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Former Natrona County Circuit Court Judge Michael Huber was selected Wednesday to serve on the Casper City Council. 

Casper City Council discusses no longer giving community groups general fund money

For more than a decade, Platte River Trails Trust has relied on money from Casper’s general fund to help with its mission of creating community trails.

The nonprofit received $50,000 last year and recently applied for the same amount, said executive director Angela Emery.

“It would hurt us [if denied],” she said, explaining that this money is used for operational costs, like internet service and insurance.

The trails trust is among 14 non-city agencies who recently applied to receive money from Casper’s general fund, but it looks likely that about half of these applications will be denied as the city is trying to reduce spending and save these funds for its own operational costs.

“General funds should just be for city operations like streets, police and fire,” said Councilwoman Kenyne Humphrey at Tuesday’s work session.

City Manager Carter Napier made a variety of recommendations about the requests, which council members will be mulling over in the coming weeks.

If all of the suggestions are enacted, the city would be spending $540,000 of general fund money on non-city agencies for fiscal year 19. Last year, that figure was $803,636, according to a memo from Fleur Tremel, assistant city manager, to Napier.

Napier said the Council should deny applications from agencies like the Platte River Trails Trust that are allotted a significant amount of city money from other funds. He explained that the trails trust already receives money from the city’s optional 1-cent tax funding.

“I also don’t think we are in a position to take on new agencies,” said Napier, noting that some applicants had not previously applied for funding.

Casper’s economy took a major hit after energy prices sank a few years ago. Napier was tasked with helping the city rein in spending when he began his tenure with the city last summer.

The city manager also suggested turning down agencies like the Community Action Partnership, who applied for money for the purpose of distributing it to other groups. Officials should eliminate the middleman in these “pass-through relationships” so the city won’t be charged for the extra administrative costs.

Groups who received city money through this trickle-down method can instead apply for funding directly through the city, said Napier, who explained that this will also allow Casper officials to have more control over how the money is spent.

“I believe we are entrusted by law to manage our own money, and we are turning it over to boards and other entities,” said Councilman Dallas Laird, who was particularity enthused by this suggestion.

Applicants who did not fall into any of the above categories should be eligible to receive the money they requested, but Napier proposed using 1-cent funding to provide it.

He added that one applicant— the County Health Department—would be exempt from any of these recommendations because it has a contract with the city.

Council members will continue to discuss this issue in the coming weeks but they appeared receptive to the city manager’s ideas.

“These agencies didn’t always [receive money] out of the general fund, somebody talked us into getting them into the general fund,” said Humphrey.

Napier, who will be providing the Council with more details in the coming weeks, repeatedly stressed that the city needs to reduce spending to lessen its dependence on state money.

Wyoming is one of the few states that does not give cities or counties independent taxing authority, meaning communities are largely reliant on bi-annual appropriations from the Legislature to supplement the share of local sales and property taxes they receive.

The amount of direct distribution funding provided to local governments wildly fluctuates. The state Legislature has doled out under $100 million in tight times or as high as $175 million when the economy is strong.

“My goal for the operations of the city is that we do not depend on one-time revenue for operations of the city government,” said Napier.

Nicolaysen Art Museum makes tough choices to survive during tough economic times

Until last year, leaders at the Nicolaysen Art Museum hadn’t gone out of their way to promote the museum as a wedding venue. But this season, the museum already has nine scheduled.

Not only will the weddings bring in money for the museum, but executive director Ann Ruble hopes the couples will become members, attend community events and eventually bring children to art classes and even donate to the museum.

Promoting the facility as an event space is one of several changes staff have made in the past year to survive in tough economic times. Funding has dropped significantly in the past five years, including the loss of energy industry backers and other donors during Wyoming’s economic downturn, she said.

The museum has found new revenue sources to replace others that disappeared, made changes to their staffing and broadened activities for various ages and demographics. The Nic has experienced many ups and downs since its start 50 years ago, Ruble said. This time, they’re trying some new strategies, though they may take a few years to pan out, she said.

