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Crime-and-courts
breaking
Man dead, police officer critically injured in east Casper shootout

One man died and a Casper police officer was critically injured after they exchanged gunfire Sunday afternoon in east Casper, police and witnesses said.

Police confirmed that officers had shot and killed the man and that an officer was wounded in the exchange and taken to the hospital. Neighbors told the Star-Tribune they saw the man firing a handgun as he backed away from two officers, who returned fire. None of the witnesses were able to specify who fired first or what had caused the shooting.

The officer was in critical condition as of roughly 6 p.m. Sunday, according to a statement from the Casper Police Department.

“We have asked for and are receiving the assistance of Natrona County Sheriff’s Department, Mills Police Department, Evansville Police Department, and the Wyoming Highway Patrol in covering our public safety needs in Casper for the next several hours,” Chief Keith McPheeters said in a statement. “As everyone might imagine, this is a very emotional situation and the agencies have agreed to help us take our calls.”

The shooting took place between 1 and 2 p.m. in a dirt lot just east of Fairdale Park, a few blocks from the intersection of 15th and Beverly streets. By 4 p.m., the south end of Fairdale Avenue was still closed at the intersection with 15th Street. Law enforcement surrounded a white tarp that appeared to cover a body about 10 feet from a white sedan.

Four neighbors who saw the incident said the dead man had exchanged gunfire with police before officers shot and killed him. Sgt. Mike Ogden said police were not able to release details about the shootout as of early Sunday evening.

Neighbor James Gray said he was washing his pickup in front of his Fairdale Avenue home while the man drove in circles in a dirt lot. Gray said the man was teaching two children to drive when officers arrived.

Police pulled up in a parking lot above the dirt patch and shouted at the man to stop the car.

The man stopped and spoke to police, Gray said, then made a phone call.

Gray had turned around when he heard shots being fired. When Gray looked again, police were using the car as cover while they exchanged gunfire with the man. The man was shot and fell.

Gray said he did not know the man.

Eric Wilkerson, who lives on the south end of the block, said he heard what sounded like knocks on his door. He went outside and saw police behind the vehicle firing their pistols at the man, who fired back.

The man fell in the dirt lot and continued to fire, Wilkerson said.

Wilkerson heard eight to 10 more shots, he said. The man then lay motionless, apparently dead.

While the altercation was ongoing, a child rode his bike through the upper parking lot, Wilkerson said. The child’s mother ran and dragged the kid inside, Wilkerson said.

Another neighbor, who declined to be identified for this story, corroborated Gray and Wilkerson’s accounts. The neighbor said he was watching a music video when he heard gunfire. He stepped outside and saw the exchange of gunfire. The officer was shot by the man in the lot, the neighbor said.

A fourth neighbor likewise declined to be identified for this story. His recounting of the incident was consistent with the other three men’s accounts.

The Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation will examine the incident. The state agency is usually asked to investigate shootings that involve law enforcement.

Sunday’s incident is the second police shooting in east Casper in just over two months. In late February, police shot and killed a man carrying a sword after he threatened a clerk at a nearby gas station. Natrona County District Attorney Michael Blonigen cleared the two officers who were involved and concluded the man, Douglas Oneyear, provoked the confrontation in an effort to end his life. Oneyear’s family maintains the officers could have resolved the situation without killing him.


Contributed  

Haul trucks transport coal in the Peabody Energy North Antelope Rochelle Mine in the Powder River Basin in 2012. The group Wyoming Industrial Energy Consumers argues that a regional market could reverse the trend of increasing electricity costs in Wyoming.


Energy
Electricity markets are wooing Wyoming industry, but regulators remain cautious

If Wyoming’s largest utility had joined the California Independent Operator System’s grid, which it considered a few years ago, the merger would have revolutionized the western power sector. A study commissioned by the grid operators estimated $9 billion in cost savings for customers over two decades.

Then the plan fell apart. Californians were worried about coal-generated power making it into their homes, while Wyoming and the utility, PacifiCorp, and were concerned about the control California would exert over the marriage of convenience.

But, the idea of free market, regional operation of electricity hasn’t lost its glamour in the Cowboy State.

The Wyoming Industrial Energy Consumers — a group of 20 companies from oil firms to trona mines – argues that a regional market could reverse the trend of increasing electricity costs in Wyoming.

