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Bloomer Police Commission to hold formal hearing with chief over hunting citations

BLOOMER — The Bloomer Police Commission will hold a formal hearing with Police Chief Jared Zwiefelhofer at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 20, at Bloomer City Hall, where commission members are expected to ask him about three hunting citations he received from a Nov. 10 incident.

“We authorized our counsel to prepare notice to Mr. Zwiefelhofer that we will proceed with a hearing,” Bloomer Police Commission chairman Peter Gehring said Thursday.

The commission met in closed session for roughly 45 minutes on Wednesday; back in open session, they announced they would hold the formal hearing.

The Police Commission has retained attorney Mindy Dale of Eau Claire-based Weld Riley Prenn & Ricci to represent them.

Gehring said the date of the meeting could change based on if Zwiefelhofer is ready for the hearing, adding that the chief has the option to retain independent counsel.

“We want to make sure they have time to prepare,” Gehring said.

It is unclear what type of reprimand or discipline the Commission could impose on Zwiefelhofer.

Gehring said they decided to hold the meeting at city hall because it is a larger building than where they usually meet, in the city’s fire station, and he is expecting members of the public to attend.

The Department of Natural Resources warden compiled a report that states Zwiefelhofer shot a buck with a gun in a bow-hunting season, then initially lied to wardens about using the weapon. The gun used in the incident was Zwiefelhofer’s department-issued rifle.

The deer carcass was recovered, which showed injuries from both archery and a .223 caliber rifle, which matched the gun Zwiefelhofer had in his possession.

The warden determined that Zwiefelhofer had indeed legally shot the deer with the crossbow at first, but then later shot it with a gun in an attempt to put it out of its suffering. Zwiefelhofer admitted he lied about using the gun because he knew it would look bad for him to be caught using it, and he didn’t want his name in the newspaper.

Zwiefelhofer pleaded no contest to the three hunting citations on Feb. 5: improperly placing bait, possessing a deer killed without bow on an archer tag, and operating an ATV with a loaded firearm. As a result of the convictions, Zwiefelhofer’s DNR privileges are suspended for two years and he must pay $878 in fines and court costs.

Zwiefelhofer was named as police chief in August 2011. He started with the department as a reserve in 1992.

Zwiefelhofer has already announced he will step down as Chippewa County Board chairman, effective at the March 12 meeting. He plans to remain on the board. Zwiefelhofer was elected as chairman last April, and has served on the board since 2010. He wrote a letter of apology to the board for his actions.

It is unclear if he will continue to serve on the county’s Legal & Law Enforcement Committee.

Chippewa Falls High School Students raise donations for Recovery Court

Two Chippewa Falls High School students collected items to benefit community members going through the county’s Recovery Court program.

Paige Butak and Lauren Frion, both juniors at Chi-Hi, helped collect a number of items through the Future Health Professionals organization, including backpacks, clothes and toiletries.

The two brought the donations to the county Friday, and said they had the idea after reading about methamphetamine problems throughout the county. They saw a need they could help fill, they said.

“We realized there are a lot of programs dedicated to prevention, but not a lot of post-addiction programs,” Frion said.

Their collections included a communitywide effort, and they collected items at school and sporting events.

“We just tried to get in wherever we could,” Butak said.

The Future Health Professionals group at the high school is about 100 strong, they said, and most of the members are looking to go into some sort of health field.

The Recovery Court in Chippewa County has been working in its current form since about 2013, and works with about 35 people per year.

The Recovery Court handles cases involving drug offenders through an intensive, judicially monitored program of alcohol and drug treatment, rehabilitation services and community supervision.

It takes about a year and a half to two years to complete the program, and participants can be removed from it.

Rose Baier, coordinator for the Criminal Justice Collaborating Council and the Recovery Court, said the donations are very helpful because many of the participants have had multiple drug offenses, and may not have places to go or the items that they need while working towards recovery or afterward.

“This will help a lot with the people who are really participating in the diversion and recovery programs,” Baier said.

Baier noted that the criminal justice system in Chippewa County and elsewhere is realizing that it cannot afford to jail everyone, so programs like the Recovery Court — and diversion programs to stop addiction and criminality prior to the level of Recovery Court — are becoming vital parts of court infrastructures.

The Chippewa County Recovery Court has some specific criteria. For instance, no one convicted of violent crimes is eligible, nor are those convicted of selling drugs.

Baier said officials continue to see the impacts, but one of the keys will be getting the community on board for the shift from jailing to recovery based programs.

Chippewa County Court Judge James Isaacson, who works with the Recovery Court, said he had had doubts when he started working with it about a decade ago as well.

Isaacson said that over time he has seen the benefits of a recovery based approach over jail time for both the community and the county government.

