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City-owned buildings went out to bid without City Council's permission

While Casper leaders ultimately approved the recent sale of two, city-owned buildings, they did not give permission for them to go to bid, drawing ire from some residents.

“It appears there was no clear direction provided by Council to sell these properties,” said Brandon Daigle, the chairman of the Downtown Development Authority. After reviewing recordings of Council’s work sessions and meetings, Daigle said he only saw Council instruct city employees to have the properties appraised.

This was a point of particular contention, given that a conference center consortium, of which Daigle is a member, made a last-minute plea to City Council to reject the bids and save the location to potentially develop a roughly $70 million hotel and conference center.

The buildings, which are located on Ash Street north of Midwest Avenue, include the former Ka-Lark’s gymnastics studio and the former Milo’s Toyota body shop.

The structures were part of the Plains Furniture property block, which also included a former livery stable that has not yet received a bid. City officials purchased the properties in early 2016 with no exact plans for their use.

Mayor Kenyne Humphrey confirmed Friday that City Council did not direct city employees to put the buildings up for sale.

“I think that there was some confusion on staff part on whether or not we even wanted to go out for bid on those properties,” she said.

Once Council realized the buildings were for sale, they opted not to halt the process because they felt it would be unfair to those who had already placed bids, explained Humphrey.

City Manager Carter Napier said Thursday that he is unsure whether staff needed Council’s authorization to place the building’s for sale, but said he is investigating the issue.

“I am looking into it to see if, in fact, we did follow the typical process,” he explained. If city staff is found to be a fault, Napier said he is uncertain at this point what action would be taken.

The city issued the request for proposals on Sept. 6, according to a memo from Community Development Director Liz Becher.

The future of the city-owned Ash Street buildings has been a divisive issue in Casper.

A public hearing was held Tuesday prior to Council’s vote, and many residents spoke out in favor of the local entrepreneurs hoping to bring an apparel store and new apartments to downtown Casper.

But the consortium has repeatedly advised Council to hold off on the decision, and to consider the lasting economic impact a new hotel and conference center could have on the city.

The consortium includes representatives from the Downtown Development Authority, Casper Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Amoco Reuse Agreement Joint Powers Board and the Economic Development Joint Powers Board/Forward Casper.

City Council was split on the decision, with five members voting to sell the buildings and three voting against.

Scott Cotton, a co-owner of 1890 Inc., won the bid for the former gymnastic studio. Cotton previously explained that his custom apparel store needs a larger space to meet customer demands.

David Kelley, the owner of Ashby Construction, won the bid for the former body shop. He intends to use the building as office space for his own business and then build three structures next to it to rent out as apartments.

Steve Conner 

Wyoming Cowboys quarterback Josh Allen (17) breaks away from a tackle attempt by Central Michigan Chippewas defensive lineman Mike Danna (57) during the first half of the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl at Albertsons Stadium in Boise Friday afternoon, Dec. 22, 2017.

In wake of education report, senate president criticizes lack of analysis of funding costs

Sen. President Eli Bebout suggested he was disappointed that a recent education report lacked an analysis of why Wyoming spends so much on education compared to its neighbors.

“What I really wanted to see: I wanted to be able to look at and analyze why we spend so much more money,” he said Wednesday. “We don’t seem to get an answer.”

He said that lawmakers are unlikely to obtain that analysis in the final report.

The report was released Monday by consultants hired by the state to conduct a top-to-bottom review of Wyoming’s education system. While it was similar to a lighter briefing presented to lawmakers earlier this month, the draft report provided the most fleshed out look into the consultants’ work.

The consultants recommend a number of changes, but the ones that caught the eye of most educators and lawmakers were changes to teachers’ salaries and class sizes. Both recommendations would move the two areas closer to what’s happening in districts.

Essentially, because districts receive their state funding in block grants, they have wide latitude as to what they do with those dollars. Most pay their teachers more and make class sizes slightly larger, both of which are different than what the state funding model expects.

The wide-ranging review of the education system, called recalibration, typically takes place every five years but was initiated three years early last spring to deal with the state’s looming education funding crisis. Bebout, who largely drives the agenda of the state Senate and has been resolutely against tax increases to fill the schools’ deficit, said he was against hiring the Denver-based consultants who conducted the review.

“I was in the minority because we went ahead (with hiring the consultants),” Bebout said. “Some of these questions like we’re going over, I didn’t think we’d end up getting it.”