In a technical conference Monday, the group will make its case before the Wyoming Public Service Commission, ground work for a day coming soon when state regulators will have to decide whether a Wyoming utility can join a bigger market.

***

The potential benefits to regional markets aren’t really up for debate anymore, said Bill Russell, chairman of the Wyoming Public Service Commission. Markets can make electricity cheaper for customers in some cases and increase efficiency by employing a greater number of resources, spread over a wider domain.

“What we don’t know is at what cost,” he said. “We do know the cost is high, but we don’t know if once you weigh the benefits against the costs, whether or not it’s worth it and whether or not it will cause rates to go up.”

It’s something the commission will likely have to figure out soon.

The Mountain West Transmission Group, which includes the utility company Black Hills, is trying to join the Southwest Power Pool. The pool, a regional transmission organization, covers states like Nebraska, Kansas and parts of New Mexico. Until late April, it appeared that Black Hills would be asking Wyoming regulators to approve its move to the regional marketplace. But the largest utility in Mountain West stepped out, worried about how much expansion was offered by the merger and its potential risks.

The fate of the Mountain West’s bid to join Southwest is uncertain.

But that’s not the only regional initiative going on. The entity that coordinates grid reliability across the 14 western states, part of Canada and northern Mexico, Peak Reliability, is proposing its own regional services. California is, too.

The question isn’t if a regional market will draw Wyoming utilities, but if the state will let them go.

“All these things are happening all at once and that’s why these topics are coming up,” said Russell of the Public Service Commission.

Wyoming regulators could stand in the way of a utility joining one of these markets, but aren’t sure if they should, he said.

“What if Wyoming does carve itself out and says ‘We’re never going to do this,’” Russell said. “Will we be harming our long-term future in the energy markets? That’s a question I can’t answer right now, because we don’t have enough information yet.”

***

While regulators ponder the implications of a regional market, some utilities are obviously considering what it could do for them.

“The transmission system wasn’t really built to be the wholesale market but it kind of turned into one,” said David Eskelsen, spokesman for Rocky Mountain Power, a subsidiary of PacifiCorp.

The national grid began piecemeal, built almost entirely by individual utilities to serve their customers. Those lines gradually linked into others to increase reliability.

“(The grid) has some problems associated with it because in some places there are plentiful paths for electricity to flow back and forth. In other places there are much narrower paths,” he said. “So it’s not a truly functional market because it has some pinch points.”

A single operator system like the California ISO, the Southwest Power Pool, or the most successful, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, smooths out some of the kinks of power operation that exist now.

Across the western grid, more than two dozen balancing authorities control supply and demand across their area.

“It works okay, but as other utilities have found in other areas of North America, a single operator does have some advantages,” Eskelsen said.

***

For the Wyoming industries approaching regulators Monday, markets may offer a solution to a growing problem.

“We’ve (become) increasingly concerned with the relative rise of Wyoming electricity rates as compared to other parts of the country,” said Thor Nelson, a lawyer with Holland & Hart, representing the Industrial Energy Consumers. The rise in electricity costs has affected residential and commercial consumers, but it has hit industry particularly hard, Nelson said.

The 20-member group collectively burns through half of the electricity Rocky Mountain Power produces for Wyoming.

The commission will also hear from the Wyoming Industrial Energy Consumers on whether electric utilities should engage in a customer choice program similar to the gas options that Casper residents are offered every year. Customers may be able to choose, hypothetically, to buy from a predominately coal-powered provider over one with more wind electricity.

Combined with a well-developed regional market, customer preference in Wyoming could be a boon for electricity rates, the group argues.

“if you do it right, we believe that competitive pressure will … help keep electric rates as reasonable and affordable as possible, and if not restore Wyoming’s competitive advantage, at least stop the bleeding,” Nelson said.

***

In all of these discussions about reliability and free market, there could be a stumbling block from Wyoming’s perspective: coal.

“Both retail choice and regionalization are a danger to coal,” said Russell, of the Wyoming Public Service Commission.

When coal competes in a market it loses to cheap natural gas and it loses to renewables like wind and solar. This phenomenon has played out Texas, where a number of coal-fired power plants retired early last year because they couldn’t offer customers the lowest rates anymore.

For Russell, this is a troubling trend. Aside from the fact that coal is an important sector of Wyoming’s economy, the black rock has long provided the minimum demand of power, he said.

