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Jonah Bank and Taco John’s Raise More than 14k for Suicide Prevention

in Business/Community/News
Jonah Bank and Taco Johns team up for suicide prevention
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Jonah Bank and Taco John’s teamed up for the third year in a row to raise money for suicide prevention with Grace For 2 Brothers — a Cheyenne-based suicide prevention organization.

This year, more than $14,500 was raised and the funds will be distributed to suicide prevention centers across Wyoming.

The Bloody Sire Inhabits the Sagebrush Sea

in Cat Urbigkit/Column/Range Writing/wildlife
Pronghorn nursery
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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

What but the wolf’s tooth whittled so fine

The fleet limbs of the antelope?

What but fear winged the birds, and hunger

Jewelled with such eyes the great goshawk’s head?

Violence has been the sire of all the world’s values.

From: The Bloody Sire by Robinson Jeffers (1940s)

It’s been an interesting week on the ranch, which is located amid the sagebrush sea of western Wyoming. We had our first confirmed depredation of a 20-pound lamb by a pair of adult bald eagles. This was somewhat of a surprise since our livestock guardian dogs tend to harass big birds that come near the flock, and because most confirmed eagle depredations on livestock are inflicted by golden eagles – not bald eagles. I had watched a pair of golden eagles hunting over the sheep flock the week prior and was relieved when a spring snow squall pushed the eagles away from the flock.

While we were on watch to keep eagles away from the lambing flock, our game cameras revealed the presence of a radio-collared wolf making numerous forays onto the ranch, even coming within a short distance from the house. The cameras revealed our livestock guardian dogs tracking the wolf but returning to their sheep a few hours later. This male wolf was new to the neighborhood but is in addition to an adult female wolf we helped collar last December after numerous livestock depredations and removal of several members of her pack. That at least two collared wolves were roaming our lambing grounds along the Wind River Front is a concern akin to a ticking time bomb. There will be violence – the only uncertainty is when.

With everyone on high alert in trying to avert an animal catastrophe, the sheep are bedded on high ground each night about a half-mile from the house. I’m out as the sun starts rising to feed the guardian dogs and see the sheep off to their day’s grazing. We can generally tell by the behavior of the livestock guardian dogs whether there are wolves in the area. When the wolves are making their forays onto the ranch, the dogs are hyped up, driven by adrenaline, and looking for a fight. When the wolves aren’t around, the dogs are much more relaxed.

Pronghorn triplets
A pronghorn antelope doe with her triplet fawns.

Spring seems to have come late to western Wyoming this year, but by the second week of June the pronghorn antelope that shares our range were dropping their fawns in all directions. It seemed nearly every predator we saw in the last few days had a fawn carcass in the grip of its jaws. Worried about the survival rate of these fawns, an event I witnessed gave me hope and reminded me of the Robinson Jeffers poem quoted above.

As I drove down the county road which splits our pastures, I watched a coyote cross from one pasture to another. A mixed group of pronghorn antelope does and bucks were in that pasture, and a doe immediately took to chasing the coyote. It wasn’t enough to chase it out of her immediate vicinity – the doe performed like a good cow horse, meeting every dodge and turn of the coyote with her own maneuvers, and coming so close to stomping the coyote into the dirt.

The doe chased the coyote over half a mile before it fled under the far boundary fence to safety. According to scientific literature, the doe’s anti-predatory defense isn’t unusual, and this aggression exhibited by a prey species toward a predator is nearly always undertaken by adult females. (I also found a great account of a pronghorn doe teaming up with a short-eared owl to harass a coyote away from an active owl nest.)

Pronghorn chases coyote
A pronghorn doe aggressively pursues a coyote.

Generally as wolf densities increase, coyote densities decrease, but we have both species on the ranch, and know that both species prey on pronghorn antelope here. But many predators – from coyotes and wolves to eagles and bears – are successful at searching out newborn prey species that hide.

A study of grizzly bear depredation on elk calves in Yellowstone National Park found the most common hunting technique used by grizzlies was searching for bedded calves, with one bear catching five calves in 15 minutes. Like our pronghorn doe, cow elk will attack predacious bears, as do cow bison.

Research on white-tailed deer fawns in Minnesota found that all radio-tagged fawns in the study were killed by predators, with a near-even split between wolves and black bears.

