The Year in Review: Part One

2016's top stories

This year will be a memorable one in the La Crosse area. There were efforts to address hundreds of discarded needles, a community-wide push to end homelessness, more problems at the Tomah Veterans Affairs Hospital and big elections.

2016 was a record-setting year. By December, the AIDS Resource Center had handed out around 300,000 needles this year in La Crosse, compared to only 11,000 in 2008, highlighting a growing heroin problem in the area.

The La Crosse Fire Department has been on over 250 calls to pick up discarded needles this year, and the director of the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin said La Crosse is an outlier in the state when it comes to the amount of syringes found around the city.

“With that many needles laying around our community, there’s an environmental issue, as well as public health,” Mayor Tim Kabat said.

Community members have come to the table looking at possible solutions, such as a possible volunteer pickup program or public sharps containers.

In June, La Crosse launched a collaborative with a consultant to tackle the lofty goal of addressing another ongoing problem: homelessness.

“From my experience, I know La Crosse can end homelessness,” consultant Erin Healy said.

While there are still people going into 2017 without homes, in December La Crosse became the first city in Wisconsin to effectively end veteran homelessness by finding homes for more than a dozen vets.

“It’s awesome,” formerly homeless veteran Scott Johnston said. “The program and the people in the program have helped me immensely.”

A veterans hospital that’s come under fire in recent years for over-prescription and negative work environments faced more hard times in November. The Tomah VA urged nearly 600 veterans to get tested for hepatitis and HIV after the VA found out one of their dentists wasn’t cleaning his dental products up to the hospital’s standards.

“It was very purposeful, from what we found in our investigation,” Victoria Brahm, acting director at Tomah VA, said. “He knew exactly what he was doing and preferred to use his own equipment against procedure.”

So far, about 60 percent of veterans have been tested, and no test results have come back positive.

And of course, politics dominated the landscape of 2016. A few candidates made visits to La Crosse, including President-elect Donald Trump.

“I am who I am. It’s me. I don’t want to change,” Trump said. “Everyone talks about, ‘Oh, are you going to pivot?’ I don’t want to pivot. You have to be you.”

In Wisconsin, county clerks were kept busy with both a presidential recount and a local recount in the tight 32nd District state Senate race between incumbent Sen. Jennifer Shilling and challenger Dan Kapanke.

Unofficial results put democrat Shilling ahead by just 58 votes, and after the recount, she maintained her lead, wrapping up an historic elections year in Wisconsin.

Other big stories this year involved crime, severe weather and flooding, and a big building boom in La Crosse. We’ll have more on those stories in part two of our Year in Review this weekend.