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Casper's only emergency homeless shelter to break ground on new facility that will double capacity

About a dozen blue mats — not unlike those commonly found in high school gymnasiums — sat stacked on top of one another last week in a storage room at Wyoming Rescue Mission’s emergency homeless shelter.

Most nights, the shelter’s bunk beds are full. Staff pull the mats from the room and lay them on the floor. Clients looking for a safe, warm place for the night find brief respite on the makeshift beds. At least the shelter wasn’t forced to turn them away.

Overcrowding has been an issue at central Wyoming’s only emergency homeless shelter for the past six years, Executive Director Brad Hopkins said. The organization’s downtown Casper facilities don’t have enough beds to meet the need of the homeless population. Some nights, up to 15 men sleep on mats on the floor. There’s a waiting list for the women’s long-term residential program. The crunch becomes even more dire during the cold months.

“As we serve the need, day in and day out, we are simply out of space,” Hopkins said. “There was a time where we were turning women away at the women’s center. It broke my heart.”

After many years of waiting, the shelter will soon have more space. On Tuesday, the nonprofit will break ground on a new 22,000-square-foot facility that will approximately double the number of beds available for the people that come to the mission every year. The new Park Street Center will also offer a larger kitchen and dining room, a computer lab, classrooms and spaces where clients can meet with case managers.

Along with the new facility, the mission will also build a house with 16 beds for its men’s residential program. The women’s residential program will remain in its current facility, though the building will be remodeled.

“We’re looking to position ourselves to serve the community for generations,” Hopkins said.

In total, the new facilities will cost about $8 million: $6 million for the main facility; $1 million to purchase the land, prepare it for construction and begin the expansion; and $1 million for the new men’s residential house and the remodel of the current facilities for the residential programs.

For more than two years, the mission’s staff members have dreamed of a larger space with updated amenities. But just as they started to move forward on their plans, the state’s economy took a hit. The Rescue Mission tabled the idea to wait for better times.

Since January, the organization has raised about $3.5 million toward the expansion. Much of that money has been donated by individuals or charitable foundations. Casper City Council also approved spending about $300,000 in 1-cent funds on the project.

The Rescue Mission is the only emergency shelter for hundreds of miles, Hopkins said. There are shelters in Cheyenne, Jackson and Gillette, but many people experiencing homelessness make their way to Casper and the mission, even if they have to hitchhike. Approximately three quarters of the mission’s clients are Wyoming residents, he said. Between July 2015 and June 2016, the mission provided more than 26,000 beds to those in need and more than 41,000 meals, according to its 2016 annual report.

On a single night in January 2016, Wyoming agencies reported 857 people were homeless across the state — a 48 percent increase from the number recorded in 2010.

The mission was founded in Casper in 1978 and moved into its current building on North Park Street in 1991. The building, a former hotel and brothel, has seen it’s days, said Michael Cavalier, the mission’s communications and events coordinator. The staff originally planned to renovate and expand the existing building, but contractors advised the nonprofit that it would be more efficient to build a new facility, Cavalier said. The current facility will eventually be demolished and the land turned into a parking lot.

The mission currently offers 80 beds, both emergency and for long-term residents participating in the rehabilitation programs. The new facility will have 48 emergency beds for women and children and 73 such beds for men. The residential house will add 16 beds for the men in that program, which gives clients a chance to recover from addiction or trauma while developing life skills.

The new dining room will be able to sit 100 people at once, compared to 35 in the existing room. Rescue Mission staff and volunteers often have to serve meals in shifts because there isn’t enough space for everyone who needs a meal.

Hopkins, who has been the nonprofit’s director since 2012, said the expansion has been a dream for the Rescue Mission’s staff and volunteers for many years.

A frame of stained glass sat on the window in Hopkins’ North Park Street Office last week, the early winter light illuminating a Bible quote:

“’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”


Education
WYOMING WIND DEVELOPMENT
Wind subsidies survive senate, while some Wyoming lawmakers plan to increase wind tax

The wind industry breathed a sigh of relief Thursday night when the U.S. Senate’s proposed overhaul of the tax system avoided cutting into a subsidy relished by wind developers and utilities.

