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Casper
Casper leaders change proposed food truck permit requirements amid protests

The Casper City Council tweaked a proposed ordinance governing mobile vendors after about a dozen residents complained the suggested regulations were too restrictive.

“We were pleased... We’re okay paying a fee when we are downtown,” Nichole Andrews, the co-owner of Smoked N Tender food truck said Wednesday.

While some applauded the changes, others in the audience wanted the Council to vote down the ordinance altogether.

Britnee Miller, the co-owner of Mad Flatters, told council members Tuesday she plans to relocate due to the controversy.

Mobile vendors became a divisive issue last summer when some food trucks started routinely parking downtown on Fridays and Saturdays. Some brick-and-mortar business owners were upset because these vendors receive free parking permits and take away spots from potential customers.

The ordinance proposed by city staff required vendors to apply for a parking permit at least five days in advance, pay a $25 fee per day and per parking space for downtown spots, and only permitted parking in the city’s center from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m.

It also capped the number of vendors who can park within a given downtown block to eight per month and placed some lesser restrictions on vendors parking outside of the downtown area.

But many food truck owners and supporters told the Council on Tuesday that these suggested rules were unreasonable.

Susan Oakes, the owner of Sugar & Ice food truck, said she only operates her business on days with decent weather, which she can’t predict five days in advance.

“This is a big deal,” she said, explaining that it was unfair to expect vendors to pay for a permit they might not even be able to use.

Shawn Houck, the owner of Frontier Brewing Company—which has encouraged food trucks to park in front of it—said the proposed time limits were arbitrary.

“It diminishes the value of a permit,” he said, adding that it seemed unreasonable because there is no parking enforcement for private citizens on weekends or after 3 p.m. on weekdays.

Pointing out that the controversy was caused by vendors who park downtown, Houck also questioned why there was a need for any restrictions on those who are parking outside of the city’s center.

Only one attendee spoke in favor of the ordinance.

“We definitely have to do something [about mobile vendors],” said Rep. Pat Sweeney. But he then added that he was unsure if these suggestions were the correct solution.

Given the large amount of feedback they received, the Council agreed that they needed to amend the proposal.

Council members Dallas Laird and Kenyne Humphrey supported tabling the ordinance so the group could have an in-depth discussion about potential amendments at a later date, but that idea was voted down.

Constituents have been “in limbo” too long with this issue, said Vice Mayor Charlie Powell.

The Council ultimately approved an amendment that nixed the need for any advanced notice, increased the number of vendors who can park within a given downtown block to 10 per month and expanded the hours for downtown parking permits.

The Council also altered the ordinance so that it only applies to mobile vendors parking downtown or in the Old Yellowstone District.

The amended ordinance will require two more rounds of voting before it is final.

A few speakers urged the Council to nix the entire ordinance because they felt mobile vendors are already well-regulated since they’re required to obtain business licenses, pay sales tax to Casper and undergo health inspections.

But downtown business owners Duane Jensen and Sylvia Hiler previously told the Star-Tribune that regulations are sorely needed.

The large trucks hide the majority of her store when they park in front of it, which leads to fewer customers, according to Hiler, the owner of Alpenglow Natural Foods.

Jensen, the owner of Charlie T’s Pizzeria, explained that downtown parking is already limited and said that food trucks are exacerbating the issue. Customers want to park directly in front of businesses and tend to go elsewhere if they can’t find a spot.

City Manager Carter Napier previously told the Star-Tribune that city leaders have tried to find a middle-ground solution. Although it’s been a difficult issue to tackle, Napier said he was pleased to see so many people feel passionately about downtown’s future.

“The reality is that it’s a good problem to have,” he said.


Casper
CASPER EVENTS CENTER
Accounting firm to check Casper Events Center finances again

A local accounting firm will return to the Casper Events Center within the next two months to check up on its finances after an audit detected numerous accounting errors at the city-owned facility.

“They will be back in there doing some interim testing,” City Manager Carter Napier said Friday.

