Budget bill, health system expansions, killing, cows voted onto Gazette staffers' top stories list
Austerity measures brought in last winter by Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature changed the face of public labor in Wisconsin and sent local governments scrambling to adjust.
Act 10, the so-called "budget repair bill," effectively ended collective bargaining for most public employee unions, and the governor's austerity budget sought to shed billions in state spending.
Gazette staff voted the local fallout from the unprecedented moves as this year's top story.
Supporters of Act 10 argued it would give local governments "tools" to cut spending on employee pension and health insurance costs—expenses they argued were bogging down the state budget.
The action in Madison sent some municipalities and school districts rushing to settle union contracts before the new laws went into effect.
The groups hammered out deals designed to shelter unions from losing all their collective bargaining rights while transferring some costs of employee benefits to the shoulders of public employees through concessions.
At the same time, the governor rolled out a biennial state budget showing deep cuts to school funding and shared revenue for municipalities, with a law attached that hampered the ability of local governments to raise taxes.
It grated on public officials in Janesville, a community already pounded by the loss of large-scale manufacturing. In an April 27 interview, Assistant City Manager Jay Winzenz called the state's plans "squeezing on both ends."
Meanwhile, local school districts worked to cut hundreds of thousands in costs, mostly through employee concessions, even as planned cuts in state funding created uncertainty for teachers, school board members and school administrators.
In a Feb. 15 interview, then-Milton Schools Superintendent Bernie Nikolay said he feared the new state laws would spark a cycle of legislative tug-of-war, wrenching public labor dealings to the far ends of the political spectrum every few years and fraying relationships between public employees, their bosses and the public.
"I think this goes too far," Nikolay said. "It's harmful."
Other top local stories of 2011 chosen by The Gazette staff are:
Contractors and cranes were the order of 2011 for the area's health care industry, which underwent a construction expansion unlike any in its history.
Topping the list is the $145 million health care complex on Janesville's east side that starting Jan. 9 will be the home of St. Mary's Janesville Hospital and Dean Clinic-Janesville East. That follows a recent $27 million investment by SSM Health Care of Wisconsin—St. Mary's parent—in the new Edgerton Hospital and Dean's plan for a clinic adjacent to the site.
Janesville's Mercy Health System was busy with contractors, too. It put the finishing touches on three highly visible projects underway in Janesville that cost more than $25 million: Renovations at Mercy Hospital and Trauma Center and Mercy East and a new emergency department and physicians' offices that will soon open near Pine Tree Plaza.
Just to the east, Mercy has nearly completed a $45 million expansion and renovation at its hospital and clinic in Walworth.
The various health care providers said the hundreds of millions of dollars they have spent will improve access to health care, satisfy consumer demand and create a competitive environment that leads to improved quality and better controls on rising health care and insurance costs.
Some industry observers, however, said such projects often are designed to increase the number of patient procedures, capture market share and lock down profits, regardless of the community's medical needs.
The Janesville School Board knew 2011 was going to be a tough budget year, with federal stimulus money drying up and pay increases that had to be paid for, among other factors.
Then the new, Republican-dominated Legislature and governor slashed aid to schools to balance the state budget. A difficult situation went from pretty bad to oh-my-gosh.
Janesville, unlike many other school boards, could not shift costs to its teachers by charging more for benefits. The board had approved a four-year teachers contract the previous September. The contract trumped the law.
The board later approved contracts with its other two unions, with similar effect.
Board members, often split and sometimes downright crabby about how best to balance the budget, turned to cutting jobs, services and programs and increasing fees. Teachers, counselors, administrators, librarians, social workers and others lost jobs, retired or found jobs elsewhere. A total of 110 of some 1,400 jobs were cut, as was about $9 million in spending. Enrollment fees rose, as did fees for high school sports.
High school students protested an increase in the minimum class size. Teachers also protested, to no avail.
As the year came to a close, the board looked forward to similar difficulties in its 2012-13 budget.
In December, T.J. Tuls, son of Nebraska dairyman Todd Tuls, began milking cows at what eventually will become the largest dairy in Rock County.
The dairy on Highway 14 two miles east of the Walworth County line will be capable of milking 4,600 cows and housing a total of 5,200.
The dairy sits on about 160 acres and cost an estimated $30 million to build.
When everything is up and running, the dairy will produce about 50,000 gallons of milk each day.
The 14 Democrats in the Wisconsin Senate, including Janesville's Tim Cullen, left the state between Feb. 17 and March 12 to stall enactment of a new law.
The "budget-repair bill" forced public employees to pay more for their benefits. It also stripped most of their bargaining rights.
The senators' move stalled the bill as protests of the legislation raged in and around the Capitol in Madison.
