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Diocese of La Crosse to eliminate pension for lay workers


Hundreds of current and former employees of the Diocese of La Crosse have received letters announcing they won’t be receiving all of the pension benefits they were counting on — and won’t know exactly how much they’ll actually receive for at least three months.

In a Wednesday press release from diocese spokesman Jack Felsheim, the diocese said it anticipates the payouts to be in the mid-90 percent range of the plan’s “total actuarially equivalent value of benefits,” although values fluctuate daily.

The plan covers Catholic school teachers, rectory workers, custodians, secretaries and other employees in 19 west-central Wisconsin counties.

Several Chippewa County churches fall in the Diocese of La Crosse, according to the diocese’s website: St. Paul and St. John the Baptist parishes in Bloomer; Holy Ghost, Notre Dame and St. Charles Borromeo parishes in Chippewa Falls; St. Peter Parish in Tilden; Holy Cross Parish in Cornell; St. Anthony Parish in Cadott; and Sacred Heart Parish in Jim Falls.

The diocese also includes five Chippewa County schools, according to the diocese’s website: Holy Ghost Elementary, McDonell Central Catholic High School and St. Charles Borromeo Primary School of Chippewa Falls, St. Peter Grade School of Tilden and St. Paul Catholic School in Bloomer.

The letter from Bishop William Patrick Callahan dated Feb. 27 stated: “After much analysis, discussions and prayers, it has been determined that it is necessary to terminate the Diocese of La Crosse Lay Employees’ Retirement Plan at this time.”

The bishop’s letter informs diocese residents: “I take seriously the benefits that have been part of our employee’s employment agreement, but unfortunately, this plan has been underfunded for years. When it was frozen in 2007, we continued to bill parishes and allocate funds from the Diocesan Annual Appeal to help make up this shortfall. These efforts have helped but have not allowed us to fully fund this plan. I know some of you are counting on these funds currently and others are relying on them for the future.

The letter states that all funds in the plan will be distributed as a one-time single payment to eligible participants “based on the ratio of available plan assets divided by total plan liabilities.”

The diocese has given notice to all plan participants, the Wednesday press release said.

Paying out each individual in the fund will reduce “their risk of future volatility of payouts from the plan while allowing them to roll their monies into another plan,” the diocese’s Wednesday press release said.

For many, the payout might be used to provide for them, their children or grandchildren, the press release said.

The letter from the diocese states that detailed information will be sent to individuals by the end of May, and that monthly benefits will continue until then.

The bishop states that the fund has been a concern for many years, and that when it was frozen in 2007, it was converted to a 403(b) fund.

The bishop points out that “economic conditions have been favorable over the past months, which mean the pension payouts are at levels that didn’t seem feasible even a few years ago.”

“This difficult decision has been made to ensure that all plan participants receive as much benefit as possible,” the bishop wrote.

The retirement plan began in 1974 and was entirely funded by employer contributions, the press release said.

The 160-parish Diocese of La Crosse is celebrating its 150th anniversary.

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Downward dogs and beer: Latitude 44 Yoga hosts class at the Leinie Lodge

After 45 minutes of bending and stretching your body, focused on breathing and body technique, there is apparently nothing more refreshing than a Summer Shandy.

Or Snowdrift Vanilla Porter. Or Northwoods Lager. Or whatever your brew of choice on tap at the Leinie Lodge turns out to be.

Latitude 44 Yoga Studio out of Eau Claire brought its Destination Yoga series to the Leinie Lodge Wednesday evening, filling the event to maximum capacity with about 50 people. Yogis, beer enthusiasts, and yoga and Leinenkugel’s novices alike were invited by the yoga studio and the lodge to participate in a yoga session and beer tasting, each included in the price of admission of $15 for members and $12 for non-members.

Teacher and Latitude 44 owner Amy Erickson said the destination events are geared toward anyone interested in yoga, regardless of where their skill level may be. Erickson added people may feel more comfortable trying yoga for the first time outside of a studio and in a public, community-centered space.

Erickson said nerves, though common, are unnecessary.

“There’s this misconception that you need to know how to do yoga before you walk into a yoga studio,” Erickson said.

As she prepped the class to begin on Wednesday, Erickson let participants know that they should only do what they feel comfortable doing and pushing themselves to. Participants were invited to stay in the first pose (laying on their backs) the whole time if that’s what they felt most comfortable and relaxed with, Erickson told her class.

