May 13, 2016

Commissioners wish they hadn’t put Yellowstone in Powell school district

The federal government might send fewer dollars to Park County this year. That has Park County commissioners wishing they could force the government to foot the bill for the education of students living in Yellowstone National Park.

At their May 3 meeting, commissioners set aside time on their agenda to express regret that they helped clear the way for the State of Wyoming to pay for Yellowstone children’s education.

“I wish I had a do-over,” said Commissioner Joe Tilden.

The state of Wyoming pays for the education of the children living in Yellowstone National Park's Mammoth Hot Springs. File photo courtesy Neal Herbert, National Park Service
Acting as the Park County District Boundary Board, commissioners, the county treasurer and the county assessor grudgingly agreed to add the northern half of Yellowstone to the Powell school district in 2014; Commissioner Lee Livingston voted no.

The decision allowed the state to start paying the roughly $450,000 that it costs for the few dozen children in Mammoth Hot Springs to be educated in Gardiner, Montana, each year.

The county board’s vote to expand the Powell district’s boundary into Yellowstone came at the repeated urging of other local and state officials; they included the Powell school board, Gov. Matt Mead and then-State Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill. Those officials all said that’s what the law required — noting Wyoming’s constitutional obligation to educate children in the state.

Funding comes from the state; school officials in Powell and Gardiner officials have said the new arrangement is working smoothly.

Last week’s discussion gave commissioners a chance to publicly rehash their belief that the federal government should be paying for the schooling, but it did little else.

“Once you created that, or allowed it to happen, it’s done,” Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric told the commission last week.

Reversing course and shrinking the boundary to exclude Yellowstone would require agreement from the Powell and Cody school districts — “and you’d have to argue it’s in the interest of educating children rather than over a fight for money,” Skoric said.

The National Park Service had paid for the Mammoth students’ education for decades, but Yellowstone officials announced in early 2014 that the payments would have to stop. Park officials had discovered that — because Park County receives federal funding known as “Payment in Lieu of (Property) Taxes” — they were legally barred from paying for any Yellowstone students’ educations.

Park County Commissioner Joe Tilden
Commission Chairman Tim French said a recent warning that the county’s Payment in Lieu of Taxes might be cut by 40 percent prompted last week’s discussion. The Wyoming County Commissioners Association has advised Park County to expect those payments and federal Secure Rural Schools funding to drop from a combined $2.73 million this fiscal year to $1.55 million next year.

“I don’t think the federal government is keeping their word on this,” Tilden said of the potential drop.

Skoric suggested going to state legislators and telling them that, “things have changed — the feds have changed their tune, so we should change our tune.”

However, things have not actually changed yet.

The commissioners association’s warning about reduced federal payments is not new — and it may be wrong. The association has encouraged commissions to plan on a 40 percent cut for years and, for years, Congress has provided more Payment in Lieu of Taxes and Secure Rural School funding than the association’s projections. For example, Park County expected to receive a combined total of $1.13 million in the 2014-2015 fiscal year and actually got $2.23 million.

In addition, the issue for the federal government has never been about how much money Park County is receiving; Yellowstone officials have said the issue is that, under federal law, they can’t pay for the children’s education as long as the county is receiving any Payment in Lieu of Taxes.

All of the funding is dependent on Congress.

Northrup seeking re-election to Wyoming Legislature

Wyoming is in the midst of a bust that’s “hitting us pretty hard,” says state Rep. David Northrup. “I feel like I have the experience to be able to help navigate our way through it.”

That’s one of the reasons why Northrup has decided to ask voters to elect him to a third term in Wyoming’s House of Representatives.

In officially announcing his re-election bid on Wednesday, the Powell area Republican said his years of accumulated knowledge of the state and the local area are assets as Wyoming faces a drastic drop in revenue from decreased mineral production.

David Northrup
Northrup specifically cites his background in education. He served on the Powell school board for 12 years before joining the Legislature and has co-chaired the Legislature’s education committee since early 2015.

“I think I have an enormous amount of knowledge about how that works and where we can work the (education) system and try to make things better,” Northrup said.

By education, he means not only K-12 schools and the University of Wyoming, but also institutions like Northwest College.

Noting recent cuts at NWC, Northrup said Wyoming’s community colleges have “taken a pretty big beating” in recent years.

“We need to be sure to keep the community college system whole, not be cannibalizing it,” Northrup said. “It seems like at this time some of them are actually cannibalizing themselves to keep themselves running and ... that tends to be the end of a school when it gets severe.”

Funding for the state government — and education in particular — is largely dependent on natural resources and the production of oil, natural gas and coal have all slowed. Coal leases have funded the bulk of the recent construction of K-12 schools across Wyoming and many major coal companies are now in or on the verge of bankruptcy.

Northrup said he’s always been an advocate for low taxes and “we’re going to find out how well that’s going to work out in this next (Legislative) session, because at some point, we have to figure out how to fund schools.”

He said the budgetary impacts of this bust are going to be felt even more strongly in the coming years.

“This is going to be a downturn for everybody,” he said.

In a news release announcing his candidacy, Northrup says his work as a farmer and rancher has given him experience with complicated financial situations and he said his “conservative nature” will help the state.