The city hired Spectra Venue Management in 2016 to operate the center on its behalf. Porter, Muirhead, Cornia & Howard — an accounting firm that was hired by Spectra last summer to conduct a required audit — found that proper accounting procedures were not being followed.

“Cash on hand in petty cash for food and beverages, the finance office, the box office and the ATM machine were not witnessed by more than one individual,” states a copy of the auditor’s report. “In addition, the poor condition of the accounting records resulted in numerous misstatements in accounts receivable, accounts payable, advance ticket sales, deferred revenues and other accrued liabilities.”

These errors were severe to the point that it prevented the firm from being able to reach a conclusion.

“We were not able to obtain sufficient appropriate audit evidence to provide a basis for an audit opinion,” states the report.

Attempts to reach the auditors involved were unsuccessful.

Brady Murphy, the general manager for the events center, said Friday that the auditors told him there was no indication of embezzlement or any misuse of funds.

The former director of finance appeared to be qualified for the position but has since been replaced, he said. The venue is now back on track.

“We are following general acceptable accounting principles,” he said, adding that the center is ready to move forward.

Murphy publicly apologized to the City Council earlier this month and introduced council members to Jessica Dixon, the center’s new director of finance. Dixon explained that she has put checks and balances in place to prevent similar errors from occurring.

“Spectra takes full responsibly and blame … We recognize that this was a major error,” Murphy told the Council.

Councilwoman Kenyne Humphrey said Friday that she is concerned by the audit’s findings.

“I think [this issue] needs to be revisited multiple times before the end of another fiscal year just to ensure that the issues that were identified have been corrected,” she said.

The city signed a five-year contract with the company in 2016, but Humphrey said the city should explore ending the contract if similar issues arise in the future.

Napier said he’s unsure what the city’s options are for terminating the contract but he agreed it would be worth exploring if the same serious accounting problems occur again.

The contract between Spectra and the city was written with a target subsidy of $994,919. If Spectra operates with a lower subsidy, then it is entitled to 20 percent of the subsidy reduction, according to a memo from the city’s financial services division to Napier.

The memo states that financial reports submitted from Spectra for the period between July 2017 to January 2018 indicate that the loss year-to-date is at $695,201, which is 13 percent below projections.

“Revenue has been low but expenses have been even lower, so the net effect has been good for the bottom line,” states the memo.

The plan to privatize the performance venue began in 2015 when Spectra reached out to Casper officials, former city manager City Manager V.H. McDonald previously told the Star-Tribune.

City officials hoped that switching the center’s management over to private hands would eventually reduce operational costs.

Spectra’s ability to bring better-known acts to Casper was also part of its appeal. Since Spectra took over, the events center has hosted a number of major acts including Foo Fighters and Elton John.

The national company already manages venues in nearby states including the Pueblo Convention Center in Colorado, the Utah Valley Convention Center in Utah and the Sioux Falls Convention Center in South Dakota.


Washington
AP
US and China threaten tariffs as fears rise

WASHINGTON — The world’s two biggest economies stand at the edge of the most perilous trade conflict since World War II. Yet there’s still time to pull back from the brink.

Financial markets bounced up and down Wednesday over the brewing U.S.-China trade war after Beijing and Washington proposed tariffs on $50 billion worth of each other’s products in a battle over the aggressive tactics China employs to develop its high-tech industries.

“The risks of escalation are clear,” Adam Slater, global economist at Oxford Economics, wrote in a research note. “Threats to the U.S.-China relationship are the most dangerous for global growth.”

There’s time for the two countries to resolve the dispute through negotiations in the coming weeks. The United States will not tax 1,300 Chinese imports — from hearing aids to flamethrowers — until it has spent weeks collecting public comments. It’s likely to get an earful from American farmers and businesses that want to avoid a trade war at all costs.

Also, China did not say when it would impose tariffs on 106 U.S. products, including soybeans and small aircraft, and it announced it is challenging America’s import duties at the World Trade Organization.

