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Sunday, December 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 27.0° F  Overcast
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Wisconsin looks to water down local fire laws
Fire marshal says apartment dwellers could be put at risk
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Ruckriegel: 'We provide better direction.'
Ruckriegel: 'We provide better direction.'

Madison often gets painted as a regulation-happy city, always coming up with new laws to make life hell for developers.

State Sen. Terry Moulton (R-Chippewa Falls) was presumably of this mindset when he proposed Senate Bill 32, which would prevent municipalities from enforcing fire codes that are stricter than state law. The logic is that with only one set of rules to worry about, life will be easier for contractors.

Madison Fire Marshal Ed Ruckriegel says that's nice in concept, but awful in reality. "The perception is we're more restrictive," says Ruckriegel. "I think we're clearer. We provide better direction.

"They want fair, uniform and consistent rules across the state," he adds. "I understand that. But it prevents us from providing explanatory material."

For instance, national and state fire codes require fire alarms to be 15 decibels above "ambient noise." "How do you know what ambient is?" says Ruckriegel. Instead, Madison simply requires 70 decibels.

The city also spells out the required size of fire lanes and turning radiuses, which aren't defined in state code, saving contractors the hassle of researching what's acceptable.

The state law would also void Madison's new fire alarm ordinance, which was passed in 2009 after five fire deaths in 2007. Ruckriegel says the city based its law "on data, not emotion." And, he says, it is cheaper for landlords. The local ordinance calls for hard-wired alarms and tamper-resistant battery ones, neither of which require battery changes; state law requires battery alarms, but the batteries have to be changed twice a year.

Eliminating any of these rules puts residents at risk, Ruckriegel says, especially in high-density areas around campus and in senior housing. "When you have a community with 40,000 students, you have a higher probability with fatalities. That also exists with a higher percentage of seniors."

Proposed landlord law racist?

Another proposed state bill that supersedes local laws - this time those that regulate apartment leases - could have racial implications, says county Supv. Carousel Andrea Bayrd.

Senate Bill 107, which the Senate approved in June and the Assembly is scheduled to take up this session, would forbid local municipalities from passing laws restricting the criteria by which landlords can select tenants. This would nullify several laws in Dane County and Madison.

Among them are laws both have on the books that forbid landlords from denying a lease based on a criminal conviction that is older than two years.

"The new law will allow you to deny housing based on an arrest. Forever," Baryd says. "If you broke into your junior high gym to play basketball when you were 16, you can be denied housing for the rest of your life. It's hugely severe."

Statewide, African Americans make up 6% of the population but 45% of the prison population. That means "there are huge racial implications," Bayrd says of the proposed law.

Bayrd, who wrote a letter to Gov. Scott Walker and Legislature (see this item at TheDailyPage.com), fears it will further push the poor into ghettos, compounding complex social problems that affect neighborhoods, crime rates and schools.

"People with arrest records are going to...all end up in the same neighborhood," she says. "We're not going to push everyone who has ever been arrested out of the state of Wisconsin."

Brenda Konkel, executive director of the Tenant Resource Center, says the vacancy rate in Madison is currently very low. The proposed law carries lots of other provisions that will further stack the deck against renters. For instance, in Madison, landlords cannot require a minimum income level if renters have paid the same rent in the past.

If the law is passed, Konkel fears it will increase homelessness. "It's really hard for people to find housing right now," Konkel says. "This is going to make it 10 times worse."

Politics of beer

Monday's annual LaborFest had special significance this year in the wake of Gov. Walker's attack on unions. The festival at the Labor Temple on Park Street drew a larger crowd than in recent years.

But one thing puzzled some: Why was LaborFest serving Miller Beer? MillerCoors gave Walker more than $22,000 in 2010 and has been targeted by anti-Walker boycotts.

"It's been a point of contention," admits Eric Cobb, executive director of the Building and Construction Trades Council of South Central Wisconsin. "The Labor Temple pretty much only serves union beer."

Whether the Temple continues serving Miller beer, Cobb says, is "definitely going to be at the top of the list of points for discussion."

Wisconsin has no shortage of microbrewers. But few, if any, are unionized. "They're just small," says Bill Fetty, a member of the Autonomous Solidarity Organization. "It's not that they're anti-union."

And they've certainly got an ax to grind with Walker, who stuck it to microbreweries by restricting their ability to possess a wholesaler's license.

Fetty is organizing The People's Oktoberfest for Oct. 15 on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The festival will draw attention to the new law and help raise money for community gardens and other groups.

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