Wyoming news briefs for April 22

Gordon approves rental assistance program

CASPER — Gov. Mark Gordon signed legislation Wednesday authorizing a federal rental assistance program in Wyoming paid for with $200 million in pandemic relief dollars.

The application process for the program is expected to open 8 a.m. Tuesday.

The rental assistance program isn’t new, but it has been reorganized under the Department of Family Services.

A previous rental assistance program paid for by federal pandemic relief dollars went largely unused in the state. The Wyoming Community Development Authority had been overseeing that program, which distributed fewer than $2 million from the $15 million earmarked for the program.

Officials said a combination of strict eligibility requirements and high rates of denial contributed to the relative ineffectiveness.

That program has not been active since December, meaning federal rental assistance hasn’t been available in Wyoming for several months.

Officials are hoping this iteration of the program will distribute a much greater share of aid. Applicants can use the funds to pay for late fees and utilities as well as housing costs.

Applicants will need to meet income-based eligibility criteria and will need to prove their housing instability is related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are very thankful to Governor Gordon and the Wyoming Legislature for giving us the opportunity to help families who rent their home to avoid homelessness while recovering from the impacts of the pandemic,” Department of Family Services Director Korin Schmidt said in a release Wednesday. “The program also will help landlords, many of whom are small businesses, avoid financial difficulties when their renters cannot pay.”


Cody schools to ask for mask rule variance

CODY — The Cody School Board will ask the state to end the district’s mask requirements.

After a survey of the community and staff last week, the vast majority of respondents – more than 70 percent in both cases – said they wanted the mandate to end. Tuesday night board members unanimously voted to ask for a variance.

“We personally feel that (wearing a mask is) detrimental to our children’s physical and mental health,” said Brandon Robinson, a parent who spoke at the meeting. “We have a five-week window here to prove that we don’t need them next year.”

The school district originally imposed a mask mandate for students and staff across the district prior to the start of school last year, a key prong in the “Smart Start” plan they submitted to the state. The plan has contingencies in case coronavirus infections spike, something that would still come into play if the same happens again if the mask mandate is removed.

The district has had zero COVID-19 cases in the last 6 weeks, superintendent Peg Monteith said.

“There are a lot of people in this country and this world who would love to switch places with us,” said trustee Karen Schipfmann. “We’re in the buildings. We’re doing activities. I do support this. I trust our staff, I trust what they say. I still have some concerns, but I think we have to leave it to the medical people in the community to make a decision.”


Yellowstone to debut automated shuttles

POWELL — Visitors to Yellowstone National Park may be able to catch a glimpse of a rare kind of ... vehicle this summer. 

As part of a new, first-of-its-kind pilot program, the National Park Service will test out new automated shuttles in the Canyon Village area from late May through the end of August. The two driverless vehicles will operate at low speeds and stay within the Canyon area — only shuttling people from campgrounds and hotels to restaurants and visitor centers. 

The slow-moving electric vehicles will not be operating entirely on their own, either. As a Yellowstone webpage explains, “Each shuttle will have its own onboard attendant who will monitor safety and can take over the shuttle operation at any time.” 

Park officials and contractor Beep, Inc., are also conducting weeks of onsite testing and safety checks before opening the shuttles to visitors. 

“A successful pilot needs to ensure that safety comes first,” says a Yellowstone webpage dedicated to the program. “We will be able to measure and mitigate this in real time as we actively monitor all shuttle activity and environmental conditions.” 

The Park Service says it will be collecting data on ridership, speed, stop times, how often the attendants have to override the vehicle and more. 

The two shuttles delivered to Canyon Village on Monday have been decked out with park-themed imagery bearing the moniker T.E.D.D.Y. — shorthand for “The Electric Driverless Demonstration in Yellowstone.”


Northwest College approves $2.6M in cuts

CODY — Long-dreaded cuts have finally arrived at Northwest College. The trustees approved some $2.6 million in cuts Monday evening, the culmination of a months long process to overcome the funding deficit for the coming year.

The cuts, which had been talked about for at least the last six months, were forced after Gov. Mark Gordon and the Legislature cut community college funding by nearly $20 million across the state at the close of the legislative session. Low returns from the fossil fuel and mineral industries in the state in 2020 were the primary culprits for the funding reduction the community colleges faced.

The cuts will shrink an already reduced faculty even more. Five faculty members will be laid off, while another six support staff will be let go. Another four full-time and one part-time instructional positions will simply not be filled. A total of 10 faculty positions (including one part-time position) are being cut in music, animal science, biology, English, education, math, communication and anthropology departments.

With these cuts, the faculty has been reduced by more than 25 percent since 2013.

Trustees called the decision “difficult” but said their hands were tied.

“We all talk about how these are tough decisions,” said Meeteetse trustee Larry Todd prior to the vote. “Regardless of how the vote comes out, I’m not going to be happy with it either way. I guarantee once I go into my lab and put that hat on again, I’m going to kick myself in the butt for going with this recommendation.”


Man sentenced to 20-30 years in multiple sex abuse charges

GREYBULL — A Burlington man was sentenced to 20 to 30 years in the Wyoming State Penitentiary at a Big Horn County Fifth Judicial District Court hearing on Thursday, April 15.

Erik Randall Gormley changed his plea to guilty on eight counts of sexual-related charges, including one count of sexual abuse of a minor in the first degree and three counts of sexual abuse of a minor in the second degree.

The change of plea was the result of a plea agreement. Gormley will serve 20 to 30 years for the one count of sexual abuse in the first-degree. He was sentenced to 15 to 18 years on each count of the sexual abuse in the second degree and eight to 10 years each on the other counts. Those will be served concurrently to the 20 to 30 year sentence other than one count that was suspended for 10 years supervised probation to be served once Gormley is released.

Other charges were dismissed as a result of the agreement.

Multiple victims were involved with the date of the abuse occurring as early as 2013 through 2019.

Judge Bobbi Overfield said this is an egregious crime.

“There is not a jail sentence that can heal,” she said. “It’s not the way it works.”

Overfield noted having some peace of mind that Gormley would have no access for a period of time; however, she said it doesn’t heal and doesn’t end the cycle.