The first two weeks of life are the most dangerous for newborn fawns and calves, but as each day passes, they grow and gain strength. By the time pronghorn fawns are two months old, they are outrunning predators nearly as ably as their protective mothers.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

Moats: Legislative attitude to government openness disheartening

in Column/Transparency
1513

By Bruce T. Moats

For the Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming citizens are abusing government agencies.

That is according to some legislators and other government officials discussing attempts by those who pay the bills – the taxpayers – to obtain public records.  The discussion took place at the recent meeting of the Joint Judiciary Committee in Gillette.

The attitude toward citizen access to government information was disheartening.  It demonstrated a distrust of the public that I have too often seen as a journalist and now as an attorney representing reporters.  But at the same time, government officials often ask us to trust them.  They say, “Hey, we got this.  We will take care of it.  We got it.” 

To that I quote President Ronald Reagan: “Trust but verify.”

Public access is not just about policing government, which is important, but is more about using the power of our collective judgment to better govern ourselves.  Abraham Lincoln noted that the rest of the world thought it folly for a government to involve people of all abilities and positions.  His answer was simple: Look where self-governance has brought us.

I cringe every time I hear government officials talk about providing public access to information as if it’s an annoying duty that is pressed upon them to the detriment of their regular duties.  Agencies do often struggle with adequate resources to fulfill their missions, but I humbly, with all my heart, say that providing public access is a critical part of those missions.  It is not an extra duty, a nuisance.  Instead, it is essential to democracy.  Listen to someone way smarter than I, James Madison:A Popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it is but a Prologue to a Farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and the people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.

 Gov. Mark Gordon campaigned on transparency.  (By the way, I have never heard one candidate for office ever say they were for less public transparency.)  Gov. Gordon and State Auditor Kristi Racines have formed a transparency group. 

One day before the last meeting of the transparency group, Gov. Gordon’s deputy attorney general speculated before the Judiciary Committee about the possibility that citizens could overrun agencies by making agencies adhere to a 30-day deadline to turn over public documents – a deadline adopted during the last legislative session.

The new deadline has not even gone into effect yet. It will not take effect until July 1. Yet, the deputy attorney general testified, without any real evidence, that agencies can get “inundated” with requests, supporting calls on behalf of some committee members to place restrictions on a bill that has not yet taken effect.  

The Legislative Service Office conducted a survey of local governments and state agencies about the public records requests they received in 2017 and 2018.  The figures were so similar for both years that the survey report only considered 2018. I will note that no municipalities responded to the survey due to a possible email snafu.   What effect that might have had on the results is open to debate.

The governmental entities were asked to “estimate” the number of requests received and to rank the average size of the requests received.  Three categories were given — large (more than 1,000 documents), medium (500-1,000 documents), small (fewer than 500 documents) or discrete document requests for documents that are readily available.  If large requests were the most frequent, then that category receives a one on a scale of four.  If it is the least frequent, then it receives a four.  The agencies were also asked in what percentage of requests did they issue a charge. 

Nearly 60 percent of responding agencies had received three or fewer requests. Slightly more than 80 percent received fewer than 10.  More than 150 of the 177 responses listed the large requests as least frequent.  

Approximately half of the respondents listed requests for discrete documents as the most frequent. Approximately one-third listed the small requests as most frequent.  In nearly 80 percent of the requests, the agency did not level a charge.

The lesson of the survey is that large requests are the exception rather than the rule.  Agencies have not been inundated with requests.  Thus, we are legislating for the exception. 

In my 22 years representing reporters, I rarely have waited more than 30 days for an agency to respond to a records request.  The agency’s attorney and I have discussed, cussed and negotiated a reasonable period for fulfilling a request.  Even the 30-day deadline allows a custodian to take longer if the request is unusual.  I can assure you that I would have no luck with a judge trying to enforce an unrealistic deadline for a large request requiring review of, say, 100,000 emails. The Legislature provided a way to handle these unusually large requests.

We can thank transparency opponent Sen. Tara Nethercott, the committee co-chair, for the LSO survey proving that this is a solution looking for a problem.  Her questions were aimed at showing the difficulties facing large and small agencies.  Conversely, she used the same survey to question the need for a new public documents “ombudsman” created by the Legislature, saying most requests are filled without difficulty and the agencies did not even level a charge most of the time.