But at the same time, a handful of lawmakers in Wyoming are showing a renewed interest in increasing taxes on wind.

The state and federal measures are central to developments ongoing in Wyoming, where a handful of proposed farms could double the wind capacity in the Cowboy State.

Federal lawmakers pushing for the end of the subsidy say policy shouldn’t favor one industry over another. State lawmakers say it’s time to treat wind like Wyoming’s non-renewable resources. But, while the cost of developing a wind farm is lower than any other form of new generation, developers say in either case, their projects would take a hit.

***

The Senate’s plan differed from a House proposal passed Nov. 2 that immediately triggered panic in the wind industry. The House bill would force some developers, who are currently qualified for the tax credit for their nascent projects, to go back and requalify, potentially losing out on the $23 per megawatt hour of wind energy boon offered by the federal government. The proposal also effectively reduces the amount of the credit for other developers.

A representative of the American Wind Energy Association said the House proposal alone has had a chilling effect on the wind industry, one that would freeze over if the proposal actually found its way into law.

“If Congress is able to change the rules in the middle of the game they are sending a message to the market … that they can’t count on the terms of contracts they’ve signed,” said Evan Vaughan, spokesman for the association.

A number of financial firms agree.

According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance the impact of the House’s proposal could take an expected 38 gigawatts of new power through 2020 and reduce it to 19 gigawatts.

The two proposals have a ways to go before they are combined into a single bill reforming the nation’s tax system. And some influential senators have already made it clear that they would not support reducing wind incentives that are already gradually sunsetting, with a firm deadline of 2020. As part of a deal with Congress reached in 2015, many farms currently in development will keep the tax credit for 10 years beyond that deadline if they meet a number of qualifications.

Power Company of Wyoming, which is has started construction on the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre 1,000 turbine wind farm going up in Carbon County, is counting on having the full production tax credit to fill their sails when they bring their power online and try to find buyers in California and the desert Southwest. A spokeswoman declined to speculate on the House proposal so early in the process, but said the company was watching it closely.

Wyoming’s largest utility, Rocky Mountain Power, wants Congress to let the wind subsidy decline as planned. The company is hustling to spend nearly $3 billion in Wyoming repowering its wind fleet and building wind and transmission – all before the subsidy deadline.

“With the production tax credit and its existing program, we can continue to make some investments that will bring substantial benefits of renewable energy at costs that make the projects economically feasible,” said David Eskelsen, a spokesman for the company.

Rep. Liz Cheney applauded the House’s tax proposal. She said in an email that wind is important to Wyoming, which is why the House bill keeps the slow phase out of the production tax credits that were agreed on by industry and Congress in 2015.

“Moving forward, we need to ensure we are removing distortions to our energy market created by polices such as those that subsidize otherwise unsustainable projects,” Cheney said.

A spokesman for Sen. Mike Enzi said he couldn’t speculate about what would happen as the debate continues Monday in the Senate. Enzi is a member of the Senate Finance Committee.

“[The senator] will be judging amendments on their own merits,” said Spokesman Max D’Onofrio in an email Friday. “Generally speaking Senator Enzi would like to see energy sources compete on a level playing field. “

***

Federal winds subsidies are a sticking point for many in Wyoming, and they are at times used as a justification for lawmakers seeking an increase to the state’s wind tax. But it’s only part of their pitch.

For Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, more wind is inevitable, and the tax is a way to soften the blow of turbines on the landscape for generations.

“I’m very resigned to the fact that we will have wind in Wyoming’s future,” he said. “Climate change will not change the wind patterns … whether it is developed now or in the future, I’m pretty sure that that energy source will be needed.”

As lawmakers in Washington decide the fate of a federal boon to the wind industry, Case and Rep. Mike Madden, R-Buffalo, are planning a measure for the upcoming budget session that would increase the wind tax from $1 per megawatt hour to $3.

