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Downtown Casper fires kill one, send two to the hospital

One person died following a Thursday morning fire in a Casper apartment building that houses senior citizens, roughly 13 hours after another downtown blaze left a person hospitalized.

Thursday’s fire broke out in an apartment on the seventh floor of St. Anthony Manor. It killed a person on the same floor as well as a pet, said Casper Fire-EMS spokesman Dane Andersen. The victim was pronounced dead at the scene.

Another person was taken to a Casper hospital for smoke inhalation. Other people were treated at the scene.

Authorities were investigating Thursday what caused the fire, which began shortly after 10:30 a.m. The blaze was contained to one unit within the building, but the smoke spread over multiple floors.

Fire officials did not release the name, age or gender of the person who died in the fire and said the identity will be released pending notification of family.

Some people evacuated the building of their own accord, Andersen said. He asked anyone still in the building to remain in their apartments with doors unlocked.

St. Anthony’s Manor is an eight-story building on the corner of East Sixth Street. Archdiocesan Housing of Denver manages the building, which offers affordable housing for seniors and people who have mobility impairments. Residents must be at least 62 years old.

Anderson said in a later news release that none of the building’s residents have been displaced.

A spokeswoman for the housing company could not be reached Thursday afternoon.

Wednesday night’s blaze broke out around 9 p.m. in a Second Street apartment near the intersection with Center Street. Crews arrived at 9:20 p.m. and quickly extinguished the fire. Smoke then billowed out of the windows and into the night air as firefighters worked to ventilate a building filled with smoke.

The blaze drew seven fire department vehicles, along with police vehicles, Wyoming Medical Center ambulances and a Natrona County Fire Protection District investigator.

An injured person was hospitalized for smoke inhalation, Casper police Sgt. Zack Winter said Wednesday night.

The fire did not extend into any of the adjacent buildings, said Interim Casper Fire Chief Jason Speiser.

Frontier Brewing, which is next door, was evacuated. About 40 people watched emergency crews respond to the blaze from across the street.

The bar was scheduled to re-open Thursday night, co-owner Shawn Houck said before expressing concern for his neighbors.

“We wish them a speedy recovery,” Houck said.

Speiser said it was too soon to estimate how much damage was caused by the fire. However, there was “probably pretty extensive smoke damage, at least,” he said.

The bottom floor of the building, which houses Alpenglow Natural Foods, was filled with smoke. The owners of the store could not be reached Thursday.

The Casper Fire-EMS Department and the Natrona County Fire Protection District were still investigating the cause of the fire on Thursday morning, according to a fire department announcement.

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

A Casper firefighter makes a call on his radio after fighting a blaze that started Wednesday night in an apartment on East Second Street. One person was taken to the hospital for smoke inhalation. 

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Firefighters gear up before entering a downtown Casper building where a fire ignited on Wednesday night. One person was injured from smoke inhalation. 

Education and construction loom in differences between House, Senate budget

CHEYENNE — Lawmakers from the Wyoming House and Senate have established a committee to work out differences in their respective plans to fund the state for the next two years. But significant obstacles still stand in the way of an agreement.

While the two budget bills are nearly the same in terms of total spending, they are far apart in both where the money comes from and on several specific areas, some obscure and others more prominent.

One of the more obscure items in the Senate bill that isn’t in the House’s version is $7.5 million — to be matched by private funds — for upgrades to roads and bridges that see heavy use due to coal mining. A difference more likely to draw public attention is the more than $85 million in cuts to education included in the Senate bill but not in the House.

Rep. Andy Schwartz, D-Jackson, told his Democratic colleagues during a Wednesday caucus meeting that the differences between the two bills were so large that he did not see an obvious path toward agreement.

“For those who haven’t heard, don’t pack your bags,” Schwartz said, hinting that the four-week session may need to be extended.

In an interview, Schwartz said that the House and Senate had not taken the same approach to crafting budgets.

“Call them philosophical differences,” he said. “It’s not just a little difference.”

But Rep. Donald Burkhart, R-Rawlins, said the budget bill — which covers most general government operations — may be a relatively simple one to iron out compared to others. He said the two chambers will have a harder time reconciling their differences in two additional pieces of major legislation, one on school finance and the other on state construction projects.

“Frankly, the main budget may be the easiest one to do,” Burkhart said.

In order to resolve the differences between the House and Senate, leadership in each body appoints a group of lawmakers to a committee. The budget committee was set to begin meeting Thursday, but the teams for the education and construction bills were yet to be announced.

A key sticking point between the House and Senate involves the source of funds being appropriated, with the larger chamber preferring to rely on expected earnings from the state’s permanent mineral trust fund and the Senate favoring the use of cash. Theoretically, there is no reason that this should have an impact on total spending levels. But the Senate’s cash approach is part of its general preference to cut spending rather than find new sources of revenue for government or school operations — even when the new money being relied on by the House is already flowing into savings accounts.

“If you’re only spending cash, the impact to your cash balances looms large,” Schwartz said. “Even if we were spending the same amount of money in the two budgets, it looks different.”

