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Sarpy County leaders fear OPPD solar project could hinder sewer expansion

Sewers vs. solar power.

Efforts to build up both could have big implications for Sarpy County’s future. But those efforts also have sparked a dispute over land.

The Omaha Public Power District plans to build solar farms in eastern Nebraska that by 2024 would generate 400 to 600 megawatts of energy a year. To do so, it will need up to 3,000 acres of land.

As OPPD works to understand more about the cost and scale of the project, it has reached agreements with landowners to potentially purchase their land, some of which is in Sarpy County.

That’s concerning to some officials of a county wastewater agency that’s in the early stages of a $220 million plan to bring sewers to the southern portion of the county.

After the first sewer lines are installed, the agency plans to use new sewer fees and new property tax revenue to pay for future phases of the sewer project. OPPD doesn’t pay taxes because it is a public entity, so any land it purchases in the sewer agency’s jurisdiction, known as its growth area, would not contribute to the sewer system’s growth, leaders of the wastewater agency say.

“We have made a huge commitment of tax dollars in our sewer agency — a huge commitment — and the whole financial feasibility of it depends on the development of that sewer agency area,” Sarpy County Board Chairman Don Kelly said in an interview.

The agency’s growth area encompasses about 45,000 acres from southwest Bellevue to southeast Gretna, south of Highway 370. The first phase of sewer work may not be complete for a decade. But once the area has sewer access, developers will be able to build new houses, businesses and shopping centers.

Tim Burke, OPPD’s president, said the agency’s concerns are premature. OPPD began optioning land for the solar project as a way to understand possible costs, Burke said in an interview. Not all of that land will end up being purchased.

“We’re not going to have 3,000 acres of solar in Sarpy County,” Burke said.

The new solar power project, when complete, will lead to the closure of the last two units burning coal at OPPD’s power plant in North Omaha.

OPPD has not told the wastewater agency where in the county it has optioned land, Kelly said.

Now that OPPD has received proposals from companies who may build or operate the solar farms — those proposals were due last week — the utility provider will decide how to proceed, which will include speaking with sewer agency leaders.

“Our plan all along was to come back out to them and say, ‘Here’s what this looks like; give us feedback on it,’ ” Burke said.

The solar power project is expected to require 2,000 to 3,000 acres of land. Burke said OPPD has optioned about 1,000 acres in Sarpy County, though he didn’t know how much of it was in the sewer agency’s growth area.

Solar farms are expected to be built across multiple sites in OPPD’s 13-county service area.

A December letter from the sewer agency’s board to OPPD requested that the utility provider not purchase any land in the agency’s growth area. That letter was signed by Kelly and the mayors of Bellevue, Gretna, La Vista, Papillion and Springfield.

Dan Hoins, Sarpy County’s administrator, said sewer connection fees cost $17,500 an acre. The county would miss out on $17.5 million if OPPD buys 1,000 acres in the agency’s growth area, a figure that doesn’t include property tax payments from potential private development.

Andrew Rainbolt, executive director of the Sarpy County Economic Development Corp., said he thinks it’s too early to know what impact OPPD’s plans may have on the sewer agency.

“As more ... things come into focus, I’d like to be able to work with OPPD to figure out exactly what could work for them and still make sure that it works for the county as well,” Rainbolt said.

In lieu of taxes, OPPD directs some of its revenue to county and city governments and school districts. Some of that money — up to $30 million — is being used to kick-start the sewer project.

Burke said OPPD is committed to being a good community partner. It wants development in Sarpy County to succeed, he said.

Kelly and Hoins stressed that the sewer agency isn’t opposed to solar farms in Sarpy County; it’s opposed to those farms taking away land that would be attractive to private developers.

Hoins said he’s hopeful that OPPD and the wastewater agency will ultimately work together. After all, Hoins said, energy and sewer access go hand in hand when it comes to development.

“We could build this complete (sewer) system out, and it’s useless if (users) don’t have power,” Hoins said.

Omaha schools woo scarce substitute teachers with better pay, gift bags, bonuses

In the old days, a substitute teacher might find a tack on her seat.

Nowadays, she could find a goodie bag.

And a little something extra in her paycheck.

Some Omaha metro area schools are offering gifts, prizes, bonuses and higher pay to woo substitute teachers amid a shortage in Nebraska.

