the school’s efforts to develop ties to the community and to meet local needs. UW Oshkosh, by contrast, is in the process of repairing its ties to local leaders and boosters after engaging in an extended legal battle with its fundraising arm, the UW Oshkosh Foundation.

One recruiting innovation that Green Bay has adopted is placing admissions counselors in local high schools. “The embedded counselors help hundreds of high school students overcome obstacles that often prevent students from achieving a college degree,” said Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Jen Jones. The counselors, who are UWGB employees, help with applications, transcripts and financial aid, and first meet with students when they are in eighth grade.

Attracting first-year students is just one part of the enrollment, however. Getting students to continue in school and attracting transfer students are also critical elements of the process.

Feldman questions whether recent administrative decisions are contributing to problems with retention and transfers.

A year ago UW Oshkosh said it needed to reduce its spending on teaching and teaching-related activities by 10 percent to balance its budget. The results have been a reduction in course offerings as well as an increase in teaching loads for many faculty members.

With faculty members handling more classes, they might be reducing their participation in “high impact practices,” such as teaching one-on-one independent study classes and involving students in their research, Feldman said.

Fewer courses and fewer opportunities for student-faculty collaboration could be contributing to the enrollment decline, Feldman said.

While faculty members are asked to do more, “the administrative units don't seem to be asked to take cuts that are as deep or as central to the mission of the university,” Feldman said.

He pointed to a recent report by Wisconsin Public Radio showing that UW Oshkosh added 21 administrators between 2014 and 2017 while cutting faculty positions by 20. Feldman said he has been unsuccessful in his efforts to get the university to provide specifics on these numbers.

Getting a handle on the fiscal impact of the latest enrollment declines is difficult. A request to the UW System for an overall estimate was met with the response that officials are “working on it.”

At Oshkosh the lower-than-expected enrollment suggests that the university would need to find almost $700,000 in additional cost reductions, with most of them likely based on personnel expenditures, which make up most of the school’s budget. This estimate is derived by multiplying the 90 fewer-than-expected students on campus by $7,622, which is the annual tuition rate for Wisconsin residents attending full time.

But a recent report from the UWO Finance and Administration Office paints a more positive picture of the school’s finances than what has been presented to faculty and staff.

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, before the increase in teaching loads were imposed, the university took in $4.2 million more than it spent, according to a report dated Oct. 7. This net gain came after setting aside $8.1 million to cover what’s called the “tuition shortfall,” the amount that is paid back to the UW System when a school does not meet its enrollment target.

“While we have made progress on the financial recovery plan, this has not created any central flexibilities,” according to a footnote in the report. In the previous fiscal year, the school was in the red by about $30,000, according to the report.

Leavitt remains optimistic about the future. He said faculty and staff at all three of Oshkosh’s campuses “are planning for how we can better share our story of access and opportunity to adult learners, retool and expand online offerings and continue inspiring students who hail from out-of-state to become Titans.”

Friday, October 11, 2019

Oshkosh arena developer asks to hire financing broker to turn promised TIF payments from city into cash

The bankruptcy judge overseeing the case must still give his approval for proposed hiring.
By Miles Maguire
The owner of the Menominee Nation Arena is seeking permission to hire a high-risk financial specialist to turn a string of promised payments from the city into a lump sum of cash that can be used to start satisfying creditors and to fund operations.

In an Oct. 9 filing, Fox Valley Pro Basketball Inc. identified Chicago-based Hillenbrand Partners as the firm it wants to use to “securitize” roughly $5 million in tax increment financing that the city has promised to pay in annual installments each November over the next 17 years.

The promised money carries a floating interest rate, initially set at 5 percent. Hillenbrand’s job would be to find an investor that would pay cash up front to the arena owners in exchange for the rights to the future ongoing payments.

“The financing could be through a loan, assignment of rights or a sale,” lawyers for Fox Valley said in a court filing.

Hillenbrand is headed by Eric Hillenbrand, who is described in court papers as having “a personal friendship” with one of the top officials of Fox Valley, Walter Koskinen, and also a “relationship with the Menominee Nation in matters that are unrelated” to the arena’s bankruptcy case.

The Wall Street Journal has described Hillenbrand as a pioneer in developing the market for high-risk loans tied to commercial real estate.

“Mr. Hillenbrand is the founder and chief executive of Hillenbrand Partners, a Chicago firm with $200 million in capital that specializes in buying the riskiest portions of bonds backed by mortgages on offices, retail stores and other commercial properties,” the Journal said in 2008.

The market for such loans dried up following the 2008 financial crisis but has been growing again over the last five years or so.

Hillenbrand’s stature is such that the Journal wrote an article in 2013 taking note of his return to dealing in high-risk commercial real estate loans. “Mr. Hillenbrand’s comeback is the latest sign of recovery for the real-estate and structured-finance markets,” the paper said.

