March 28, 2015

Arrest made in 1990 Berit Beck murder

Brantner (FdL Co. Sheriff)

Brantner (FdL Co. Sheriff)

An arrest has been made in a 25-year-old Wisconsin homicide. Fond du Lac County Sheriff Mick Fink said Friday that 61-year-old Dennis Brantner of Kenosha was arrested without incident on an arrest warrant for first-degree murder after making an appearance for an unrelated charge at the Kenosha County courthouse. Brantner was transported to the Fond du Lac County jail.

Brantner was identified last year as a primary suspect in the murder of 18-year-old Berit Beck. The Sturtevant teen was last seen leaving the Forest Mall in Fond du Lac in July 1990. Her van was found in a store parking lot two days after she was reported missing, with 462 extra miles on the odometer. Her body was found six weeks later in Fond du Lac County.

Fink expressed confidence last year that Brantner was a prime suspect in the case. Fink said “when I have physical evidence inside of a vehicle that a young lady was in prior to her abduction and maybe at the time of her death, I would call that a suspect…I would call that a prime suspect.”

The evidence had been recovered from Beck’s van and submitted to the state Crime Lab in 1990. It was ruled inconclusive at the time, but when investigators asked the Crime Lab to retest it last year, a fingerprint match with Brantner was made. An arrest has been made in a 1990 Wisconsin homicide. Berit Beck was an 18-year-old Sturtevant woman. She was found slain in a Waupun ditch, and evidence recovered from her van was at the time inconclusive.

Beck’s family issued this statement: “We are encouraged and relieved for this day to have arrived for Berit and our family. We request that our privacy be respected as this process unfolds.” The Sheriff’s Department and Fond du Lac County District Attorney have scheduled a press conference for Monday morning.

Wisconsin’s proposed Gogebic mine officially gone for good

Map of potential mine site (Photo: DNR)

Map of potential mine site (Photo: DNR)

A huge – and hugely controversial – open-pit iron mine proposed for northern Wisconsin is officially not happening. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources said Friday that Gogebic Taconite has notified the agency that it is withdrawing its pre-application notice related to the proposed iron mine in the ecologically sensitive Penokee Hills in Ashland and Iron Counties.

The notification follows the February closing of the company’s office in Hurley. GTAC President Bill Williams noted at that time that their “environmental investigation and analysis of the site has revealed wetland issues that make major continued investment unfeasible at this time.”

GTAC’s departure comes after more than two years of controversy surrounding the mine proposal. Republican legislators in Madison enacted changes to state law which were carefully crafted to provide GTAC with greater certainty about the DNR permitting process. Tribal leaders and environmental groups said the massive mine would prove environmentally disastrous for the Bad River Watershed, and vowed to fight the project. Federal officials had also indicated that their time tables for reviewing any mining permit would not be advanced just because of changes at the state level.

The DNR will continue to work with the company to complete necessary work on the site to ensure it is properly maintained and environmentally stable. Land adjacent to the mine site will also be reopened to the public.

UW La Crosse students sound off at budget hearing

Wisconsin 2015-17 Budget

Wisconsin 2015-17 Budget

Members of the Wisconsin legislature’s budget panel heard pleas from public school administrators and UW students, during a final day long public hearing in Reedsburg. Republican Governor Scott Walker’s proposed budget cuts some $127 million dollars in public school funding next year.

“Even with the flexibility provided by Act 10, districts increasing costs. Without funding increases that match these growing costs, reductions in the quality of educational services are inevitable,” said Randy Guttenberg, Superintendent of Waunakee Schools in Dane County.

Guttenberg also asked members of the Joint Committee on Finance to remove Walker budget provisions which would expand taxpayer subsidized vouchers schools, and an expansion of charter schools. “We can’t financially support, and I don’t think you as a legislature can oversee, two parallel systems of public education,” he said.

Wisconsin Heights Superintendent Mark Elsworthy said his small district, also located in Dane County, is like the canary in the coal mine. “We oppose the reduction in school funding. Restore the $150 in categorical aid, that really helped us in the last biennium. Also tie increases to the inflationary index,” Elsworthy asked. “Our deficit for 2015-’17 is at $120,000. If our (April 7th) referendum does not pass, we are at a $1.6 million deficit next year.”

The finance committee also heard from students at UW La Crosse, who asked that Walker’s $300 million cut to the UW System be decreased.

Rebecca Steck said the proposed cuts would means fewer class offerings – and longer times to attain a degree. “Longer times spent in college means more student debt, and that’s not good for Wisconsin,” Stenk said. She also told lawmakers that her post college plans include applying to law schools outside the state, and that after she leaves, her parents would also leave the state. Her father is a professor at UW Platteville and her mother is a speech pathologist at Hazel Green public schools. “The state will lose 50 years of experience in public education when my parents leave. That’s not good for Wisconsin.”

“We’re reaching the bottom of the barrel,” said senior James Dirt. “UWL will only hire two of 44 available positions if the budget cuts remain the same.”

“These cuts are devastating, as you’ve heard at hearing after hearing, and from constituent after constituent,” said Sachin Chheda with the Save the Wisconsin Idea organization. “There haven’t been folks coming up and saying ‘yes, the university can stand, the university can handle, $300 million in cuts.'”

Thursday’s public hearing at Reedsburg was the final on scheduled by the finance committee.

Baldwin co-sponsors bill to increase oil train safety

Federal legislation would set tougher safety standards for freight trains carrying crude oil. It’s a concern, given the heavy volume of such traffic rolling through Wisconsin each week. Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin is one of four U.S. Senators proposing the bill, which would halt the use of more than 100,000 older tanker cars not designed to carry volatile crude from fields in North Dakota and Montana. The measure would also require federal authorities to write rules to reduce the volatility of the oil.

At a Washington D.C. press conference, Baldwin said it’s critical that appropriate safety measures are in place to reduce the risk of deadly accidents. A Burlington Northern train which was involved in a fiery derailment in Illinois earlier this month had passed through Wisconsin just a short time before.

Democrats raise concerns over Wisconsin’s IT update

The Legislature's Joint Finance Committee (File photo: WRN)

The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee (File photo: WRN)

With implementation only about three months away, Democrats in the state legislature were raising concerns about a major state computer project on Wednesday, while a Republican leader said they have had weeks to have those concerns addressed. The State Transforming Agency Resources – or STAR Project – will consolidate IT systems and equipment, at a total cost of some $138 million.

Democrats on the state budget panel balked at covering a $16.5 million overdraft for STAR. “I understand that we have an implementation timeline that is coming up, and I just don’t feel like we have the answers about how this all going to come together,” said Representative Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh).

“There’s a lot of questions with this. We all know that,” said Senator Jon Erpenbach. “When we’ve had some folks in our office before, nobody can truly answer some questions on this, because I don’t think anybody really knows.”

But Joint Finance Committee co-chair, Representative John Nygren, said Department of Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch released a memo on the project back in late December. “That allowed almost three months for you to get any questions you might have answered,” Nygren said.

According to the state’s STAR Project website, Wisconsin government currently operates more than 120 different administrative systems, which handle a variety of functions across numerous state agencies. Most systems are unable to communicate with each other and rely on technologies that are in come cases decades old. The state’s budget system, for example, was implemented in the 1960s.

A spokesman for the Walker administration told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that STAR remains on time and on budget.