The city of Milton grew more than any other Rock County city in 2019, a state document shows.
Each year, the Wisconsin Department of Revenue releases its Net New Construction Report, which shows the amount of net new construction in communities across the state, grouped by county. The numbers reflect commercial and residential growth minus demolition.
Milton’s 2.54% increase in net new construction topped all other cities in Rock County. By comparison, Janesville grew by 1.71%, and Beloit saw 1.23% growth.
Milton City Administrator Al Hulick said the numbers are a testament to people wanting to be part of the community.
“In my opinion, what it means is Milton continues to be a location that is desirable to live and/or to locate or relocate your business,” he said.
The city saw its equalized value increase by more than $31.3 million in 2019, Hulick told the city council recently.
Hulick said continued growth is important as the city tries to keep taxes low and avoid big hikes. Equalized value growth is part of the tax rate equation. Rising total value applies downward pressure on the tax rate.
That was evident in Milton’s recent tax rate increase of just 32 cents, Hulick said. He thinks residents appreciate the city’s focus on maintaining growth.
“They understand that growth is important for the vitality of the community,” Hulick said. “It strengthens the community when it’s done in a responsible fashion, which we do, and I’m proud of that.”
The 2019 growth figure wasn’t an outlier. The city has seen its overall equalized value rise by $74.6 million, or 21%, over the last three years.
Hulick said a lot of that has to do with continued development in the city, which saw more than $9 million in commercial and industrial development and investment in 2019, up $3 million from 2018.
Businesses such as Diamond Assets, Badger State Maintenance, SSI Technologies and Charter NEX Films have moved into new buildings or expanded over the last few years.
“It’s not a fluke,” Hulick said. “It’s a continuation of what we’ve seen over the last couple of years, and it seems to be continuing at an increasing rate.”
Residential growth is evident, too.
In 2019, more than $8.4 million was spent on residential construction, including 32 single-family homes and eight multifamily units—a $4.5 million increase from 2018. Nearly $1 million was spent on renovations.
“This isn’t a phenomenon that Milton is the only one who is seeing it or experiencing it,” Hulick said. “There’s been a need for housing and a housing shortage in Rock County for a while as we worked out of the Great Recession.”
Hulick said it took longer for the county to recover from the recession because of a stockpile of existing houses that needed to sell before demand could ignite for new housing.
He sees more growth in the future. More industrial and housing projects are likely coming this year, and values could continue their upward trend, Hulick said.
“It’s a trend that we will see continue through 2020 as long as the regional and national economy continues to stay strong as it is,” he said.
Hulick said the city aims to keep diversifying its tax base by having multiple stakeholders and business owners, which can help make it more recession-proof.
“2019 was a great year,” he said, “and we don’t see any reason why that would slow down in 2020.“
Erik Goth was working for Siker Furniture one day when a squad car rolled past his delivery van on Harding Street.
“That might be a fun job,” the long-haired, 20-year-old Craig High School graduate thought to himself.
He didn’t mind cutting his hair, and he found through the years that joining law enforcement was a good choice.
Goth sat with a Gazette reporter Friday, his last day on the job after 28 years of policing, most of those years as a detective with a primary focus on crimes against children.
Goth can talk about interesting cases, often remembering the dates they began.
He remembers seeing things most people would not want to see, including the people who were battered, sexually assaulted or killed. He talks of the satisfaction of catching criminals, including longtime child abusers.
But Goth may be remembered most not for catching evildoers but for saving children’s lives.
“One of the first things I noticed when I became a detective in 1998 was how often we went to infant deaths,” Goth said.
“The attitude of just about everybody was, ‘Oh, you know, babies die, it happens sometimes.”
Medical authorities alerted the public in the 1990s to unsafe sleep practices that led to crib death, also known SIDS, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Death rates dropped. There was a “Back to Sleep” campaign that emphasized putting infants on their backs to sleep.
But it remained a problem, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Janesville was seeing an average of two infant deaths a year to SIDS. Goth had been in rooms with dead babies.
“They were all sleeping face-down or co-sleeping. Like, all of them, and I thought that ‘Back to Sleep,’ that’s not a suggestion. That should be mandatory,” Goth said.
After a Janesville infant died in 2011 while sleeping with its mother on a couch, Goth approached the county health department, asking if there was something that could be done to get the word out.
The health department suggested he talk at prenatal classes, which he did—first at Mercy Hospital and then SSM Health St. Mary’s in Janesville—for the next nine years.
The basics include putting babies on their backs to sleep on a firm surface, no bed-sharing.
Janesville police have investigated only six infant deaths related to SIDS in the nine years Goth has been giving his talks.
“I don’t attribute that entirely to my program,” Goth said. “Coincidentally, there’s been a lot of social media and news media coverage and talk about safe sleep practices.”
Goth said he enjoyed detective work, something he applied for in 1998 after three years with Verona police and three more as a Janesville patrol officer.
“Sometimes people think it’s an action-packed career, and it’s absolutely not,” he said. “Once in a while it can be a little hairy, but most of the time the job really doesn’t have anything to do with chasing people or fighting with people. Those things occur, but it’s (normally) working with people and working through social problems.”
Goth was the lowest ranking detective, and nobody else wanted the crimes-against-children beat, so that’s where he started and worked for years. He continued doing child abuse cases for the rest of his career, although he did fewer cases toward the end as Detective Dennis LeCaptain has stepped into that role.
Listening to sexually abused children takes special skills, and Goth said he’s not sure there’s a detective anywhere who is fully qualified to do it.
Young children see the world differently than adults, and they may not fully understand what was done to them or why it was wrong, Goth said.