Before starting his own firm, Hillenbrand worked for Morgan Stanley, J.P. Morgan, Bank One and First Chicago, according to his social media resume.

The proposal to hire Hillenbrand would need the approval of the judge overseeing the arena bankruptcy case. According to court papers, the firm would receive a retainer of $5,000 and could be paid up to $75,000. Hillenbrand himself could charge $300 an hour for his work on the case if the engagement agreement is approved.

Hillenbrand’s firm had previously worked on efforts to obtain financing for the arena, according to Fox Valley’s court filing. Those efforts were stymied by environmental issues at the arena site, which have since been resolved.

Hillenbrand did not respond to a request for comment.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Lawyers for former UWO officials say criminal case is weak, ask for dismissal or 'bill of particulars'

From left, sttorneys Raymond Dall'Osto and Steven Biskupic are representing former Chancellor Richard Wells and former Vice Chancellor Thomas Sonnleitner in a criminal case in Winnebago County Circuit Court.
By Miles Maguire
The criminal case against two former UW Oshkosh officials is so weak, their attorneys say, that the state needs to put up or shut up.

Lawyers for former UWO Chancellor Richard Wells and former Vice Chancellor Thomas Sonnleitner argue that the case should be dismissed or prosecutors should be required to “file a bill of particulars specifically stating what facts, specific conduct, actions and/or statements and other evidence exists” to support the criminal charges.

Wells and Sonnleitner have been accused of five counts of misconduct in public office and face up to $50,000 in fines and almost 18 years in prison. They have been charged with exceeding their legal authority in facilitating financial transactions between the university and its fundraising arm, the UW Oshkosh Foundation.

The foundation prevailed in its legal battle with the University of Wisconsin System after two judges ruled that the UW System had misinterpreted the state constitution and other laws.

The defendants’ lawyers in this case argue that those legal rulings cut the legs out from under the criminal charges.

“Because the factual basis for the felony criminal charges against Wells and Sonnleitner are limited to and based upon an alleged constitutional violation, and no such violation exists as a matter of law, all of the charges against both them should be dismissed as a matter of law,” the lawyers said.

Wells is represented by Raymond Dall’Osto, a prominent Milwaukee-based defense lawyer. Sonnleitner’s lawyer is Steven Biskupic, a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. They filed the latest brief jointly on Oct. 1.

Even if the defendants have violated state law, prosecutors also have to show that Wells and Sonnleitner knew that they were exceeding their legal authority as top university officials when they were working on the foundation’s real estate deals.

Specific facts “showing that the defendants' actually knew that their conduct was unlawful at the time they committed the alleged acts is required,” their lawyers said. “The criminal complaints against both defendants are devoid of such essential facts establishing the requisite knowledge on the part of each defendant.”

The state has until next month to reply.

The case is before Winnebago County Circuit Court Judge John A. Jorgensen, who said he expects to issue an oral ruling Jan. 15.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Oshkosh arena owner gets some breathing space

By Miles Maguire
The developer of the Menominee Nation Arena has lived to fight another day in its bankruptcy case as it has secured the OK to move ahead with $500,000 in temporary financing.

But two major hurdles remain: finding a way to monetize a promised string of city incentive payments and booking acts that will turn a profit for the facility.

“We are very pleased with the efforts of all parties involved to work toward resolving Fox Valley Pro Basketball’s financial issues,” said Jerome R. Kerkman, a lawyer for the developer and owner of the arena, in a press announcement issued Wednesday evening.

Earlier in the day Kerkman had outlined in a bankruptcy court hearing how his client hopes to move forward with a goal of clearing the decks by the middle of January.

Aside from legal bills, which Kerkman said would be substantial, the arena should be close to breaking even in January and February.

Up until now, he said, the cash-strapped arena did not have enough money to book artists who could draw big crowds and generate profits. “We just didn’t have the cash that artists require to make a deposit,” Kerkman said. “That is going to change,” he said.

Kerkman told the court how Fox Valley had worked to satisfy the concerns of creditors, especially the largest one, Bayland Buildings Inc., which is owed more than $13 million. A key step will be providing payments to Bayland based on certain leases and sponsorship agreements for advertising at the arena over the next few months.

“Both sides have agreed to stand down and try to get to a plan” of financial reorganization, Kerkman said. Wednesday’s agreement is “basically to give us breathing space with an opportunity to get to a plan.”

As the debtor in a Chaper 11 case, Fox Valley has the exclusive right to propose a reorganization plan for 120 days, which would run to mid-December. Kerkman said the parties have agreed to extend this period to the middle of January because of the end-of-year holidays.

One factor that seems to be motivating the creditors is the recognition that the project could go into liquidation, which would be handled under Chapter 7 of the bankruptcy code. Some creditors have had to rethink their positions because “parties are concerned if this case tanks into a 7,” Kerkman said. “If this goes into a 7, the sponsorships may dry up, and there may not be any funds.”

