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Commissioners hear from various departments; approve contract with USDA

CHEYENNE COUNTY – The Cheyenne County Commissioners met for its regularly scheduled meeting on Monday in which Chairman Darrell Johnson, Vice Chair Philip Sanders and Commissioner Randal Miller discussed a number of topics and various county needs in addition to approving a contract with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for the elimination of prairie dogs.

Later in the meeting, the commissioners approved an intergovernmental agreement between the City of Sidney, Cheyenne County and Morrill County Community Hospital to purchase two ambulances from Regional West each priced at $100,000 to be paid back over five years in annual installments beginning on July 1, 2024. A separate Sun-Telegraph article further details this commissioners approval.

After approving the current agenda and May 15 minutes, commissioners held a public hearing on an application for a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program from Panhandle Area Development District (PADD) to be put toward helping Adams Industries with a project out in the Potter area.

The CDBG would go to fund equipment purchases and working capital – such as bringing 33 new full-time jobs to the county for a minimum of 23 months, which would pay a minimum of $14.90 per hour. A portion of the grant is performance-based such as Adams Industries reaching certain metrics, for example, maintaining the required amount of employees.

The $1 million dollar grant will also go in part to the purchase of tanks to be used for the storage of raw materials at a newly constructed Adams Industries fertilizer facility. The total projected cost is roughly $2,300,000.

PADD Community Planner Amy Sapp explained to commissioners, Adams Industries was also funding this new project out of pocket themselves and there is a match grant to help the fund the project.

The Potter Volunteer Fire Department (PVFD) Chief voiced concerns of the possibility of needing extra fire suppression equipment with the addition of a fertilizer organization being in the area. He was also somewhat concerned he was not initially included in the project plans. However, PADD and Adams Industries agreed to sit with the chief and go over the various plans to help address his concerns. The chief said his concerns arise out of equipment being on a two year backorder.

Sapp explained the new resolution, 2023-18, which was formerly 2023-15, clarified to “show the money that's going in on their part as their investment.”

Sapp further explained her organization completed the environmental review, and the project is fully contingent based on the states' approval of these reviews to ensure the project is in compliance with appropriate regulations.

Commissioners also heard from Sidney Public Library Librarian Julie Stokes regarding the BookMobile program.

“I want to just thank you guys so much for your support and for the bookmobile,” Stokes told commissioners. “We just think it's a very important program.”

Stokes explained she makes a total of 23 stops, which she does 11 stops every other week and another 12 stops on the alternating weeks. Stokes makes stops at daycares, preschools, nursing homes, assisted living centers, some schools and even makes deliveries to home-bound individuals.

“I also have a few patrons that are unable to leave their home for one reason or another,” Stokes explained. “I also have a 100-year-old patron who I deliver a book to every other week and at age 100, she is still able to read fine print books – which I just think is phenomenal.”

Stokes went on to explain there has been a tremendous increase, roughly 116%, increase in patrons utilizing the library services.

From June 2021 through December 2021, the library saw 1,136 patrons; from the same time frame in 2022, the library saw 2,457 patrons.

However, the bulk of the conversation centered around the 28 year old bookmobile which is experiencing various mechanical issues, a significant oil leak and now a coolant leak.

The library has replaced the generator and radiator as well as had to replace a faulty battery charger with three batteries due to a small electrical fire. Despite the mechanical issues, the library is confident the bookmobile is worth investing in, because it’s diesel and has roughly 100,000 miles on it.

Stokes said the reason for revealing the issues with the bookmobile was to inform the commissioners so they can start thinking of a replacement.

Johnson asked Stokes if the library had begun to look into a new vehicle and used ones. A new bookmobile can run around $200,000 and a used one could run $77,000 plus.

Ultimately, the commissioners took the information under advisement and thanked Stokes for updating them about the library.

Nebraska Association of County Officials (NACO) Legal Counsel Elaine Menzel updated commissioners about the various activities her department is working on, one of which is making her rounds to each county commissioners meeting at least once during the year. She also explained her department is working on state handbooks for various county departments, such as county attorney, clerks and other offices.

Additionally, Menzel announced her department broke ground at a facility in Ogallala for her department which would make the state department more accessible for Western Nebraska. She also stated some events will eventually be held at the new facility in Ogallala.

Menzel explained state legislators recently introduced 800 bills which would have affected county commissioners and local counties. Another 291 bills, via omnibus, or “Christmas Tree” bills, were passed which do directly affect counties, such as new voter ID law and updates to the inheritance tax.

USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspector Matt Anderson presented the annual report and review to commissioners in hopes to extend a contract for several thousand dollars in the hopes of addressing the prairie dog concerns near Lodgepole and throughout the rest of the county.

During his report, Anderson presented his annual report, in which he stated “everything stayed close to the same from this time last year and over the last few years.”

Anderson explained the USDA has worked on 229 acres in Cheyenne County to remove invasive prairie dogs and attempt to fix the damage caused by them on farms, ranches and other properties.

In a January 2020 Environmental Assessment for the Prairie Dog Damage Management in Nebraska prepared by the USDA, it relisted the black-tailed prairie dog as a non endangered species and stated it was no longer in danger of becoming an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout its region. The black-tailed prairie dog spans down the eastern prairies from Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Teas, New Mexico and Arizona. In fact, the USDA determined prairie dogs have become a semi-noxious species in the area which leaves behind damage that could affect the area for up to 15 years.