Timeliness is often vital when citizens are seeking government information.  There is usually a decision pending, a controversy in full swing.  Getting the information about the horse after it has already left the barn is not helpful.  I believe the creation of the ombudsman was an effort to resolve disputes more quickly than can happen in court.

When your right to information is curtailed, regardless of the reason, the power shifts even more in favor of the government.  Ultimately, it is up to you, the public, to protect your right to know what your government is up to.

 Don’t let anyone fool you that this is all a media issue. Officials don’t care if reporters are given information off the record, but they do care if that information is going to be shared with you, the public. Further, numerous instances of government wrongdoing – improper awarding of bids, improper use of government equipment – have been discovered by members of the public exercising their right to see what is being done with their resources on their behalf.
           The Judiciary Committee should not be working to restrict that right.

Experienced Wyoming accountant retires after 45 years in business

in Business/Community
1507

One of Wyoming’s most experienced tax accountants is retiring after 45 years in the business.

Joe Paiz is retiring as a partner from the Cheyenne firm of McGee, Hearne and Paiz, a company he formed with eight others in 2000.

Paiz’ former partners praised the Wyoming native for his creative nature.

“You could always walk down the hall and talk to him about taxes,” said Jim Hearne. “And talk about creative. We could always figure out a way to get things done and make things happen.”

Ken Dugas, who worked with Paiz for close to 40 years, said Paiz is one of the smartest businessmen he knows.

“I’ve talked to people a number of times about a problem I can’t solve, I go into Joe’s office, he just sits there for a second and bam, he’s got the answer,” he said.

After graduating from the University of Wyoming in 1975, Paiz joined the IRS and then worked for several other firms before becoming a partner at McGee, Hearne and Paiz.

Paiz also spent 35 years doing volunteer accounting work for organizations such as the Cheyenne Animal Shelter.

Companies look for alternative uses for coal

in Business/Economic development/Energy/News
Companies look for alternative uses for coal
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By James Chilton, Cowboy State Daily

CHEYENNE — Once upon a time, coal helped to usher in a new technological age. So much concentrated energy in such a convenient package helped power the steam engines that drove the Industrial Revolution, transforming the way we live and work. Now, with coal’s future anything but certain, innovators are looking for new uses for the mineral that could fuel a new carbon-based high-tech manufacturing industry.

Coal’s fortunes have fallen in recent years – once the preferred fuel source for power plants, the mineral has been supplanted by cheaper, cleaner-burning natural gas in many places, while renewable energy sources like wind and solar have also been ramping up. And while coal is far from dead as a fuel source – China and India alone consumed about 4.56 billion tons of it in just 2017 – international pressure to ultimately phase out coal as an energy source remains strong, with at least 10 European Union nations now vowing to eliminate coal power by 2030 and similar draw downs and moratoria on new coal plants announced even in large coal-consuming nations including China and India.

Wyoming produces more coal than any other state in the U.S., and the mineral severance taxes paid to Wyoming for its coal comprise a large portion of the state’s annual revenues. But where once that amount rose steadily, from $85.3 million in Fiscal Year 1999 to $294.3 million in FY 2011, it has since been in decline, with the state’s Consensus Revenue Estimating Group (CREG) projecting coal severance taxes of $192.3 million for FY 2019, and continuing to drop through 2024. 

The shift in coal’s economics have led innovators to look for new uses for the mineral, and Randy Atkins, CEO of Ramaco Carbon in Sheridan, is among those leading the push locally. Atkins said that while coal is best known today as fuel for power plants and as a reducing agent in the steelmaking process, it was once believed to have potential far beyond just those uses.

“There used to be a thing called the ‘coal tree’ in the early part of the 20th century. In Germany and even the U.S. they had these tree drawings, it was all the various things you could make from coal,” Atkins said. “We were making all sorts of chemical products, drugs, cosmetics, you name it; all from coal.”

That changed following the invention of catalytic cracking, the process by which crude oil is broken up into smaller molecules that are then made into refined products like gasoline, plastics, and a myriad of other uses. From then on, Atkins said, exploration of coal’s alternative uses effectively evaporated.

“I wouldn’t even say it was left by the wayside, it’s just all the technology advanced through the use of petroleum,” he said. “If you go back to the ’80s there were a couple attempts to make coal to fuels, and that involved making what looked like a refinery for processing coal. … But it’s really been the last three years that some of this stuff has started to come together in ways that began to make the argument that coal needs to be given a second look for uses beyond combustion.”