A big question mark is how much money that developer can raise by selling off the future stream of city payments promised under a tax increment financing (TIF) agreement. The goal is to raise $4 million to $5 million.

Those funds would serve as “seed money for payments on the effective date of the plan,” Kerkman said. Expanded bookings would then provide revenue “to fund any kind of payment stream under the plan.”

The city had resisted making the initial installment of TIF funds but decided in late September to release most of the money, close to $400,000, so that the arena can continue to operate.

Fox Valley says it is close to hiring a broker who specializes in securitizing TIF payments, which involves selling off the future payments at a discount in exchange for an immediate lump sum of cash.

The ability of the broker to find a willing investor to pay enough cash is critical to the reorganization plan, which Kerkman said could be in place by early next year.

“The only thing that will sort of change that is really whether we need more money with the TIF,” he said.

City Manager Mark Rohloff said he had no comment on the court agreement but added there has been no discussion about increasing the amount of money in the tax incentive agreement.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Around the Winnebago courthouse: OCI nurse has sex with inmate; also probation, meth, sex registry cases

By Miles Maguire
A city woman pleaded no contest Thursday to charges that she engaged in a sexual relationship with an inmate while she worked as a registered nurse at the Oshkosh Correctional Institution.

The woman, 51-year-old Cherie L. Nelson, “had previously been walked out” from a nursing job at Dodge Correctional Institution and was working as a contract nurse at Milwaukee County Jail when investigators met with her in April, according to a criminal complaint.

OCI staffers became concerned when they discovered emails between an inmate, Shaun Lynch, and Nelson, and started to monitor calls between the two. “The conversations were sexual in nature and seemed to indicate there had been oral sex performed by the defendant on inmate Lynch and oral sex performed on the defendant by Lynch,” according to the criminal complaint.

The contact began in the context of a tuberculosis exam, when the two started talking about the inmate’s tattoos. In addition to sex, Nelson apparently provided the inmate with cards, money and intimate photographs, according to the criminal complaint.

Judge Teresa S. Basiliere sentenced Nelson to 24 months’ probation. An initial charge of second degree sexual assault by correctional staff was reduced to fourth degree sexual assault, court records show. The defendant was represented by Brittany Running, and Amanda Gibbs Nash was listed as the prosecutor.


A 41-year-old Oshkosh man with a long history of criminal convictions had his probation revoked Sept. 19 after he was caught trafficking marijuana shortly after getting out of jail.

Ross A. Wendorf had entered no contest pleas in March to two counts of dealing marijuana, for which he received a three-year suspended sentence and a 90-day jail term with work release, according to online court records. In June he was connected to a suspicious parcel that the Dodge County Sheriff’s office intercepted, opened and then delivered to an address in Rubicon.

Text messages on the cellphone of the woman to whom the package was addressed were traced to Wendorf, who has nine prior criminal convictions, according to a court document.

The package contained five and a half pounds of marijuana in vacuum-sealed bags, according to court records. Wendorf told a probation agent that his role was limited to explaining how to ship the marijuana and that he expected to get only half an ounce to share with his wife.

At a revocation hearing, Judge Barbara Key called the situation “a total failure of supervision” with “the offense being committed literally upon leaving the jail door.”

She ordered Wendorf to state prison for 18 months and ordered extended supervision for another 18 months. Wendorf was represented by Raymond Edelstein, and Margaret Struve appeared for the state.

A Jefferson Street man who caught the attention of police because he was drinking malt liquor and behaving oddly in front of neighborhood children pleaded no contest Thursday to methamphetamine possession and was sentenced to 24 months’ probation.

Police said they found David J. Van “fidgeting with something in his pockets” and when they asked asked him what it was, he pulled out “baggies and a cut straw,” according to court papers.

Van, 37, was represented by Ben Szilagyi before Judge Barbara Key. The prosecutor was Eric Sparr.

According to court records, Van is currently in the Waupaca County Jail, where he is awaiting trial on charges that include meth possession, maintaining a drug trafficking place and bail jumping.


A 58-year-old Oshkosh man was sentenced Sept. 23 to 90 days in jail for a sex offender registry violation that dated back almost two years.

Dwayne L. Porter pleaded guilty to charges that he had failed to confirm his home address with state officials starting in 2017. According to court records, a complaint was filed in June 2018, but Porter did not appear in court for almost a year after that.

During that time, Porter is thought to have lived on West 9th Avenue, Broad Street and Main Street, court records show.

Porter was put in the Wisconsin Sex Offender Registry Program based on his 2003 conviction in La Crosse County on a charge of third degree sexual assault.

The jail term was handed down by Judge Karen Seifert. Porter was represented by Hannah Kottke, and the prosecutor was Tracy Ann Paider.