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Janesville Craig’s Mya Nicholson scores on the layup attempt during the first half of their game against Milton in the 18th Annual Optimist Tournament on Tuesday, Dec. 28.


Local
Fire agreement between Janesville and Milton expires Dec. 31

Big changes are coming in 2022 for fire services provided in both the town and the city of Milton.

Milton’s fire protection agreement with the city of Janesville is set to expire Friday—effectively leaving Milton without an affiliated fire district for up to a year.

No fire services will be interrupted, however. Milton and Janesville will still share certain services, such as mutual aid and auto vehicle locator systems. But chief oversight services and administration by the Janesville Fire Department will end for Milton.

On Saturday, the Milton Fire Department will promote Jeremy Parker, its battalion chief/A-EMT, to the role of interim fire chief. Parker, who has been with the department since 2001, has been appointed to serve through 2022.

Of the new role, Parker said he finds the opportunity to be exciting and looks forward to helping lead the department in the right direction. "There's going to be a lot of changes in the future and I'm very happy to be a part of it," he said.

No other staffing staffing changes are expected and Milton will remain unaffiliated with a fire district, while its petition to join Edgerton Fire Protection District awaits approval.

On June 18, the Janesville Fire Department informed Milton their mutual agreement was unsustainable, as difficulties arose over hiring and managing the combined Janesville-Milton department, which included both career and paid on-call volunteer firefighters.

Following a Sept. 21 vote, the Milton Common Council decided to explore other options, eventually deciding to join the Edgerton Fire Protection District.

Milton’s petition was joined by the towns of Harmony, Lima, Koshkonong and Johnstown. The Edgerton Fire Protection District Board will consider the petition at its Jan. 12 meeting.

Edgerton Fire Chief Randy Pickering credited the municipalities for completing the extensive work in preparing their petition in six months.

“The petitioning entities really spent a lot of time to make sure what they’re including in that petition represents a good quality level of service for the area that they’re asking to be protected,” Pickering said.

Milton City Administrator Al Hulick called the passage of the petition a “very historic” moment in the evolution of Milton’s fire services.

“It’s exciting, but we recognize there’s still challenges ahead. All five municipalities are committed to working together to ensure that this is successful,” he said.

Representatives for the five municipalities will present their petition to the Edgerton Fire Protection District Board on Jan. 12. This presentation will detail expectations for services and staff.

The Edgerton board will then evaluate the services requested and determine its ability to extend fire protection and EMS services to those communities. If all goes according to plan, the expanded Edgerton fire district will be in place Jan. 1, 2023.

Meanwhile, the Milton Common Council will meet on Jan. 4 to revisit recent pitches by a pair of prospective consultants, one of which will may be hire to promote a yet-to-be written referendum asking voters to help fund the shift in fire services.


Local
centerpiece top story
Fraud, GM and COVID-19: The Gazette picks the top local stories of 2021

JANESVILLE

The top 10 stories for the Janesville area in 2021 was not heavily dominated, as was 2020, by COVID-related news. However, the persistent pandemic kept its claws in our consciousness, not to mention a worrisome presence at the Rock County Jail. This story and nine others—their ranking determined by reader traffic on Gazettextra.com and the scored selections of Gazette newsroom staff—made the final countdown.

1. Mercyhealth VP fired, found guilty in $3 million kickback scheme

Former Mercyhealth vice president Barb Bortner is facing hefty penalties in early 2022, after being found guilty of wire fraud and tax evasion on Oct. 14.

Bortner, a 30-year employee for the Janesville-based health care group, was terminated in August after Mercyhealth discovered she had participated in an approximately $3 million kickback scheme.

In an internal memo obtained by The Gazette around the time of Bortner’s firing, Mercyhealth CEO Javon Bea wrote it was with “great sadness and disappointment” that she was fired. Bea added in the letter that officials at Mercyhealth suspected what they called “improper” and fraudulent arrangements with an unnamed advertising broker.

That broker turned out to be Ryan Weckerly, 47, of Sycamore, Illinois, whose two marketing firms provided Mercyhealth with internet, radio and television advertising.

In February 2015, Weckerly agreed to send inflated invoices to Bortner for his services. In exchange for the kickbacks she received from him, Bortner used Weckerly’s Morningstar Media Group as Mercyhealth’s primary marketing agency.

Mercyhealth later referred its findings to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Madison, whose investigation ultimately led to Bortner being found guilty of fraud and tax evasion. Bortner agreed to a plea deal requiring her to pay $777,800 in taxes she evaded, as well as an undetermined amount of restitution to Mercyhealth.