Since coal is primarily composed of carbon, Atkins and like-minded researchers have been looking at coal’s potential as a source for carbon fiber, a high-strength, low-weight material used primarily in aircraft and the aerospace field, but with the potential for many other uses.

“What we’re trying to do with carbon fiber is to make it dramatically less expensive than today’s use of carbon fiber from petroleum,” Atkins said. “Right now prices are $25 to $45 a pound for (carbon fiber) precursor made from petroleum. We think we can get that down to five bucks.”

In fact, Atkins, along with other members of the National Coal Council, contributed to a report published earlier this spring at the behest of the Department of Energy, “Coal in a New Carbon Age: Powering a Wave of Innovation in Advanced Products and Manufacturing.”

The report lists carbon fiber as just one of many potential coal products likely to see increasing demand in the 21st century. Other uses include advanced prosthetics, biosensors, electrodes, fertilizers and as a medium for 3D printers. And at a cost of $12 to $50 a ton versus nearly $500 a ton for petroleum, Atkins believe coal could find mass appeal again as further uses and innovations are discovered.

“As this becomes more widely known, I think we’ll see some fascinating breakthroughs in materials science,” he said. “Twenty or 30 years from now we may look back and say ‘My gosh, the 2020s were when we switched from widespread use of steel and aluminum to widespread use of carbon fiber from coal,’ that’d be huge.”

If and when those breakthroughs occur, Atkins hopes they’ll be under the roof of iCAM, or the Carbon Advanced Materials research park currently under construction in Sheridan. There, Ramaco Carbon plans to host researchers “from national laboratories, universities, private research groups and manufacturing organizations” in a collaborative effort to unlock the potential of coal’s carbon content. 

Ultimately, Atkins’ plan is to develop an entire “Carbon Valley” akin to northern California’s Silicon Valley, with both research and manufacturing facilities fed by an adjacent coal mine.

That proposed coal mine, the Brook Mine, would be the first new coal mine in Wyoming in half a century, and one Atkins said would be relatively tiny compared to some of the extant mines in the state. But it has yet to materialize after Wyoming’s Environmental Quality Council rejected the mine’s permit application in September 2017 amid concerns over the potential environmental impacts. Ramaco’s appeal of that decision was heard in state district court in Cheyenne earlier this month, even as the company has submitted a revised permit application to the Department of Environmental Quality.

Even if the mine is ultimately approved, and in spite of his optimism about coal’s potential, Atkins says he doesn’t expect carbon fiber production will be what reverses the drop in severance taxes – at least not in the short-term. But in time, he believes coal’s high-tech uses could be what keeps mining a viable industry in the worst-hit parts of the state.

“As products develop over time … mines that can’t make it selling their coal at $12 to $15 a ton may be able to make it if they can sell at $25 to $40,” Atkins said. “I’m hopeful over a medium-term period this will provide an alternative demand for coal beyond its use as thermal coal.”

Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, believes Atkins’ proposals have promise, even if they don’t immediately offset the recent declines in production.

“What Ramaco’s doing with carbon fiber, graphene, graphite, 3D printing, that’s a great way to use our resource and make it viable in the future,” Deti said. “Is it going to replace the 300 million tons we’re mining right now? Probably not. But it’s an innovative use of the resource and it’s a great project.”

Deti said that while coal is still widely used internationally, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, it remains a hard sell domestically. While techniques for capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants are still developing, he said, it’s important for stakeholders in the coal economy to find alternative uses of the mineral.

“We want to continue to use our coal for electricity generation, but it’s really a remarkable resource,” Deti said. “And looking at the direction of where we’re going right now in terms of electricity generation … we need to start looking at other avenues and ways of using the resource.”

Retiring An Old Dog

in Agriculture/Cat Urbigkit/Column/Range Writing
Guardian sheep dog
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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

We’ve spent the past four years trying to convince an old range dog to retire. Old Mama is a fine old livestock guardian dog that has traveled many, many miles with her flocks. She’s not much to look at, and her face and body carry many scars of battle, proof of her unwillingness to back down from a fight with any predator.

Born on the range to working guardians, she’s lived all her 13+ years of life there, migrating with the flocks from the sagebrush-covered low country in winter, to the high country of the Wind River Mountains as the flocks move for summer grazing. Her hard pawpads carried her over more than 200 miles of trail each year, moving slowly with the seasons.