A victim who is now an adult told him recently, “I thought it was normal. I thought everybody’s dad did that.”
Goth acknowledges investigating crimes against children is not something everyone would want to do, and it’s not easy to deal with victims who are so young, vulnerable and innocent.
“I thought that I was doing something that was necessary, and I felt like I was doing a good job at it, so there’s a lot of satisfaction that does end up coming from that.
“Somebody has to do it,” he added.
He learned early on that he could not fix the terrible things that had happened. Teachers and social workers and prosecutors all have their roles.
“I can’t change what’s already happened. I’ll do my job, and if my intervention helps, good. I just want to make sure I’m doing my piece to the best of my ability, and I’m not going to take on the entire weight of the world.”
Goth is working on his third detective novel, and he expected he’ll have more time to do that, now. He wants to spend more time with his family, keep playing guitar, something he started in high school, and lots of fishing.
And he might do some private detective work, he said.
At Rosendale Dairy, each of the 9,000 cows has a microchip implanted in an ear that workers can scan with smartphones for up-to-the-minute information on how the animal is doing—everything from their nutrition to their health history to their productivity. Feed is calibrated to deliver a precise diet and machines handle the milking. In the fields, drones gather data that helps bump up yields for the row crops grown to feed the animals.
Technology has played an important role in agriculture for years but it’s become a life and death matter at dairy farms these days, as low milk prices have ratcheted up pressure on farmers to seek every possible efficiency to avoid joining the thousands of operations that have failed.
“If I use 100 bags of seed on a field and I change the way I distribute the seed, I can yield more without a single extra dollar of input,” said Matt Wichman, Rosendale’s director of agronomy. Such tools “are becoming so economically viable that anybody that’s of a decent scale is adopting these,” Wichman said.
Technology can mean survival, but it involves a perilous gamble: Will the machines produce savings fast enough to cover the debt they incur?
“The last five years have really been treacherous,” said Randy Hallett, who has 85 cows in Casco, Wisconsin, and has spent $33,000 on new milking equipment. He would invest more if his operation could afford it. “I broke even, mostly.”
The dairy industry is caught in a vise between consumer trends and competition. Americans are buying less milk as changing tastes steer them to milk substitutes from soy and almonds, or to entirely different drinks like flavored water. Two big milk processors, Dean Foods and Borden Dairy Co., filed for bankruptcy protection in the past three months, undone by declining demand and also pressured by big competitors like Walmart, which opened its own milk processing plant in 2018.
And then there are milk prices.
After hitting a historic high in 2014 of more than $26 per 100 pounds on the strength of massive buying from China, the bottom fell out. When China stopped its milk-buying spree, there was already oversupply from both American and European Union producers, said Mark Stephenson, director of dairy policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin.
Prices fell to $17.30 by the following year, and for producers, it’s been mostly misery ever since. Nationwide, the number of dairy farms dropped from 40,199 in 2017 to 37,468 in 2018. In Wisconsin, a state that takes pride in its image as “America’s Dairyland,” the toll has been particular severe. Though California produces more milk, Wisconsin has more dairy farms than any other state. And more than 1,600 of those have gone under in the past three years.
But there are reasons to believe the worst might be over, said Jim Ostrom, a partner at Milk Source, the company that owns Rosendale. In November, milk prices in Wisconsin rose to $22.40. Nationwide, they reached $21, finally above the $18 price point that Stephenson cited as a general benchmark for producers turning a profit.
With dairy prices outside farmers’ control, they have to focus on controlling costs. That’s where technology comes in. A rotary milking parlor can handle 10 cows a minute and can sense when an udder is empty so cows aren’t overmilked, which can harm their health. But a robotic milking system can run more than $200,000.
“It can be very difficult for a smaller farm to afford this technology because you need, you know, a larger operation to spread those expenses across,” said Liz Binversie, an agriculture educator in Brown County for the University of Wisconsin extension office. She said she knows of one farm that went out of business because it couldn’t find enough workers and could not afford a robotic milking system.
Wisconsin leads the nation in farm bankruptcies with 45 Chapter 12 filings from July 2018 through June 2019, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. Minnesota was not far behind with 31 during that time.
Because of debt, the cost of producing milk varies among farms. While some farmers can break even at a price of $18 per hundred pounds, others need $21 because of their debt load.
Sometimes the way to survive is to join forces with neighbors.
Hallett shares some advanced machinery with a neighboring farmer, like a combine and planting equipment. And, fortunately, some technology isn’t expensive. Hallett’s cows carry the same microchips as Rosendale uses, so he can know from the comfort of his office the milk weight for each cow and whether a particular cow had less milk that day. The chips cost about 12 cents per month per cow.
Hallett said he wishes he could afford to update his cow stalls, but that getting credit from banks is difficult because they consider bigger operations less risky.
“Who do you think they’re going to work with to keep them afloat?” Hallett said.
The University of Wisconsin hopes to help with a project that would integrate all the data farms collect each day on cows’ production, feed and health, among other things.
Integrating the data and using artificial intelligence and machine learning “would be very helpful to farmers making the best decisions every single time” in real time, said Victor Cabrera, the professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who is leading the project. He’s collecting data from five farms now and expects to have the project completed in three years.
Farmers could tell whether to keep breeding an animal or let it go.
“I’d use it yesterday if I had it,” said Mitch Breunig, who is contributing data from his farm, Mystic Valley Dairy, where he has 460 cows.
He said sometimes it’s weeks before he can pinpoint how much milk a cow produced on a particular day and how much it ate.
“I think it doesn’t matter what size your farm is, it’s information you need to know,” he said.
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