Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Government innovation winners announced

An agreement that gets textbooks into the hands of blind students in a timely fashion and a procedure that turns waste cheese brine into a cost-saving de-icer are the winners of a government innovation contest sponsored by the La Follette School of Public Affairs.

Numerous entries from around the state were submitted for the Lloyd D. Gladfelter Award for Government Innovation that recognizes problem-solving and resourceful ideas that government employees generate.

“These are the kinds of creative ideas and money-saving efficiencies that people expect from government at all levels," says professor Susan Yackee, La Follette School director. “The Gladfelter awards honor that inventive spirit.”

A $2,500 award will be split between Sal Carranza of UW System and Tom Heffron of the Wisconsin Technical College System for their work on model legislation that simplifies and speeds the production of textbooks and class materials for people with visual impairments, yet protects publishers’ profits and copyrights.

The two convened educators and publishers and negotiated a way to standardize formats and share policies for electronic files for text materials. Working through university and technical college systems, and with the Legislature’s approval, they got an agreement approved that once a book was electronically available, all campuses had access to it and could provide it in whatever format was needed. Thus the publishers only had to respond to a single request but were still paid for their intellectual property.

“We heard horror stories of a dysfunctional system that meant students might not get a copy of a book until a class was over, or they might get the chapters sent to them out of order,” says Yackee. “Now Wisconsin is a model for more than half the states.”

A $1,500 award will be split three ways among a Polk County official and two Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource employees for their discovery and use of waste cheese brine as an environmentally friendly and cost-saving substitute for expensive commercial de-icer.

The discovery that mozzarella cheese brine would work as a de-icer was made by Emil “Moe” Norby, technical support manager for the Polk County Highway Department.

Norby collected a jug of mozzarella cheese brine from a company in Dresser that was paying to haul it away. Norby let the mixture sit outside his office in -20 degrees for two days until it finally froze. He discovered that the waste brine from making mozzarella was 23 percent saline, the same as commercial brine — but cost only 9-cents a gallon, a savings of $1.20 per gallon.

However, the Wisconsin DNR labeled cheese brine a waste and any changes in the dairy’s disposal permit would have required money and time, which neither the dairy nor Polk County had. Two DNR employees, Bob Germer and John Morris, stepped in to help, identifying a more timely approval method through the DNR’s Waste and Materials Management Program.

The two coordinated, worked, brainstormed and built consensus among the state, the dairy and the county. Over the course of a winter in 2008, they verified the brine’s usefulness and its environmental risks. They then worked with DNR officials and Polk County officials to develop usage rates that protect the environment and make winter roads safer.

In the first season of full use in 2009, Polk County saved $40,000 and the dairy saved $10,000 in trucking costs for disposal of its brine. The program continues and has been copied around the state and the nation.

“The judges agreed this project just shouted about Wisconsin’s innovative drive,” says Yackee. “We want to celebrate work that has impact like this.”

Two other nominations were named runner-ups. One was Brian Loeffelholz, a land-use specialist at the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection who set up a brokerage for sharing grazing land. The other was Hank Koch, director of the La Crosse County Solid Waste Department, for his work on a public-private landfill energy project with Gundersen Health Systems.

The winners will be honored in a ceremony at 11 am on Wednesday, July 9, at the Pyle Center, 702 Langdon St.

The award was established with a gift from Lloyd D. Gladfelter, who spent his career as a government reporter for the Milwaukee Journal. He wanted to honor public employees (excluding elected officials) whose innovations led significantly to the improvement of federal, state, county, or municipal public services in Wisconsin.

Nominations are judged on their creativity, feasibility, and potential impact. In addition to Yackee, this year’s judges were David Lubar, president and chief executive officer of Lubar & Co, Milwaukee; Curt Culver, chief executive officer of MGIC Investment Corp, Milwaukee; Dean Stensberg, director of public affairs and policy for the Wisconsin Department of Justice; and Terry Shelton, outreach director of the La Follette School.