While it is expected that the terms of Bortner’s agreement will be upheld, a sentence won’t be officially handed down until Feb. 17. Weckerly also agreed to a plea deal and is expected to be sentenced early in the new year.

2. Hufcor owner plans to shutter its Janesville manufacturing plant

By announcing its plans to shutter Hufcor’s 100-year-old door and moveable wall manufacturing plant in Janesville, private equity investment firm OpenGate Capital changed the course of history for more than 160 workers, some career-long employees at the plant.

Los Angeles-based OpenGate Capital announced in May plans to shutter all Hufcor’s manufacturing operations at its 40-year-old plant in Janesville and outsource the plant’s 166 jobs to Monterrey, Mexico.

OpenGate’s track record in Wisconsin includes the abrupt shuttering in 2013 of the Golden Guernsey dairy, during which OpenGate locked out workers and withheld their severance for months—a move that labor activists and union laborers at Hufcor brought up repeatedly during several protests and meetings with state and federal lawmakers.

OpenGate defended its plans to move manufacturing to Mexico, saying Janesville’s plant is “aging” and that Hufcor had taken financial hits when the COVID-19 pandemic nearly halted the hotel sector, one of the main sectors for which Hufcor builds door wall systems.

Local labor analysts expected the Hufcor closure to be the single biggest purge in manufacturing workers in Janesville since 2008 and 2009, when General Motors and Parker Pen closed assembly plants here, cutting loose a couple of thousand of workers at once.

One longtime Hufcor employee in Janesville indicated that the company planned to give a severance package of just a few thousand dollars to a married couple they knew who’d worked on a manufacturing line at Hufcor for a combined 50 years.

Anthony Wahl 

Earlier this year, Hufcor announced plans to shutter its manufacturing operations in Janesville.

3. Evansville man’s remains recovered from 1952 Alaska plane crash site

It wasn’t the first time the remains of a local soldier lost in a military plane crash had been located and returned to rest in Rock County decades later. But the story behind Evansville’s lost airman, Edward J. Miller, seems to loom larger than life.

First there’s the fact Miller had been missing nearly 70 years when his remains were discovered on a melting glacier on the side of the Chugach Mountains 20 miles east of Anchorage, Alaska.

It was the frozen, inaccessible site where Miller—21 at the time and a newly-minted airman for the U.S. Air Force—went down in a troop transport plane; a crash that killed Miller and the 52 other military personnel on board during an Alaskan blizzard during the week of Thanksgiving in 1952.

For decades, the plane’s wreckage and the men killed remained buried deep in the crevasses of Colony Glacier, a 20-mile-long, alpine ice flow that in most cold seasons is virtually unreachable on foot.

It was almost 60 years later, in 2012, that U.S. Army helicopter fliers passing over on a training mission spotted an old life raft popping up out of the ice on Colony Glacier. Near the raft was parts of the wreckage of the plane.

Over several years, and as the glacier continued to melt precipitously because of climate change, military searchers recovered and identified dozens of the men who died in the crash, including Miller.

On July 17, Miller’s remains made their way home to a cemetery in Evansville, 3,200 miles from where he’d died decades earlier. A few of his remaining relatives and residents of Evansville celebrated the belated homecoming of a man who’d left the farm as a young man during the cold war, and had never returned.

Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun 

A single dog tag belonging to Edward J. Miller and a photo of the deceased U.S. Air Force airman second class are displayed at Miller’s sister’s home near Fort White, Fla., in May 2020. Miller, who was raised in Evansville, was flying with dozens of others to Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska when the plane crashed in a blizzard, killing everyone on board.

4. Crashes close I-90/39 in Janesville on consecutive days

Janesville Fire Department - Dave Sheen Photo 

Emergency crews respond to a multi-vehicle crash and fire in the southbound lane of Interstate 90/39 on Tuesday afternoon, July 6.

Following the Independence Day weekend, two consecutive multi-vehicle crashes backed up I-19/39 in Janesville, causing miles-long backups and lengthy traffic delays.

A Wisconsin State Patrol official said three semis crashed in the northbound lanes around 9:30 a.m. on July 5 near Milton-Harmony Townline Road north of Janesville. Then, at around 1:40 p.m. the next day, another semitrailer truck caused nearly as much havoc.

A Gazette reporter who viewed the July 6 crash scene—from a 40-foot-tall tree by the interstate—said it appeared four cars and a semitrailer truck were involved. Others in the neighborhood viewed the aftermath from trees as well to see over the 12-foot-tall sound barriers erected along the roadway.

Initially, people in the neighborhood also described hearing loud detonations. It was determined the source of the noise was thousands of potatoes burned up and exploded in the trailer of a truck involved in the crash.

