October 30, 2014

Website ranks UNI high for affordability and being ‘eco-friendly’

UNI campus.

UNI campus.

The University of Northern Iowa likes to say its students are “Purple for Life” in reference to the school’s colors, but a new survey credits the Cedar Falls campus for being green.

The bestchoiceschools.com website ranks UNI third on its list of “50 Great Affordable Eco-friendly Colleges.”

UNI sustainability coordinator, Eric O’Brien, says the ranking is recognition of the things they’ve done to save energy. “There’s a lot of work that we try to do as far as reducing our energy load to campus. We’ve invested consistently in trying to get more energy-efficient systems, upgrading some of our systems that in many cases were decades old,” O’Brien says.

One easily recognized example is updating the lights in the UNI-Dome — the campus stadium that has hosted hundreds of college and high school sporting events and championships. “They were original lights from the 1970’s when the structure was put in. And just those upgrades in lights saves us over 20-thousand dollars a year in electrical bills,” O’Brien explains. “So, there’s some amazing impacts that we can do just through some minor changes that the people using the facilities don’t necessarily know.”

O’Brien says they also do a lot of planning to get the most efficient new buildings on campus. “Anytime we’re doing new buildings or major renovation, there are considerations that are taken for everything as far as how efficient that building runs,” O’Brien says. “Whether it’s how we take out waste to how we use energy, to how we’re using the space right around it. To make sure that it’s a building that can last, it’s a building that can use the least amount of energy we need it to use and still be very comfortable for the occupant.”

The university has a variety of programs to get students involved, including the creation of a bicycle exchange program. “Getting people to donate old, unworking bikes, and we’re fixing them up trying to get those back in the hands of our students who don’t necessarily have a bike — kind of a bike share program,” O’Brien says.

Another project that is in the works right now is revamping the entire system for handling waste on campus. “Trying to get more and more recycling options on campus — because it costs us pennies on the dollar to recycle material — compared to taking it to the landfill,” O’Brien says, “when we now that almost 60-percent of the material in our waste stream could be recycled if we would be able to do that. It’s and area that can save us a lot of money if we would be able to do that.”

O’Brien says education is one of the keys to implementing the changes in the waste stream, so that everyone on campus knows how to properly recycle material. The website says UNI’s on-campus organization called c.a.r.e. (creating a responsible environment) promotes eco-friendliness and sustainable living through a number of on-campus initiatives.

The top two schools on the list ahead of UNI were Berea College in Kentucky at number one, and Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. Iowa State University was the only other Iowa school on the list, coming in at number 12.


Special investigation finds lack of records for West Liberty city operations

Auditor-logoThe State Auditor released a report today on the special investigation of the financial operations of West Liberty. Deputy State Auditor, Warren Jenkins, says it was hard to figure out what was going on with the city operations because of there was no paper trail to follow.

“We found that simply because of inadequate records, we could not tell whether all of the ambulance billings that should have been received were actually collected. Whether what was collected was actually deposited. A similar situation with citations issued by the police department,” Jenkins says.

He says they also had trouble getting a handle on the utility billing, which suffered from the same poor record keeping. But one big error did stand out in the utility bills. “We did find in the case of the electric utility, that an incorrect rate had been entered into the utility system, which had the effect of increasing the bills paid by the electric customers by about 260-thousand dollars over a seven-month period that ended in January of this year,” according to Jenkins.

Jenkins says that billing error led to each electric customer paying around 100 dollars more than they should have. The special investigation covered the period from July of 2010 to January of 2014 and was requested after concerns were raised about former city administrative secretary, Marivel “Mari” Pearson. She was responsible for collecting and recording collections for utilities, ambulance calls, fines, park and recreation fees, and other miscellaneous revenue.

The audit found Pearson was not happy when a new billing system was installed and said she “became hostile” when questioned about discrepancies in utility payments by customers. It also said that Pearson would sometimes open the utility payment box and prepare a deposit before other city employees had a chance. Some customers paid their utility bills with cash. Pearson was fired in November of 2013.

Jenkins says getting information was not easy. “They did not have all the records that we would have recommended, particularly reconciliations where you can tie from one month to the next, some individual records were not available,” Jenkins says. “Unfortunately this is the situation that we find in many small entities.”

He says they do know how the electric billing went wrong. “We did find that the city manager at the time was the one who was basically responsible for the incorrect electric rate being used. But essentially, the lack of adequate records was simply the responsibility of those who should have been maintaining and preparing the records, and those who were supervising them,” Jenkins says. Jenkins says the report makes several recommendations on how West Liberty can improve its operations. He says there is now a new city manager in place. Copies of the report were sent to the Muscatine County Attorney, Attorney General and DCI.

Find out more about the audit here: West Liberty investigation PDF


DOT keeping an eye on testing of guardrail at center of controversy

dotThe Iowa Department of Transportation is not planning to pull out special ends put on guardrails that are the focus of a Texas lawsuit until they get more information from federal transportation officials. DOT director of traffic safety, Steve Gent, says the piece of guardrail in question is called the E-T-Plus end treatment.

“It’s really a device that’s probably about six feet long and it fits on the end of a W-beam guardrail, so that’s why it’s called an end treatment,” according to Gent. “In Iowa the first ones were installed in about 2010 and we think we have just over a thousand of those in the state at this time.”

A Texas jury awarded a $175-million judgment in federal lawsuit against the maker of the device, Trinity Industries, over the company’s alleged failure to report design changes. The changes allegedly can cause the guardrail to go through a car and several states have banned the end treatment.

Gent says the Iowa DOT has not reason to remove them yet. “It’s important to note with these that the Federal Highway Administration has said all along that these are safe. Currently because of the lawsuit that’s been filed, the Federal Highway Administration is asking that states for safety and crash information,” Gent says. “We’ve provided that to the Federal Highway Administration. And at this point, we have seen no issues regarding safety.”

