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A threatened resource PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 15 July 2015 16:17

Ag agents such as Ozaukee’s Dan O’Neil have been bringing UW resources to counties for decades; misguided budget cuts are threatening that service

Worries over the consequences of the hundreds of millions of dollars in state budget funding cuts for the University of Wisconsin system have centered on the possibility of teacher layoffs at the various campuses. But the impact of the lost state aid could hit much closer to home for many Wisconsin residents. Counties could lose their UW Extension agricultural agents.

    One estimate is that counties could lose 65 to 80 UW Extension positions. Ozaukee County may be particularly vulnerable because the agent it has had for 33 years, Dan O’Neil, will retire this summer. No one is saying he won’t be replaced, but it’s clear that is a possibility.

    The county-based managers of UW Extension services have always been known as “ag agents,” but the term is a misnomer these days. They still work with farmers, but their reach extends far beyond agriculture into providing practical help that benefits nearly every resident in one way or another.

    O’Neil helps farmers with everything from advice about sheep shearing (at which he was once a champion) to providing information from UW scientists on milk and crop production and finding answers to questions about the increasingly complex business of farming.

    But citizens in any walk of life can get help from the agent and his office staff on an eclectic list of subjects, including anything to do with horticulture and programs provided by the UW Extension to help families in various ways.

    O’Neil’s services will be sorely missed in the organizations he has advised and supported  with hands-on involvement during his tenure, particularly 4-H and Ozaukee Master Gardeners.

    Once an activity mainly pursued by farm children, 4-H clubs now embrace urban, suburban and rural young people and are thriving in Ozaukee County even as the number of farms declines. A 4-H leader quoted in last week’s Ozaukee Press said O’Neil is an essential resource who “is always there” for the leaders and members of the dozen 4-H clubs in Ozaukee County.

    Nowhere has O’Neil’s influence been more  influential than in the Ozaukee Master Gardeners. The president of the organization, Mary Reilly-Kliss, put it succinctly: “Without him, we wouldn’t exist.”

    O’Neil helped found the organization and has guided it as it has flourished as not just a service to train people in the art and science of gardening, but as a public service organization that has beautified communities and institutions throughout the county.

    Gardens tended by the volunteers of the Master Gardeners include those at the Lasata campus for the elderly in Cedarburg, Advocates of Ozaukee, Pioneer Village, Tendick Nature Park, Kuhefuss House Museum in Cedarburg and the Grafton public library.

    In Port Washington, the Master Gardeners have taken responsibility for the public garden in the triangle at the entrance to the downtown at Jackson and Franklin streets. Members maintain the garden and this spring added an array of new perennials purchased with money raised by the organization at its annual plant sale.

    The county agent’s influence on the organization, Reilly-Kliss said, “is immeasurable.”

    Immeasurable too—in a bad way—would be the loss or diminishing of UW Extension services to the people of Ozaukee and other counties because of the extreme funding cuts with which legislators want to punish the UW system.

    For nearly 80 years, the UW Extension has improved the lives of state residents by extending the resources of the University of Wisconsin to the people—on their farms, in their 4-H clubs, their gardens, yards and homes. Reducing funding for those services would take Wisconsin down on the quality-of-life scale.

Assault on democracy PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 08 July 2015 19:24

Outraged citizens made legislators bent on secrecy back down, but the display of contempt for open government remains a vile portent

Our cheers are muted, our relief tentative.

    We, the people of Wisconsin, won a great victory over the Independence Day weekend, but our celebration is diminished by the grim reality that the legislators who voted to destroy a crucial element of our democracy have contempt for open government and will likely not stop trying to stamp it out.

     Public outrage forced leaders of the Joint Finance Committee on Saturday to say they will withdraw a motion to dismantle the state’s open records law. But two days earlier, the 12 Republican members of the committee were unanimous in their approval of provisions inserted into the state budget to keep records created by the Legislature and the Walker administration secret.

    Those records—containing information essential for citizens to have in order to know what the government they elected is doing—have been kept available to the public by the open records law.

    The intent of the measure to change that was secrecy and it was carried out as secretively as the committee majority could manage, slipped into the budget at the end of the day on the eve of the holiday weekend when almost no one was looking and with no identification of the legislators who did it.

    The press was looking, though, and reports of the attempt to blindfold the public provoked a furious response.

    Attorney General Brad Schimel, the elected official responsible for enforcing the open records law, a Republican, condemned it. “Transparency is the cornerstone of democracy and the provisions in the budget bill limiting access to public records moves Wisconsin in the wrong direction,” he said.

    Another Republican, Sen. Robert Cowles of Green Bay, accurately described it as “an assault on democracy.”

    The chorus of criticism was joined by conservative and liberal organizations, newspaper editorial writers and Democrats in the Legislature, but it was the citizens of Wisconsin who with a fusillade of emails and telephone calls shamed, or frightened, Republican leaders of the Joint Finance Committee (Sen. Alberta Darling and Rep. John Nygren) and of both houses of the Legislature (Sen. Scott Fitzgerald and Rep. Robin Vos) and Gov. Scott Walker into issuing a statement Saturday promising the open records changes would be removed from the budget.