This year in March, the USDA released a report which stated “livestock forage production can be reduced by as much as 50% from prairie dog foraging and clipping of vegetation to maintain an open landscape.”

In the last two decades, the USDA notes prairie dogs colonies have progressively increased in numbers and due to the pervasive damage they cause to farm lands, ranches and other commodities lands, Nebraska and the USDA began ethically and humanely removing them from prairie lands and replanting native prairie grasses or crop such as milo to discourage prairie dogs from inhabiting the area.

However, due to extreme drought conditions and sparse vegetation to forage in the southern states, prairie dogs have migrated north into Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming and South Dakota in larger numbers.

The commissioners sternly explained to Anderson, they were each still receiving phone calls from residents concerned with the on-going prairie dog damage, which is inching closer toward other properties in Lodgepole.

“It's a health concern for Lodgepole,” Miller said to Anderson. “We can't keep extending this contract and not see results.”

The commissioners explained their stance as elected officials was the lack of results from the ongoing efforts of prairie dog removal by the USDA in Cheyenne County.

“You're here today to ask for 5% more than last year's contract – but we need to see results, and I'm not picking on you Matt (Anderson) – we just want to see some changes,” Miller explained.

Anderson explained the USDA is currently working to get him some help for Cheyenne County specifically for prairie dog removal and clean up, however, he didn't know when that help would come. Anderson further explained funding from the federal government continues to be cut for programs like this, which makes getting the help needed to do such a large job more difficult. In fact, Anderson noted Cheyenne County is the only county in the Panhandle area that has one individual from the USDA that specifically does prairie dog removal, which was himself. He also explained to commissioners the department and agency is having a departmental leadership change, and now has a new boss in which he hopes can help alleviate some of the concerns in the county.

When asked when by Miller when he (Anderson) could begin addressing the prairie dog situation nearing Lodgepole, Anderson said around the September/October timeframe.

Ultimately, the commissioners decided to renew the contract for the USDA with the 5% increase over last year, with the caveat there needs to be significant changes and results.

University of Nebraska Cheyenne and Deuel counties 4H Extension Educator Laura Narjes presented a slideshow to commissioners detailing what programs are currently available or in the works with 4H and which programs she is seeking to bring to the local 4H programs.

She explained how she not only works with other agencies in the county and other 4H programs in surrounding counties to host these programs at minimal to no cost to the county, but that she also works with the schools as much as possible to provide school enrichment programs that met or enhance established standards.

However, Narjes is swamped with work and stretched thin, making her unable to reach every part of Deuel and Cheyenne counties to provide all the available programs. Because of this, she requested an intergovernmental memorandum between Cheyenne and Deuel counties to hire a 4H assistant to help her impact more youth in the area. She further explained the added pressure of Nebraska Extension Cheyenne County Manager Lynn McKinney's retirement means Narjes will soon be without another individual who has enriched the 4H program for the county.

When asked why the university wasn't funding for an assistant, Narjes explained she approached the university about hiring an assistant to help her, however, she was told the university is working to phase out 4H assistants and explained she would have to work with county officials to help fund an assistant position.

During her presentation, Narjes used nationally available statistics which indicate youth tend to make better and healthier life choices due to the impact of 4H programs.

Narjes presented a phased approach utilizing the current budget and projected budget for the next fiscal year to craft a two-year phase in approach to hire an assistant for the program to commissioners.

Ultimately, Narjes didn't ask for any decisions to be made on Monday, she explained to commissioners her only desire was to show them the impact 4H is having on local youth, the impact it can have with more help and that she would be back before the commissioners to request an additional roughly $6,500 be allocated to the county 4H program to hire an assistant. The plan is to have Deuel and Cheyenne County pay equally for this individuals salary of roughly $40,000 a year, with Cheyenne County paying the individuals benefits for a 60/40 split due to Cheyenne County being more populated with more youth in its 4H program.

The commissioners said they will take the information under advisement and will work with the program to find a solution.

In his report to commissioners, Cheyenne County Attorney Paul Schaub presented a contract with neighboring attorney Stacy Bach, to continue to handle conflict cases in a two-year contract. After some brief discussion, in which commissioners ask Schaub how many cases she handles for the county and if he felt she was doing a good job. To which, Schaub replied she is doing a good job for the county in handling the conflict cases and that she see's roughly 68 cases annually.

Commissioners approved the conflict cases contract with Stacy Bach at the current rate for two years.

The board of commissioners then went into the board of equalization in which they discussed private citizen tax adjustments.

Lastly, the commissioners heard from Cheyenne County Highways Superintendent Doug Hart regarding equipment updates and road updates.

Hart reported he went to Mitchell, South Dakota and took a look at the tractor the commissioners previously asked him to look at. He reported the tractor, which is being sold for $37,500, was in good shape, needed some light repairs but also would immediately need new tires. After discussing their options, the commissioners gave a conditional approval for purchase, pending verification of a few minor details of the equipment. They also approved a conditional approval for the purchase of a fuel tank the department can use out in Potter if it meets new regulatory requirements for $5,000.

The next Cheyenne County Commissioners meeting will be June 19, at 8 a.m. at the Cheyenne County Courthouse.


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