Consumer advocates reviewing Black Hills Energy rate hikes

Consumer advocates with the Wyoming Public Service Commission are investigating a Black Hills Energy proposal to consolidate and raise natural gas rates statewide.

The Office of Consumer Advocate, an independent audit division of the PSC, is reviewing a recent Black Hills request to increase rates by an average of 17.3% across multiple service areas by 2020.

Earlier this month, Black Hills Energy asked the commission to consolidate the company’s four Wyoming gas utilities into one new legal entity, Black Hills Wyoming Gas. The company also submitted a rate review application to consolidate the rates, tariffs and regulations of existing gas territories in Wyoming.

Company executives say the rate changes will streamline service to 129,500 Wyoming customers and help Black Hills recover investments more reliably.

But, as proposed, some residential customers would see steep increases in their natural gas bills. In Casper and Gillette, customers could expect increases of 15%-30%, and Cheyenne and Cody customers could see 2%-15% hikes, according to the consumer advocate office.

Black Hills representatives say the utility plans to invest $106 million in 2019 to replace, upgrade and maintain nearly 6,000 miles of transmission and distribution pipelines in Wyoming – infrastructure required to ensure safe and reliable delivery.

If the OCA investigation finds Black Hills has overstated what it realistically costs to provide natural gas in these service areas, they could recommend ways to decrease those costs and lessen the burden on consumers.

The investigation will likely wrap up in September. The proposal would then go before the PSC in December for consideration.

Wyoming next to last among states for children’s health

Wyoming ranks just one spot from the bottom compared to the rest of the nation when it comes to the health of its children.

In the 2019 Kids Count Data Book, compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Wyoming’s child health system ranked 49th in the nation, only outpacing Alaska.

The study looks at various factors that create a safe and productive environment for a child to grow up in.

That low ranking in health is a stark contrast to Wyoming’s other rankings in family and community (ninth), education (14th) and economic well-being (14th). Those other three rankings moved Wyoming up to 21st in the nation for the overall environment for children.

The health well-being scores took into account four categories: babies born with low birth weight, child and teen deaths per 100,000 people, teens who abuse drugs or alcohol, and children without health insurance. In each of those categories, Wyoming came in worse than the national average.

But Wyoming has improved in the first three categories since 2010. The state has seen a drop in children who abuse substances, from 6% to 5%, and a reduction in the number of youth deaths per 100,000, from 32 to 29, close to the national average of 26.

But the state has gone in the opposite direction when it comes to children without health insurance.

According to numbers gathered from 2017, the most recent year data was available, 10% of Wyoming’s children 18 and younger lacked health insurance. That number has grown from 9% since 2010. During the same time period, the national average dropped from 8% to 5%.

Wyoming unemployment falls to 3.5% in May

The Wyoming Department of Workforce Services reported recently that the state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate fell from 3.6% in April to 3.5% in May.

Wyoming’s May unemployment rate was lower than its year-ago level of 4% and slightly lower than the current U.S. unemployment rate of 3.6%.

Most county unemployment rates changed very little from April to May. Slight increases were seen in Niobrara (up from 2.2% to 2.7%), Albany (up from 2.6% to 3%) and Goshen (up from 3.3% to 3.6%) counties. Unemployment dropped in Teton (down from 3.8% to 3%), Big Horn (down from 4.5% to 4%) and Park (down from 3.9% to 3.5%) counties.

From May 2018 to May 2019, unemployment rates fell in 21 counties and rose slightly in two counties. The largest unemployment rate decreases were seen in Fremont (down from 4.8% to 3.8%), Teton (down from 3.8% to 3%), Washakie (down from 4.2% to 3.5%), Natrona (down from 4.4% to 3.7%) and Converse (down from 3.5% to 2.8%) counties. Goshen County’s unemployment rate increased from 3.3% to 3.6%, and Niobrara County’s unemployment rate increased from 2.4% to 2.7%.

In May, the highest unemployment rates were reported in Big Horn County (4%), Sublette County (3.9%) and Fremont County (3.8%). The lowest rates were seen in Niobrara County (2.7%), Converse County (2.8%), and Weston and Crook counties (both 2.9%).

Total nonfarm employment in Wyoming (not seasonally adjusted and measured by place of work) increased from 286,500 in May 2018 to 290,800 in May 2019, a gain of 4,300 jobs (1.5%).

Wyoming Stock Growers announce new officers

The Wyoming Stock Growers Association has announced the addition of several new officers to bring extensive knowledge of Wyoming’s agriculture industry to the association’s leadership.

The new Region II vice president is Dan Frank, who lives near Meriden in Laramie County. His goal is to carry on and strengthen the association’s mission of protecting the viability of the cattle industry in Wyoming.

Previous first vice president Scott Sims has been announced as president of the WSGA. He lives in Albany County; his goal is to provide opportunities to make ranching possible for the next generation in Wyoming.

David Kane was elected as first vice president. He lives and ranches in Sheridan County; his goal for WSGA is for all members to voice their ideas and concerns for the betterment of the organization and industry.