School officials attribute the shortage to the good economy, an overall shortage of teachers and retired teachers forgoing subbing to take full-time jobs.

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The shortage has been growing steadily statewide for at least a decade, reflecting a national trend.

It’s been hitting rural areas hard, but some metro area districts didn’t feel the pinch until last year.

Subs have gone from competing for jobs to taking their pick.

“There are so many that I could easily work every single day for the whole year,” said Shayla Sheets, who subs part time in several metro area districts.

Omaha Public Schools officials report that on any given day, 30% of sub requests can go unfilled.

Council Bluffs reports up to 15%, and Ralston up to 17%.

Mondays and Fridays are the hardest days to fill, officials said. Districts report trouble finding both last-minute and long-term subs. The high-demand subjects include special education, math, science, world languages, music, physical education, industrial technology, and family and consumer science.

While parents worry about snow days disrupting school, a lack of subs can also disrupt learning.

Without a sub, schools make do. Administrators, counselors and librarians fill in. Other teachers cover the classroom when they would otherwise be planning lessons. In some cases, classes of students are combined under one teacher, or a certified paraprofessional takes the class.

Most metro area districts raised the daily pay rate this year.

Most now pay $150 a day for a short-term sub. OPS pays $175, up from $150 last year.

Subs, generally, get no benefits like health or dental insurance. That’s one reason, officials say, that teachers may be foregoing subbing to take jobs with benefits.

To be a regular sub in Nebraska requires certification. There is also a Local Substitute Teaching Permit, which allows someone with 60 hours of college and a course in professional education to work in a district at the request of the superintendent.

In the Westside Community Schools, subs can earn a “Sub for a Sub” from Jimmy Johns if they work in qualified positions for a certain number of days.

The Millard Public Schools have been holding prize drawings for subs who work Mondays and Fridays, giving out T-shirts and Apple AirPods.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the district held an appreciation breakfast for subs.

The same day, Papillion-La Vista Community Schools held an appreciation day for subs, providing lunch and a half day’s pay for subs who showed up and attended training sessions.

During the lunch, several principals made pitches for the subs to work at their schools.

“There was a time, five or six years ago, when we may have taken subs for granted,” Andrew Bell, the principal at Anderson Grove Elementary School, told the gathering. “They were always there. And I think the shortage of subs woke a lot of people up.”

In December, Papillion-La Vista awarded prizes for subs who worked, calling it “the 12 days of Giveaways.”

Kati Settles, the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources, said her district started to notice the shortage about five years ago, but it got worse in the last couple of years.


Substitute teacher Barbara Cole assists student Grace Colbert at Papillion-La Vista High School. That district plans to offer a cash bonus for subs who work a certain number of days in March, April and May. Subs, generally, get no benefits like health or dental insurance.

Instead of seeing a handful of unfilled positions a day, lately they’ve seen as many as 13, she said.

In her district, the typical sub works six to eight days a month, she said. If those subs could be encouraged to work an extra day or two a month, that could cover the shortfall, she said.

To that end, the district plans to offer a cash bonus this spring for subs who work a certain number of days in March, April and May.

But, of course, all the local districts are vying for the same subs.

Sheets has been subbing in Papillion-La Vista, Bellevue, Westside and Millard. She recently applied to sub in Omaha, too.

She graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in May 2000 with a bachelor of science degree in middle level education.

Right out of college, she taught full-time eighth grade English at Logan Middle School in Bellevue for five years.

After her kids were born, she decided to stay at home, subbing occasionally. Back then, she had to hustle to get sub jobs.

“I remember calling down to the district office and being like, ‘I need sub jobs, can you put in a good word in the schools for me, that I would love to come in,’ ” she said.

“It’s never hard now.”

She loves subbing.

“It’s like one day I can be teaching high school PE, and the next I’m teaching elementary art,” she said. “So every day is fun, something different.”

The flexible hours are a plus, she said. She works about three days a week.

The pay is “decent,” she said, working out to about $20 an hour.

As a sub, she can work with students but without the responsibility of a full-time teacher to create all the lesson plans, grade assignments and email parents, she said.

Kids do sometimes make life difficult on subs, but she said good classroom management and setting expectations can reduce the likelihood of that happening.