“My job when I’m making decisions is more about the reliability of the grid and the cost to customers,” he said. “My concern (is that) we are going to force out all the coal plants before we realize what we have done to ourselves.”

***

The meeting in Cheyenne will not result in a decision for or against markets and retail choice. For the Wyoming Industrial Energy consumers, the conference will get the ball rolling on the issue. The group hopes to repeat its presentation later this year before state lawmakers.

“In going through this and having this conversation, the purpose is not to assign blame or impugn the commission or the utilities,” said Nelson of Holland & Hart. “We think by and large everyone is doing the best they can to manage a difficult situation.”

But from the group’s perspective it’s time for Wyoming to make some decisions, hopefully, in favor of regional markets.


Casper
PROPERTY APPRAISALS
Property appraisals in Natrona County appealed at higher rate than similarly sized Laramie County

Natrona County property owners appealed appraisals from the local assessor’s office at eight times the rate of their counterparts in Laramie County in 2017, according to figures obtained by the Star-Tribune.

The assessor’s office in each county is responsible for providing citizens with property assessments that comply with the statutory requirements established by the state. If a property owner believes the provided value is incorrect, they can informally appeal the decision to the local office.

There were 157 such appeals in Laramie County in 2017, according to information provided by Laramie County Assessor Kenneth Guille. Laramie County, which is home to the state capital of Cheyenne, has about 15,000 more residents than Natrona County.

Still, the number of informal appeals made in Natrona County last year was 1,250, according to information provided by newly-appointed Natrona County Assessor Tammy Saulsbury.

The Star-Tribune sought the data after Natrona County Commissioner Matt Keating told the newspaper on April 3 that he believes the assessor’s office routinely overprices properties, which causes residents to pay more in property taxes. Some residents appeal, but others don’t want to spend the money or time it takes to dispute an incorrect figure.

“The assessor’s office is broken,” he said at the time, adding that he had applied for the position because he believes the office is seriously mismanaged.

Saulsbury, who was promoted from deputy assessor to assessor last month, said she wasn’t sure why Natrona County’s informal appeal numbers were so much higher.

“Honestly I don’t have an answer for that … My opinion is that there shouldn’t be too much of a difference in the two areas but I wasn’t the one who had any input on valuing,” she said.

Saulsbury said the office is now “running efficiently” and that she expects the numbers will be significantly lower next year.

Overvalued property

Ed Reish was among those who appealed last year. The Casper resident, who purchased a 100-acre plot located about 20 miles west of Casper for approximately $25,000 in 2011, said he was shocked when his land was valued at $730,780.

After appealing to the assessor’s office, the value was dropped to $109,617, according to Reish. No explanation was provided for the error and Reish said the figure was still inaccurate.

“That’s still three times what it’s [worth],” he said.

After appealing to the assessor’s office, property owners who still have concerns can formally appeal to the County Board of Equalization, which Reish said he did on Oct. 17.

In order to argue that the assessment was incorrect, Reish had to pay for an independent property appraisal conducted by a certified real estate appraiser. He brought a copy of the private appraisal, which states that his property had a market value of $31,000, to his meeting with the county board.

“They just passed it on and didn’t do anything with it,” he said.

Reish is currently appealing to the State Board of Equalization. It’s been a long process, but he believes it’s important for the assessor’s office to treat citizens fairly.

“It came down to the principle,” he explained.

Changes in the office

The Natrona County Assessor’s Office has undergone turmoil of late.

Former assessor Connie Smith announced her retirement effective March 31. She died April 2 at the Central Wyoming Hospice in Casper.

The Natrona County Republican Party picked three finalists for the position: Tammy Saulsbury, Shannan Robinett and Keating. The county commissioners — with the exception of Keating — then interviewed the candidates and unanimously selected Saulsbury.

Both Saulsbury and Robinett already worked for the assessor’s office. Saulsbury was employed as the county’s chief deputy assessor and Robinett served as a statistician.

Saulsbury fired four employees, including Robinett, on her first day, the workers said.

Saulsbury declined to comment about the firings. County attorney Eric Nelson also said he couldn’t provide details about the situation.

“Since these are personnel issues we can’t comment on them,” he explained.

Angelina Martinez, Joann Grisham, Ashley Wiese and Shannan Robinett told the Star-Tribune last month that they were abruptly fired by Saulsbury at about 4 p.m. on April 2. None were given a reason for their dismissal.