JW Rankin of Converse County was elected as Region III vice president. His goal for WSGA is focused on working to advance Wyoming’s cattle industry by taking an active position to ensure the industry moves in the right direction while fending off attacks.

Brad Mead was elected Region IV vice president, and hopes to increase awareness about the benefits of membership and participation in the WSGA across a broad spectrum of producers and wildlife advocates.

Groups break ground on Energy Vision 2020 wind project

Rocky Mountain Power, local leaders and community members kicked off construction efforts on Energy Vision 2020 during a groundbreaking in Carbon County.

The project includes three new Wyoming wind farms that will provide a total 1,150 MW of new wind, which represents a nearly 60% expansion of PacifiCorp’s current owned and contracted wind fleet, as well as a 140-mile high-voltage transmission line in Wyoming that will help more wind energy connect to PacifiCorp’s transmission system.

In addition to the new wind projects and transmission line, the company’s Energy Vision 2020 initiative will upgrade, or “repower,” the company’s existing wind fleet with longer blades and newer technology to boost output and extend the life of the projects.

Projects within Energy Vision 2020 include:

• Repowering current wind turbines in Converse County

• New wind construction, Ekola and TB Flats I and II, Carbon County

• New wind construction, Cedar Springs, Converse County

• Gateway West Transmission, Sweetwater & Carbon counties

These investments will help diversify the state’s economy, create jobs and add to the tax base.

These projects are expected to:

• Create 1,100-1,600 construction jobs in Wyoming and more than 100 full-time positions

• Add approximately $120 million in tax revenue from construction

• Bring significant post-construction annual tax revenues starting at approximately $11 million in 2021 and growing to $14 million annually by 2024

Business Council recommends $9.3M for manufacturing plant

Plans to develop a $17.8 million manufacturing plant in Cheyenne are moving forward.

The Wyoming Business Council board last month recommended the state approve a $9.35 million loan for the construction of an 80,000-square-foot biomedical facility on the city’s east side.

The loan, funded through the state’s Economic Development Large Project program, is still subject to State Loan and Investment Board review and governor approval.

Owners of California-based Innovive, a company registered as WYTEC locally, are working with economic development groups to design and build a state-of-the-art manufacturing plant in the Cheyenne Business Parkway within two years. Cheyenne LEADS, which owns the business park, would sell the acreage to WYTEC.

The company specializes in disposable caging products for laboratory rodents used in medical research. Traditionally, these animals are housed in thick plastic containers that require regular sterilization.

Innovive would move its entire production to Cheyenne – a boon to the city and Wyoming. Although the plastics manufacturer now uses a third party to sterilize the cages, owners want to expand and offer those services, too.

The company plans to employ 80-100 local workers, and the Business Council estimates a $3.2 million economic benefit to Wyoming annually.

Taco John’s, Jonah Bank donate $14,500 for suicide prevention

Taco John’s and Jonah Bank of Wyoming have partnered the past three years with the Grace For 2 Brothers Foundation in Cheyenne to help prevent suicide. This year, the two businesses donated $14,500 to Grace For 2 Brothers and other suicide prevention organizations in front of the Taco John’s restaurant on Carey Avenue.

Wyoming has a suicide rate of 26.9 people per 100,000, which is higher than the national average, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The national rate of suicide is 14 per 100,000.

Jim Creel, president and CEO of Taco John’s, said the company joined the initiative because it’s the company’s civic duty to give back to the community.

Cheyenne nursing home cited as problem facility by feds

A Cheyenne nursing home continues to be closely monitored by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services amid quality of care concerns.

Cheyenne HealthCare Center, located at 2700 E. 12th St., is one of 88 “Special Focus Facilities” failing to meet CMS compliance standards throughout the country. Fewer than 1% of American nursing homes are currently on the list.

Five other locations in the state are among 400 focus facility candidates that consistently perform poorly. Those are Sheridan Manor in Sheridan, the Wyoming Retirement Center in Basin, Shepherd of the Valley Rehabilitation and Wellness in Casper, Westward Heights Care Center in Lander and Thermopolis Rehabilitation and Wellness in Thermopolis.

Facilities added to the list are subject to more unannounced inspections. Each must graduate within two years or risk termination from federal health-care programs.

After 12 months in the program, Cheyenne HealthCare Center’s most recent inspection revealed “significant improvements,” according to CMS.

Still, in the past few years, the nursing home has been hit with thousands of dollars in federal fines after inspectors found instances of preventable patient injury, questionable mental health care and record-keeping oversights.

Cheyenne HealthCare Center ownership did not respond to request for comment by press time.

To see the inspection reports in full, visit www.medicare.gov/nursinghomecompare.

To submit a business news item to the Wyoming Business Report, email it to news@wyomingbusinessreport.com; fax it to 307-633-3189; or mail it to Brian Martin, c/o Wyoming Business Report, 702 W. Lincolnway, Cheyenne, WY 82001.

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