“It’s kind of like one of those wild rides that you take at an amusement park,” she said. “I don’t think there ever was a coast period. Or if there was, it was right before another massive curve.”

Loss of funding

The Nic has lost funding from a number of sources in recent years, including government funding, grants, industry backing and private donations.

“I think it’s just a lot of factors have hit all at once,” Nicolysen Art Museum board chairwoman Claire Marlow said. “The Nic has struggled for a while to figure out how can we create a foundation where when we do hit these hard times we can keep going, because we have a strong foundation and procedures and process and approach. I think it’s been the time for the Nic to do this for years.”

The Nic’s funding comes from different sources, and the leaders always are looking for ways to further diversify, said Ruble, who became director of the museum in December 2016.

“But if we don’t change and adapt, we won’t survive,” she said. “We have to.”

Five years ago, the Nicolaysen received much more government funding, including more grants from the Wyoming Arts Council, the state and city of Casper, Ruble said. Private donations for nonprofits and charities are stretched thin with the tougher economy. Some foundations have sunsetted or no longer provide grants, Ruble said.

“Every time those government grants go away, in theory, the government thinks we can find it in the private sector,” Ruble said. “But the private sector is getting hit for every other charity in the region, so it’s hard to make up those funds.”

Other sources have decreased as well, including backing from extraction and energy support companies that no longer exist or no longer have a large employee base in Wyoming, Ruble said.

The Nic is fortunate to have an endowment it can draw a certain percentage from every year and is a predictable source of income.

“We can take a small percentage every year,” she said. “But it’s still not enough.”

One struggle many nonprofits face is that it’s easier to raise funds and find grants for programs and projects than day-to-day costs. Grants that fund operating costs — like payroll and utilities for a 30,000-square-foot facility — are few and far between, Ruble said.

“Writing a check for the utility bill isn’t very sexy,” she said.

A lot of the money, including operating costs, comes from the annual art auction gala fundraiser and Nic Fest.

“But we can’t and we don’t rely on any one particular source because at any given time that one source can go away,” Ruble said. “So if you look at the last year especially we’ve really tried to diversify our funding because we’ve seen the drop-off from the larger foundations and also the state.”

Strategies for stability

There are no easy answers or quick solutions when navigating a large nonprofit during tough financial times, board chairwoman Marlow said. The board and the director look at every part of the museum and, sometimes, have to make tough decision.

“We need to make big changes in order to be a cultural anchor not only in Casper but in Wyoming, because we want to stay around for a long, long time,” she said.

Part of the solution is creating more funding sources. The Nic is working to boost event rentals like weddings, gift shop sales and memberships as well as more fee-for-service workshops.

An internal shuffle of staff positions has also been part of the Nic’s response.

“That’s a direct result of the economy,” Ruble said. “We’ve changed positions. We’ve eliminated positions and created new ones.”

A grant through the Warhol Foundation that had covered exhibitions for five years ended this year. That’s when Ruble and chief curator Eric Wimmer made the decision to end his position and combine the duties with the current curator of collections. He’ll stay on until he finds another job, Ruble said.

Other staff changes included replacing the position of a building manager with a business operations manager, as well as an employee to focus on marketing, including social media, and one who works on creating memberships.

“This time last year we had a lot of eliminated positions and then created new positions,” Ruble said. “And every time something’s been vacated, we’ve thought differently about how to fill it.”

With the business operations manager, the Nic is keeping a tighter grip on finances, including ongoing monthly cash flow projections, Ruble said.

Bryant Hall’s job as the museum’s first business operations manager is to look at the overall financial picture and help the director and board plan for months and years ahead as well as manage revenue and budgets for events, he said.

It takes time to see the results of some efforts, like building memberships, he said.

“But then those people are more likely to come to the gala and more likely to support us at the end of the year, and it all works together in essentially a synergistic relationship,” Hall said.

