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Thursday, January 29, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 33.0° F  Overcast
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Complaints are up, but bedbugs levels in Madison are not epidemic
Letting the bedbugs bite
A bedbug: High on the 'ick' factor scale.
A bedbug: High on the 'ick' factor scale.

When outfitting a new home, the poor and frugal have long relied on thrift shops like the ones run by St. Vincent de Paul. But these days, St. Vincent can't offer all the amenities it would like, thanks to an invading critter known as the bedbug.

"We outfit several dozen families a week with furniture," says Ralph Middlecamp, the group's executive director. "One of their big needs is bedding."

But for the past year, St. Vincent has not accepted used mattresses or bedding at its thrift stores to fight the spread. "When a homeless family finally gets their own home, it'd be a shame to find their new place is unlivable because of bedbugs," Middlecamp says. "We'd certainly hate to be the cause of it."

In fact, St. Vincent has spent thousands eradicating bedbugs from its own housing units. The Port home for men was plagued with the vermin, and it took several chemical and heat treatments to kill them.

Bedbugs are definitely on the rise in Madison, as elsewhere. Both Public Health Madison and Dane County and Madison's building inspection unit have had increased reports of the pests, which feed on blood while people are asleep. But they're not necessarily at the epidemic levels suggested by some media accounts.

"Five years ago, we never heard of bedbugs," says George Hank of the city's building inspections unit. But, he adds, "We're not receiving five of these [complaints] a week."

Hank doesn't have precise numbers - the city just recently began coding its reports for bedbug complaints.

Public Health, meanwhile, has so far this year gotten seven complaints - three at apartments, four at hotels or motels. Last year, there were nine complaints, five at apartments and four at hotels or motels.

"I'm sure we're not getting all of the complaints," says John Hausbeck, the department's environmental health services supervisor. But he theorizes bedbugs are getting so much attention because "On the ick factor scale, they're pretty high. Nobody wants to wake up and see bites all over them and think 'I've had bugs crawling all over me all night.'"

On the plus side, Hausbeck notes that bedbugs do not transmit any known diseases.

Both building inspection and Public Health can take enforcement action when bedbugs are reported. "Our role has been to hold the property owner's feet to the fire, says Hausbeck. "We know it's not going to be solved easily. If you do it the wrong way, it's just going to keep coming back to haunt you."

Hank says the city ordinance requires rental owners to lose the bugs. "If they don't get rid of them, the tenant would be eligible for rent abatement," he says. "And if they continue to not correct the problem we could prosecute them."

Westlake vs. Johnson

Most observers agree that Ron Johnson, who has money and GOP backing, is likely to get the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. But in Dane County, there are signs of support for another candidate: Dave Westlake. (Also running is Stephen Finn, a Milwaukee construction worker.)

Westlake, the more conservative candidate who plays well with the Tea Party crowd, scored an endorsement from an unlikely place - the left-leaning Capital Times, which called Westlake the only candidate "in touch with reality." And he's been a regular guest on radio guy Sly's WTDY show.

UW-Madison professor Charles Franklin, who helped develop, which monitors and compares political polls, says that "because there's absolutely no polling on the primary that's public, we're really just left to conventional wisdom" to figure out who's ahead.

"Westlake has staked his campaign on a belief that by not being a conventional politician and going out and shaking hands he can pull a big upset against the money and clear party endorsement," says Franklin. "To every candidate in second or third place, you have to have that faith."

"But," he adds, "it's very hard to see how he pulls that upset."

David Canon, another UW-Madison political science professor, agrees the money issue is huge, noting that Johnson has about $4 million to Westlake's $100,000. "The only way to get name recognition in a statewide race is through TV ads," Canon says. "And [Westlake] hasn't had any money to get on TV."

Planning a house sale

Ald. Bridget Maniaci wants to make good on a campaign promise to deal with three houses the city of Madison owns at James Madison Park.

"It's been a longstanding neighborhood issue for a number of years," she says. "I wasn't happy with the holding pattern they'd been placed into."

The houses are: Collins House, 702 E. Gorham St., which had been run as a bed-and-breakfast but has been vacant for years, and two current rental properties: Worden House, 640 E. Gorham St., and Ziegelman House, 646 E. Gorham St.

"Overall, they're in good shape," Maniaci says. "But there are definitely repairs and things that need to be made." And so Maniaci is looking at adding an amendment, around $100,000, to the city's capital budget to fix up the houses. "It's just like when anyone else has to sell a house - you have to invest."

She also wants to convene a committee to look at selling the property. Brenda Konkel, whom Maniaci ousted from office in 2009, took her to task on her blog for the idea, writing that in 2008, another committee already came up with recommendations for the sale of the houses. But Maniaci thinks there are unresolved issues that need to be addressed.

"The last committee said sell the structures but not the land," Maniaci says. "There's a lot of concern that banks won't give loans under that situation."

Richard Linster, president of the Tenney-Lapham Neighborhood Association, which is near but does not include James Madison Park, says it's "long overdue that the city took a look at the condition of the properties. I'm sorry the city allowed them to deteriorate to the extent they have."

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