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2017: Wild weather, eclipse, boundary dispute voted year's top local news

Dec 31, 2017 From staff reports

Extreme weather conditions have been so prevalent this year that they have earned the No. 1 spot in the list of top 10 stories for 2017.

The annual list is compiled through a vote of the news staffs of The Ranger, Lander Journal and Wind River News. Seven voters cast ballots on a list of dozens of stories compiled by staff writer Katie Roenigk, who also prepared the 12-month county news summary which begins on page A-4.

1. Wild year for weather

It all began in the first month of the year, which was named the wettest and snowiest January on record for Riverton, with nearly 17 inches on the ground. January also broke a cold-weather record when temperatures fell to W22;33 degrees in the first week of the month, with a gauge at the Little Wind River bridge south of town registering W22;38 degrees.

In February, however, a sudden warm spell caused much of the accumulated snow to melt, flooding populated areas of Fremont County, including many areas that virtually never see flooding, including the Central Wyoming College campus in Riverton.

One person died in the February floods, and roads, buildings and bridges were damaged.

Big snowstorm after big snowstorm blanketed the area for months, and by April, 2017 had gone down in history as the wettest year to date, with more than 7 inches of precipitation at that point having fallen in downtown Riverton.

More flooding came later in the spring, and though it was much anticipated due to record levels of snowpack in the Wind River Mountains, it still caused major damage, with record levels of water flowing down the Wind River to breach the Riverton Valley Irrigation District canal, leaving users without water for weeks.

Later in the year, September met or exceeded several high-temperature records, with temperatures reaching 92 degrees at the beginning of the month.

2. Solar elcipse

A cosmic event with global reach had a major impact on residents of Fremont County this year, reaching second place on the top-10 list.

A total solar eclipse Aug. 21 crossed the United States, including Fremont County, where the sun was obscured by the moon for more than 2 minutes in most places.

Central Fremont County was rated as the best place in the nation to see the eclipse because of its longevity in the path of totality, elevation, lack of air pollution and favorable weather pattern.

Businesses and communities in Fremont County promoted the area as an eclipse destination for more than a year, projecting that 10,000 people would flock to the area to witness the event.

For their part, law enforcement and government officials began planning for an increase in traffic and waste over the eclipse weekend. Meanwhile, experts began visiting the county offering lessons about solar eclipses, and local students and scientists began preparing experiments they would conduct during totality.

In the days leading up to Aug. 21, thousands of people streamed into Fremont County via ground and air, filling campsites and hotel rooms throughout the area.

And after the two-minute event, it seemed every visitor attempted to leave at once, causing traffic jams on normally empty roads. The Wyoming Department of Transportation says almost 33,000 more vehicles drove through Fremont County that day.

Overall, officials said the event went well, with no major problems related to the eclipse, though the city of Riverton didn't make enough money to recoup its preparatory expenses; administrators said sales tax revenues may make up the difference later.

3. Boundary dispute

At the beginning of 2017, the State of Wyoming and the city of Riverton received favorable news when the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a 1905 Act of Congress did diminish the boundaries of the Wind River Indian Reservation.

The Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes, however, prepared plans to appeal the ruling, and said they would ask for an "en banc" hearing which would give all 12 judges in the 10th Circuit a chance to weigh in on the case, as opposed to the three that initially heard the case. The tribes hired a panel of attorneys with national reputations to press the case.

The petition was circulated to all the circuit court's judges, but no one asked for a rehearing to be considered.

Tribal leaders criticized the opinions of two of the three judges and described them as "deeply flawed." But while changes occurred with administration of the Environmental Protection Agency, the newly appointed administrator asked for a 45-day extension on the deadline for appeals, which was granted a total of two times in the summer.

The tribes requested a rehearing on the boundary case and in August, and the attorneys for the state and the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation were told they would have to challenge that request. When the colder months rolled in, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals announced it would not revisit its February ruling.

At the end of November, the tribes hadn't announced plans on whether they would appeal once again. All that remains is a request for a hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court, which judicial experts said was a long shot.

4. Business economy

As 2016 showed the initial effects of a downturn in the economy, 2017 rolled out a series of local losses. Kmart was no longer part of the Riverton community at the start of 2017. After 40 years, it closed as Sears Holding described it as unprofitable store for the company. Nine months later, the owner of Safeway, Albertson's, announced it would be closing the Riverton store after decades of being a cornerstone for the local retail business. It was also noted to be an underperforming store.

Safeway's closure, however, gathered more community response when the former mayor, local economy leaders and community members voiced their hopes for saving the chain store but to no avail.

The two closures also shuttered two pharmacies in town, and the remaining pharmacies enjoyed both a surge in business and the stress that came with it.