Lawrence Kudlow, the top White House economic adviser, sought to ease fears of a deepening trade conflict with China, telling reporters that the tariffs the U.S. announced Tuesday are “potentially” just a negotiating ploy.

“We’re very lucky that we have the best negotiator at the table in the president, and we’re going to go through that process,” said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “It will be a couple months before tariffs on either side would go into effect and be implemented, and we’re hopeful that China will do the right thing.”

The prospect of a negotiated end to the dispute calmed nerves on Wall Street. After plunging in early trading, the Dow Jones industrial average ended up rising 231 points, or nearly 1 percent, to 24,264.

The sanctions standoff started last month when the United States slapped tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. On Monday, China countered by announcing tariffs on $3 billion worth of U.S. products. The next day, the United States proposed the $50 billion in duties on Chinese imports, and Beijing lashed back within hours with a threat of further tariffs of its own.

Things could easily escalate. The U.S. Treasury is working on plans to restrict Chinese technology investments in the United States. And there’s talk that the U.S. could also put limits on visas for Chinese who want to visit or study in this country.

For its part, China conspicuously left large aircraft off its sanctions list Wednesday, suggesting it is reserving the option to target Boeing if relations deteriorate further.

Douglas Irwin, a Dartmouth College economist who has just written a history of U.S. trade policy, said the tit-for-tat tariffs are shaping up as the biggest trade battle since World War II.

“It’s huge,” he said.

In 1987, the Reagan administration triggered shockwaves by slapping tariffs on just $300 million worth of Japanese imports — that’s million with an “m’’ — in a dispute over the semiconductor industry. Those tariffs covered less than 1 percent of Japanese imports at the time.

The tariffs the U.S. unveiled Tuesday apply to nearly 10 percent of Chinese goods imports of $506 billion.

And during the dispute three decades ago, Japan, a close U.S. ally, chose not to retaliate. It eventually gave in to U.S. demands.

“What we’ve seen with China is very different,” Irwin said. “When the steel tariffs went in — boom, they came back with retaliation. ... They were not going to take it lying down.”

Making matters trickier, the dispute over Chinese technology policy strikes at the heart of Beijing’s ambitions to become the global leader in cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

In August, President Donald Trump ordered the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative to investigate China’s tech policies, particularly longstanding allegations that it coerces U.S. companies into handing over sensitive technology to gain access to the Chinese market. The tariffs proposed Tuesday were the result of that investigation.

The U.S. also accuses China of treating U.S. companies unfairly when they try to do business there and of encouraging Chinese hackers to break into U.S. corporate computer systems and steal trade secrets.

The Trump administration is coming under intense pressure to de-escalate the dispute. American farmers, who disproportionately supported Trump in the 2016 election, are especially outspoken in seeking trade peace. After all, China buys nearly 60 percent of American soybean exports.

“American farmers are waking up this morning to the prospect of a 25 percent tax on exports that help sustain their farming operations,” said former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, co-chair of Farmers for Free Trade. “We urge the administration to reconsider escalating this trade war.”

Some analysts predict Beijing will ultimately yield to U.S. demands because it relies far more heavily on the U.S. market than American businesses rely on China’s.


Casper
As STD rates jump, Wyoming health officials say options are available

A spike in people contracting sexually transmitted diseases across the state has likely been caused by a variety of factors from dating apps to risky behavior, health officials say.

More puzzling, is that while a plethora of options exist to slow it including education, free testing and effective treatments, enough people don’t seem to pursue them, said Dr. Mark Dowell, the county’s health officer and an infectious disease expert.

“Or they don’t want to know,” he added.

“People have much more risky behavior than they would admit to, even to people in their lives,” said Kelly Weidenbach, the executive director of the Casper-Natrona County Health Department. “A lot of the stuff happening, it’s behind the scenes. People just don’t talk about it. You know, there is a little bit in our culture of just putting our heads in the sand and not wanting to talk about it.”