Wyoming needs the revenue right now, both lawmakers agreed.

Developers say it’s a bad idea.

In an interview earlier this year, Roxane Perruso, vice president and general counsel for Power Company of Wyoming said increasing Wyoming’s wind tax will not boost revenue. It will reduce interest.

“If the projects don’t go forward, then an increase in the wind tax will have accomplished nothing,” she said.

Eskelsen, of Rocky Mountain Power said an increase in the wind tax would fall on customers.

Wyoming’s tax on producing power from wind is the only tax of its kind in the country. Minnesota also has a tax, but it is in lieu of paying full property taxes for wind farms.

According to a study from the University of Wyoming, the tax is one of the reasons Wyoming had a drought in wind development following 2010, despite phenomenal growth in neighboring states.

***

Madden and Case have unsuccessfully pushed for a tax increase before. The current proposal will be more modest than the quintuple increase that failed in the last legislative session.

Though wind isn’t a fossil fuel, the lawmakers want it treated like one. At least in some respects.

This go-round Madden wants to take 25 percent of the revenue from taxing wind and put it in the permanent mineral trust fund – a bucket of money from taxing non-renewables like oil and coal that’s invested to extend the benefits of fossil fuel production to future generations. It is also the second largest contributor to the state’s general fund most years.

And just as fossil fuel taxes are tacked onto the cost of our natural resources, and paid by buyers in other states, ultimately, it will be Californians bearing the burden for the tax increase, said Madden.

They want our wind. They can pay for it, he said.

It will be a tough sell this year. As hungry as lawmakers are for new revenue to make up for declines in coal, oil and gas, the budget session will be a tense and busy session. Madden’s bill will need a three-fourth’s vote to pass.

Proponents of the increase are adamant.

“[Wind] is getting cheap enough to stand on its own,” Case said. “So let’s stop linking our brain to the [federal wind subsidies] and think about how Wyoming should do this on its own terms.”


Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune  

A Rocky Mountain Power wind turbine pictured Wednesday, June 28, 2017 near Medicine Bow.


Casper
ASH STREET REDEVELOPMENT
City Council to hear redevelopment proposals for Ash Street buildings

Three empty buildings along Ash Street in downtown Casper might be getting a makeover.

Local business representatives interested in purchasing and revitalizing the properties presented their proposals at City Council’s Tuesday night work session.

The buildings, which were part of the former Plains Furniture property block, include the former Ka-Lark’s gymnastics studio, the former Milo’s Toyota body shop and a former livery stable. City officials purchased the former Plains Furniture property block in early 2016, with no exact plans for its use.

Preference will be given to proposals that indicate an ability to start redevelopment within 30 days of receiving the contract and those that prioritize historic preservation, according to the memo.

The city followed the same general process with the former Fruit Warehouse building in late 2013 and early 2014. Now in the building are ART 321, Racca’s Pizzeria Napoletana and Urban Bottle.

Western portions of the United States tend to have fewer historic buildings than its eastern counterpart, Becher previously told the Star-Tribune, and she believes it’s especially important for this region of the country to try and preserve older structures.

The anticipated revenue from the sales of these properties is estimated at $850,000, states the memo. The revenue would repopulate the Revolving Land fund.

The Plains Furniture property block also includes the former Plains Furniture store that is along David Street. The city learned after purchasing the structure that it was hiding two pieces of local history.

An old photo revealed that the building next door — a restored 1920s fire station that now houses commercial space — had a garage, which was later covered by the furniture store. Another discovery was made this summer: Behind the ceiling tiles and white-painted dry wall of the store are the remnants of Nolan’s Chevrolet dealership, a 1920s staple in downtown Casper.

That property is undergoing a partial demolition project that includes asbestos-containing material abatement and light interior and exterior demolition.

Revitalizing the city’s core has been a priority for city leaders in recent years. Becher previously said the city will begin renovating Midwest Avenue in January by adding street lights, widening the sidewalks and moving the electrical wiring underground.

