LUSK – The Niobrara County Commission convened for a meeting Sept. 17 at 9 a.m. in the Niobrara County Commissioners’ room of the Niobrara County courthouse.
The commission unanimously approved “a resolution in opposition to COVID-19 vaccine and testing mandates” during their meeting. Chairman Patrick Wade said he believed Niobrara County was possibly the first county in Wyoming to approve such a resolution but suspects other counties will follow.
The resolution states, “The Niobrara County Commissioners believe President Biden’s mandates are unconstitutional. The Niobrara County Commissioners oppose the implementation of any and all COVID-19 vaccination requirements or mandatory COVID-19 testing for any citizen of the United States, regardless of their employment. The Niobrara County Commissioners believe that the taking of a vaccine is a personal choice, and the right of refusal, as well as the right to accept a vaccination, should be fiercely protected.”
The final line of the resolution states the commissioners “encourage Governor Mark Gordon, Wyoming Attorney General Bridget Hill, and the Wyoming Legislature to prevent these mandates from being implemented or enforced in the great State of Wyoming.”
After the unanimous vote, each commissioner signed the resolution. Wade said he would reach out to local representatives Hans Hunt and Cheri Steinmetz and Governor Mark Gordon.
This resolution comes as the third resolution of this type issued by the commissioners this year. The first two were written and approved to establish Niobrara County as a second amendment sanctuary county and the second states opposition to President Biden’s “executive order on tackling the climate crisis at home and abroad,” also known as the “30x30 executive order.”
“I would have never dreamt that we’d be having to speak up on this sort of thing, here,” Wade said. “I think it’s important for the county to speak up in some fashion and voice our opinion.”
The resolutions are non-binding, but they serve to state the opinions of the commissioners who represent Niobrara County.
“The governor has spoken out as strongly as he has on anything so far and sounds like the legislature, it’s almost certain they will have a special session, according to what Hans (Hunt) and Cheri (Steinmetz) have told me,” Wade said. “I think it’s a way to support them in their efforts.”
The commissioners are planning to host a 100th year celebration for the courthouse Oct. 15 from 1-3 p.m. The public is invited to attend and will have the opportunity to tour the now 101-year-old building.
The previous plan was to have a 100-year celebration in 2020, but due to the events transpiring in 2020 the celebration was postponed to this year.
During the celebration, around 2 p.m., the building will have a dedication ceremony as the building was never dedicated when it was originally built, according to Wade and County Clerk Becky Freeman.
The Niobrara Historical Society purchased a sign to commemorate the building and provide some information about the building. Installation of the sign began Sept. 17 on the southeast corner of the courthouse’s lot and has since been completed.
Niobrara County Sheriff Cary Gill, Undersheriff Kelly Dean and Niobrara County Attorney Anne Wasserburger discussed how the sheriff’s office hanldes money paid for fines and bonds.
Gill said they commonly refer people to the website, citepayusa.com, which is also linked through the Niobrara County Sheriff’s Office website, niobrarasheriff.org. Any fines brought in during the day are directed to the Niobrara County Circuit Court for handling.
“We used to take fine money, but don’t anymore,” Gill said.
Gill said they take bond money outside of business hours for the court, but they have a lock box and process in place to prevent any issues with accountability.
“Two people usually take the money and witness counting it,” he said.
Regional Supervisor for Public Health Melanie Pearce, RN, DNP, requested the commissioners consider the use of money from the American Rescue Plan (ARP) to fund a new solution for a better public health facility. Currently, Niobrara County Public Health is operating out of a small office space northwest of the Niobrara Community Hospital.
The building in which the public health office is located is owned by the county, leased to the hospital and is then rented back by the county. However, the other approximate 2/3 of the building are rented out to a local dentist. Wade pointed out the rent paid for the public health office was agreed upon at $1 a year to maintain documentation formalities.
Wade said the commission was planning to use the funds elsewhere but were open to consider the proposal made by Pearce. He said the commissioners were currently looking to get a redundant fiber optic feed in the town of Lusk, which would require a private/public agreement, however, Wade said again he would be open to the conversation.
Pearce, who is currently managing Albany, Platte, Converse and Niobrara Counties, told the commissioners she would like them to consider acquiring a larger space for public health to operate. She said another county was currently looking at building a new facility for their public health offices using ARP money, and she wondered if this was something Niobrara County would consider.
Vice Chairman John Midkiff, Commissioner Elaine Griffith and Wade concurred the primary concern for the proposal would be the sustainability and maintenance costs of the building.
Additionally, Pearce raised the question as to whether the funds could be used to hire more staff for Niobrara County Public Health as there is currently only one employee directly serving the people of the area and she is only at the office two days a week. Pearce said the lone person would also be leaving at the end of the year and the vacancy would need filled, regardless.
Wade told Pearce his primary concern was sustainability; would the county be able to sustain more positions in the future?
“When ARP money is gone, then we would be back to the same discussion as now, sustainability,” Wade said. “It boils down to money and the lack of money.”
Pearce informed the commissioners of another concern with public health, the resignation of Heather Saul, Public Health emergency response coordinator.
Wasserburger said the contract with public health stated the county will provide the supplies and support needed for the county health office. She then asked if the state department of health could help supplement the county’s contributions to get public health what they need.
Wasserburger and Pearce discussed another option, where another county could take over, but they cited the importance of public health being supported within the county. They, and the commissioners, agreed it needs to be a community-based program.
“COVID isn’t going away,” Pearce said. “It’s going to be around and now we have to live with it.”
Pearce added the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) can now come in and do vaccine clinics so public health can step away from it.
Road and bridge foreman Fred Thomas presented his report to the commissioners about projects he was working on. Thomas said he had reached out to the Wyoming Department of Transportation to receive millings from a project they are doing 13 miles north of Lusk on Highway 85, beginning Sept. 23.
According to Thomas, the millings could be used in Niobrara County to help finish up several projects for road and bridge.
Thomas told the commissioners he plans to store half of the millings at the fairgrounds and would be determining where to stockpile the rest. He hopes to be able to strategically place the piles so the county can save money and wear and tear on their vehicles.
Wade told the commissioners a green hydrogen project had been proposed for Niobrara County. The proposed project would use wind and solar energy to power its plant. The plant would then take water and separate the hydrogen and oxygen molecules to ultimately store the hydrogen extracted from the water.
“It’s an absolute consumptive use of the water,” Wade said.
He explained after the process occurs, the water is gone, so they would need to know if the project is viable in the area and the impact it would have on the resources of Niobrara County.
The proposal indicates the desire of the company is to allot 40 square miles to the project.
Wade said he had reached out to the Carbon County commissioners as they had dealt with projects similar to this in the past.
He also said he had asked who the company was who was looking to do this project but was not told who it was. According to Wade, the information he received is the company is not Chinese, but it is international. He said he is actively looking for more information on the matter and the avenues through which the commissioners can weigh in on the decision. He said he was told the wind turbines would number in the 100s if the project is approved and moves forward.
Wade recommended taking a hard look at getting a conditional use permit regulation in place for the county. The permits could help to address the biggest concerns of consumptive water use and the viewshed.
Despite the concerns about the project, some of the potential pros would be the addition of 40-60 full-time jobs and around 250 temporary jobs to build the plant.
Wade said the commissioners would be pushing to have a public comment period to help drive the commissioners decision-making process with regard to the proposal.
The next meeting of the Niobrara County Commissioners will be Oct. 5 at 9 a.m. in the commissioners’ room of the courthouse.