In the midst of the closures, the Eastern Shoshone tribe shared with the public its initial plans for developing the 304 acres they bought east of North Federal Boulevard between Webbwood and Honor Farm roads. Preliminary plans included an active commercial civic center, events facility, restaurants, retail space, hospitality services, baseball fields, and other services.

Also on the horizon were plans for four disposal wells for wastewater as part of the Moneta Divide project. Aethon Energy asked Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission for approval in September. Encana Corp. had previously developed the project with plans for 4,250 more wells across 219,000 acres.

At the close of this year, local economy entities shared hopes of reviving Riverton's empty buildings. The Kmart property is now for sale, while the Safeway property is for lease.

5. School funding crisis

Fremont County's No. 5 story of 2017 has caused concern for legislators, educators and families throughout the state.

Lawmakers have been grappling with a $400 million annual funding deficit for K-12 education all year, largely tied to a downturn in the fossil fuel industry, which funds a majority of the education system.

Some legislators during this year's session called for an increase in taxes to bridge the gap, but they were overruled by others who thought cuts could solve the problem.

In the end, the Wyoming Legislature made an additional $34.5 million cut to school funding for the year.

In Riverton, that meant a $1.34 million funding decrease and layoffs - mostly through attrition - though Lander and other districts in the county said they would be able to make the cuts without losing any employees.

Later in the year, Riverton schools took steps to reduce the square footage the district owns in order to address a funding deficit for building maintenance related to declining enrollment and the legislative changes to state reimbursements.

Meanwhile, the state has hired a firm to explore recalibration of the school funding system. The process included consideration of school consolidation.

6. County slashes budgets

Revenues have been down in Fremont County as well as the state due to the economic downturn connected to the minerals industries.

In February, the Fremont County Commission asked local elected officials to cut an additional 10 percent from the "bare bones" budgets they submitted last spring. During budget hearings in April, though, several of those officials said it would be impossible to make such a large cut while still fulfilling their statutory responsibilities.

Most non-essential agencies achieved their budgetary goals, however, including local libraries, which made the by cutting down on hours and raising fees. Social services were impacted by county funding cuts, too.

Regardless, the county still had a $1.4 million deficit that it had to cover using money from investments, a health insurance fund, a road construction fund and a capital revolving fund.

The conflict didn't end there: In June, Fremont County Treasurer announced his resignation after commissioners cut almost $20,000 from the salaries budget for bonuses for his employees. He changed his mind a week later. But in July he made headlines again when he initiated the closure of the county clerk's office in Riverton. Then, he gave his employees raises instead of bonuses. The county had instituted a hiring and wage freeze in May that technically expired in June, but after Harnsberger made the pay raises commissioners voted to extend the wage freeze indefinitely.

7. Air service

Members of the Fremont Air Service Task Force shared hopes for a self-sustaining service with Denver Air Connection-- Riverton Regional Airport's newest airline with flights to Denver and Sheridan. DAC arrived when Great Lakes Airlines saw a drop in enplanements in recent years due to price increases and a decline in reliability.

In February, the city renewed its contract with DAC for another year with a new minimum revenue guarantee obligation of roughly $3.7 million, as opposed to the $3.9 million previously.

DAC got commitments from the city of Riverton, Lander and Fremont County for the minimum revenue guarantee that was part of the agreement that brought DAC flights to Riverton. Federal and state funding also helped.

By May, the city was able to see just how the first full year of service had been with DAC, and officials realized that they would fall short of the 10,000 boardings needed to receive a $1 million in federal grant funding.

In September, the Riverton Regional Airport board suggested a change to the airport's name and asked for public input, but ultimately decided not to change the name after more discussion.

By July, DAC had improved its passenger numbers. The arrival flights for the solar eclipse in August brought it closer to the10,000-passenger mark.

That same month, the airport announced Great Lakes Airlines had fallen behind on its payments to the airport and a possible end of their service at the airport. The city of Riverton charged Great Lakes $2,000 a month for leased space.

By October, Great Lakes had suspended service to Riverton Regional, giving DAC a boost in its passenger count. In November, however, a new airline inquired about adding air service at the Riverton airport. And by December, SkyWest Airlines had submitted a proposal to serve the airport, leaving it to compete against DAC for the city's air service contract.

Both contracts would require subsidies from local government, so due to funding constraints the city will need to choose one airline.

Despite the boost in boarding numbers in most months of 2017, the airport was unable to meet the 10,000 mark by the end of the year. No decision on which bid to accept had been made by year's end.