House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, has aggressively pushed a plan to guarantee funds to the Strategic Investment and Projects Account, known as the SIPA (pronounced “sippah”), which currently fluctuates based on the earnings from the Permanent Wyoming Mineral Trust Fund and so is an unreliable source of budget funds. But Harshman wants to use a reserve account to cover any gap between projected SIPA funds and those realized by capital gains from the permanent minerals trust fund.

“We’ve got to trust our trust funds,” Harshman has taken to saying.

But the Senate’s reluctance to do so — with President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, arguing that the House plan is needlessly complex and potentially risky — has set up the current showdown.

If the Legislature wants the ability to override line-item vetoes by Gov. Matt Mead it must submit its budget to his office three days prior to adjournment, which is currently set for March 10. That would mean approving a budget by Tuesday, though leadership could relatively easily extend the session two more days and give lawmakers slightly more time to agree to a budget.

The committee working to finalize the legislation is limited to resolving the differences between the House and Senate bills. However, if they cannot agree on those changes or if lawmakers vote against the committee’s proposed budget, a new committee will be appointed with the authority to essentially craft a new budget from scratch.

Burkhart, who sits on House appropriations committee, is confident that the Legislature will be able to come up with a solution — when and what the solution is, though, remains to be determined.

“We’ll have to wait and see,” he said.

Casper leaders look to improve public safety in 2018

Improving public safety will be among the city’s highest priorities in the coming year, the Casper City Council decided during a two-day strategic planning workshop Tuesday and Wednesday at the Casper Events Center.

The four-hour meetings were intended to help the Council set high-level objectives for the city. A moderator led the first session to help council members stay on track as they discussed various topics, such as the budget and public engagement.

Public safety was quickly identified as a top concern.

Council members identified multiple goals, such as increasing protection for students at schools, developing plans for a new police station, revising the infraction policy for alcohol vendors and improving police vacancy and retention rates.

“If somebody goes in [a Casper school] and shoots my grandson and we haven’t even addressed it, then why I am here?” asked Councilman Dallas Laird.

Student safety and gun control have been widely discussed since a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, left 17 students and staff member dead on Feb. 14.

Laird said there needs to be a strong police presence at all city schools.

Mayor Ray Pacheco explained that there are already resource officers who handle school safety but said the Council could discuss increasing the number with the police department.

“We’ve had a police department in turmoil…” added Laird. “We haven’t been on top of public safety.”

Laird was referring to a tumultuous period last spring when former Police Chief Jim Wetzel was dismissed one month after a survey conducted by the Casper Fraternal Order of Police found that there was a toxic work environment inside the department.

Officials have repeatedly refused to provide a reason for Wetzel’s departure. The city appointed Keith McPheeters as the new chief in December.

Vice Mayor Charlie Powell agreed that public safety should be a priority, but he objected to Laird’s statement that it hasn’t always been a top concern for the Council.

“We have not been asleep at the wheel,” said Powell, adding that council members authorized an external review to be conducted about the police department last year and are now working alongside police to implement the suggested changes.

Specific crime rates or statistics in Casper were not mentioned during the meeting.

New police station?

Replacing the police station was also discussed during the workshop. The Council will start identifying potential locations and funding sources for a new station this year.

The department moved into its current headquarters on David Street in 1976, but the building is too small to meet current needs, former Police Chief Jim Wetzel explained last spring.

Fire Station 1 will also likely need to be replaced within the next few years, said Councilman Bob Hopkins.

Councilman Chris Walsh, a former Casper police chief, suggested that the police and fire stations could possibly be combined into one new complex.

The city should also consider unfreezing city wages if public safety is going to be a touchstone, said Councilman Shawn Johnson.

All city employee wages — with the exception of those who work at the fire department — were frozen in September as part of an ongoing effort to reduce city spending.

Johnson and Councilwoman Kenyne Humphrey both stated at a meeting in January that they were concerned the freeze makes it difficult to recruit and retain high-quality police officers.

City Manager Carter Napier said at the workshop that the police department is “consistently down” by about 10 officers.

In addition to increasing retention rates, the mayor said more officers should be trained in how to handle situations involving mentally ill individuals.

The Council also agreed to continue working with liquor license holders and police to reduce alcohol-related crime and tragedies.

“Our goal for the next year is that we will have zero infractions,” Powell said.

Liquor license holders now receive 25 points for many infractions, including serving alcohol to minors and selling alcohol outside of the established hours. The Council does not begin taking disciplinary action until a liquor license holder reaches 125 points, but the police chief recently suggested enacting a stricter policy to deter alcohol-related incidents.

Disciplinary action can include anything from a brief liquor license suspension to revoking a license entirely.

City Manager Carter Napier met with the police chief on Thursday to discuss the Council’s ideas.

Implementing some of the Council’s goals, such as increasing police presence at schools, will be challenging given the department’s limited resources, said Napier. But the city manager said McPheeters is eager to work on solutions.

“He was enthused with [council’s objectives] and very supportive,” said Napier.