The former staffers said they believe Robinett was fired because she competed against Saulsbury for the position—and that the other three were fired because they had openly supported Robinett.

“We were let go because of her feelings, not because we didn’t do our jobs,” said Martinez.

The former county employees said they had never received any indication that their job performances were unsatisfactory. Each firmly denied Keating’s accusations and said they always followed the proper procedures.

“Nobody is ever happy with taxes,” said Robinett.

Robinett was employed as a statistician. Wiese, Grisham and Martinez all worked as field appraisers.

Assessor responds

Although Saulsbury would not comment about the firings, she told the Star-Tribune last month that she agreed with Keating’s concerns that some properties had been overvalued.

She told the Star-Tribune this week that she’s still looking into the matter. Saulsbury, who’s worked at the assessor’s office for about six years, said she only recently became aware of the problem.

The deputy assessor is not responsible for determining or approving property assessments, she said. Field appraisers collect information about a property and provide this data to the statistician. The statistician then determines a figure, which has to be approved by the assessor.

“My job (as deputy assessor) was to oversee the main office and to help out the taxpayers and do what I could for them,” she said.

Brenda Arnold, the administrator for the property tax division of the Department of Revenue, said this week that she couldn’t comment directly on specific cases in Natrona County.

But when discussing errors, the administrator said residents should consider that the assessor’s office in Natrona County was responsible for assessing about 47,000 properties in 2017.

“That’s where you have to put it in context,” she said.

Some Natrona County commissioners previously told the Star-Tribune that they do not believe that the assessor’s office has acted improperly.

“I have no reason to doubt that they aren’t trying to do their best to evaluate the properties under the [proper] requirements and standards,” said the board’s chairman John Lawson.

Forrest Chadwick, the board’s vice chairman, explained that the office follows procedures that are “dictated to them by statute.”

The assessor position is up for re-election this fall.


Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Letter carrier Rene Eberhardt sits for a portrait in her delivery vehicle.


Govt-and-politics
ELECTION 2018
Dodson hits Wyoming coal advocate Barrasso over insufficient support of coal industry

Independent candidate for U.S. Senate in Wyoming David Dodson is attacking Sen. John Barrasso, a Republican and staunch defender of the coal industry, for failing to support coal. Dodson focused on the refusal of some West Coast communities to build new coal export terminals and said Barrasso had not successfully persuaded them to complete the new ports.

“For ten years, Senator John Barrasso has done nothing but talk a good game on the subject,” Dodson said in a campaign mailer.

Barrasso is known as a strong advocate of coal mining in Wyoming and recently toured the Black Thunder Coal Mine near Wright with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt.

Barrasso also chairs the Senate’s Environment and Public Works committee.

But Dodson, who identifies as a Republican, said that Barrasso had not done enough to help Wyoming coal reach Asian markets.

“John Barrasso has been talking and talking on cable TV news for ten years and not winning a single victory on this coal export blockade,” Dodson said in the mailer. “I’ll get on a plane and park my rear end in front of every bureaucrat and every legislator and every governor of ever state that stands between us and a cleaner environment and a thriving Wyoming economy until we can make logic prevail and start Wyoming coal moving to our friends in Asia.”

Dodson said that Wyoming’s coal was less harmful to the environment than Indonesian coal, which he said was currently being relied on by east Asian nations that have limited access to American coal. He believes it will be possible to convince activists in the Pacific Northwest that because Asian coal-burning power plants will be built regardless of where the mineral is sourced, it would be better for the environment to send those countries Wyoming coal.

“(A)nyone who’s serious about helping the environment has to recognize the fact that those power plants are going to be built in Asia no matter what,” Dodson said.

Barrasso chief-of-staff Dan Kunsman declined to comment on the mailer.

“Nothing to add,” he said in an email.

But Barrasso assailed Dodson during a campaign speech at the Wyoming Republican Party convention in Laramie last month. Barrasso sought to lump Dodson in with Democratic Senate candidate Gary Trauner.

“They’re both from Jackson, they’re both liberals,” Barrasso said. Barrasso noted that Dodson had donated to Democrats in past election cycles. “(Dodson) is running saying he’s a Reagan Republican ... can you imagine Ronald Reagan, our hero, ever writing a check — if he were alive today — to Barack Obama?”

(Barrasso sought to engage the crowd in a call-and-response answer to his question. The correct answer was “no.”)

Dodson is a Jackson resident who teaches for part of the year at Stanford University in California.