La Crosse Mayoral Candidate: Vicki Markussen

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Vicki Markussen

Name: Vicki Markussen

Age: 49

Family (Include Pets): Dan (husband), Sons: Grant, Carson, & Brent. Two cats: Leo and Finn

Political Experience: none

Prior/Current Employment: Founder of my own business, Engage Greater La Crosse; Former Executive Director- La Crosse Area Chamber of Commerce; Former Executive Director -7 Rivers Alliance; Former Executive Director-La Crosse Area Builders Association. Moved here for my first job out of college: TV Reporter


Updated March 17

1) The prevalence of homelessness in our community continues to be a struggle. How do you propose we address it?

First, we must ensure that people who need shelter have a place to go. This compassion is part of our community. We each have an image of who we think are homeless but the reality is there are many forms including those sleeping in cars, on friends couches, in parks, in homes with other families, and those who choose to be homeless. Each case has complications and needs a different solution. There may be a housing layer, a mental health layer, or an addiction layer.

I will also note that homelessness is more prevalent because the pandemic limited capacity at shelters and shut day-time services down, forcing individuals into parks that are near the services they were still able to receive. I look forward to getting shelters back up to capacity safely, while we see increased COVID vaccination amongst our community.

The Collaboration to End Homelessness was making strides when COVID and its restrictions changed their processes. This group includes the area experts and current service providers — Couleecap, The Salvation Army, The La Crosse YWCA, Independent Living Resources, and Catholic Charities of La Crosse. I support the work they are doing because homelessness is a shared problem.

By not having our own health department, all of our taxes pay the County to be a partner as a service provider. The County has contributed heavily to the collaboration. The City provides a staff person in our housing area who helps identify gaps and find funding. Taking homelessness on as a city alone puts the burden on our community. While some may be willing to pay for this in a property tax increase, the largest portion of rent is taxes and this could force those with fixed incomes out of their homes.

By using the Collaboration, we are able to leverage federal, state, and local dollars including each of our private donations to end homelessness. I met with the Collaboration recently and asked, “What more can the City do?” They emphasized filling this now open city housing/homelessness position with a strong candidate. That candidate must be a servant leader who ask the agencies what they need and seeks to help fill it. This collaboration was a main reason the groups received a $1.4 million grant to address youth homelessness and a day resource center.

I’ve seen the strategic plan for the Collaboration and its goals to end family and chronic homelessness. This City position, in housing, aligns well due to housing being such a critical pathway from shelter to affordable housing and beyond. This position can hold the organizations accountable to their goals, ensuring city and county resources are spent effectively. As Mayor, I vow to ensure this position gets filled to connect nonprofits with the resources they need and to assist in using my relationships with private developers to work on the continuum of housing.

2) How would you prioritize city services and city spending?

In running for the office of Mayor, I find that most issues tie back to four big issues; property taxes, safety, economy, and equity.

We must:

1) Hold the line on property taxes by maximizing the properties we have. This places emphasis on the planning department to identify ways to increase our property tax base on the land we have. This includes redevelopment projects, River Point District’s development (west of Festival on Copeland), floodplain resolution, and housing. I have the experience in this area to help.

2) Safety & Shelter: I’ve spoken of the homeless issues as part of this in the earlier question. A key differentiator from my opponent, I would not defund our police. We must find ways to reduce the number of mental health calls they are called to and we must listen to the voices calling for changes and adapt. But we can’t cut our way to safer neighborhoods. We’ve seen what happened in Minneapolis where violent crime rose 21%. Everyone deserves to feel safe. It is what keeps us living in La Crosse and attracting others to Our City.

3) Equity: La Crosse is growing in diversity. This needs to be reflected in the voices impacting our community. As a woman, I know what it’s like to be the only voice at the table. If voices are all the same, you get what you’ve always had. We must serve the communities of color, address racism, and celebrate diversity. This doesn’t have a cost. It’s part of my style of leadership as demonstrated by the diversity in my campaign team and my involvement with the Diversity Council while at the Chamber.

4) Economic development: we must get the La Crosse Center open safely. Tourism is a $250 million industry for our community. We have friends and neighbors, many one paycheck away from poverty, without jobs. We need to ensure our investment in the La Crosse Center begins to take in money. I have the experience through my Chamber and serving on the board of tourism to guide this process

3) What are your thoughts on how the city of La Crosse is handling finding polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in its water supply and the spread of the contaminants into neighboring private wells in Campbell? Is there anything the city should be doing differently?