8. Public official turnover

It was a rough start for the city of Riverton when its city administrator Steven Weaver announced his resignation in January. He had been the city administrator for five and a half years but decided to accept a deputy city manager job in Arizona, effective March 1.

By mid February the city would consider the applications of seven people interested in serving in the interim-- which they expected to be anywhere from three to six months.

Luckily for the city, former administrative services director Courtney Bohlender submitted her interest, and the city and Bohlender agreed to a contract in March.

Also in March, Riverton Police Department Chief of Police Mike Broadhead announced his resignation after accepting a job in Georgia. The city advertised the opening for the interim position and they interviewed three candidates. Two of the three were internal police department heads and ultimately they chose captain Eric Murphy.

April came with saddening news when Riverton City Council member Lee Martinez died. The city considered four Riverton residents to fill in the vacancy for Ward 2. The council interviewed all the candidates in the following council meeting and voted for Lance Goede, counselor and student success coach at Central Wyoming College.

In July, the city named Murphy the new police chief, but the city administrator search continued. The city interviewed a pool of potential candidates and invited them to a meet-and-greet but it wasn't until October that the city decided to hire Tony Tolstedt as the new city administrator. His first day on the job was Nov. 1.

Also in October, a disagreement over zoning ordinances resulted in the resignation of the city's planning commission chair Deborah Blumenshine. While she said everyone in the group were against a conditional use addition to a zoning ordnance, mayor Lars Baker noted that not everyone in the commission expressed a definite no. Blumenshine described an email from Baker as "condescending and inappropriate" while Baker defended the email and said it was taken out of proportion.

Changes in personnel also happened at Wind River Job Corps, when director Julie Gassner left the position to take another with the Wind River center's parent company, Management and Training Corporation. Jim Whitmire took over as director soon after, with plans to address high turnover issues and boost recruitment.

The Riverton school board elected Jenni Wildcat in November to serve as the new board member. She replaced Sandy Barton who resigned from the board in October after she became ill. Barton died not long after that. The board interviewed seven applicants, including former board members. Barton was the director of Fremont County's Board of Cooperative Education Services and was instrumental in the location of the Wind River Job Corps.

9. American Indian bills

Gov. Matt Mead said he wanted to continue funding the tribal liaison program when he set it as one of five general fund requests in his supplemental budget proposal in January. At that time, Eastern Shoshone liaison Leslie Shakespeare had already resigned to become a member of the Shoshone Business Council. Sergio Maldonado remained as the Northern Arapaho liaison. Mead suggested the $160,000 one-time item would support two liaisons.

By the end of the session, funding for tribal liaisons was cut in half ,and only $80,000 of general fund money, instead of another $190,000, was approved by the Joint Appropriations Committee. The Shoshone tribe later announced the opening for a part-time tribal liaison with the governor's office and by that time, Maldonado resigned, citing the funding cuts.

The governor's office stated the governor would accept candidate names from the tribes and select the new liaisons with the advice of the Wyoming Senate. If the position were't filled, they would remain vacant and the positions would be discussed at the next legislative session.

This year, State Rep. Jim Allen, R-Lander, was the lead sponsor of the American Indian Education program bill, which was finally approved by the Select Committee on Tribal Relations. More importantly, the bill finally passed in the Legislature this year, after several years of battling the nay sayers and changing the verbiage.

The American Indian Education Program, which was derived from the former Indian Education for All bill allows the Wyoming Department of Education to work with the tribes of the region, including the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes to evaluate and review existing social studies standards content to make sure cultural heritage, history and contemporary contributions are addressed.

Superintendents and educators from Fremont County originally drafted and pushed it to their local lawmakers. In November, a new panel of Wyoming educators and local tribal members had already met to discuss revisions to the state's social studies standards.

10. Hospital changes

The county's hospital system experienced ups and downs in 2017, but the year began on a positive note, when SageWest Health Care at Lander was fully reopened in January after sustaining damage in flooding the year before.

Around the same time, though, Blue Cross Blue Shield dropped the SageWest emergency departments in Riverton and Lander as preferred providers, meaning costs were likely to rise for local patients.

Representatives from the insurance company said they would bring the ERs back in network quickly, though.

Then in March, the Wyoming Department of Health asked SageWest Health Care at Lander to offer free blood tests to patients who underwent surgery there between December 2013 and October 2016 after an agency investigation determined unsterile and poorly-cleaned equipment had been used during that timeframe.

New CEO Alan Daugherty came on board in the spring, pledging to stay in the post "for a long time to come." SageWest had gone through three other CEOs since the beginning of 2016.

Shortly thereafter SageWest announced it would re-open its obstetrics services in Riverton after consolidating the OB department to Lander last year. At year's end, that still had not happened.

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