Alexis Grieve started as manager of museum services last summer, and her duties include running the gift shop and event bookings. The museum lowered the cost of renting the facility for events including weddings, retirement celebrations and company parties, she said.

“It’s like they have to get more bang for their buck,” she said. “So we’ve changed our pricing structure a bit, and I think it’s made it a bit more accessible to people to be able to use this space.”

The Nic team has also added a variety of new events geared to different ages, interests and budgets, while dropping events — like its weekly summer concert series — that weren’t underwritten and cost the museum, Ruble said.

“Part of what we’ve had to really do is look at these different events and say, does it help our mission and does it forward our mission, or does it hurt it us?” she said.

Recent new events included a winter Brunch & Bach series and a Chinese New Year celebration, which drew 300 people. Both cost $5 and were free for members. The Nic has boosted the value of membership as well, with perks including steeper discounts for classes and workshops.

Adding events for a broader demographic has helped drive membership, which is up 400 percent over last year, Ruble said.

The Nic also offers more ongoing programs supported by grants, including a new therapeutic art class for veterans taught by Casper College instructors and another for people impacted by dementia.

The loss in funding also means that the museum has focused on regional exhibitions, which are cheaper than national shows, and using works from their permanent collection, she said.

Despite the many changes over the past year, Ruble thinks they will help the museum be more stable for the next downturn.

“It’s going to take another couple of years until we completely figure it out,” Ruble said. “I think we’re on the right path.”

Deadly clashes in Gaza mark start of Palestinian campaign

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Thousands of Palestinians marched to Gaza's border with Israel on Friday in the largest such demonstration in recent memory, and 15 were killed by Israeli fire on the first day of what Hamas organizers said will be six weeks of daily protests against a stifling border blockade.

It was the bloodiest day in Gaza since the 2014 cross-border war between Israel and Hamas.

Fourteen of the marchers were killed and more than 750 wounded by Israeli fire in clashes along the border fence, the Palestinian Health Ministry said. Another Palestinian was killed earlier Friday.

The U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting late Friday to discuss the situation in Gaza. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for "an independent and transparent investigation" into the deadly clashes and council members urged restraint on both sides.

The Israeli military said thousands of Palestinians threw stones and rolled burning tires toward troops deployed on the other side of the border fence. It accused militants of trying to carry out attacks under the cover of mass protests, saying that in one incident, Palestinian gunmen fired toward soldiers.

The large turnout of the flag-waving marchers in the dangerous border zone was a testament to Hamas' organizing skills, but it also signaled desperation among Gaza residents after a decade-old border closure. Life in the coastal strip has deteriorated further in recent months, with rising unemployment, grinding poverty and daily blackouts that last for hours.

Asmaa al-Katari said she participated in the march despite the risks and would join upcoming protests because "life is difficult here in Gaza and we have nothing to lose."

The history student said she is a descendant of refugees from what is now Israel's southern Negev Desert. She said her grandfathers had lived in tents as refugees.

"I want to tell the world that the cause of our grandfathers is not dead," she added.

Gaza resident Ghanem Abdelal, 50, said he hopes the protest "will bring a breakthrough, an improvement, to our life in Gaza."

He had brought his family to a protest tent camp near Gaza City — one of five set up several hundred meters from the border fence — where he distributed water bottles to women and children sitting on a mat.

Israel had threatened a tough response, hoping to deter breaches of the border fence. The Israeli military released video showing a row of snipers perched on a high earthen embankment facing the Gaza crowd in one location.

Israel also used a new means of crowd control Friday — small drones that each dropped several tear gas canisters on protesters below. People quickly scattered when they saw the drones approaching.

Friday's high death toll and prospects of daily protests in coming weeks have raised concerns about another escalation along the volatile frontier. Israel and the Islamic militant Hamas have fought three cross-border wars in recent years.

The protest campaign is meant to spotlight Palestinian demands for a "right of return" to what is now Israel. A large majority of Gaza's 2 million people are descendants of Palestinians who fled or were driven from their homes in the 1948 Mideast war over Israel's creation.