She usually doesn’t have problems.

“Nine out of 10 times I have a great day with the kids. I have gone in some classrooms where it’s chaos, the kids are naughty for the sub. And I’ve gone down and talked to the administrator after that. And I let them know ‘This is how these kids treated me, and I am a guest in this classroom. And I probably won’t come back.’ ”

That shouldn’t happen, she said, if the regular teacher sets classroom expectations for when there’s a sub, and the consequences are clear for mistreating subs.

She said subbing isn’t for everyone.

“You have to go in and run that classroom. And you’re coming in on the fly. You’ve got to be confident enough to get up there in front of those kids and make their day as normal as possible.”

Otherwise, she said, they lose out on a day of learning.

She said the incentives are nice, but she lines up her schedule three weeks ahead.

Monica Sheridan, 22, has been subbing as much as possible since graduating in December from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

She is certified to teach Pre-K-12 art.

Districts are hiring teachers now, but she wouldn’t start teaching until next fall. So, in the meantime, she’s taking sub jobs.

“Subbing gives me a chance to get into a bunch of different classrooms, have a hand at teaching a bunch of different kids, and kind of work on my professional development, so that when I do go to those jobs, I can be like ‘Yeah, I haven’t taught yet, but I’ve subbed here, here and here, and this is what I’ve learned, how I’ve grown through that.”

She was a student teacher in Elkhorn in December. She finished student teaching Dec. 9 and started subbing in the district on Dec. 12 with a Local Substitute Teaching Permit.

Officials at Papillion-La Vista reached out to her because they needed a long-term high school art sub in March, she said. She took the job and will cover for a teacher who is going on maternity leave.

There is currently a limit on the number of days local subs can work in a year. Some school officials suggest that allowing them to work beyond the 90-day limit could help. Also, when teachers retire, they have to wait 180 days until they can sub if they are participating in a teacher retirement plan.

Eliminating or shortening that window would help, districts say, if it could be done without running afoul of federal law.

Officials said the long-term solution lies in boosting the numbers of new teachers, as baby boomers retire.Omaha-area high schools ranked by 2019 ACT scores

Omaha-area high schools ranked by 2019 ACT scores

Some states act to protect drivers from highway 'ice missiles'

WASHINGTON — Bill Taylor was driving home from work in New Hampshire last January when a chunk of ice the size of a shoebox broke off the top of a storage container hauled by a truck ahead of him, crashed through his windshield and hit him squarely in the forehead.

A good Samaritan stopped and called 911. An ambulance took Taylor to the emergency room. He had a 3-inch gash on his forehead and broken glass embedded in his hands and face. He received about a dozen stitches.

"It could have been worse," said Taylor, 42, a road and bridge construction inspector for the New Hampshire Department of Transportation. "I could have died if it had hit me in the neck and throat."

Taylor was the victim of an "ice missile" incident, in which sheets or blocks of snow and ice fly off roofs or windshields of cars and trucks, endangering those in vehicles behind them. Ice missiles can distract drivers and cause them to swerve into other cars. And they can crack windshields, and sometimes cause injuries — even deaths.

"They don't call them missiles for nothing. They create significant hazards," said Maureen Vogel, spokes woman for the National Safety Council, an Itasca, Illinois-based organization focused on eliminating preventable deaths. "Even if they don't result in an injury, it's terrifying, especially if you're going down the highway at 65 miles an hour and you see something flying toward your windshield."

Police and safety officials encourage drivers to keep their vehicles' roofs and windshields clear of snow and ice, but not everyone takes heed. A year ago, for example, state troopers in Connecticut warned of an "alarmingly high" number of missiles flying off vehicles after a late January snowstorm.

In many states, it's not illegal to leave the snow there, though some legislators are trying to change that. Many in the trucking industry oppose the efforts, worrying about the dangers of requiring operators to remove snow and ice from the tops of large rigs.

"It's very difficult to get on top of the trailer and remove that snow and ice," said Abigail Potter, a safety policy manager at the American Trucking Associations, a trade group. "It can result in workplace injuries."

At least four states — Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont — have bills pending that would require drivers to clear off excessive ice and snow and would impose fines for violators, said Samantha Bloch, a policy associate at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Some states allow police to ticket motorists if their vehicle is considered a danger or the driver can't see through an icy or snowy windshield, Bloch said.