Open for the last three years, Latitude 44 has been taking its regular yoga members — and newcomers who join in — to destination yoga spots once per month, most of the time getting a great response, Erickson said.

“They love it. Every time we go anywhere we usually sell out,” Erickson said, estimating Wednesday’s event was the eighth time the studio had been to the lodge. “They enjoy being able to take it outside of the studio.”

UW-Eau Claire students Meredith Watson, 22, of Goodhue, Minn., and Elizabeth Reynolds, 21, of Hayfield, Minn. were at the lodge Wednesday evening as part of an activity they enjoy doing together.

“We’re friends, and we both like doing yoga…,” Watson said about why the duo came to the event Wednesday.

“And the beer,” Reynolds said, as both laughed.

Watson had been to the Leinie Lodge in the past, and takes classes at Latitude 44, joining the studio on a previous outing to the lodge. The class on Wednesday was Reynolds first destination class and trip to the lodge.

For the Leinie Lodge, hosting events outside of their normal beer-tasting adventures is common, said lodge general manager Lindsey Everson. The lodge also hosts other events, such as painting with Cheers Pablo, Everson said.

The events bring out couples and those who may not otherwise think to visit the Leinie Lodge, Everson said, introducing them to both a community activity and landmark.

“(It’s a) great way to introduce Leinenkugel’s and our experience that we have in Chippewa to folks that otherwise might not have a reason to come out,” Everson said.

As for where Erickson will take her studio to next, Latitude 44 has yoga adventures planed across the Chippewa Valley this spring, including a May event at Lake Wissota State Park.

Electronic monitoring pioneer wants less punishment, more reward

Robert S. Gable and his late twin brother Kirkland invented the first electronic monitoring system for criminal offenders, tracking the location of at-risk teenagers and probationers in Massachusetts in the 1960s. Electronic monitoring has come a long way since then, but not necessarily to the liking of Gable, a professor emeritus of psychology at Claremont Graduate University in California.

While many view the current model for electronic monitoring as an alternative to prison that can save states money, Gable views it as chiefly a punishment driven by public animosity toward sex offenders.

“You can start simply by the legislation that’s done,” Gable told a reporter. “You know it’s not rehabilitation, it’s a matter of punishment. If you had a public whipping of sex offenders, then you could put them on probation afterwards, the public would feel now the offender has been appropriately punished.”

Instead, Gable, who taught behavioral psychology for 30 years, envisions an electronic monitoring program that rewards offenders for good behavior. He likens it to gambling, which is fueled by the anticipation of unpredictable, and sometimes large, rewards.

“Turn the corrections system into a Las Vegas,” Gable said.

But such a system, Gable argues, will be a tough sell to the public.

“The public’s perception of sex offenders — the need for punishment, the lack of rehabilitation — they don’t like rewards being given,” said Gable, who along with his brother shortened their last name from Schwitzgebel.

If the public were to soften its perception of sex offenders, Gable believes his system of positive reinforcement coupled with “swift, certain and yet moderate” punishment for violations could work. He proposes using today’s technology — the smartphone.

Corrections agencies could track offenders through their phones. To assure the device is on them, the system could use voice verification or a thin electronically tethered, tamperproof bracelet worn on the ankle or wrist, Gable said. The smartphone would allow probation officers to more easily dole out positive reinforcement of desired behaviors, he said.

For example, a probation officer could send a text message acknowledging that the offender made it to his treatment group, or telling him he has received a free pizza coupon for arriving at a court date on time. Asking the public to contribute could generate even more rewards for offenders, he said.

“What you’re doing is developing an electronically based community support and guidance system,” Gable said.

Smartphones could remind offenders of upcoming appointments and job-related assignments, keeping necessary structure in their lives. And like most people today, Gable guesses offenders will want to keep their cell phones close to them.

“We will know when monitoring is a success when offenders want to stay on the system,” he said.

Mexico, Canada and others may be exempted from US tariffs

WASHINGTON — The White House said Wednesday that Mexico, Canada and other countries may be spared from President Donald Trump’s planned steel and aluminum tariffs under national security “carve-outs,” a move that could soften the blow amid threats of retaliation by trading partners and dire economic warnings from lawmakers and business groups.

Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters the exemptions would be made on a “case by case” and “country by country” basis, a reversal from the policy articulated by the White House just days ago that there would be no exemptions from Trump’s plan.

The announcement came as congressional Republicans and business groups braced for the impact of expected tariffs of 25 percent on imported steel and 10 percent on aluminum, appearing resigned to additional protectionist trade actions as Trump signaled upcoming economic battles with China.