He recalled a past participant who was facing incarceration and had three children in foster care. The cost of prison is about $39,000 per year, while foster care can cost from around $1,000 to $1,800 per month depending on facilities.

When that woman was in recovery and reunited with her family, he said, it brings helps them and the county.

“It makes sense both emotionally and financially,” Isaacson said.

Tony Evers introduces sweeping $83.5 billion budget plan to skeptical Republicans

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers kicked off the state budget season Thursday with a sweeping set of proposals that would raise the state’s gas tax and undo many of the changes enacted under eight years of GOP rule — eliciting wholesale rejection from Republicans who control the Legislature.

Evers’ $83.5 billion budget increases total spending nearly 10 percent from his predecessor’s last budget proposal and includes a barrage of measures embraced by liberals nationwide. The governor’s plan also would seek to fund what Democrats have criticized as long-neglected areas, such as funding for the state’s roads and public schools.

“At the end of the day, our budget is about putting people first,” Evers said in a budget address Thursday night. “It’s about creating a Wisconsin that works for everyone — a Wisconsin for us. This isn’t the Tony Evers budget, the Democratic budget, the speaker’s budget, or the Republican budget — this is the people’s budget. And it’s one that we crafted together.”

The budget includes several measures Republican leaders have already said are non-starters, increasing the likelihood of a nasty and protracted budget battle. A finalized 2019-21 budget is due by July 1.

Republican leaders Thursday denounced Evers’ plan as an “unacceptable” and “outrageous” spending increase fulfilling a liberal wish list. Republicans said they intend to ignore the governor’s proposal and craft their own budget document, something they’ve alluded to over the past two months.

“Hold on to your hats,” said Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, co-chairwoman of the state’s budget-writing committee. “This is like back to the future, back to spending and taxes.”

Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, praised the governor’s budget but called the provisions “placeholders,” challenging Republicans to come up with meaningful solutions.

“I’m hearing a lot of criticism (from Republicans), I’m not hearing any answers,” Hintz said.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has previously said he’d scrap a budget built on Medicaid funding or tax increases, such as the one Evers and Democrats have already proposed to fund their middle-class tax cut.

On Thursday, Vos noted the state, due to economic growth, is already set to receive record revenue and that further tax increases are unnecessary. Vos said Republicans will instead seek to increase spending by only the amount of additional revenue the state is projected to receive if it does not increase taxes — about $1.8 billion, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

“The problem with Tony Evers’ budget is it just spends too much, it spends way more than Wisconsin can afford,” Vos said.

Evers’ budget proposal, a document that reflects his policy priorities, seeks to increase the state’s minimum wage from its current $7.25 per hour to $9 by 2021. He previously announced he would seek to decriminalize marijuana and legalize it for medical use.

At the same time it is more tempered with regard to adult corrections. Evers during the campaign called for halving the state’s prison population, but absent from the proposal are major initiatives aimed at accomplishing that goal.

Evers’ budget would roll back actions taken under former Republican Gov. Scott Walker by eliminating the state’s so-called “right to work” law Democrats have criticized as being anti-union and would seek to restore prevailing wage laws for state and local projects to, in the governor’s view, ensure workers are not underpaid relative to others. He would also roll back some work requirements championed by Republicans for Medicaid and food stamps.

After two weeks of rolling out budget initiatives, Evers had left unanswered one big question: How would he fund the state’s transportation system? On Thursday he proposed to raise the gas tax by 8 cents per gallon and simultaneously eliminate the state’s minimum markup law for fuel — which bars retailers from selling gas for less than cost and also sets a minimum price markup — to provide an influx of about $608 million over the two-year budget for the state’s roads.

The governor’s office claims the elimination of the markup, a Progressive Era law meant to protect small locally owned companies from large price-gouging corporations, would mean drivers would actually save money: 14 cents per gallon at today’s gas prices.

The transportation plan, however, would also raise the heavy vehicle registration fee and title fees, as well as impose the hybrid vehicle surcharge fee. And starting next year it would reinstate regular inflationary increases in the gas tax that were abolished in 2006.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, who recently said he supports tolling to fund transportation, on Thursday called the governor’s proposal to repeal the minimum markup a “shell game.”

Speaking to reporters after Evers’ budget address, Fitzgerald said some Senate Republicans would embrace the elimination of the minimum markup law, but called the overall proposal “disingenuous” because it would be tied to a gas-tax increase.

Many Assembly Republicans had similarly proposed raising taxes on fuel while repealing the minimum markup during the 2017 budget deliberations.

In a move snubbing Republicans, Evers would also seek to nullify most major provisions of a law the GOP-led Legislature passed in a lame-duck session in December by restoring the attorney general’s ability to settle and withdraw from lawsuits without the Legislature’s approval. The move would allow Attorney General Josh Kaul to remove the state from a multi-state suit challenging the Affordable Care Act. It would also undo changes the lame-duck law made to the state’s voter ID laws by generally making it easier for students to receive and use university or technical college-issued voter IDs.