Reader-submitted drone footage from July 6 showed the aftermath of the crash, as smoke billowed from the wreckage. Clean-up crews took longer to clear debris, due to challenges created by ongoing construction at the intersection of highways 14 and 26.

No one suffered any major injuries as a result of either crash.

5. Former General Motors site sells at auction

Anthony Wahl 

A sign advertising an auction of the former General Motors factory property on Delavan Drive in Janesville is posted on a fence around the property in September.

Janesville’s General Motors site has—probably—sold at auction. There’s been no word on who the buyer is or how much the property sold for. But a third-party broker who led the auction said owner Commercial Development will likely finalize a sale of the massive property within the next couple months, following a due-diligence period by the buyer.

The sudden auction in mid-November was the first major public push by Commercial Development to sell the 240-acre brownfield property that the company had told city officials and stakeholders it intended to clean up and see redeveloped with new industry someday.

St. Louis-based firm Commercial Development, which has owned the GM site since late 2017, spent two years clearing the more than 2-million-square-foot, former automotive production plant as part of a plan to market it for sale for industrial redevelopment alongside a massive rail spur that had served the GM for decades.

If the property sells, it will mean that Commercial Development won’t take an active role in redeveloping the property. But the buyer who cast the winning bid in the November auction, according to the broker, may want to site new warehousing there and possibly create an intermodal shipping hub rail and trucking.

Commercial Development appears to have decided to leave in place almost all of dozens and dozens of acres of concrete foundation from the former GM plant, both as a way to prevent uncovering possible contamination from years of heavy manufacturing on site. The existing pads could be built upon by a developer.

For now, the status of the environmental cleanup of the site—and whether redevelopment can occur prior to cleanup—may be determined by Commercial Development’s request that the state’s Department of Natural Resources clear the site environmentally. The DNR is expected to respond in early in 2022, city officials said.

City records show that Commercial Development this year didn’t pay property taxes or utility fees for the mammoth property on the city’s south side, prompting more than one city official to publicly ask whether Commercial Development intended to “cut and run.”

Commercial Development has kept a low profile, seldom granting media interviews since it bought and begin clearing the GM site. The company has been publicly silent about its auction, other attempts to sell the property or its efforts to earn an environmental clean bill of health for the property.

6. Racism rears ugly head at area high school sporting events

Submitted Photo by Kathy Crawford 

Several Janesville Parker High School students attended a Nov. 23 girls basketball game against Beloit Memorial dressed as ‘gangsters.’

Multiple racially-charged controversies involving the student fans of sports teams from Milton and Janesville high schools reared their heads in November.

On Nov. 3, the Milton School District responded to a social media post made by a Milton High School student. The post included two images comparing a photo of two football players from Milton and Janesville Parker high schools with a historic drawing of an African slave being whipped.

The Milton School District said in it’s statement that it “is committed to maintaining an educational environment that is free from all forms of racism, harassment and discrimination.”

The top photo showed a Milton football player, who appears to be white, standing next to a Parker football player, who appears to be Black, laying face down the field. The photo was taken at a Sept. 17 football game at Milton High School.

The second photo, appearing below the first, was a historical drawing of a white man whipping a prone, naked Black man. The combined images was captioned, “Slave begs for mercy after Master beats Viciously (1860 colorized).”

Milton and Janesville police, working together, determined that the meme, which was shared on TikTok, was created within Janesville. The Janesville Police Department referred the case to the Rock County District Attorney’s Office on Nov. 15 with a possible charge of unlawful computerized communication systems.

At the end of November, Janesville Parker High School hosted a girls basketball game against Beloit Memorial High School. In the Parker student section, many students were dressed as “gangsters,” in keeping with a predetermined theme for the game. Students were seen wearing white tank tops, baggy pants which exposed their underwear, backward hats, durags and gold chains.

Mandi Franks, the captain of the Beloit Memorial girls varsity basketball team, emailed Parker officials expressing her disappointment with Parker students’ attire. Franks wrote that the outfits mocked Black culture and made light of gang violence—a serious problem in Beloit that had taken the lives of Beloit Memorial students. Her email was shared on social media where it gained traction.

The Beloit School District released a statement Monday, Nov. 29, applauding Franks. And Janesville Parker High School sent a letter to Beloit Memorial the same day, apologizing for the way some students dressed at the basketball game.

“Our students typically choose a spectator theme for the games as a way to encourage spirit, participation and camaraderie. With respect to the theme initially chose for the particular game, we have learned that student organizers realized its inappropriateness, and made attempts to change the theme prior to the game. Unfortunately, some of our students still opted to dress in a manner that was unacceptable and in poor taste,” Parker’s letter to Beloit Memorial read.

