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Karen Bossick photos, for the Times-News  

Everyone was smiling as they started the trek near Richardson Summit, even though it was unmercifully hot.


Local
Report: Idaho counties had rising wages, employment in the first quarter of 2017

TWIN FALLS — As south-central Idaho welcomes business expansions, with historically low unemployment, employers are stepping up their recruiting efforts — and their wages. In some cases, the wage growth in the region’s counties is surpassing both state and national levels.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported average weekly wages rose 7 percent across the state from the first quarter of 2016 to the first quarter of 2017. Idahoans’ average weekly wage was $775 — still far below the U.S. average of $1,111, which was up 6.6 percent from 2016.

In south-central Idaho, Camas County got the closest to the national average, with the typical employee earning $914 per week. Wages here were actually down from a year ago, but it was the only county to see a decrease.

The BLS data shows that Mini-Cassia led the way for wage growth across the region.

“The numbers kind of tell the story,” Idaho Department of Labor Workforce Consultant Chet Jeppesen said. “We have a low unemployment rate and businesses are raising wages in order to attract and retain a workforce.”

Cassia County’s average weekly wages grew 8.7 percent to $673. Minidoka County’s wages, meanwhile, rose in the first quarter of this year to $683, up 7.7 percent.

This is also a direct result, Jeppesen said, of new businesses coming in over the past couple of years — such as Fabri-Kal in Burley.

“It’s kind of a cycle we see. When companies build and expand, there’s more competition,” he said. “They’re paying competitive wages and offering competitive benefits.”

Even existing farmers and retailers are raising wages in Minidoka County, Jeppesen said. Additionally, Minidoka Memorial Hospital has been expanding, he said, and new healthcare-related jobs could boost the county’s average wage.

Fabri-Kal opened its Burley plant in 2015 with the plan of launching a line of plastic cups for Chobani. But in 2016, the company began hiring feverishly to expand making its wheat straw food service to-go containers, Plant Manager Brian Hackett said.

The company’s average weekly wage is about on par with Cassia County’s, he said. Fabri-Kal now has 60 employees — three times the number it had when it first opened.

In increasing wages, “We fight that battle all the time,” Hackett said. “I feel like we’re competing in both maintenance and machine operators, and that makes up 80 percent of our employment.”

Fabri-Kal has had to make two wage adjustments just since October 2015, he said. Hackett felt the company was a little off to begin with, but it’s now fine-tuning its compensation.

It’s a trend that appears to have continued with employers through the rest of 2017. Amalgamated Sugar said the low unemployment this year resulted in the company upping its starting wage for harvest positions in the late summer and fall.

“Overall, it has been a difficult year for hiring,” spokeswoman Jessica McAnally said in a statement.

In Jerome County, wages rose only 4.3 percent to $675 in the first quarter of 2017. But one company, Jerome Cheese, sent out flyers this month advertising it is “now paying higher starting wages on all positions, some up to $4/hour more.”

Meanwhile, employment continued to grow across south-central Idaho through the first quarter of 2017. Idaho grew its workforce by 3 percent from that time in 2016. By comparison, nationwide employment rose 1.6 percent.

Lincoln County had the biggest employment change as a percentage, up 9.5 percent after it gained more than 130 people.

But in sheer numbers, Twin Falls County gained the most employees, growing by 1,147 people — a 3.1 percent employment increase.

Mini-Cassia, however, did not see significant employment growth. Minidoka County had a slight decrease, while Cassia County rose its employment by 1.8 percent.

“We know that the workforce is limited,” Jeppesen said.

He expects the wage trend to continue with McCain Food’s latest expansion. But big drawback to recruiting to Mini-Cassia will be a lack of available housing — especially multifamily housing.

“It’s going to continue to be a challenge, year-in and year-out in this area, until more housing is developed,” Hackett said.

Fabri-Kal also intends to grow its workforce, and anticipates it will have to adjust its wage scale for machine operators.

“That’s where we have to be very competitive,” Hackett said. “It is our intention to grow 100 percent more, again, in the next 18 months.”