And drivers can be ticketed for careless or reckless driving if snow or ice on their vehicle causes an accident.

But only a handful of states have laws specific to ice missiles.

Connecticut motorists can be fined $120 if they don't remove accumulated snow or ice. If a missile causes personal injury or property damage, the penalty is $200 to $1,000 for noncommercial drivers and $500 to $1,250 for commercial drivers.

Last year, Connecticut State Police issued 372 citations to noncommercial drivers and nearly 150 to commercial drivers, according to an agency spokesman, Trooper Josue Dorelus.

"It's a huge concern for us," Dorelus said. "We know that whenever chunks of ice or snow go flying from vehicles traveling at 55, 65 or even 75 miles an hour, it becomes a hazard for our motorists."

New Jersey has a similar law. Pennsylvania's ice missile law applies only if snow or ice strikes another car or person and causes serious injury or death.

New Hampshire's law refers to negligent driving and doesn't mention snow or ice, but legislators intended for police to use it to cite drivers who don't remove built-up ice or snow from their vehicles. It's called "Jessica's law," named after a woman killed in 1999 when ice from a semi hit another truck that ended up colliding with her car.

Federal officials don't keep data on crashes, injuries or deaths caused by ice missiles, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

But police and transportation safety advocates say the incidents are not uncommon in Northern states and those that get heavy snow and sleet.

Among such incidents:

Four people were injured in Massachusetts last month when ice dislodged from a truck and smashed through the windshield of a pickup.

A Minnesota woman suffered facial and head injuries after a huge piece of ice flew off a pickup truck and trailer in December and shattered her windshield.

A man in Pennsylvania was severely injured in January 2019 when a car in which he was a passenger was struck by an ice chunk that flew off a semi and smashed into the windshield.

In the past few years, several states, including Maryland, Massachusetts and Virginia, have considered bills requiring motorists to clear off ice and snow and allowing police to ticket those who don't. None has passed.

In Pennsylvania, Democratic State Sen. Lisa Boscola has spent years trying to expand the current law to require drivers to clear accumulated ice and snow, and establish fines for violators — even when no one gets injured. Those efforts haven't succeeded.

"It's been very frustrating. The trucking industry keeps pushing back," Boscola said.

Boscola started her crusade after a flying chunk of ice killed a woman in her district in 2005.

Kevin Stewart, president of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, said his group opposed Boscola's bill in 2018. Among its concerns was that the legislation would put truckers at risk because they'd have to climb 13 feet to remove ice and snow.

"You fix one safety issue and create another one," Stewart said.

Stewart said his group does not oppose Boscola's current bill because she has put in more safeguards to protect truckers and companies, such as an exemption if complying with the law would be a threat to the driver's health and safety or violate workplace safety regulations.

Ice and snow removal also can be dangerous and expensive for truckers.

Potter, of the trucking trade group, said about 97% of companies in the industry have fewer than 20 trucks and can't afford snow-removal systems, which can run tens of thousands of dollars.

Some larger companies do have devices at their terminals that truckers can drive through that push off ice and snow, she said. And truck owner-operators can use brushes or scrapers designed to clear off their trailer roofs, but they're not always effective, she added. Do-it-yourself brushes typically cost less than $200.

"You're not always going to clear off everything with one of those brushes because there probably is not enough leverage," Potter said. "Ice may be much more difficult."

The trucking industry thinks the federal government should address the snow-removal problem.

Nearly a decade ago, a national council of trucking association executives and dozens of state associations asked federal officials to determine the scope of the problem of truck driver safety in clearing vehicles and develop "practical, effective, and economically viable approaches to address it."

The federal agencies have yet to respond, according the trucking trade group.

'Very special thing': Iowa Dems outside state caucus tonight, too

SAN TAN VALLEY, Ariz. (AP) — For Iowans, going to college out of state, studying abroad or wintering in Arizona used to mean giving up quite a bit of power in picking presidents.

But this year, the Iowa caucuses won't all be in Iowa. Nearly 1,300 Democrats temporarily away from home will still attend the crucial first-in-the-nation caucuses from Paris or Palm Springs or dozens of places in between.