He also said he enjoys the work and enjoys representing the people of Park County.

“It’s hitting us pretty hard and I feel like I have the experience to be able to help navigate our way through it,” Northrup said.

As for legislative accomplishments, Northrup points to a bill he helped pass in 2015 that allows people to drive some agricultural equipment without a commercial driver’s license.

Northrup said people didn’t want to go through the whole licensing process and its bookkeeping requirements just to drive a beet truck for a month during the harvest. Relaxing the licensing requirements has made it easier for farmers to find drivers and it “really has helped the ag world a whole bunch,” he said.

Northrup is wrapping up his fourth year in the state House.

Mike Specht, a Clark Democrat and the owner of a firefighting business, has announced he’s also running for the seat.

The district is made up of the eastern part of the city of Cody, Clark, Ralston, Heart Mountain, the Sunlight and Crandall areas and the Willwood area, where Northrup lives.

“It has been challenging at times to be everywhere at once,” Northrup said. “Sometimes I feel like I want a Star Trek transporter so that I can be in one place and then just materialize in another one almost instantly.”

His past public service also includes stints in the leadership of the Park County Republican Party (he’s currently vice-chairman) and time on the boards of both the Willwood Irrigation District and the Willwood Light and Power Co-op.

Northrup graduated from both Powell High School and Northwest College before completing his education at Montana Tech. He and his wife — Northwest College Associate Professor of Engineering and Mathematics Astrid Northrup — have three grown sons and two grandsons.

May 12, 2016

Lake Yellowstone Hotel turning 125 years old

As the National Park Service celebrates its centennial, the stately Lake Yellowstone Hotel is celebrating its 125th anniversary and recent designation as a National Historic Landmark.

The hotel — which first opened in 1891 — will celebrate the dual milestones on Friday with a series of free public events that run from 9:15 a.m. to 1 p.m.

“This milestone is especially significant when you remember that for its first quarter-century of the hotel’s operation, the National Park Service did not exist,” said Rick Hoeninghausen, director of sales and marketing for Xanterra Parks & Resorts/Yellowstone National Park Lodges.

“The hotel has withstood the perils of wars, the Great Depression, extremely harsh natural conditions, but many people through time were committed to the successful preservation of this elegant old hotel, and as a company we are proud to have played a significant role in that mission,” Hoeninghausen said in a news release.

The National Park Service and Xanterra Parks & Resorts will celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Lake Yellowstone Hotel on Friday. Photo courtesy Xanterra/Yellowstone National Park Lodges

Friday's events will include a procession of historic vehicles like the park’s famous Yellow Buses, interpretive walking tours of the Lake Yellowstone Hotel and short narrated driving tours of the area in historic buses.

A special ceremony begins at 10 a.m. with remarks and an unveiling of the plaque for the hotel’s April 2015 designation as a National Historic Landmark.

Lake Yellowstone Hotel opened its doors 19 years after Yellowstone became the world’s first national park. The hotel took two years to build at a cost of $46,000. It was originally a simple three-story clapboard structure with 80 guest rooms.

In 1903 and 1904, famed architect Robert Reamer oversaw a $60,000 renovation and expansion project that increased the hotel’s room count to 210 and added dormer windows on the roof, false balconies to windows and decorative oval windows.

Known for its Colonial Revival architectural features, such as its large extended gables supported by 50-foot Ionic columns, the Lake Yellowstone Hotel received a two-year, $28-million renovation in 2014. The renovation placed an emphasis on sustainability, Hoeninghausen said. The hotel earned Green Seal certification while also retaining the historic character of the hotel, he said.

The renovation included major structural enhancements and updated areas like the lobby, sun room, dining room, rooms and suites, delicatessen and registration area. The project also added a concierge desk, business center and bar.

In becoming a National Historic Landmark, Lake Yellowstone Hotel has joined some 2,500 other sites across the country that have been deemed to possess the highest level of historic significance. Although there are some 90,000 locations on the National Register of Historic Places, less than 3 percent are designated landmarks.

Bison named America's national mammal

Wyoming has long held the bison in high esteem — featuring the animal on the Cowboy State’s flag and making it the official state mammal in 1985. Now, the rest of the country is following suit.

On Monday, President Barack Obama signed legislation designating the bison as America’s official national mammal.

Lawmakers who spearheaded the effort said the animal — once nearly extinct — deserves an elevated stature because of its cultural and economic significance in the United States’ history, The Associated Press reported.

A bison herd roams Yellowstone's Lamar Valley in 2015. Photo courtesy Neal Herbert, National Park Service

Today, an estimated 30,000 wild buffalo live in America, with the largest population in Yellowstone National Park, according to the AP.


“Yellowstone is the only place in the United States where bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times,” the National Park Service says.

Before the mid-1800s, more than 30 million bison roamed around North America, with most living on the Great Plains, according to the Park Service.

Advocates of the legislation believe the new recognition of the bison will elevate the stature of bison to that of the bald eagle — America’s national emblem — in hopes of bringing greater attention to ongoing recovery efforts, the AP reported.