The 70th anniversary of the establishment of Israel, on May 15, is marked by Palestinians as their "nakba," or catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands were uprooted.

The planned mass sit-ins on the border are also seen as a new attempt by Hamas to break the border blockade, imposed by Israel and Egypt after Hamas seized Gaza from forces loyal to its rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in 2007. The continued closure has made it increasingly difficult for Hamas to govern.

Other attempts to break the blockade, including wars with Israel and attempts to reconcile with the West Bank-based Abbas, have failed over the years.

The latest Egyptian-led reconciliation efforts collapsed earlier this month, when a bomb targeted but missed Abbas' prime minister and intelligence chief during a visit to Gaza.

Hamas and Abbas traded accusations after the bombing, signaling that any deal on Hamas handing the Gaza government to Abbas is increasingly unlikely.

The Hamas leader in Gaza, Yehiyeh Sinwar, said the protests are a signal to Israel and the world that "our people will not accept the continuation of the siege."

Israel and the Trump administration expressed concern in recent months about a looming humanitarian crisis in Gaza and appealed to the international community to fund large-scale development projects there, including a desalination plant.

However, such plans appeared to be linked to a deal on Abbas taking charge in Gaza, and Israel didn't say what it would do if such an arrangement didn't work out.

Friday's violence began before dawn when a 27-year-old farmer picking parsley in his field was hit by an Israeli tank shell in southern Gaza, the Health Ministry said. Another farmer was injured by shrapnel.

Israel's military said troops directed tank fire toward suspicious figures on the border.

Later in the day, mosque loudspeakers urged Gaza residents to head to the border encampments. A Hamas-linked bus company ferried protesters to the area. In all, tens of thousands gathered at the encampments, though not all headed to the border, witnesses said.

The Health Ministry said at least 1,000 people were injured, including 758 by live fire and the rest by rubber bullets and tear gas.

Wyoming deaf and hard of hearing team prepares for national quiz bowl

The question flashed on the screen: What book followed the tale of two men working a ranch as they dreamed of their own farm and rabbits?

“Of Mice & Men,” I scribbled with the confidence of someone who’s just setting himself up to be embarrassed by a high schooler whose team has won regional competitions for trivia and is prepping to go compete nationally next month.

Meghan Watt, who coaches the state’s deaf and hard of hearing academic bowl team, shook her head. Joan Otterholt, another coach who works for the state Department of Education, held up a red piece of construction paper with “no” written on it in big capital letters. The word “sorry” is beneath it, dulling my lasting pain.

It wasn’t the last time I’d have that piece of construction paper flashed at me Thursday afternoon as I was put through my paces in a mock academic bowl match. But the sorry helped.

Kelly Walsh sophomore and team member Gabe Heuer, meanwhile, held up his own whiteboard. “Of Mice and Men.”

A green piece of paper this time. “Yes.”

Watt explained that the ampersand disqualified my attempt. The judges at these competitions are very persnickety, she explained.

Gabe and his three teammates from across the state — each of whom are deaf or hard of hearing — know this.

If the devil’s in the details, then Lucifer has no chance hiding from these kids.

* * *

Gabe couldn’t remember how he became involved in the team. Otterholt filled in the gap: His father, Brent Heuer, approached her and asked if Gabe could be involved in academic bowl.

A brief period of silence while Gabe thinks about that description.

“OK,” he says.

I spoke with Gabe, his parents, Watt, Otternholt and Kim Reimann, a former competitor’s mom, for 90 minutes this week about the upcoming competition and questions and what it all means to the students. But the competitiveness in me kept hoping we could run through questions. I fancy myself a nerd. Those around me have concluded the same, though I suspect it’s less a compliment than a cold conclusion.

Fortunately, the coaches suggested running through some of the types of questions the students faced during their competitions. I’ve (sometimes) been OK at pub trivia. So even against these seasoned veterans, I hoped to not completely embarrass myself.