As she aged, we gradually placed Old Mama with flocks following shorter trails, and finally stopped allowing her to trail to winter range four years ago. She’s adapted beautifully to every change; so long as she’s with sheep, she’s content.

One dark night in the fall of 2017, a pack of wolves attacked our sheep flock on its bedground, and Old Mama was one of three livestock guardian dogs injured in the brawl. With the help of a dedicated local veterinarian, Old Mama recovered from severe wounds, but the attack and her advancing age led to the decision to end her free-ranging days out with the main sheep flock. Old Mama had always enjoyed leading her flock out to graze for the day, sticking her tail straight into the air and stepping daintily as the sheep followed along. But those days were over.

By this point, Old Mama was still in great physical condition, but her teeth were so worn with age so she could no longer defend herself. The other guardian dogs would surely come to the defense of their comrade, but with wolves coming in so close to the sheep night pen, and confrontations escalating, I didn’t want to risk losing such a magnificent creature as Old Mama to wolves.

It was a tough decision to slip a leash over her neck and hold her back that cold morning, standing with the old dog as she watched her flock go forward without her. I turned her head and directed her into a large pen of lambs we’d kept from that spring, and Old Mama seemed happy enough to be with these youngsters.

There are always at least a few sheep around the ranch headquarters, and in the wintertime we feed hay nearby, so Old Mama always has access to the thing she loves most – her sheep. Last winter, Old Mama stayed close to the house, sometimes seeking shelter in the barn, but more often than not sleeping in the haystack next to the flock’s night pen.

Old Mama is going deaf, she can’t see well, and now she’s a little wobbly on her feet. It’s lambing season again, and I’ve got a small pen of orphan lambs for her to keep company.

One afternoon last week, I looked out to see a livestock guardian dog leaving the headquarters, headed into our lambing pasture. The dogs guarding the lambing flock burst into action, barking and racing to face the intruder, but then breaking into excited body wiggles when they saw the grand old girl was once again joining the flock. Everyone in our family cheered for the old dog and her determination.

Old Mama’s body may be weakening, but she still has a booming bark that broadcasts warnings to tell predators to stay away. She parked herself in the middle of the flock, staying close to a ewe that gave birth later that night. The other guardian dogs kept a respectful distance, knowing that this elderly guardian belongs wherever she wants. She’s earned this range.

Once the ewe moved off with her newborn lambs the next morning, Old Mama began her slow journey back to headquarters, where her new crop of orphan lambs was waiting. She spent the night with these wee ones, then set out again in her slow lumber for the lambing flock.

This noble old dog has earned the right to make her own decisions. We’ll try to minimize her risk of injury, but in the end, she’ll decide how she wants to leave this life. At the very least, we owe her that.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

Wyoming residents look to themselves to boost business, populations

in Business/Economic development/News
Wyoming small business
1480

By Becky Orr, Cowboy State Daily

Residents in many Wyoming cities and towns are pitching in to invigorate their communities in the face of declining populations.

About three-fourths of the larger cities and towns in Wyoming saw people leave between July 1, 2017, and July 1, 2018, based on estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. A recent news release from Wenlin Liu, Wyoming Economic Administration’s senior economist, said Casper was the hardest hit community with a decline of 351 in population, followed by Rock Springs at a loss of 291. Cheyenne, meanwhile, gained 370 residents.

A random check with residents in towns and cities in the Cowboy State finds that many are trying to turn things around. Many get help from state and federal grants, non-money resources and education as well as private financial sources.

Lots of activity is going on now in Gillette, a city of about 31,903 people that depends heavily on the oil and gas revenues. Gillette lost 134 people between July 1, 2017 and July 1, 2018, according to Liu’s news release. The loss reflects an economic slide caused by plummeting oil and gas prices and diminished coal production.

Phil Christopherson, chief executive officer for Energy Capital Economic Development, the economic development arm for Campbell County, said city and county revenues dropped 30 to 40 percent because of the downturn a couple of years ago. But residents stayed strong. 

“Everybody came together and said ‘we’re going to make it through this.’ The community spirit really showed through” and is there today, he said.

The county’s economy is rebounding now, but the downturn meant “that the community became committed to diversify the economy,” Christopherson said. 

