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Meet Mayor Tim
On his second day in office, Kabat gets to work
By Bob Treu
, Contributing Editor
The mayor of La Crosse has an impressive view. From his office on the sixth floor of City Hall you can see all of downtown, most of the south side, the river and the Minnesota bluffs. Nonetheless, it is a very accessible place, and that’s the way the new mayor wants it.
In spite of all that, I was a little intimidated about going there for an interview. That was before I actually met the man. When I first found him in the office of Downtown Main Street Inc., he was working his last day there, but there was no sense of disorder or hurry. When I asked about an interview he set a time and then wrote something on a small piece of paper. It contained his phone number and the words: “Mayor Tim.” I had already researched the proper way to address a mayor, which turns out to be “your honor.” Somehow I never used it.
The mayor’s office is also plain, almost austere, without a sign of clutter anywhere. Of course it was only his second full day in office when we did the interview, but his appearance seemed to support the impression given by his surroundings. He wore a dark suit and tie, his hair was meticulously barbered, and his glasses were horn rims. He might have stepped off the set of "Mad Men," which perhaps accounts for his being described as “wonkish” and “a little distant.” That image turns out to be very misleading.
In addition to being born here, Tim Kabat graduated from the local state university. Then he went on to do graduate work in Urban Planning at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. After that he worked in city planning in South Bend, Ind., and West Palm Beach, Fla. When the opportunities presented themselves, he took similar positions in Wisconsin, in Baraboo and Madison. Ultimately he came back to La Crosse to work in city planning. All this seems clear and purposeful, but it wasn’t without its difficulties. His wife, Christy, has had several operations, a trial that has put them very much in touch with what ordinary Americans go through.
Before the interview I asked the Mayor how his wife was doing and he said she is fine. Then he gave me an explanation of her situation, using medical terms and careful hand gestures to describe the bones involved. Mayor Tim would have been an excellent teacher.
Second Supper: Did you have any political experience before you ran for mayor?
Mayor Tim: This will be the first political office I’ve held, although I have worked in politics before.
SS: And you won by a wide margin against an opponent with a long history in La Crosse politics. That’s even more impressive since you are not particularly identified as a Republican or a Democrat, or even as a liberal or conservative.
MT: No, I don’t belong to a party, although I have worked on campaigns for certain people. My independence helped me in the election and now I think it will help me bring people together. That was one of the themes of my campaign. I was able to get support from business certainly, because of my work at Downtown Main Street Inc., but I had support from other groups as well, including unions.
SS: Looking at your career, working for South Bend, Baraboo and then Madison, it feels a lot like you were one of those hometown guys, circling around and looking for a way back home.
MT: Oh yes. I always knew I wanted to come back to La Crosse.
SS: Did you ever think you’d be mayor?
MT: No, but I’d see situations and think about being in a position to do something.
SS: Reading the information online about your background, it was hard to miss your academic preparation and experience in urban planning. So what does a city planner do?
MT: City planners do a lot of things in developing programs and services. My emphasis has always been on economic development.
SS: You’re probably aware there’s a part of the political spectrum that is against any kind of planning.
MT: [smiles] Yes, I know.
SS: As you know, the voters of La Crosse recently defeated, pretty soundly I think, a referendum to change from a mayoral system to a city manager. Given your background in city management, how do you feel about that? If it came up again, would you support that?
MT: Well, I do see the benefits of having a city manager, especially in terms of getting things done efficiently. But I also respect the voters’ concern about keeping the system as open and democratic as possible.
SS: How do you think Gov. Walker’s Act 10 will affect your work as mayor?
MT: Morale is very low among city workers, among firefighters and teachers, and just about everyone. I want to make sure city workers have input into the decisions that most directly affect them.
SS: You have talked about the areas you want to address, but what do you consider to be the greatest challenge in your new job?
MT: I really feel neighborhood renewal is the most important.
SS: I was pleased that in your remarks at the swearing-in ceremony you said that we have too much poverty. Can a mayor, even with the help of a friendly city council, do much about poverty?
MT: We can try to do some things, but you have to see poverty in La Crosse in the context of what’s happening nationally. Poverty has been growing everywhere, and cities find it more and more difficult to deal with it.
SS: Certainly our attitude toward poverty has changed. Many of us remember when eliminating poverty seemed a rational part of our national agenda; now the attitude seems to be if you’re poor you probably deserve it.
MT: You could see those attitudes change very sharply in the 1980s. Cities were getting real help from something called Urban Development Action Grants, and Reagan eliminated them. It’s no surprise so many cities have deteriorating neighborhoods.
SS: La Crosse seems to be following the pattern of larger cities, with people moving to suburbs and leaving behind a deteriorating city.
MT: I saw that first hand when I worked in South Bend, which is a typical rust belt town.
SS: There is a group that is trying to address some of the problems of deteriorating neighborhoods, especially on the south side. Do you know anything about them?
MT: You mean the Powell-Hood Hamilton Association. I’ve attended some of their meetings and I am impressed by their determination and energy. It’s really citizens working together to improve things, refurbishing residences, improving parks and bike paths, and trying to attract some small businesses.
SS: How is the city involved in this?
MT: We’re working with Gunderson Lutheran through a process called Tax Incremental Financing. They put $250,000 into the program and we matched it. This was an agreement made in 2012.
S: It sounds complicated.
MT: Yes, but it does allow us to spread the burden over a longer period of time.
SS: This is a really positive thing, but you know if the city ever decides to build a highway through the south side it will be a totally different ballgame. Much of what the Powell-Hood Hamilton group is trying to accomplish would be for nothing.
MT: That would not be good. And I don’t think there’s any real need for it. The current street system is perfectly adequate. A much better approach is to work on improving mass transportation.
SS: I want to ask you about the scheme currently before the council to replace our garbage cans with new ones that have wheels and can be picked up by the trucks robotically. Of course, the company will save some money by eliminating some jobs. Do you support this plan?
MT: There will be a loss of jobs, but on the plus side, the new system will allow us to expand the kinds of items we can recycle, especially paper and cardboard products. Right now we are only recycling tin, aluminum, and plastic.
SS: Couldn’t we expand recycling without the new carts?
MT: The new system will make that possible more quickly and efficiently.
SS: So what is some someone steals my new cart? Will I have to pay for a new one?
MT: That’s one of the details that haven’t been worked out yet.
SS: When you came back to La Crosse in 2003, you must have realized pretty quickly it was a very different town from the one you had grown up in.
MT: Oh yes. The changes were really obvious.
SS: For one thing, it is no longer simply a community of European immigrants and their descendants. At the end of the war in Vietnam we had an influx of Hmong refugees, and now we have a much larger number of African-American residents. How do you feel about this new diversity, and how will it affect your job as mayor?
MT: I think it’s great. It just adds a lot to the community. Of course, I have some experience dealing with diverse populations, so I feel ready for the challenge. The La Crosse Hmong community is already pretty well organized and making substantial contributions, and now the African-American community is beginning to organize. For example, there is now a committee to welcome new African-American residents. We need to support those kinds of activities in any way we can. I think it’s all part of getting people to work together.
SS: There’s a tendency for people to associate this population change with an increase in violence. Is La Crosse still a safe place to live?
MT: Yes it is. Of course that’s a sort of relative question, but I think it is.
SS: At the swearing-in the other day, you said you need to get people to dream. What did you mean by that?
MT: It’s not just about one person imposing a vision upon a community. Everyone has a vision of what they would like to see in the future, and by sharing those dreams we can begin to work together to make things happen.
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