During this practice match, we divided into two teams. First, the adults: me (an adult by only the strictest definition), Gabe’s mother, Kathy, and Reimann. Facing off against us were Gabe and Reimann’s son, who isn’t deaf or hard of hearing but was a frequent practice buddy for his sister, a now-graduated former competitor.

The matches are broken into three rounds, starting with a one-on-one trivia challenge between opposing team members. Imagine “Jeopardy” with teams (instead of a buzzer, we used small toy laser guns that made a zapping noise).

The questions cover everything from current events and pop culture to social studies and deaf and hard of hearing culture. Both prompts and responses are displayed on screens for the competitors.

The ampersand disaster, as it’s known around my apartment, wasn’t the first time my haste robbed me of a precious point against Gabe and his teammate. It turns out butchering the spelling of Salvador Dali’s first name will not earn you a point.

Remember when I said I hoped to not embarrass myself?

My error was not to say haste is a strategy to be avoided. You want to press the buzzer (or, in our case, little plastic gun) as quickly as possible. Watt said a number of national competitors are expert speed readers. Others will read from the bottom of the question first, skipping whatever preamble proceeds it. But these competitors are smart, practiced and quick.

Suffice it to say we were soundly beaten in the first round.

It was not a surprise. Gabe and the academic bowl team placed second at a regional competition earlier this year. Now they’re on to the national tournament for the fourth straight year. The trips help the students gain independence, Otterholt said.

“It gives them that confidence that they can get out in the world and do things,” she said, as one parent nodded, “and more than anything it gives them the confidence that they can be college students, too, and be worthy college students.”

Yes, they are good. Take that as both an excuse for our abysmal start and as a piece of dedicated reporting.

* * *

In the next round, each group was able to work as a team to answer the prompts. We were also given calculators, which produced existential dread among the adults. Unsurprisingly, we also lost here. But we managed to nab a few points, highlighted by the fact that we nailed the question about a shape’s perimeter. It’s the little things, folks.

There’s no question the students’ team is competitive; look no further than the thorough whooping they were dishing out. But the team hasn’t always aimed for strong finishes. When Otterholt started the team in 2003, it acted primarily as a confidence- and community-builder for students who may know only a handful of fellow students — or none at all — at their home school who are deaf or hard of hearing.

“That’s Wyoming,” said Otterholt, who often signed as she spoke. “When you know a deaf student, you know all the deaf students in the state. That’s how I’m able to pick up deaf students is because I know where they are in the state, something about all of them.”

The students not only meet young people facing similar challenges across the state, region and nation, but they learn to be advocates for themselves, she and Watt said, both inside and outside of competition. They can challenge answers in the matches, for instance. Reimann’s daughter, Gabi, is a freshman at the University of Wyoming and has learned to push for what she needs to succeed.

Otterholt recalled one student who met his future wife at one of the competitions. The national academic bowl is held by Gallaudet University, the only college for deaf and hard of hearing students in the world, according to the state Education Department. The school has even started using the academic bowl to recruit.

“At first, they’re so shy,” Otterholt said of deaf and hard of hearing students. “But after they go to academic bowl, you can see these academic bowl kids come together and just instantly, they meld.”

But in the years since the team’s inception, the students have grown more competitive. Four straight national appearances make that clear.

It shines through acutely during Thursday’s final round, when the two teams are given a sheet of paper with 10 questions, all about U.S. presidents. We tied with the students, with both teams correctly answering the same amount of questions. But Gabe challenged his answer to the question of which president was the first to be born outside of the contiguous United States.

The answer was President Barack Obama, who was born in Hawaii.

Gabe wrote Hamilton, referring to Alexander Hamilton. We adults were completely stumped and wrote nothing.

Fortunately for us, Hamilton was never president, so a red “no” (“sorry”) card for Gabe. But it showed that the team members knew when to challenge and push for answers they firmly think are correct.

Somehow, we managed to squeak out a victory in a three-on-two match facing just one team member. The teams the group will face at nationals won’t be so lucky.