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Opinions vary on health of state

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Governor Jim Doyle's Jan. 12 State of the State address was a big deal among politicians in Madison. It was not such a big deal in New Richmond or St. Croix County.

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"I'm wondering how many people from this area actually saw it," said David Schnitzler, mayor of New Richmond. "I didn't watch it all myself."

The lack of enthusiasm for the annual gubernatorial address was echoed throughout the community and county. Most local residents avoided commenting on Gov. James Doyle's message, asking for extra time so they could read reports in the daily newspapers.

Such is the state of the state as it relates to western Wisconsin. Most residents feel disconnected from the Madison news scene. Much of the television coverage and newspaper reports residents absorb have to do with Minnesota politics and not Wisconsin.

That didn't stop some from providing their own opinion on the present condition of Wisconsin and its residents.

Even though St. Croix County seems like an extension of Minnesota sometimes, Schnitzler said he feels the state's and area's future are bright.

"I'm very optimistic about our community's future," he said. "We're growing fast and we're doing real well."

Schnitzler commented that he's concerned about the possible approval of TABOR (the Taxpayers Bill of Rights), which would require municipalities and school districts to hold referendums in order to increase taxes significantly.

"I think that's going to hurt small communities," he said. "We've kept our budget increases within state guidelines, so that has helped. I don't know if that will change."

Education

New Richmond Superintendent of Schools Craig Hitchens said he was pleased that education was a major focus of Doyle's annual address.

He said such subjects as four-year-old kindergarten, SAGE and The Qualified Economic Offer are all issues of importance to districts.

Hitchens said the pledge to provide more school aids will be a challenge for the state, but he was pleased that the Governor recognizes the state's reduced role in education funding.

"I do recognize the problems the state faces," he said. "They have a billion dollar deficit to contain."

For the most part, Hitchens said he's taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the agenda set by the Governor.

Hitchens said the state budget document, due out in February, will be a good time to study the actual details of Doyle's plans.

County government

Esther Wentz, District 13 commissioner on the St. Croix County Board, said she doesn't appreciate the apparent direction the state is taking.

She, too, is upset about continued talk about TABOR and is concerned about its impact if implemented.

"I think that is not a wise move for the state of Wisconsin," she said. "We (the county) are not the ones who have overspent in the past."

Wentz said the state has slowly shifted the responsibility for programs to the county forcing taxes up.

"There are so many unfunded mandates," she said. "We just can't turn our backs on these people. They are our citizens."

Despite the added pressure put on counties and the resulting outcry, Wentz said she isn't optimistic that the governor or legislature will change directions.

"I don't see them trying to help us," she said.

Wentz also had a few comments about the current state of education in Wisconsin. As a former school teacher, she is angered by the Qualified Economic Offer legislation that ties the hands of school districts.

Law enforcement

St. Croix County Sheriff Dennis Hillstead didn't have a positive report on the state of the state as it relates to crime.

Although Doyle's speech touted Wisconsin's lower crime rate, which is 25 percent below the national average, Hillstead said things are actually spiraling out of control in this county.

"When I took office in 1999, there were 40 people in jail on a daily basis," he said. "We used to rent 60 to 70 beds to the state or other counties.

"Today, we have about 140 inmates that are committed to jail by our county judge. We've seen a three-fold increase."

Hillstead said the majority of inmates are there for methamphetamine use or its related effects.

"They are locked up because they are somehow connected to meth," he explained. "They may have been convicted of burglary so they could have money for the drugs."

Hillstead said domestic situations have increased four-fold over the past four years, and the incidents are becoming more violent due to drug use.

The county is also dealing with more mental health issues than they have in the past.

"We're seeing more emergency detentions, which are 72-hour holds for someone who is suicidal," he said. "We're a wealthy county, but most of the wealth is on the western side. A lot of people in the rest of the county are struggling."

Some local residents might dismiss the growing crime and violence wave, noting that the county's population increases bring the bad with the good.

But Hillstead said the population has grown 22 percent, while jailed inmates have increased 300 percent. If the trend continues, Hillstead said he predicts that meth-related crime will soon cause problems throughout Wisconsin.

"I don't have a rosy outlook for the future," he said. "I sound kind of depressed."

As for solutions to the crime trend, Hillstead suggested the state work with Minnesota to help curb the problem.

"We need to put a big fence across the St. Croix River," he said. "I have little respect for the Minnesota judicial system."

Many inmates in the St. Croix County jail have committed numerous crimes in Minnesota and gotten off without jail time, Hillstead said

"They get probation," he said. "Then they come over here and they expect the same treatment from our courts. They end up in jail here."

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Jeff Holmquist
Jeff Holmquist has been managing editor of the New Richmond News since 2004. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and business administration from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has previously worked as editor in Wadena, Minn.; Detroit Lakes, Minn.; Hutchinson, Minn.; and Bloomington, Minn. He also was previously owner of the Osceola Sun, Stillwater Courier and Scandia Messenger along with his wife. Together they previously founded and published The Old Times newspaper for antiques and collectibles collectors; and Up!, a Christian magazine of hope and encouragement.
(715) 243-7767 x241
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