    Their statement added a dubious claim: “We are steadfastly committed to open and accountable government.”

    Really? No one committed to open government would have supported a budget provision that denies the public access to government records.

    The budget process in Wisconsin has a long tradition of being perverted by whichever political party is in power to make policy changes in a bill meant to deal only with fiscal matters, but it was dragged to a new low by the current Joint Finance Committee.

    Proposals to end licensing requirements for public school teachers, sneaked into the budget at 1 a.m., and to abolish the Legislative Audit Bureau, an essential nonpartisan watchdog on government, along with the move against open records, lead the list of important changes to state government that were inserted into the budget, rather than being introduced in separate bills, to avoid debate and public scrutiny.

    Wisconsin for many years was admired as one of the nation’s most progressive, open and democratic state governments. No more.

    A good start at restoring that reputation would be to reform the budgeting process so that legislators can’t go thorough the back door to make bad laws, or as in the case of the attack on open government, destroy good laws.

    Don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen. But do keep watching.

    In face of a potential voter rebellion, the perpetrators of the attempt to deny the public access to government records joined in a statement saying the measure would be withdrawn.

    But their votes in the Joint Finance Committee made a stronger statement.

    What it said was—when it comes to open government, these legislators can’t be trusted.    

Impacts of a merchandising extravaganza PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 01 July 2015 18:36

With Meijer, Grafton has added the most dazzling jewel yet to its crown of big-name outlets, but will local food stores survive competition from a retail giant?

The acreage covered by the new Meijer store and parking lot would have amounted to a large part of a typical farm back in the days when farms actually existed in the Grafton area.

    The store building, or “supercenter” in megastore parlance, alone measures 192,000 square feet, and its 680-vehicle parking lot covers many times that area with a vast expanse of tarmac.

    It is one of the largest stores in Wisconsin, and by far the largest in Ozaukee County. By comparison, the nearby Costco warehouse store, immense by most standards, measures a mere 151,000 square feet.

    The Meijer supercenter, which opened last week, adds lustre to the merchandising extravaganza in the east Grafton annex that augments its status as one of the most remarkable commercial developments in Wisconsin.

    It wasn’t that long ago that the area of the Village of Grafton now occupied by the likes of Meijer and Costco and a plethora of national chain stores was Town of Grafton farmland and the only nearby commercial activity was the Schmit’s Pavilion hall and a string of tiny cottages for travelers at the intersection of Port Washington Road and Highway 60.

    The good fortune of its place beside I-43 a short drive from the metropolis is largely responsible for this commercial explosion, but the village government, its planners and the Community Development Authority deserve credit for making the most of the advantages of location.

     Small municipalities can be overwhelmed when corporate giants come to town with grand promises and grander demands, but Grafton officials have been anything but pushovers and have pretty much gotten the development they wanted.

    Still, it can’t be said that the east Grafton phenomenon is an unmixed blessing. At opening ceremonies for the Meijer store, Grafton Village President Jim Brunquell noted that the development was “designed to make Grafton a destination.”

    That has certainly been achieved, yet the Grafton to which throngs of shoppers from southeastern Wisconsin are attracted is in effect a sprawling shopping mall. No doubt many people drawn to this destination don’t know that the real Grafton is a pretty village on a lazy river a mile to the west. It follows that the downtown that is the heart of that version of Grafton is struggling more than those of other Ozaukee County communities.

    It also stands to reason that the Meijer supercenter could be a threat to food stores around the area, though Village Administrator Darrell Hofland said that would be mitigated by the fact that Meijer “will create a bigger pie so that everyone can have a larger piece.”

    That’s a nice thought, but it probably should be filed under “wishful thinking.” The pie will grow by the numbers of shoppers attracted by the first Meijer store in Wisconsin, but they are not candidates to be customers of food stores in downtown Grafton or in Port Washington, Saukville and Cedarburg.     

    Meijer is an admirable company, a family-owned business that is well known for supporting the communities in which it operates. (The company got off on the right foot at its opening by giving the village a $25,000 check for the riverwalk.)         

    Consumers will benefit from its huge selection and competitive prices that are expected to hold food costs down in the area. Yet that benefit will be illusory for Ozaukee County families if this powerful competition drives the nearby local grocery stores and food specialty shops on which they’ve depended for years out of business.

    The hope is that Ozaukee County consumers, while not denying themselves some of the offerings of Meijer and other stores in the Grafton complex, will value convenience and personal service close to home enough to stay loyal to their small-town stores.

    A factor in favor of the local stores is that many shoppers looking for grocery staples might just prefer to shop in a store that is not so enormous that it needs some 30 check-out lanes.

    That’s the count at Meijer—one reason it’s called a supercenter.

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