The state Department of Health reported last week that gonorrhea rates jumped 50 percent between 2016 and 2017. Over the past five years, it’s skyrocketed by 529 percent. In Natrona County, there were 413 cases of chlamydia and 76 cases of gonorrhea in 2017. The previous year, there were 326 and 70.

In all of Wyoming, there were 44 reported cases of gonorrhea in 2012. In 2017, there were 415.

Dowell said Natrona County is near the top as far as STD rates in the state. He attributed that partially to a more transient population here, along with more illicit drug use.

“I’ve been here 26 years,” he said. “I’ve never seen this amount of gonorrhea. What goes along with that is also of course chlamydia.”

***

It isn’t as if there’s a dearth of testing and treatment options in the county. Dr. Karl Radke of the Community Health Centers of Central Wyoming said the facility provides testing on a sliding scale and even has a “charity care program” for patients who cannot afford the minimum fees.

“We understand the rising numbers of STIs in Natrona County, as we have seen this mirrored in the clinic,” he said in an email. “Our providers do one-on-one counseling with our patients and/or significant others to raise awareness and talk about next steps/treatment in the case of a positive screen. The clinic has an in-house lab where we routinely do testing for HIV, gonorrhea and chlamydia.”

“There’s a ton of education that could go on and does go on,” Dowell added. “Anybody can get free testing.”

Weidenbach said the county Health Department provides testing on a sliding scale, too, and under a state program; it can often be free or low-cost. Treatment can also be free, depending on the condition. Her department’s prevention efforts are comprehensive, including assessing detailed risk factors of patients and reaching out to their previous sexual partners (even using Facebook to track them down when necessary).

“For sure, rates are driven by those people who didn’t know they were exposed to someone with the disease and go undiagnosed and are spreading it to other people,” she said.

While education is available elsewhere in the county, Weidenbach said the Natrona County School District does not have a standard sex ed curriculum. The responsibility for what that education looks like is delegated to each school. Her department has a specially trained sexual educator that’s working in some schools here, like Natrona County High and Dean Morgan Middle.

The massive increase mirrors national trends that show spikes in STDs. For instance, there were 98.1 cases of gonorrhea per 100,000 people in the U.S. in 2009. In 2016, the number was 145.8, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A similar jump was found for chlamydia.

Dowell said it’s difficult to lower rates in a population once they’ve climbed. He compared it to the spreading roots of a tree.

***

The numbers are what they are. But what’s harder to explain is why. State health officials have said it’s attributable to higher amounts of anonymous sex, sex with more partners and a drop in condom use.

While rates are climbing across all age groups, they’re increasing most for young people between the ages of 15 and 24. Dowell and Weidenbach said they attributed part of that rise to online dating apps and another part to the ubiquitous presence of sex and sexual imagery that Dowell said is “blunt” in modern culture.

“I don’t think any one thing is increasing those,” he said. “I don’t think dating sites are necessarily the primary reason. I think it’s just a combination of things. I think it really is generational.”

The rising rates among younger people is interesting, given recent studies showing they’re having less sex than previous generations. Weidenbach said she suspected that’s because those young people who are sexually active have more partners and engage in riskier behavior.

She added binge drinking as another factor that increased risky behavior. Natrona County has a particularly high rate of binge drinking, which increases during economic downturns, Weidenbach said.

Another reason for the increases may be the advancement of medicine. Gonorrhea and chlamydia are both curable, and HIV is now significantly more treatable than it was in the 1980s and ‘90s.

He also said school systems need to be more “aggressive” in how they teach sexual education. That doesn’t mean abandoning teaching abstinence, but it does require being realistic about young people being sexually active.

The idea that “if we talk about this and show pictures and put it right out there on the table, that it’s going to promote sexual activity, is maybe 50 years out of date and not real,” Dowell said. “The more you talk about it, the more you may convince people to behave and maybe help them understand better what they see online and how to differentiate, you know, the information they get with what is real world and give them some perspective.”