Bebout, along with some senators — prominently Sen. Dave Kinskey, a Sheridan Republican — have been critical of Wyoming’s schools’ performance. The state spends about $17,000 per student.

Bebout wanted to know why and said consultants in general have failed to demonstrate it. He said he “should expect more in Wyoming when I pay closer to $17,000.”

The argument about whether Wyoming is getting a big enough bang for its buck has come up repeatedly as lawmakers have examined its education system. There’s evidence for and against how much money is spent. For instance, the state is consistently ranked in the bottom half for ACT scores. Statistically, it’s in the middle of the pack in some categories of the statewide assessment.

But other lawmakers argue those are misleading statistics. The ACT, for instance, is given to every junior in the state, regardless of whether that student is heading to college. Sen. Chris Rothfuss has noted that the aggregated state assessment scores are actually top five in the nation. House Speaker Steve Harshman noted that graduation rates have gone up since he was in high school.

Still, there’s some credence to Bebout’s criticism, which he has voiced repeatedly for months. For instance, the consultants found that Wyoming’s education standards are similar to a number of other states, but the state spends significantly more than many of them. On the other hand, it also spends similarly to a number of states— though, crucially, it did not compare salaries, which account for 80 to 85 percent of district’s budgets.

Essentially, the question of whether Wyoming has received a return on its significant education investment is difficult to answer, with both sides clinging to evidence they say is conclusive.

While Bebout somewhat demurred on the question of whether he’ll cut education as a result of what he sees as inadequate results, he reiterated that he was firmly against a tax increase. He suggested the Senate would introduce “responsible reductions” in the coming legislative session, similar to proposals that were swiftly killed by a more moderate House last winter.

For him and other senators, they say it comes down to results.

“Well, for me, again if you’re going to pay that much, you should be getting the results that are much better,” Bebout said.

Courtesy photo 

High Uinta Pack Goats owner Clay Zimmerman poses for a picture with his pack goats on the High Line Trail in Wyoming's Wind River Range. A revised proposal by the Shoshone National Forest would not allow goats in specific bighorn sheep core habitat.

Despite shortened period, Affordable Care Act enrollment in Wyoming beats last year's total

Nearly 25,000 Wyomingites signed up for Affordable Care Act insurance plans over the course of six weeks, despite a shortened enrollment period and several attempts to repeal it by Congress.

There were 24,889 Wyoming enrollees who signed up between Nov. 1 and Dec. 15, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. That number topped last year’s figure, which was 50 people less, Cheyenne Regional Medical Center’s Josh Hannes said.

“We’re definitely excited,” said Hannes, who runs a program to educate consumers and help enroll them. He said the program, which is run through the Cheyenne Regional Medical Center but is funded by the federal government, managed to sign up a consumer with 12 minutes left in open enrollment.

“I think it demonstrates importance people place on having coverage and having it for their families,” he continued.

The numbers are impressive, given that the enrollment period was shortened this year — it normally runs until through January but ended on Dec. 15. On top of that, funding was slashed by more than 60 percent for Hannes’ program.

Dennis DelPizzo, of the regional Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said this enrollment period “was the most cost effective and smooth enrollment experience for consumers,” and that the centers released “data that shows the highest rates of consumer satisfaction to date at a lower cost.”

The people who travel Wyoming as part of the program are known as navigators. In November, when Obamacare enrollment numbers were surging, navigator Melissa Martin said the sense of urgency created by the shortened enrollment period likely helped drive people to enroll quicker.

Hannes also said the navigators worked hard this year to enroll people. He cautioned, however, that the program could be eliminated in the future because of the funding challenges.

“The future unfortunately is not terribly clear for us,” he said.

The boost is also surprising because of steps taken by the administration to undercut the health care law, one of the central pieces of the Obama administration’s legacy. After several failed attempts by the Senate to repeal and replace the bill, Trump announced he would change insurance rules and stop paying cost-sharing reductions. Those payments were given to insurance companies who subsidized costs for lower-income consumers.

A consequence of that decision — intended or not — was that subsidies were actually increased, to the point that some consumers were given plans that cost nothing.

Still, there were many consumers who didn’t qualify for subsidies and paid “astronomical” fees, Hannes said.

It’s not just the future of Hannes’ program that is unclear. The tax bill that Trump signed repealed the individual mandate, which is a crucial piece of the Affordable Care Act. Without it, Hannes said, it’s likely that young, healthy people will drop out of the market, leaving more expensive and sicker people. That, in turn, will raise premium prices.