Everyone deserves to have safe drinking water. I met Travis, who lives in La Crosse who is concerned because his grandmother’s well tested high. My friend shouldn’t have to fear her four-year-old daughter accidentally drinking from the tap. My former co-worker shouldn’t have to worry about cancer and other side-effects developing in his college-age daughters who drank the water all of their lives. The fear is real. It is understandable. The only way to subside, not resolve, fear is by having a plan that is clearly communicated. There are no winners in this situation.

We can’t fix the actions of the past, but we can unite to find an effective, shared solution, moving forward, together. By being a collective voice for this area to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), we can seek both short- and long-term solutions to a problem created by federal government regulations. We also have the issue of incomplete information from Mayor Kabat’s office which should also be disclosed sooner rather than later in order to develop better stances on this issue. I have outlined much of my plan on my website, with different avenues – over the short term and long road ahead of this crisis.

Short-Term Priorities
Provide clean water to those with PFAS contamination; The City hired a consultant to test wells. The investigation should continue. Residents are also testing their wells. I pledge that everyone with PFAS contamination over the federal amount should get clean drinking water.

Establish communication methods: We need a short and long-term plan that is effectively communicated to the Town of Campbell Board and those living in the 1600 homes and apartments on French Island. Many of these individuals are researching and providing additional information to the investigation. Establishing two-way communication strengthens the voice moving forward with manufacturers, the Wisconsin DNR, and the federal government. Fear is a valid emotion enveloping this conversation. The City and Town can ease some of this fear by agreeing upon a path moving forward and keeping our friends and family informed.

Continue testing: Identify the extent and significance of the problem. I’ve been told the national labs don’t have the staffing to test every well on French Island quickly. There are discussions of creating a local lab using UW-L. Until that time, the consulting company hired by the City, with help from the Town and residents, must continue to explore all sources and the extent of the contamination.

Advocate for state and federal funding; As this letter to the editor from Sen. Brad Pfaff and Rep. Jill Billings points out, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers’s budget includes a state action plan, additional testing, and funding for local governments. Congressman Ron Kind and Sen. Tammy Baldwin are also working on funding for PFAS and research on exposure levels. I’ve gone to Madison and Washington D.C. with local issues. If we can gather the many voices of those impacted, it will get heard.

Continue the lawsuit of manufacturers – Their knowledge decades earlier of these dangerous chemicals is not acceptable, and they must be held accountable. STOP using the foam We must find an alternative to using this known health hazard. We cannot continue to contaminate our groundwater, our wells, and our land, and we need to protect our firefighters. Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Rep. Kind must help us overturn the federal law mandating this particular foam.

Long-Term Priorities on PFAS

The problem is new. Solutions are being developed. We must explore all options to fixing the contaminated water in the wells. Connecting residents in the Town of Campbell to La Crosse City water is controversial but should be included in discussions.

Every community with an airport or Military base faces the same contamination problem that the residents of the Town of Campbell are facing because of the federal regulation. Some may be ahead of La Crosse in finding solutions. I have previously worked with the head of the Wisconsin League of Municipalities, Jerry Deschane. I will work with him to coordinate Wisconsin efforts. Because of my work with the Builders Association, economic development associations, and Chamber of Commerce, I also know the value of monitoring national work as well. I will be identifying communities leading in this PFAS work, such as Marinette, WI and the state of Michigan.

In the long run, The City of La Crosse and Town of Campbell must continue to communicate with those impacted. Keeping the relationship with the Town of Campbell amicable will be key. I have experience working across borders for the greater good as part of my work at the 7 Rivers Alliance.

We will learn as this plan moves forward and adapt as we learn new information. Collaboration with the City of La Crosse, Town of Campbell, and residents impacted is key. We will need to adapt this plan until a solution is identified. We know the groundwater is contaminated, so much so that the City has shut down two of their wells, #23 and #24. How PFAS settles in our ground and water, how it travels, and how it is resolved must continue to be monitored.

4) There is a lot of interest in the future of the former Kmart site. What’s your opinion on U-Haul’s proposal for a store there and how do you think the city should address neighborhood concerns?

Since this questionnaire was sent out, U-Haul has announced they are pulling from their intent to build a retail space there. That said, I think the question is rather, what is my opinion on the future of the former Kmart site?