It's the first time the Iowa Democratic Party is holding "satellite caucuses" in far-flung locales to allowmore people to participate in a process often derided as opaque and exclusionary. Their votes will be added to the complex formula for divvying delegates among the Democratic candidates seeking their party's nomination to take on President Donald Trump.

"It's nice to have that specific influence that you get for being an Iowa resident and being the first to vote" despite being so far away, said Colyn Burbank, who expects about nine people to participate in a caucus he's hosting at his flat in Glasgow, Scotland. "It's a very special thing that Iowa has."

Burbank, 31, from Des Moines, is supporting Bernie Sanders, as are several of his friends from Central College in Pella, Iowa, who are now studying or working in Scotland. At least three other Iowa Democrats living in England plan to make the trip to Glasgow as well, he said.

"I know it's something that matters, and a lot of Iowans take it really seriously, myself included. I'm excited," added his friend, Taylor Vander Well, a 29-year-old from Des Moines who is living in Edinburgh, Scotland, and working at a software firm.

The Iowa caucuses are the subject of quadrennial criticism for asking so much of their participants, who traditionally must show up to their neighborhood meeting and publicly support their chosen candidate at precisely 7 p.m. on a Monday.

That inevitably limits participation. People who are working, traveling, attending college or escaping a frigid winter are out of luck. The elderly, people with disabilities and others who have mobility challenges can struggle in snowy or icy weather, and it can be intimidating for those with limited English skills.

The satellite caucuses are Iowa's effort to be more inclusive. They're a fallback option after the Democratic National Committee, citing security concerns, rejected a proposal by Iowa and Nevada to hold virtual caucuses in which people could participate by phone. Nevada's caucuses will all be in the state.

"We believe our party is stronger when more voices are being heard, and that's what this process is doing," said Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price.

Lifelong Democratic activist Joan Koenigs has been attending caucuses since before they were instrumental in presidential nominations, but she had to let it go when she and her husband started spending winters in Arizona.

She jumped at the chance to organize a caucus in the backyard of her home in San Tan Valley for what she thought would be some two dozen Iowans living nearby on the outskirts of metro Phoenix. There are enough Iowans in the neighborhood that they gather for a party at the clubhouse every winter.

The Koenigses' caucus, the closest to the Phoenix area, proved so popular she had to scramble to secure a room at the nearby movie theater large enough to house the more than 180 people who registered.

"I'm really quite passionate about participation in government, so I feel it's our duty to do this, and I'm thrilled," said Koenigs, a retired farmer and nurse who lives in St. Ansgar in northern Iowa.

Koenigs said she'll back Pete Buttigieg, who impressed her during a campaign event in Iowa last fall.

There are three other caucuses in Arizona, all of them in the Tucson area.

Iowa Democrats experimented with four satellite sites in the 2016 election, when about 150 people caucused at three large state government work sites and a nursing home in Iowa City — more convenient places than their assigned neighborhood meeting.

This year, satellite caucuses will be held in Iowa at assisted living centers, work sites and college campuses. Some also will be conducted in foreign languages. Others will take place earlier in the day.

Sites outside Iowa include college campuses in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island; libraries in Arizona, California and New York; churches in Illinois and Florida; a community center in Tennessee; and a hotel in Washington, D.C.

Altogether, there will be 92 satellite caucuses around the world, including 65 in Iowa and 24 spread across 13 states and the District of Columbia. Three international caucuses will be held, in Glasgow, Paris and Tbilisi, Georgia.

All caucuses are open only to Democrats registered to vote in Iowa. Out-of-state participants and those attending early in-state caucuses had to apply ahead of time so their registration could be verified. Organizers were given virtual training on how to run a caucus. The 1,288 people who have registered make up a sliver of those who will caucus on Monday. About 171,000 Iowa Democrats caucused in 2016 and 240,000 in 2008.

Being away from home means Iowans miss out on some of the one-on-one interactions with candidates holding intimate gatherings at small-town parks and pizza parlors.

But Austin Allaire of Huxley, a 23-year-old graduate student in London, said he's keeping close tabs on the race by listening to podcasts on the Underground. Still, it stings a bit when his mom sends pictures of candidates stopping near Iowa State University, where she's a professor.

"I always feel jealous of the front-row seat she's having," said Allaire, who plans to caucus for Buttigieg in Paris, the closest caucus to London.