The newly elected Cullen and his colleagues said they were giving people more time to learn about and oppose the bill, and this was the only way they could do that.
"Their actions, by leaving the state and hiding from voting, are disrespectful to the hundreds of thousands of public employees who showed up to work today and the millions of taxpayers they represent," Gov. Scott Walker said at the time.
Cullen tried on several occasions to negotiate a compromise with Walker and bring the Wisconsin 14 home.
The senators became heroes to some, villains to others. The political divide continued through the year with recalls of some senators and an attempt to recall the governor.
As the year came to a close, Cullen offered himself as the Democratic opponent to Walker if the recall effort succeeds.
A neighbor found a man dead in a downtown Janesville apartment after police already had taken into custody the man who would become the only suspect.
William Davis, 54, is charged with one count of first-degree intentional homicide in the July 12 death of Joseph Hanson, 40. The men lived next to each other in apartments at 31 S. Main St., Janesville. They were clients of Rock County's Community Support Program, which provides in-home medication and living services to people with chronic mental illness.
Doctors think Davis was having a schizophrenic episode when Hanson died. Davis in October was found not competent to stand trial. He is in custody at Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison where he has been court-ordered to treatment for at least a year.
If he is found competent to stand trial, he likely would plead not guilty by reason of mental defect, District Attorney David O'Leary said.
Hanson's family on Nov. 25 filed a notice to sue Rock County for $5 million. The notice is not a lawsuit but a formal announcement that a lawsuit could be filed.
Area sports fans were treated to exceptional seasons in Wisconsin athletics.
The Badgers on Jan. 1 appeared in the Rose Bowl for the first time in 10 years. Wisconsin fans flocked to California but were disappointed by a loss to Texas Christian University. The Badgers roared back in the 2011 season, spurring national championship talk before two last-minute losses. Even so, the team earned a trip back to the Rose Bowl.
The Packers on Feb. 6 won the Super Bowl to cap an incredible season of overcoming adversity. The picked up again in the fall with a 14-1 start to the 2011-12 season.
The Brewers on Sept. 23 won the team's first division title since 1982 before falling in the NL Championship Series to the Cardinals, who ended up winning the Word Series.
And closer to home, the UW-Whitewater football team on Dec. 16 capped the year of athletic wonders with a third straight Division III national championship.
It doesn't get much better than this.
It was a trying year that led to rebuilding for the town of Beloit administration and police department after a series of federal court cases alleging racism and discrimination by former town Police Chief John Wilson.
Wilson, former town Administrator Bob Museus and board Chairman Greg Groves all resigned in 2011. In May, a jury found seven town officials liable in a federal employee rights and discrimination case.
Current and former town workers have filed nearly a dozen court cases and state employment complaints against the town, Wilson and Museus, including a new one as recent as November. Many of the cases still are winding through the court system.
Steve Kopp was chosen as the new police chief and started with a public open house to begin repairing the department's relationship with residents. The town board in November choose Brian Wilson of Milan, Mo., to become the new town administrator. He starts Jan. 30.
Janesville Council President George Brunner resigned in November after he was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting an officer.
The former police chief, 2423 Stonefield Lane, Janesville, has since pleaded not guilty to both charges.
Brunner had served on the council since 2005, and his most recent two-year term was set to expire 2013. A special one-year term is on the ballot this spring to replace Brunner.
Brunner is accused of shoving and striking a police officer who was at Brunner's home in response to a request by a Rock County Child Protective Services worker. The worker was talking to the mother of a 1-month-old baby about the baby's living conditions.
The mother refused to accept suggestions from police and the social worker, so the social worker took custody of the baby, according to the complaint.
Brunner swore and threw a lamp during the discussion, according to police reports. When the worker was leaving with the baby, he charged into the officer and locked his arms and legs to avoid being handcuffed and placed in a squad car, according to the complaint.
The union representing Janesville public school teachers twice declined requests from the school board to reopen its contract to help the school district balance its budget.
Then in December, the teachers union and two other unions representing district employees held meetings of their memberships, which voted to listen to what the board had to say.
One early reason not to negotiate raised by teachers union President Dave Parr was that any reopening of the contract could trigger provisions of the budget-repair bill, wipe out the contract's protections and put the teachers at the mercy of the school board.
Rep. Joe Knilans, R-Janesville, authored a provision in the state budget bill that would have allowed a union to reopen its contract while remaining protected from the budget-repair bill, but the Janesville Education Association again said no.
Then Rep. Evan Wynn, R-Whitewater, authored a similar bill, and for reasons unknown, all three of the districts' employee unions agreed to meet with the board. Parr hinted that the teachers had a deal in mind.
Representatives met once. A second meeting scheduled for Thursday was canceled after the two sides disagreed about a deal the unions proposed. It did not appear that talks would continue.