The proper development of this location is important because it is near neighborhoods. It’s also a gateway to our community. I was opposed to the area getting rezoned to industrial space. Doing so opened the door for very inappropriate use by later businesses. U-Haul was also, admittedly better than the decaying building we have, but still not maximizing the location’s potential. I am pleased that now City Planning is actively casting its vision for the location and working with the developers to find a mixed use for the area. They also have state and local incentives to develop it
property. I can work with the department and my contacts to get it filled properly.

Going back to my core issues, growing the tax base and maximizing the properties we do have is going to involve the redevelopment of properties and sites that have been underdeveloped and neglected for years. From my days at the Builders Association to the Chamber of Commerce, I’ve seen what great development can do. It sparks improvement and community development around it. This is a high priority for the City and for myself as mayor.

5) What can the city do to better support La Crosse’s small businesses?

Our small local businesses first and foremost need tourism coming back. Our food & Beverage plus hotels took a $70 million dollar loss through November of last year. The City can work with the
Convention & Visitors Bureau to ensure we are opening the La Crosse Center and welcoming the record-number 18 fishing tournaments to our area. As mayor, I will regularly meet with the business groups to ensure we are aligned with their needs. Their efforts to bring back the $60 million increase in online spending to our community is key. We must support the businesses that make up 46% of our tax base as they help keep all of our property taxes lower for a thriving La Crosse.

6) As we go into spring, the topic on every La Crosse driver’s mind is potholes. What should the city be doing to keep its roads in better shape?

Roads are the number two issue I hear after property taxes. Roads are more than getting people to work in La Crosse, they get people to medical appointments, bring tourists in, and get the products our hard working people make out to the markets to sell. Disrepair of our roads puts wear and tear on our cars. I will continue to pay for six miles of roads and road repair each year throughout the city. This does not include a road through the marsh, which I am opposed to. Some roads are paid for by the Department of Transportation. Through my relationships with the DOT and it’s professionals, I will ensure we are keeping those state highways maintained. I recognize keeping the city safe goes hand in hand with quality roads, reducing accidents and vehicle damage because of road safety. As Mayor, it is a top priority of mine to ensure we have quality roads for citizens, guests, and employers.

Previous version

Why do you want to be mayor? Why should people vote for you?

The generosity of this community sets us apart. Witnessing that goodness firsthand, I understand how we can harness that energy to safely lead us through the rebuilding of our community post-pandemic. La Crosse can become nationally recognized as a great place for work, community service, and recreation. By implementing metrics to improve our cost of living, our quality of life and our opportunities, we can grow our community for the next generation of families.

What are the top three items on your agenda if you’re elected?

Rebuilding small, local businesses so we can put friends and neighbors back into jobs. The companies that make up our quality of life have lost more than $149 million between January and November of 2020, while online sales gained $60 million from La Crosse County people shopping via the internet. For perspective, the entire City budget is $70 million. To get back to our pre-pandemic lifestyle, we must bring those dollars back into our community. We also need to bring in new, outside dollars by safely restarting our tourism industry. Tourism brings more than $250 million a year to our area and will help pay the bills on our La Crosse Center. It begins with a plan and a way to identify if that plan is working safely. I have the vision to help us thrive and move forward.
Property Taxes: We must hold the line on property taxes. We do that by working with underperforming or dark properties to get them filled. Valley View Mall alone is paying us $800,000 less in property taxes a year. I volunteered on a the city’s Planning Committee on plans to improve our Highway 53 corridor and downtown. I’d like to see a plan for the Mall and the south side as well. The Planning Department is best positioned to grow our tax base. With more revenue, we can keep the burden of paying for improvements (to our roads, sewer, building updates, and more) off the residential portion of our property tax base. I know how to help us thrive, moving forward, together.
Safety / Shelter: As we look to end homelessness through the Collaboration to End Homelessness, La Crosse must advocate for solutions to the complex issue of mental health and addictions impacting this effort and policing.
This is a local, regional, state, and federal issue. I have the relationships with our elected offices to move this conversation forward, together, so friends and neighbors have opportunity to thrive.

Like the rest of the world, La Crosse is reeling from the effects of COVID-19. What role do you see for the city government in helping the city’s businesses and people recover from the global pandemic?