The looming departure of White House economic adviser Gary Cohn, a former Goldman Sachs executive who has opposed the promised tariffs, set off anxiety among business leaders and investors worried about a potential trade war.

“We urge you to reconsider the idea of broad tariffs to avoid unintended negative consequences to the U.S. economy and its workers,” 107 House Republicans wrote in a letter to Trump.

The White House said Trump was expected to make a final announcement as early as today and officials were working to include language in the tariffs that would give Trump the flexibility to approve exemptions for certain countries.

“He’s already indicated a degree of flexibility, I think a very sensible, very balanced degree of flexibility,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told CNBC. “We’re not trying to blow up the world.”

Trump signaled other trade actions could be in the works. In a tweet, he said the “U.S. is acting swiftly on Intellectual Property theft.” A White House official said Trump was referencing an ongoing investigation of China in which the U.S. trade representative is studying whether Chinese intellectual property rules are “unreasonable or discriminatory” to American business.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said an announcement on the findings of the report — and possible retaliatory actions — was expected within the next three weeks.

Business leaders, meanwhile, continued to sound the alarm about the potential economic fallout from tariffs, with the president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce raising the specter of a global trade war. That scenario, Tom Donohue said, would endanger the economic momentum from the GOP tax cuts and Trump’s rollback of regulations.

“We urge the administration to take this risk seriously,” Donohue said.

The president has said the tariffs are needed to reinforce lagging American steel and aluminum industries and protect national security. He has tried to use the tariffs as leverage in ongoing talks to revise the North American Free Trade Agreement, suggesting Canada and Mexico might be exempted from tariffs if they offer more favorable terms under NAFTA.

Lawmakers opposed to the tariffs, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have suggested more narrowly focused approaches to target Chinese imports. But members of Congress have few tools at their disposal to counter the president, who has vowed to fulfill his campaign pledge.

“I don’t think the president is going to be easily deterred,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who has suggested hearings on the tariffs.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Trump had listened to him and others who disagree with the direction of the trade policies. “I thank him for that and he’s been a good listener. The difficulty is so far I haven’t persuaded him,” Alexander said.

Republicans in Congress have lobbied administration officials to reconsider the plan and focus the trade actions on China, warning that allies such as Canada and members of the European Union would retaliate.

The EU said it was prepared to respond to any tariffs with counter-measures against U.S. products such as Harley-Davidson motorcycles, Levi’s jeans and bourbon. EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem said the EU was circulating among member states a list of U.S. goods to target with tariffs so it could respond quickly.

The president plans to rally Republicans in western Pennsylvania on Saturday in support of Rick Saccone, who faces Democrat Conor Lamb in a March 13 special House election. Trump has told associates the tariffs could be helpful to the GOP cause in the election in the heart of steel country.


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Town of Eagle Point, railroad will get April hearing on road closure

The town of Eagle Point and a railroad that filed a petition in 2017 to permanently close one of the town’s roads are getting a hearing on the matter in April.

The Office of the Commissioner of Railroads will hold a hearing on Thursday, April 5, the office announced Wednesday. The first part of the process begins at 10:30 a.m. at the Chippewa County courthouse, 711 N. Bridge St., in room 302, where the town and the railroad will give testimony.

The public will have a chance to offer their comments later that same day at a 6 p.m. public session, at the same courthouse location.

The public should “limit ... comment to non-technical personal knowledge or personal opinion,” the announcement from the commissioner’s office read. Parties can also object to the receipt of a public comment, the announcement added.

In September of 2017, Progressive Rail petitioned the state to permanently close 95th Avenue in Eagle Point—also called Darrow Road—so workers would have a stretch of land long enough to assemble mile-long trains. The road is just short of a mile long, running from east to west and connecting Highways 178 and 124, with a railroad crossing bisecting it.

The proposition met with pushback from the town. Closing 95th Avenue would route much more traffic to 105th Avenue, which is dangerous for pedestrians and could potentially extend emergency response times, town officials said.

In addition to speaking at the public session, community members can submit written comments at the 6 p.m. session, or online by visiting the OCR’s website at and selecting the ‘File a Comment’ link at the bottom of the page. Comments should be submitted on or before Wednesday, April 4.

Comments can also be mailed to “Docket 9145-RX-114 Comments,”Office of the Commissioner of Railroads, P.O. Box 7854, Madison, Wis., 53707-7854.