RACINE – The COVID-19 pandemic, addressing racial inequities and police reform, dominated Racine Mayor Cory Mason’s annual State of the City Address Wednesday evening. The mayor also cautioned that the upcoming budget would likely fund fewer city positions. 

In the virtually presented address to the Racine Common Council and the public (via teleconference and Facebook), Mason immediately acknowledged the challenges that COVID-19 has placed upon residents and city government over the past five months.

“Last year, I told you that my administration’s priorities could be summed up as equity, sustainability, and innovation through Smart Cities. Those are still our priorities, but in 2020, the ground has shifted beneath our feet. I stand before you tonight to say: to rise to this occasion and overcome the obstacles we face, we must prioritize, we must adapt, and we must innovate,” Mason said.

COVID-19 response

Mason said that Racine city government and city employee response to the COVID-19 have included:

  • The development, implementation, and enforcement of “Safer at Home” protections by the Racine Health Department. These were put into place after the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down statewide provisions.
  • The City Clerk’s office successfully administered two elections during the pandemic, which ensured that city voters had access to the ballot box.
  • Racine is joining with four other large Wisconsin cities in preparing the Wisconsin Safe Voting Plan. The initiative received more than $6 million in grant funding from the Center for Tech and Civic Life. The City of Racine received $1 million.
  • Racine is becoming the first city in the state to create a Small Business Emergency Fund that provided rapid response to 164 local businesses.
  • A partnership with Racine Lutheran Social Services establishes the Racine Emergency Eviction Prevention Program to help prevent evictions and homelessness among the city’s most vulnerable residents.
  • City staff from the Library and Parks departments filling 1,000 food boxes for area families in need. City staff, including summer Parks Playground Leaders, working at a drive-through COVID-19 Care Package distribution event.
  • Racine Public Library is implementing a curbside library materials pickup to serve the public while the library building is closed.
  • City firefighters and EMT participating in a research study from Cornell University and the Medical College of Wisconsin to test a COVID-19 screen that provides results in hours, not days.

“I am proud of our responses to this pandemic. But this crisis is far from over. As we move into the fall, I renew my call for our staff and our residents to stay the course and do everything possible to prevent the spread of the virus in our community,” said Mason.

Addressing inequities

Mason said the COVID-19 pandemic “has also shone a bright spotlight on inequalities and disparities that were already present in our community.” Mason promised to continue to address improvements in minority homeownership, health outcomes, high school graduation rates, financial resiliency, and quality rental housing.

Among the actions needed to reach these goals are:

  • Opening the new Racine Community Health Center at Julian Thomas Elementary School later this year. The facility, designed to address residents’ primary health care needs, is a partnership with the Racine Unified School District, Racine County, the United Way of Racine County, Ascension Wisconsin, Gateway Technical College, and others. 
  • A proposal to deploy more than $500,00 in federal funds to prevent foreclosure and protect homeownership in the city. 
  • Launching the Racine Financial Empowerment Center (FEC) will provide residents with free, professional, one-on-one financial counseling to improve credit scores, reduce debt, and build savings. 
  • Using a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies to help expand the YWCA’s adult high school diploma program. 
  • Continuing implementation of the Racine Rental Empowerment and Neighborhood Tenant Services (RENTS) ordinances improves the city’s overall housing quality.

Police Reform

Mason publicly acknowledged the 36 years of service of Police Chief Art Howell, who plans to retire at the end of 2020. 

“While eventually there will be a new chief, there will never be another Chief Howell. He leaves a legacy as a home-grown Chief, as Racine’s first chief of color, of historically low rates of serious crime, and the success of his community-oriented policing vision has expanded far beyond its initial concept. His legacy has changed the department and the city for the better. We thank Art Howell for his service to our city,” Mason said.

In the wake of this spring’s death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, Racine has been prompted to “act locally to take a hard look in the mirror at how and who we police, and we must be willing to adapt and change,” Mason said.

The recently created Mayor’s Task Force on Police Reform is now examining and making recommendations about use-of-force policies and how best to ensure resident oversight. Mason said the Task Force had been supplemented with virtual community conversations and an online survey to gather residents’ experiences with the Racine Police Department and residents’ vision for the future of policing.

It is planned for the Task Force’s recommendations to inform policy decisions that will be sought this year and into 2021, the mayor said.

What’s ahead for Racine

Looking ahead to 2021, Mason said that the upcoming city budget process would be challenging as it adapts to an economy strained by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“But today’s fiscal realities mean that we cannot continue to operate as we have in the past. We must prioritize, we must adapt, we must innovate. The budget team will be working with all departments to find efficiencies. We will explore realignments, reorganizations, and shifting of responsibilities,” he said.

The mayor reminded Common Council members and the public that the city had accomplished great things this year (2020) despite natural disasters, a cyber-security attack, and a global pandemic.

“Again, and again, we have stepped up,” said Mason “City employees have gone above and beyond to still provide services, innovate in numerous areas, protect and serve our residents, and accomplish big things. Neighbors have checked in on each other, residents have donated to help families in need, businesses have adapted to changing realities. We wear masks and forgo our normal hugs and handshakes to keep each other safe and healthy.”

Read the 2020 State of the City Address full text

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