Energy Capital Economic Development proceeded with a business incubator program that was in the works when the crash occurred. The business incubator opened in September and has about nine business interests involved.

The agency also started plans for an advanced carbon research facility for exploring the many uses of coal. Its goal is to prove the technology exists to make the alternative uses of coal commercially viable.

The Wyoming Business Council will vote June 20 on a $1.4 million grant for the project, which also received money from an EDA federal grant and private investments.

In Rock Springs, officials are trying to determine how best to develop 15,000 acres of land near the Southwest Wyoming Regional Airport, said Kayla McDonald, business development director for the Sweetwater County Economic Development organization.

Money for the $66,000 study will come mostly from a Wyoming Business Council grant as well as the economic development organization, the county, Rock Springs and Green River. The study will provide ideas about what businesses and industries would be best to recruit for the site, she said.

Economic development supporters also want to recruit more retail businesses and restaurants to the area, she said.

Meanwhile, Powell, a farming town in northwest Wyoming that added only four people to its census during the year, is also looking at new development. Residents now are excited about the planned construction of a new hotel and convention center, said Christine Bekes, executive director of the Powell Economic Partnership.

The center, with an estimated cost of $10 million, is planned to open in 2020 and should create around 33 new jobs. It is the result of a partnership between the Powell Economic Partnership and the Wyoming Business Council. Additional hotel rooms are in demand, Bekes said. 

“We’re right near Yellowstone National Park and the lodging is inadequate,” she said.

The new hotel will increase available lodging by 50 percent.

Other projects in Powell’s near future will rely heavily on community volunteers. A community action group is building Powell’s first public dog park. A dog park is high on the list of what people who are relocating want to see. 

“Those who live in urban environments come to expect it,” Bekes said.

Effective economic development also demands creative thinking.

“I think the communities that are thinking outside the box are finding some success” in terms of positive community development efforts, said Justin Schilling, coordinator of member services for the Wyoming Association of Municipalities. 

Schilling points as an example to high-tech education, such as Cheyenne’s Array School of Technology and Design. The city has a diversified workforce, allowing it to offer career training for high-tech jobs, he added.

Another creative project Schilling cited is the $7 million Evergreen Plaza, a proposed 30-room assisted living facility in Torrington, where the population dropped by 14 during the year.

Money to build the project will come from sources like a $2.6 million grant from the Wyoming Business Council, a loan from local banks and a partnership with the private assisted living provider. The facility can be a solid economic development tool, according to Schilling.

Positive economic development doesn’t always mean building big warehouses. Tom Dixon, marketing management coordinator for the Wyoming Business Council, said that some projects – like the Civic Center Commons park in Cheyenne – “help develop the soul of a place and make people feel more connected.”

Projects don’t have to be expensive, either. Sprucing up a downtown with flower planters, bushes or a giant chess set can make a big difference, Dixon added. 

Even though Cheyenne is the fastest-growing city in the state — it gained 370 people in one year — efforts to boost the economy are ongoing.

Economic development in Cheyenne long has relied on Cheyenne LEADS, a private, non-profit organization with its own volunteer board of directors. Business and community leaders formed LEADS 32 years ago to attract good jobs and industries to Laramie County, Executive Director Randy Bruns said. 

LEADS receives $50,000 a year each from the City of Cheyenne and Laramie County and money from private donations. More than 80 industries and 6,000 jobs have been created in Laramie County because of the work of LEADS. 

“I am still doing this job because when LEADS succeeds, when we have a success, we know that the result of our work helps to do good things in the community,” Bruns said.

Help Wanted: Low unemployment means hiring difficulties in Cheyenne

in Business/News
1477

While Cheyenne’s low unemployment rate is good news for its economy, it means hard times for the city’s employers who are having trouble finding workers.

Cheyenne’s unemployment rate as of the end of April was 3.1 percent, compared to Wyoming’s statewide average of 3.6 percent.

“Help Wanted” signs can be found throughout Cheyenne, a sign of the resulting labor shortage that employers must face when trying to hire workers.

Businesses will have to be more creative than usual in luring staff members, said Stephanie Meisner, vice president of the Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce.

“It causes us as employers, as well as businesses within the community, to have to think more creatively as to how to recruit, as well as retain employees and to be a little bit more competitive with one another in terms of workforce,” she said.

Astrid, the owner of the Plains Hotel, agreed the low unemployment rate makes hiring more difficult.