And in another proposal that Republicans derided, the governor wants to make immigrants in the country illegally eligible for driver’s licenses and ID cards. The proposal also would facilitate automatic voter registration through the Department of Transportation.

The governor announced previously he would seek to take federal dollars to expand Medicaid to a now estimated 82,000 Wisconsinites, which would save the state about $325 million. On top of that, he is aiming to invest more than $100 million to increase the amount of funding hospitals receive to account for the increase in services under the expansion.

The spending increases proposed under Evers’ plan, associated middle-class tax cut and the list of other proposals — about $6 billion — would be paid for by a few major general fund tax increases totaling about $551 million plus increases in the gas tax and other transportation revenue. As previously announced, Evers wants to roll back a tax credit for manufacturers that would generate about $517 million in revenue over the two-year budget cycle.

Evers additionally wants to limit a tax benefit for capital gains accrued to only those taxpayers making less than $100,000 individually or $150,000 for joint filers, generating about $505 million over the two-year budget. He is also seeking to make Wisconsin better conform with federal tax code, which is estimated to generate about $362 million over the biennium.



Farm loan delinquencies highest in 9 years

WICHITA, Kan. — The nation’s farmers are struggling to pay back loans after years of low crop prices and export markets hit by President Donald Trump’s tariffs, with a key government program showing the highest default rate in at least nine years.

Many agricultural loans come due around Jan. 1, in part to give producers enough time to sell crops and livestock and to give them more flexibility in timing interest payments for tax filing purposes.

“It is beginning to become a serious situation nationwide at least in the grain crops — those that produce corn, soybeans, wheat,” said Allen Featherstone, head of the Department of Agricultural Economics at Kansas State University.

While the federal government shutdown delayed reporting, January figures show an overall rise in delinquencies for those producers with direct loans from the Agriculture Department’s Farm Service Agency.

Nationwide, 19.4 percent of FSA direct loans were delinquent in January, compared to 16.5 percent for the same month a year ago, said David Schemm, executive director of the Farm Service Agency in Kansas. During the past nine years, the agency’s January delinquency rate hit a high of 18.8 percent in 2011 and fell to a low of 16.1 percent when crop prices were significantly better in 2015.

While those FSA direct loan delinquencies are high, the agency is a lender of last resort for riskier agricultural borrowers who don’t qualify for commercial loans. Its delinquency rates typically drop in subsequent months as more farmers pay off overdue notes and refinance debt.

With today’s low crop prices, it takes high yields to mitigate some of the losses and even a normal harvest or a crop failure could devastate a farm’s bottom line. The high delinquency rates are caused by back-to-back years of low prices, with those producers who are in more financial trouble being ones who also had low yields, Featherstone said.

The situation now is not as bad as the farm credit crisis of the 1980s — a time of high interest rates and falling land prices that was marked by widespread farm foreclosures. At the height of that crisis in 1987, U.S. farmers filed 5,788 Chapter 12 bankruptcies. There were 498 in 2018.

Some fears are also surfacing in reports such as one this month from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, which said the outlook is pessimistic for the start of this year with respondents predicting a further decline in farm income. About 36 percent of farm lenders who responded said they had a lower rate of loan repayment from a year earlier.

Tom Giessel said he borrowed some operating money from his local bank last year and paid it off. Giessel, who raises wheat and corn on some 2,500 acres in western Kansas, said the only thing that kept the farm economy afloat in his area was that people had pretty good fall crop yields. Giessel, 66, said he had once gotten to the point where he didn’t have to borrow his working capital and had a relatively new set of equipment, but he has had to borrow money for the last three years just to put in a crop.

“A lot of people are in denial about what is going on, but reality is going to set in or has set in already,” Giessel said.

The February survey of rural bankers in parts of 10 Plains and Western states showed that nearly two-thirds of banks in the region raised loan collateral requirements on fears of a weakening farm income. The Rural Mainstreet survey showed nearly one-third of banks reported they rejected more farm loan applications for that reason.

Grain prices are down because farmers around the world have had above-average production for several years. But some nations’ economies are not doing as well, decreasing demand for those crops, Featherstone said. Grain prices peaked in 2012 and prices have roughly fallen 36 percent since then for soybeans, 50 percent for corn and 48 percent for wheat.

When Trump imposed tariffs, China retaliated by stopping soybean purchases, closing the biggest U.S. market. While trade negotiations with China continue, many farmers fear it will take years for markets to recover — as it did when President Jimmy Carter imposed a grain embargo on the then-Soviet Union in 1980.

“The tariffs Trump is messing around with are not helpful at all — I don’t think anybody knows the true effect,” said Steve Morris, who farms near Hugoton in southwest Kansas.