“We’re going to totally reconstruct it, just like we did with West Yellowstone,” she explained. “We’ll have park benches and bike racks, and at the corners we’ll have planters with trees and flowers.”

The David Street Station, a plaza that offers community gathering spaces and a stage, was opened by the Downtown Development Agency in August.

City officials hoped the complex would encourage economic growth and the plan appears to be working. New businesses have recently popped up in the surrounding blocks including Racca’s Pizzeria Napoletana, Urban Bottle and The Gaslight Social bar.


Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune  

Jenny Hunter holds a photo of her son, J.R. Hunter, as she poses Thursday in north Casper. J.R. took his life on June 3, 2015. Since then his family has been hosting grassroots support meetings.


Education
Environmental groups push back on Cheney amendment allowing birds to be killed; industry supportive

Rep. Liz Cheney doesn’t want industry prohibited from doing business for fear of killing birds and being penalized for it.

The congresswoman introduced an amendment to that effect in the SECURE Act, a sweeping piece of legislation that would, among other things, allow for more state control of oil and gas activities on federal land. It passed in the House Committee on Natural Resources on Wednesday.

The amendment, however, will have a different home, tucked into the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which turns 100 next year.

The measure answers a complaint from the oil and gas industry, and more recently the solar industry. They don’t want liability for accidentally killing migrating birds, whether by an oil field disposal pit or a solar farm.

The amendment is short and in keeping with views held by the Trump Administration that regulations burdensome to industry should be avoided. That stance has already impacted regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Interior Department.

A free pass

So what does the bird amendment achieve?

To conservationists it’s carte blanche for industry to be careless, and they’ve pledged to fight back.

“Rep. Cheney is giving oil and gas companies and other industries a free pass to kill birds with impunity,” said David Yarnold, president of the National Audubon Society in a statement Wednesday. The environmental group is calling Cheney’s proposal the “bird-killer amendment.”

In Wyoming, the proposed change will largely be relevant for the wind, oil and gas industries, said Brian Rutledge, conservation policy and strategy adviser for Audubon.

And that’s not good for Wyoming birds, he said.

“What it means is if you kill birds in the commission of industry, you are held harmless,” he said.

In a statement Wednesday, the Audubon Society pointed to the number of ways industry contributes to bird deaths, including 500,000 to 1 million birds a year killed in oil waste pits and some 175 million birds annually killed by power lines, according to according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates.

In 2014, PacifiCorp, the parent company of Wyoming’s largest utility paid $2.5 million in fines for violating the Migratory Act after more than 370 birds including eagles, wrens and sparrows were found killed at the company’s Seven Mile and Glenrock/Rolling Hills wind farms.

For environmental groups this is simply about protecting birds, said Rutledge of the Audubon Society, noting that if the amendment stands, industry can be careless, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.

Icing on the cake

As conservationists attempt to protect one of their cherished regulations, industry is pleased to have its requests answered in Washington.

Audubon is confusing the bird issue, and the previous presidential administration did the same, said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the outspoken oil and gas group Western Energy Alliance.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act was meant to stop poaching and sale of birds, she said. It’s been broadened to create protections for birds that aren’t threatened species, she said.

“Those restrictions that reduce jobs and economic opportunity are justified when birds are truly threatened or endangered and any impact can threaten their survival, but not for species that are not endangered,” she said. “That is a clear violation of both [the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Birds Treaty Act] which Rep. Cheney’s amendment rightly addresses.”

But lifting the liability for killing birds in the process of doing business is icing on a bigger cake.

Industry is leaning toward state leadership on oil and gas exploration and production, and the SECURE Act is favorable for the WEA.

While Cheney’s efforts address the rising conflicts in Wyoming over federal permitting delays, leadership in the state regulatory agency has said the details need to be worked out before the commission formalizes an opinion.

The SECURE Act passed out of committee and is headed to larger discussion in the House.