“It’s very severe for employers right now,” she said.

Katy Rinne, director of marketing and business development for one of Cheyenne’s newest restaurants, The Metropolitan, said her property is almost fully staffed. She attributed the achievement to the restaurant’s training for new workers.

“We’re happy to work with them, we’re happy to show them the way that we want to offer service and really train them to be great employees and to have a great work experience for them and for our customer,” she said.

Analysis: Who Uses the Wyoming State Plane the Most?

in Government spending/News/Transportation
Wyoming state plane
1475

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

The state’s two twin-engine passenger jets — nicknamed “Wyoming’s Air Force” — spend most of their time ferrying state officials around Wyoming, but about 10 percent of the flights leave the state, according to state records.

“I don’t know the background of all the flights that are flown out of state,” said Brian Olsen, the Wyoming Department of Transportation aeronautics division administrator. “It could be cheaper (than driving), but I think a lot of it could have to do with scheduling.”

Although the planes are maintained by WYDOT, Olsen explained each state agency can use them.

“We submit two reports to our Transportation Commission, detailing how many flights the planes took and (which agency) used them,” he said.

However, WYDOT does not keep track of the reasons for the trips taken by other agencies.

Olsen said he was not aware of a specific organization or committee charged with overseeing who uses the planes for what.

Previously, Cowboy State Daily reported the jets cost about $1 million to operate and maintain each year and made 663 trips carrying 2,213 passengers during fiscal year 2018. WYDOT reported about 12 percent of those flights were out-of-state.

In fiscal year 2017, the two planes logged a total of 725 one-way legs and 2,294 passengers with about 10 percent of those flights leaving the state. During fiscal year 2016, they completed 852 legs carrying 2,604 passengers and about 10 percent of flights left the state.

The numbers for fiscal years 2016 and 2017 do not accurately reflect the planes’ usage, however, WYDOT spokesperson J. O’Brien said.

If members from two agencies board the same flight, WYDOT records the trip as two legs instead of one. Also, the passenger numbers for fiscal years 2016 and 2017 include flight and maintenance crew, which are not typically considered passengers. WYDOT listed nearly 30 categories of users for each of the three years, during all of which the department was the planes’ primary user. In fiscal year 2016, WYDOT used the planes for 246 legs, carrying 827 passengers. In fiscal year 2017, the department flew 834 passengers on 222 legs, and during fiscal year 2018, WYDOT reported using the planes for 224 legs, carrying 693.

The governor’s office is consistently the second-highest user when combined with the governor’s residence category, which is used to log the flights of Wyoming’s first lady.

In fiscal year 2016, the governor’s office logged 123 legs carrying 452 passengers, while the governor’s residence reported 21 legs carrying 39 passengers. During fiscal year 2017, the governor’s office was responsible for 127 legs carrying 439 passengers, and the governor’s residence logged 14 legs carrying 29 passengers. And in fiscal year 2018, the governor’s office reported 97 legs carrying 330 passengers, while the governor’s residence recorded 27 legs carrying 44 passengers.

The Office of the Governor, Mark Gordon, who took office in 2019, said in a prepared statement: “Governor Gordon supports fiscal responsibility and the judicious use of taxpayer dollars. Several WYDOT studies have determined that owning state aircraft is more cost-efficient than private charters or driving vast distances.

“With his demanding schedule and numerous commitments across the state, the governor utilizes air travel on a limited basis in order to conduct official duties and be as accessible as possible to all Wyoming citizens, not just those in Cheyenne,” the statement concluded.

In fiscal year 2016, the Wyoming Department of Corrections Parole Board tied with the University of Wyoming for third-most user of the planes with both logging 120 legs. WDOC’s legs carried 352 passengers, while UW carried 278.

Neither agency logged more than 100 legs in fiscal yer 2017, but in fiscal year 2018, UW ranked the third-highest user with 112 legs carrying 295 passengers.

UW also owns two Beechcraft King Air turboprop aircraft, UW spokesperson Chad Baldwin said. One is designated for research, and the other is used for transportation.

Olsen said legislators can also use the state’s passenger jets, but those occurrences are rare.

“If one of them were to use the planes, they would have to log it under an agency they are working with or the Wyoming Legislative Service Office (LSO),”  he explained.