7. Rock County Board calls for internal probe into foster care system

Starting early next year, Rock County will order a probe into the olicies and practices, employee turnover and reporting compliance of the county’s child welfare system.

{div}The Rock County Board and the county’s Human Services Board approved an independent inquiry following weeks of rancor between the Human Services Department, foster parents and private providers of care within the county’s child welfare system.

The foster parents and other community providers said for months they believe children are becoming more at risk because of how the county is managing the child welfare system. Those critics blame turnover in the ranks of the county’s Child Protective Services staff, delays in staff’s completion of investigative casework and wholesale changes to federal policies aimed at limiting the number of children placed under in foster care.

Kate Luster, director of Rock County’s Human Services Department, has repeatedly defended her department’s child welfare staff, saying that the county’s turnover isn’t much different from other county child welfare systems around the U.S.

Last summer, when foster parents began publicly voicing concerns, Luster said that critics of the county’s child welfare system had taken a selective look at state and local data.

She said her department has been in the midst of efforts to stem turnover, catch up on delinquent paperwork and improve communication between the county, the board and officials in the child welfare system.

Luster said in late December that she intends to give the county twice-monthly updates on changes and adjustments to the child welfare system so that people have a more up-to-date read on worker turnover and hiring.

In mid-January, county administrator Josh Smith will recommend one of three national firms vying to conduct the probe into the Child Protective Services. The county’s finance committee and the full board would have to approve hiring the consultant.

Smith has cautioned county board members and the public that a review of the county’s child welfare system and any recommendations from the consultant will take “many months.”

8. Multiple COVID-19 outbreaks reported at Rock County Jail

The Rock County Jail in Janesville has been following safety guidelines in relation to COVID-19 cases. The Rock County Sheriff’s office and jail personnel have initiated procedures for handling identified infections and has worked with agencies such as HealthNet of Rock County to immunize inmates and staff.

In a year overrun with issues surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, The Janesville Gazette dug into the challenges and successes that occurred at the Rock County Jail throughout 2021.

After reaching out to reporters, inmates at the jail shared their concerns and experiences with COVID-19. The issues they raised at the correctional facility involved procedure easements, unsatisfactory cleaning supplies and other experiences with the virus.

One inmate relayed his struggle while infected with COVID inside the jail. He said his case was exacerbated by asthma and a bacterial lung-infection called nocardia. Quince D. Wright said it was “extremely scary” contracting such an aggressive virus.

“I’m lucky to be alive,” he said.

All of this came in the midst of multiple outbreaks, followed by a much-needed inmate vaccine campaign spearheaded by HealthNet of Rock County. New numbers of positive cases largely leveled out, but fresh concerns over the new omicron variant are likely to keep staff and residents at the jail vigilant.

9. Janesville teen deals with long-term COVID-19 diagnoses

Anthony Wahl 

Ava Pennycook, a 15-year-old from Janesville, tested positive for COVID-19 this summer. Months later, she was still feeling symptoms that were holding her back from cheering, school and learning how to drive. She is someone who is considered a ‘long hauler,’ a person who has experienced COVID-19 symptoms for weeks and sometimes months.

In October 2020, The Gazette first profiled Ava Pennycook, a 15-year-old Janesville native who tested positive for COVID the previous July. She is now considered, what doctors call, a COVID long hauler—people who experience symptoms for weeks or months after being infected with the coronavirus.

Before getting COVID-19, Pennycook was a young, healthy and very active teen. She was a member of a competitive cheerleading team. By October, however, she was sitting out cheer practices and games because she felt too weak. She also suffered short-term memory loss and confusion.

In April 2021, The Gazette checked in with Pennycook and learned she had received a new diagnosis the previous February: a disorder called postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, or POTS.

POTS is a chronic autonomic nervous system disorder that affects the bodily system that regulates heart rate, temperature, sweating, digestion, blood pressure and more. POTS can be triggered by a variety of things, but one of the most common is viral infections. Ava’s doctors believe her COVID-19 infection is what triggered her case of POTS.

Then in August, The Gazette caught up with Ava again to find out she was making positive strides toward participating in cheerleading again. However, Ava still has to take break when she runs out of energy.

A new diagnosis has given Ava more hope moving into her junior year. In April, she was diagnosed with Addison’s disease, a rare autoimmune condition, after doctors found no cortisol in Ava’s blood. Ava’s doctors believe this is due to COVID damaging Ava’s glands.

