Ideas flow for citizen lobbying

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Planning for the 33rd annual citizen lobbying effort for northernmost Wisconsin kicked off Wednesday with a brainstorming session to determine what issues could be presented in Madison in February.

Some of the potential issues are pitches the region has made for years in an ongoing effort to improve the four-county region that includes Ashland, Bayfield, Douglas and Iron counties. Others are new ideas or new ways of framing the area's goal.

"We'd like to talk about raising the Medicaid reimbursement rate," said Superior Mayor Jim Paine, speaking on behalf of a group that included County Board Chairman Mark Liebaert and Douglas County supervisors Pat Ryan and Mary Lou Bergman.

Paine said while it's questionable whether the issue is unique to the region — one of the requirements for Superior Days issues — he said the scope of the drug abuse problem in northwest Wisconsin and the city's location on the border of a community that has a much higher Medicare reimbursement rate makes it difficult for Superior to build the medical infrastructure that allows the city to address issues like drug abuse, mental health and general health.

"We have some of the worst health outcomes in the state of Wisconsin," Paine said. "It makes sense to go start ringing the alarm bell."

Dave Longsdorf of the Douglas County Department of Health and Human Services Department agreed with the mayor's assessment.

"We've actually seen a few providers leave the area," said Longsdorf, who was part of another brainstorming group that brought up the same issue. "It certainly does make it more difficult to serve our clientele."

A related issue raised is the significant increase in child welfare caseloads related to the drug crisis.

But the mayor also presented a potential issue unique to Superior. Nearly two years ago, the City of Superior implemented a monthly fee for garbage service, driven largely because the city is paying the state a tipping fee created by the Legislature with the goal of keeping out-of-state garbage out of Wisconsin landfills.

The City of Superior is the only municipality in the state that owns its own landfill, according to Paine, but it is not exempt from the tipping fee when it dumps city trash in the landfill local taxpayers built.

"Could they just give us a pass on it, and give us our free garbage back," Paine said. "We pay to dump in our own landfill."

Technology infrastructure — both an economic and education issue — was brought up by several groups.

Travus Elm, co-owner of Discover PC, said there needs to be a streamlined process to improve competition for building broadband infrastructure.

Issues that could be back on the agenda when delegates head to Madison in February include a half-percent sales tax designated for roads, creation of a small-market exposition district to help economic development downtown as part of the Better City Superior initiative — supported by 75 percent of voters last November — and increases in payments-in-lieu-of-taxes for communities with swaths of public forests.

Liebaert said a wiser path to take with the half-percent sales tax proposal may be to establish it for economic development. It has the support of the Wisconsin Counties Association, which may have better chance of gaining traction. Then, he said, counties could decide if a highway project or a development proposal is more crucial to economic development.

Lindsey Jacobson, director of the Superior Business Improvement District, said it's important to keep the Better City Superior initiative in front of legislators despite the failure of the Legislature to carry the torch this year.

"There's been a lot of private funding that's gone toward the support of it," Jacobson said. She said just because the Legislature said no this year, it doesn't mean it should be dropped.

After all, Superior Days got its start in 1985, driven by a single issue: expanding U.S. Highway 53 from a two- to four-lane highway. Then-transportation secretary Lowell Jackson said the highway would be expanded to four lanes "over my dead body."

It took a decade of citizens educating legislators to gain approval for the project. Four years later, then-Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson dedicated the four-lane connection from Superior to points south to the citizen lobbyists from northwestern Wisconsin.

James Anderson, community and economic development educator with University of Wisconsin-Extension and Superior Days coordinator, said he will post all the proposed issues at superiordays.com next week.

The next planning and issues meetings are set for noon and 6 p.m. Nov. 20. For more information, visit superiordays.com.