The LSO logged 8 legs carrying 16 passengers in fiscal year 2016, and 8 legs carrying 14 passengers in fiscal year 2017. No trips were recorded by the LSO in fiscal year 2018.

In addition to carrying passengers, WYDOT Director and retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. K. Luke Reiner said the planes could be used during emergency situations.

“They can be used for emergency viewing of a wildfire,” Reiner said. “And, let’s say WYDOT needs to look at a flood area or mud slide, they could be used for that, too.”

Controversial hiring freeze for Cheyenne scrapped

in Criminal justice/Economic development/News
Downtown Development Authority
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By James Chilton, Cowboy State Daily

CHEYENNE – A controversial proposal to enact a temporary hiring freeze in the city’s $56 million budget for Fiscal Year 2020 was eliminated upon third and final reading before the Cheyenne City Council’s Committee of the Whole on Wednesday evening.

The hiring freeze, which had been proposed by Councilman Dicky Shanor as part of a larger amendment that was approved unanimously the previous week, sparked criticism on social media from Cheyenne Police Chief Brian Kozak. Kozak contended that a hiring freeze would leave CPD understaffed by more than two dozen officers, which would in turn require CPD to suspend previously scheduled training and reassign the public information officer and half of the department’s school resources officers to the patrol division in order to maintain general public safety.

Shanor said in interviews he was concerned with “the politicization of law enforcement” he felt was evidenced by Kozak’s statement, which singled out Shanor by name. That prompted Mayor Marian Orr to defend the chief, characterizing his statements as advocacy for the public’s right to know how a hiring freeze could impact their safety.

Despite the rancor, however, Wednesday’s Committee of the Whole meeting – the nine councilmen minus the mayor – was relatively quick and quiet, as was the decision to scrap the hiring freeze altogether via an amendment. Even so, Council President Rocky Case noted early on that the large public turnout he and other council members expected as a result of the hiring freeze debate had not materialized. Only two members of the public chose to speak, including Stephanie Lowe, president of the Cheyenne Public Employees Association, who asked the committee to reconsider its recommendation to cap the total number of city employees for fiscal year 2020 at 578.1 positions, and instead give department directors the leeway to hire as needed, provided they have the budget and data to support each position.

“Staff have created a great plan for the city and I’m concerned about crippling departments that may prevent important work from getting done,” Lowe said. “Let’s not all forget the growing size of our community, which needs a growing workforce to keep up with maintenance at the least, but also to keep attracting new businesses and residents to work here.”

But with the hiring freeze lifted, committee members opted to leave the employee cap in place. Instead, a portion of the funds that would have been saved by the hiring freeze will instead be made up through $100,000 in reversions – budgeted funds that go unspent and return to city reserves – anticipated  at the end of FY 2019.

Committee members also heard from local physician Dr. Jasper “J.J.” Chen, who argued against cutting funds from the Cheyenne Downtown Development Authority, suggesting that the city instead define clear outcomes it wants to see from the DDA, then track its progress to determine future funding.

“We should do this instead of making the more dramatic and drastic decisions to take away a substantial portion of the DDA’s funding without empirical data justifying doing so,” Chen said. 

Mayor Orr’s initial budget proposal allocated just $100,000 for the DDA, down from $390,000 this year and $450,499 the previous fiscal year. But once amendment markups were concluded Wednesday, the DDA was ultimately budgeted for $290,000 for FY 2020, while the Cheyenne Animal Shelter will receive an additional $107,500, for a total budget of $612,500.

Committee members also rejected an amendment proposed by Ward III Councilman Ken Esquibel that would have cut Cheyenne’s $50,000 annual membership in the Wyoming Association of Municipalities. Esquibel argued that, with a citizen legislature only in session a maximum of 60 days in a year, WAM’s lobbying efforts were costing Cheyenne $1,666 per day, even as local legislators generally vote in the city’s interests. 

“We’re basically throwing $50,000 into the wind,” he said. 

Committee member Mark Rinne pointed out that Mayor Orr is going to be on the Resolutions Committee for WAM this year, and that the organization recently gained a new director in J. David Fraser.

He added that council members had previously discussed the need to participate in more WAM events, and Esquibel’s amendment ultimately failed, with Esquibel himself the only affirmative vote.

With Wednesday’s amendments thus dispensed with, the latest incarnation of the city’s FY 2020 budget will come before the full City Council for final approval at 6 p.m. Monday, June 10.

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