Ava was immediately put on cortisol pills, which she takes three times a day and will for the rest of her life. She immediately felt more energized and had more of an appetite after taking the medication daily. Ava carries her cortisol pills with her for emergencies and also wears a medical alert bracelet at all times so her friends know to call 911 if she acts odd or passes out.

She has also been diagnosed with celiac disease, an autoimmune disease the prevents absorption of nutrients and can damage the intestine of a person that eats gluten. In July, Ava received a COVID vaccine and the effects minimal, she said.

Ava is now back practicing with the cheerleading squad and taking a tumbling class. She is also thinking about returning to her competitive traveling cheer team, and has plans to make the high honor roll.

10. Two people killed in plane crash near Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport

Rock County Sheriff's Office 

This photo from the Rock County Sheriff’s Office shows the small plane that crashed shortly after takeoff from the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport in Janesville the morning of Feb. 16. Two people were killed in the crash.

Two people were killed in small plane crash near the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport on Feb. 16. According to Rock County authorities, the plane crashed shortly after takeoff.

Rock County Sheriff Troy Knudson said the plane, which was described as experimental, crashed around 30 seconds to a minute after taking off. The plane was found upside down in water and mud, Knudson said.

Janesville Fire Chief Ernie Rhodes said evidence indicated that the plane hit trees on its way down, tearing off the plane’s wings.

The Rock County Medical Examiner’s Office later identified the victims as Tanner Byholm, 25, of Glidden, and Remington Viney, of Kimberly. Both Byholm and Glidden were members of the military.

Their Velocity V-Twin airplane crashed near Happy Hollow Park in the town of Rock, authorities said. Both Byholm and Viney were pronounced dead at the scene.

A preliminary report revealed that one of the the two pilots in the crash had told air traffic control they wanted to return to the airport and “work through some engine issues.”

After receiving the request, air traffic control asked if they needed any help and one of the pilots said, “No, sir. We should be fine.”

The family of Remington Viney created a fund in March to honor her legacy. The Remington Viney Legacy Fund is overseen by the Community Foundation of Southern Wisconsin. The fund supports women who are interested in aviation along with education and charitable services projects. More information can be found the fund’s Facebook page.

The crash was the first fatal crash in Rock County since 1999.


Death_list
Obituaries and death notices for Dec. 29, 2021

Howard Lyle Carlson

Charlene L. Hefty

Janet L. Werner

Dolores Wilander

Dawn E. (Zahn) Wuthrich


Coronavirus
Local health officials await state decision on new COVID-19 isolation guidelines

Public health authorities in Rock County said they are aware of the new federal public health guidance shortening the isolation and quarantine times for some people with COVID-19, but they have not yet adopted the new guidelines.

The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention shortened the recommended time for isolation from 10 days for people with COVID-19 to five days, if asymptomatic, followed by five days of wearing a mask when around others. The change stems from science demonstrating that the majority of COVID-19 transmission occurs early in the course of the illness, generally in the one to two days prior to the onset of symptoms and two to three days after, the CDC statement reads.

“The omicron variant is spreading quickly and has the potential to impact all facets of our society,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said. “CDC’s updated recommendations for isolation and quarantine balance what we know about the spread of the virus and the protection provided by vaccination and booster doses. These updates ensure people can safely continue their daily lives. Prevention is our best option: get vaccinated, get boosted, wear a mask in public indoor settings in areas of substantial and high community transmission, and take a test before you gather.”

For people who are unvaccinated or are more than six months out from their second dose and have not yet received a booster dose, the CDC now recommends quarantine for five days followed by strict mask use for an additional five days. Alternatively, if a five-day quarantine is not feasible, an exposed person should wear a mask for 10 days around others if unable to quarantine. Individuals who have received their booster shot do not need to quarantine after an exposure but should wear a mask for 10 days after the exposure.

As of Tuesday, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services had not adopted the CDC recommendation. Because of this, the Rock County Public Health Department continues to recommend 10 days of isolation for people with COVID-19 and 14 days of quarantine for those who have been exposed and are not yet fully vaccinated.

“If and when DHS adopts the CDC recommendation to shorten the time for isolation and quarantine, Rock County will follow suit,” health department spokesperson Jessica Turner said. “Based on community spread, it is recommended that everyone continue to wear masks when around other people.”

As of Tuesday, 24,571 cases and 250 deaths have been reported in Rock County. An estimated 2,336 COVID-19 cases are active, health department data shows. In the last seven days, Rock County has reported an average of 427 new cases per 100,000 residents. A total of 56.8% of Rock County residents are fully vaccinated, DHS data shows.


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