He says an accident with these devices is rare in our state. “An average end terminal gets hit one out of every 40 years, so on average these things are in place a long time before they are hit,” Gent says. “So, the fact that Iowa has about a thousand of these out there, it’s pretty typical that we wouldn’t have very many hits against them yet, but there have been some and there haven’t been any significant injuries — they’ve performed well so far in Iowa.”

Gent says this end treatment was created to reduce accident caused by the old system. “Years ago they used to bury the end of a guardrail and then vehicles would hit that and then vault up and they would actually go flying through the air, and there have been different systems,” Gent says. “Today what they try to do is put a blunt end on the end of the barrier…it really functions like a crash attenuator.” The blunt end is pushed forward and the guard rail slowly bends to absorb the impact of the crash. Federal officials have asked for a new round of crash tests in the wake of the lawsuit.


Court denies appeal for Cedar Rapids man in daughter’s death

The Iowa Court of Appeals has upheld the conviction of an eastern Iowa man in the death of his young daughter. Twenty-five-year-old Zyriah Schlitter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment resulting in death following after his 17-month-old daughter died in 2010 from severe head injuries.

Schlitter’s appeal said statements he made to police violated his Miranda rights and he also claimed his attorney was ineffective in several areas. The Appeals Court ruled Schlitter was not in custody during his interview and there was no issue with his Miranda rights. It also ruled that there was enough evidence for the jury to find Schlitter guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and he was not given ineffective representation by his lawyer.

Schlitter is serving up to 55 years in prison for his conviction.

Here’s the complete ruling: Schlitter ruling PDF


Board of Regents asks lawmakers for support of new funding formula

The Board that governs the three state-supported universities and their presidents have signed a letter to the legislature requesting support for their new funding plan. The Board of Regents calls it the “Performance Based Funding Model” and it would give 60-percent of state money to Iowa State University, University of Northern Iowa and the University of Iowa based on their in-state enrollment.

The other 40-percent would be allocated based on performance standards set up by the board. The new plan would give ISU and UNI an increase of more than $20 million each based on their in-state enrollment. It would cut the University of Iowa’s funding by a little more than $46 millions.

The plan seeks to ease the impact on the University of Iowa by putting a 2 percent cap each year on the reallocation of the funds — which amounts to $12.9 million in the first year.

The Board of Regents is asking legislators to provide supplemental funds to cover that amount. The letter says the new funding model is “equitable and transparent while demonstrating accountability” to the legislature, the governor and the citizens of the state.

Letter to Legislators PDF


Farmers play a waiting game with corn harvest over moisture levels

Corn combineThe latest U.S.D.A. crop report shows just 36-percent of this year’s corn crop has been pulled from the fields, which is six days behind last year and 16 days behind the 5-year average for harvest times. Monday’s report says the moisture content in the corn is causing farmers to be selective about when they harvest.

Benton County farmer, John Stien, is playing the waiting game with his corn crop. “Well, we got our beans done –that was a God-sent. I suppose we’ve got 20-percent of our corn out. We’re awfully selective in what fields we go in,” Stien says.

He says the timing of the harvest on the Newhall farm often depends on the variety of corn. “Some varieties seem to dry down, but most of them don’t. Drying some. Trying not to, but we get into these later varieties, we’re going to have to start drying a little more. We’re getting a lot of corn. I don’t have any idea what the yield is. We haven’t had a yield check this year, yet,” according to Stien.

They soybean harvest has moved right along as many farmers combined beans first to let their corn dry longer. The soybean harvest is 81-percent complete, with is 2 days behind last year and 4 days behind normal. The U.S.D.A. says some farmers have to wait for soybeans they replanted to mature before harvesting them.


One serious, one minor injury reported in opening of pheasant season

Pheasant hunter. (DNR photo)

Pheasant hunter. (DNR photo)

Thousands of hunters took to the field on the opening weekend of pheasant season, and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources says it had just two reports of injuries. DNR spokesman, Kevin Baskins, says the first happened in Plymouth County on the first day of the hunt Saturday.

“That gentleman is still in the hospital, he has undergone some surgeries, really don’t know what his condition is, but that one was fairly serious,” Baskins says. Baskins says 18-year-old Ross Arens of Remson was shot in the stomach as he handed a gun to a fellow hunter while trying to cross a creek.

The second accident involved a stray shot by a hunter. “Over by Barnes City in Mahaska County, we had one hunter in a group that shot at a pheasant and hit another person in that group,” according to Baskins. The hunter who was hit came out in better shape.

Baskins says, “Fortunately on that one, it was fairly minor injuries and he was treated and released from the hospital in Oskaloosa.”

He says these and any other accidents with guns can be prevented and stresses again that at this time of year when you have a lot of hunters out in the fields, it’s important to always review where everyone is going to be and review your safety procedures. “One of the unfortunate things about hunting, is once you pull that trigger, you really can’t take that shot back,” Baskins says.

The DNR survey shows the pheasant numbers are up this year, but Baskins says a couple of things may’ve help the birds survive the first weekend. “It was kind of an interesting, unusual pheasant opener for us as it was unseasonably warm, and we do still have some crops in the field,” he explains. “If we get those crops out, those birds are going to be much more accessible.”

That warm weather played against hunters and their dogs in favor of the birds. “In pheasant hunting a lot of times you are really depending on those dogs, and when it gets warm like this it is really hard for those dogs to work very long, they get overheated fairly rapidly in that kind of heat,” Baskins explains.

Baskins says the good news is there should be more birds later in the season this year, as the ones who escaped in standing crops and benefited from tired dogs will still be out there.