Local
Police offer help to address security at Magic Valley churches

TWIN FALLS — Police urged religious leaders to be cautious when discussing whether to allow or encourage parishioners to carry concealed weapons at church.

“I think that’s a conversation you need to have,” Police Chief Craig Kingsbury told a packed room of church representatives on Wednesday. “What I would caution you on … If you are carrying a concealed weapon, there comes a lot of responsibility with that. It’s not just ‘cool’ to carry a gun.

“As police officers and many people know, once you pull that trigger, you can’t bring that back.”

Kingsbury spoke at a “Place of Worship Safety Forum” police hosted in an unprecedented move to reach out to local religious leaders. Law enforcement were inundated with calls this month after two church shootings in California and Texas.

Churches should be prepared for all disasters, police said, by developing a plan and training their employees.

“The odds of something like this happening are literally astronomical,” Police Capt. Matthew Hicks said. “But the people in the church in Texas thought the exact same thing.”

The Twin Falls Police Department said it could offer employee trainings and safety walk-through checks. It will also email churches resources to develop emergency response plans. For information, email wps@tfid.org.

“The time to plan for eventual emergencies is not after the problem starts,” Hicks said. “You have to implement whatever you feel comfortable with.”

Police also wanted a dialogue with churches, to address concerns. Kingsbury has encouraged officers to step up patrols near places of worship because visibility can be a deterrent.

“I reminded and encouraged our officers, your officers, to carry concealed when they go to church on Sunday or whenever they go to church,” Kingsbury said.

Hicks said church leaders should also follow their instincts — if they see something suspicious, err on the side of caution and report it. Many attendees said afterward that they were encouraged by this advice, citing issues with people acting strangely, vandalism and even drones.

“We don’t want to be a place where we’re always judging people and stereotyping people,” Lighthouse Christian Church Youth Director Jesus Ortega said. “But at the same time, we need to take care of our flock, and some of that is going with your instincts of like ‘something’s a little fishy here.’”

The Hagerman Christian Center has been vandalized several times, the Rev. Isaac Tellez said. Once, someone got into the church and released propane gas from a 1,000-gallon tank in the kitchen.

“Now, we have cameras outside and inside,” Tellez said. They no longer keep the doors unlocked, and a safety team ensures the exits aren’t blocked during services.

A member of the Cornerstone Baptist Church said they’ve stopped allowing people to bring bags into worship.

“You can be alert without having to be overwhelmed with worry,” said Jim Sommer, a member of Amazing Grace Fellowship and a former police chaplain.

Officer J.P. O’Donnell said police hope to train multiple organizations simultaneously. Police can coordinate with other law enforcement agencies outside of Twin Falls.

“This is new for us,” O’Donnell said. “We understand security and safety, but we’ve really never had to worry about it in a place of worship until now.”

On Nov. 6, a man walked into a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, with a rifle and killed more than two dozen people. Earlier in the day, a man in Fresno, Calif., shot his estranged wife and her new boyfriend in a church parking lot.

Last month, someone left a cross draped in bacon and pig parts outside the Islamic Center of Twin Falls. Police are investigating this as a hate crime.


If you do one thing

If you do one thing: College of Southern Idaho’s Stage Door Series will feature “Untitled” at 7:30 p.m. at CSI’s Fine Arts Auditorium in Twin Falls. Tickets are $10 for adults or $5 for students.


JAKE CROUSE, TIMES-NEWS  

Twin Falls senior Daniel Gaspar signs to play golf with University of Missouri-Kansas City in the gym foyer of Twin Falls High School on Wednesday.


Local
Sheriff: Wendell boy shoots 5-year-old sister through the arm

WENDELL — A 5-year-old girl is lucky to be alive Wednesday after she was shot in the arm by her 3-year old brother.

After getting “two stitches and a Band-Aid, the girl is fine,” Gooding County Sheriff Shaun Gough said.

The siblings were at home with their mother at about 9:40 a.m. when the boy climbed on a freezer chest to reach the top of a refrigerator, where two 9 mm pistols were kept.

One pistol had a lock; the other didn’t, Gough said.

The shot went through the girl’s right arm but hit no bones.

