Jacob Davis lives in a gorgeous two-bedroom apartment on Madison's east side, on the Lake Monona shoreline, with two stories of picture windows overlooking the lake. But his refrigerator is empty and when he flips his light switches, nothing happens. His lives without electricity.
"I choose not to financially support the biggest carbon emitter in Madison," says Davis, 27, a UW-Madison graduate who works for a local company that designs and builds biodiesel systems. "I feel this is my right under the law of man and the law of God."
Davis does use electricity at work, for his computer and to recharge his cell phone. But at home he relies on oil lamps and battery-powered LED lights recharged with solar panels. "It's like being at the cabin," he says.
Madison Gas and Electric's website shows that, over the last 12 months, Davis' apartment has used a total of 0 kilowatts.
But his electric bills keep coming. Each month he's charged another $8-$9, plus a late-payment fee equal to 1% of his total. Most is for a "customer charge," with a few cents for taxes and the state's low-income-assistance fee.
Davis now owes MGE about $500, and the utility has filed a small claims action against him. His initial appearance is this Thursday, Nov. 15. Jokes Davis, "Living green will cost you green - and may land you in court."
Some of Davis' MGE bill traces back to when he was apparently still using some electricity. He disputes owing even this, saying he never requested electric service. (His apartment is heated, included in his rent.)
"I never signed up for an account," he says, as it darkens outside and the light grows dim in his apartment. "I'm not a customer and I don't want to be a customer. It's a consumer-rights issue."
Steve Kraus, a spokesperson for MGE, explains that Davis is still being billed for "the rental of the meter and the overhead of the company to send him a bill." He says property owners can ask that a meter be removed or "locked out," as is sometimes done for abandoned buildings.
But Davis hasn't made such a request, and Kraus says no one at MGE can recall this being done for any occupied dwelling. In fact, the city of Madison would not allow it.
"The power has to be there and available," says George Hank, who heads the city's building inspection unit, citing 27.04(2)(g) of the Madison General Ordinances. "It doesn't say you have to use it."
But if it's available and you don't use it, you'll still get bills. Davis says this amounts to making him "subsidize" pollution. "It's like a corporation that has the long hand of the law as its enforcers."
Wait till he sees what happens in small claims court.
Smile, you're on candid camera
In recent weeks, eight stationary cameras have been mounted on utility poles on and near State Street, to provide Madison police with streaming images. The network went operational just days before this year's Halloween bash.
"It's just one more tool in our toolbox to make sure we keep State Street a safe environment," says Lt. Joe Balles. He notes that the MPD joins Madison Metro and the water utility in using security cameras, and that the ones on State Street may be the first of many. "We've called this, all the way from the beginning, a pilot program."
Mad City Broadband, a provider of wireless Internet, gathers the images in a downtown Madison apartment building and beams them to a server in the City-County Building. Police can watch the images in real time, and zoom in on any part of the image field. The other day, Balles watched as an officer spoke to a "heroin contact" in Peace Park, where two cameras are located.
The department's goal, if some technical glitches can be resolved, is to store 14 days worth of images. Many private security cameras record over old data after a day or two, forcing police to scramble when there's a crime or disappearance for which images may be useful.
Segments deemed to have lasting value will be isolated and archived, likely for seven years. Like all public information, these are subject to records requests.
Not everyone is pleased that police have this new tool. "It's a violation of my personal privacy and my right to be anonymous in public," says a UW-Madison graduate student who asked that her name not be used. "It makes me uncomfortable that the government can track where I go and watch where I am."
Balles counters that in just the last year, there's been a murder on State Street and the unsolved killing of a young woman. Plus the street has perennial problems with alcohol, drug dealing, assaults and other crime.
Mary Carbine, executive director of downtown Madison's Business Improvement District, says putting cameras on State Street is part of the Downtown Safety Initiative: "There has been so much public discussion of this. It was announced at a press conference."
Balles says citizens are already being filmed in a variety of settings. Many private businesses have security cameras, and the state Department of Transportation monitors traffic all over town. Carbine amplifies on this point when she asks, "Do you have a right to privacy in a public place?"
It's a good question. And the answer is no.
DeForest resident Bill Landgraf is bothered by something he sees happening in Madison -- city work crews leaving grass clippings and leaves in streets and gutters, something homeowners are instructed not to do. (There's even a city ordinance -- MGO 10.17 against it.)
"This goes on all around Madison -- every boulevard, every street," says Landgraf, a delivery driver who has seen the same done by Dane County and the UW-Madison. "That all goes in the lake."
Recently, Landgraf sent a letter to Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, explaining what he's observed and asking why it is allowed to continue.
This drew a terse reply (see the related downloads at top right). "As a matter of fact," wrote Cieslewicz, "the city of Madison contributes a very small part to the lake water problem," which mostly originates "in the rural areas and communities north of Lake Mendota." He urged Landgraf, a former village trustee, to help make DeForest's efforts in this area "as good as Madison's."
As if this wasn't enough of a kiss-off, Cieslewicz added, "I would like to hear about those efforts. I await your response."
Despite the tenor of this letter, a memo went out late last month (see the related downloads at top right) directing city streets and parks workers to avoid leaving clippings in the street when possible and report situations where it isn't, so street sweepers can be summoned.
Tax free? Think again
The Wisconsin Department of Revenue (DOR) is keeping an eye on Internet sales of cigarettes, looking for residents who seek to avoid paying the state's tax, which will rise from 77 cents to $1.77 a pack in January. But it's not just smokers who are obligated to pay.
DOR spokesperson Meredith Helgerson says Wisconsin residents who buy anything online or while visiting other states for which a sales tax is not charged are subject to the state's use tax, if the purchase is used in Wisconsin. That means when you buy books from Amazon.com or order Omaha Steaks, you should be keeping track of the amounts and paying this tax on your returns.
"If the vender does not charge you a sales tax, you are required to pay the use tax," says Helgerson. About 25,000 state residents a year pay use tax on their income-tax forms.
Federal law requires cigarette vendors to report whom they sell to. Wisconsin gets this information from one such company and from other states. "We're building a database," says Helgerson, adding that the DOR is mainly looking for people who make "super-size purchases, when they clearly can't smoke all those cigarettes themselves."
The DOR doesn't prosecute violators, but it can demand that they pay taxes and declare them delinquent if they don't. And, of course, those who don't "may be subject to interest and penalties in addition to the use tax."