“I hope that in my lifetime, thanks to a broad coalition of ranchers, wildlife advocates and tribal nations, we will see bison return to the prominent place they once occupied in our nation's shortgrass prairies,” said Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, who worked with Republican Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota to pass the Senate version of the legislation.

~Tessa Schweigert contributed reporting

May 11, 2016

County insurance plan beating trends; commissioners sticking with it

National health care costs have risen by upwards of 10 percent over the past four years; in contrast, the Park County government is actually spending about 8 percent less than it was in mid-2012.

Those striking figures are one of the reasons that Park County commissioners have decided to stick with the county’s self-funded insurance plan instead of switching to a larger pool that — at least for the coming fiscal year — was offering a cheaper rate.

Whether it’s county employees’ hard work, luck or the county “doing the right things,” the self-insured plan is doing well and “we can’t find a compelling reason to make a change for a short-term potential savings,” insurance consultant Eric Deeg told commissioners last week.

The county made sweeping changes to its health insurance plan in 2010, after costs grew out of control. That included raising deductibles and putting a greater emphasis on prevention and wellness efforts.

“We can’t find a compelling reason to make a change for a short-term potential savings,” said consultant Eric Deeg.

While it’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason, “we’re just seeing fewer and fewer large claims,” Deeg said. The county used to have three to six employees suffer a severe and costly health problem each year and is now seeing one or two, he said.

Opting to stick with the self-insured plan is kind of like betting on the health of the county’s roughly 200 employees.

Park County set aside about $2.59 million for the insurance coverage this year, but that’s just a guess. Being self-insured means the county pays the actual costs of its employees’ covered health care claims.

If employees generally have a year of good health, the county can end up spending less than expected. For example, the county spent $260,000 less than it had budgeted over the first eight months of this fiscal year.

That continued success made it easier for commissioners to turn down two quotes they received for fully-funded insurance coverage.

Deeg warned that a switch to either of the two trusts that offered coverage “might have first-year savings that evaporate very quickly.”

The county's insurance consultant, Eric Deeg, compiled this analysis of options offered to the county.

Joining the Joint Powers Trust, for example, would have cost $2.21 million in the coming fiscal year — potentially saving the county more than $400,000. But Deeg said rate increases in coming years could wipe out those savings; he noted the Joint Powers Trust has raised rates by an average of nearly 8.3 percent a year over the past five years.

On the other hand, the downside and risk in being self-insured is that you can have a year that’s worse than expected.

While the county has stop-loss insurance (or reinsurance) that covers any extremely large claims, an unhealthier year still could cost the county much more than the $2.59 million budgeted.

One of the appeals of switching to a trust is that its larger pool of insured people would buffer the impact of a horrible year of claims.

“We’re going to do our best to make sure you don’t have any horrible years, but again, it’s a little bit of luck, too,” Deeg told commissioners.

Steve Penwell — an information technology staffer for the county and a member of the committee that oversees the health insurance plan — said a couple castrophic health problems could “take us out pretty quick.”

The committee “felt it was best to stay where we’re at” for the time being, but it’s aware of the security a trust could offer in the future, Penwell said.

“We’re doing really good and as long as things stay there, probably we’re alright for a couple years,” he said.

The two trusts that offered to insure Park County's employees have had generally higher increases to their rates each year, compared to the county's current, self-funded plan.

He and commissioners said more insurance options could be coming; for example, state legislators have discussed the possibility of opening up the state of Wyoming’s insurance pool to county governments.

Beyond the financial considerations, commissioners say they also like the control they have over the self-insured plan.

May 10, 2016

Park County jail administrator leaving, will manage Alaskan city

Park County is searching for someone new to oversee its jail, as the current administrator is becoming the city manager for a remote Alaskan town.

“I’ve just always wanted to go to Alaska,” said the departing jail administrator, Lt. Tod Larson.

Tod Larson
Larson — who ran for Park County Clerk two years ago — had served in the post since July of 2010. He’ll now help administer the affairs of Seldovia, Alaska, a city of about 255 people that must be reached by boat or plane.

Larson said Seldovia is beautiful, relying on fishing and tourism while being a popular place to retire.

The Cody High School graduate picked it over another offer to manage the city of Adak, Alaska — a similar-sized but even more remote community on the western end of the Aleutian Islands. Larson said he found Adak to be “pretty cool,” but “I just figured it’d be a little easier to get around” in Seldovia.

Park County Sheriff Scott Steward told county commissioners he hopes to replace Larson with someone within the department and that he wants them to be a certified peace officer.

Larson was not certified. That meant a lower salary and savings for the county, but Steward said it also meant the administrator generally couldn’t fill-in for detention deputies if a need arose in the jail.

“That kind of burned us a little bit,” the sheriff told commissioners last week.

If Steward finds a candidate who’s certified, that will up the county’s costs for the administrator position. However, he said that increase in salary would be more than offset by the fact that he has not replaced Lt. Dave Patterson, a Powell-based patrol supervisor who retired last year.

“My theory is we can squeak by for now without that” supervisor, Steward said, noting the county’s tight budget.

He said not having the patrol lieutenant should save around $95,000 a year in salary and benefits, though he added, “I’m going to need that position back eventually.”

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