The sheriff didn’t identify the family, but he said the shooting happened in a home in the 600 block of West Avenue F.

Idaho Health and Welfare has been called to investigate the case, he said. Gough said he won’t know if the mother will face any charges until his investigation is finished.

“It could have been a tragedy,” he said.

Authorities in eastern Idaho say a juvenile in the backseat of a vehicle accidentally fired a handgun Sunday, shooting himself in the hand and the driver in the back.

The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office says the 16-year-old male driver and the juvenile shot in the hand with the .45-caliber gun on Sunday were taken to a hospital and are expected to survive.

Officials say a 14-year-old passenger also in the vehicle avoided injury.

Authorities are continuing to investigate.

And, police in Minnesota say the father of a toddler who accidentally shot himself with his dad’s loaded handgun has been arrested in Montana.

The 3-year-old boy survived the gunshot wound at his home in St. Cloud Monday. Police say the child found the loaded weapon, which had been left within his reach, and pulled the trigger.

Police have been looking for the boy’s 28-year-old father since the shooting. He faces possible charges of negligently storing a firearm and being a felon in possession of a gun.

Authorities say he was arrested Wednesday morning during a traffic stop in Miles City, Mont. Police say the boy is in stable condition.

Everytown, a gun violence prevention group that tracks shootings, says there have been at least 246 people shot by children in the United States so far this year. Almost 20 percent of the child shooters were 4 or younger.


Mini-cassia
Heads or tails: Heyburn coin toss determines election winner

HEYBURN — Heyburn City Councilman Dick Galbraith and challenger Glen Loveland locked eyes on a 50 cent piece as it spun in the air before landing on the carpet in front of them on Nov. 15 at City Hall.

The coin toss determined the winner of an open four-year city council seat after the two men received a tie vote in the Nov. 7 election.

Each candidate received 112 votes.

Loveland gave Galbraith the option of picking heads or tails — Galbraith chose heads and a sticker indicating each man’s choice was stuck to his shirt.

City Attorney Paul Ross said the county commissioners canvassed the vote on Monday and state code called for the city clerk to determine the winner with the toss of a coin.

About two dozen citizens, council members and city employees gathered in the council chambers to watch.

“I wanted to come watch this historic event,” said Heyburn resident Larraine Kluzik.

Kluzik said a run-off election should be held instead of a coin toss.

“I think it would be fair,” she said.

Both candidates agreed.

“I’m absolutely not happy about it,” Galbraith said before the flip took place.

Prior to the event, Loveland said he just wanted it to be over.

“I think the people should decide,” Loveland said.

Standing before them, City Clerk Ashlee Langley’s hand trembled as she held the coin in her palm and showed both men that it was indeed a two-sided coin.

It took only seconds for Langley to balance the coin on a thumb nail and flip it into the air. It came to rest at their feet — tail side showing — securing Loveland’s place on the Council in January.

“Well, I guess I’ll be here through the end of the year and then it’ll be in someone else’s hands,” Galbraith said after it was over.

He does not intend to ask for a recount of votes, which he is entitled to do.

“It’s an automated process,” Galbraith said, referring to the election.

Loveland said he was surprised that he won.

“I know how bad he must feel,” Loveland said.

Mayor Cleo Gallegos said the city will likely put the coin in a shadow box and display it at City Hall.

Because state law is vague about how the coin toss should take place, it was up to the clerk to figure out the details.

The city got two 50 cent pieces from the bank, one as a back-up in case one of the candidates was not satisfied with the coin, Langley said.

“I wanted to cover all the bases,” she said before toss. “And yes I have been practicing.”

Langley decided to let the coin hit the floor instead of trying to catch it so everyone could clearly see how it landed.

She also had a back-up plan to determine who would call heads or tails if the candidates could not work it out on their own.

Numbers one through 10 were written on pieces of paper and placed in a bowl. The candidates would have drawn numbers and the highest number would have made the call.

“I know a lot of this stuff seems silly but we had to figure out how to make it fair,” Langley said. “We put a lot of effort into preparing for this and we took it very seriously.”