Getting our economy fully functioning again ensures we are putting people back in jobs and restarting their income stream. Next, we must address the debt many have incurred. The United Way reports that 50% of our friends and neighbors are one crisis away from poverty. The pandemic is that crisis. The City must remove the obstacles to financial progress until the economy can stabilize. When the eviction moratorium is lifted, there is a financial crisis looming that could force people into homelessness. The mayor must call upon the City’s partners to assess how we meet basic needs for our residents and businesses. We build from there – nonprofits, social services, housing, legal action, and more. We must find pathways for our citizens to emerge with hope. All of this requires hard work and donations to our nonprofits. We must also call upon our fellow local, state and federal representatives to help.

Over the past few years, national political issues such as climate change, fair mapping and marijuana legalization have come before the Common Council. Do you think that is something local government should be voting on? Why or why not?

There is only so much the city of La Crosse can control with legalization happening at the state and national level. Often, however, it is the city that must enact and enforce those state and federal mandates without any additional funding. It is important that La Crosse addresses the impact of these decisions with our local representatives. In my prior roles, I monitored what was happening in surrounding communities, the state and national governments and mapped out possible implications on our community. Assuming this system does not currently exist, as mayor, I would keep council members and department heads informed, and when significant impact was determined, the council would agree to the messaging being brought forward.

A major part of the job of mayor is being an administrator, working with department heads and analyzing budgets. What makes you the best person to do this?

I have lead teams, developed budgets, worked with committees, boards, and the public since I was 28-years old. Every phone call received, every co-worker, every volunteer and every intern taught me about leadership. Every organization I was honored to lead became stronger and more innovative. Of all the mayoral candidates, I’ve held roles most closely resembling the job description of mayor – a day filled with a ceremony for a sister city, a committee meeting, an advisory meeting for either University, returning concerned calls from the public, or an impromptu meeting with a team member experiencing a problem. The next day, the same variety occurs. Yet the most important meeting of each week is the leadership meeting of department heads. It is where goals are set, metrics monitored, obstacles addressed, and successes celebrated. As mayor, I come into an established team and hundreds of City Hall workers who choose every day to serve the public. I look forward to hearing their ideas, providing fresh perspective, and getting our city moving forward, together, by focusing on how we make La Crosse a better place to work, live and play.

The subject of regional collaboration has been a priority under the previous mayoral administration. Is that something you would continue? Do you think it’s beneficial to the city to share services with Holmen, Onalaska, Shelby, Campbell and other municipalities in La Crosse County? Why or why not?

Regional collaboration discussions began in 2004 with United Coulee Region under Mayor John Medinger. That group focused on government collaboration because, prior to Medinger, our surrounding communities were suing each other. United Coulee Region merged into the group I am proud to have lead from 2009-2014, the 7 Rivers Alliance. During my tenure, I united higher education, businesses, government, and nonprofits across 13 county and three state borders. When we blur borders, we look at common problems and work towards shared & sustainable solutions. I am confident there are ways to find more efficient and cost-effective ways to service the people in our communities. It begins with trust. It must be a win-win. I will bring experience, established relationships, and earned trust into the position.

To end on a real tough note: What is your favorite city park?

It’s a tough call because parks hold memories of different life stages and types of experiences. Do I pick the one where I pushed a smiling child in a swing, where I flew a kite, where we launched model rockets that landed on school rooftops (oops), the one that provided parental relief as a safe place for three boys to burn off energy, or the shelters where I’ve helped celebrate life milestones?

I’m going to pick this one and for a very different reason. Grandad Bluff and the new Gateway Trail System. During the pandemic, this incredible collaboration happened between La Crosse’s underutilized 160 acres of land, a visionary group of outdoor enthusiasts who raised the funds, local experts who know how to create environmentally sensitive and incredible trails, and passionate volunteers who physically helped to get the work done. It is the perfect illustration of what can happen when this community unites. The trail holds special meeting for me. In 2013, a group called Human Powered Trials came to me at the 7 Rivers Alliance with a vision for branding our area as a destination for outdoor recreation for all silent sports – biking, fishing, eagle watching, and more. I saw the potential for integration with a significant brand and attractor for our city – the great outdoors. Led by Ralph Heath and Marvin Wanders, I helped launch three conferences to rally the community around this new group named the Outdoor Recreation Alliance. It’s tagline then was Nature’s Place to Play. From there, I take zero credit for the incredible group they have become. My family now walks the paths, takes our fat bikes out, and one teenage son got re-acquainted with mountain-biking. Still building courage to try rock climbing outdoors! Cheers to ORA and the Grandad Trails. Well done!