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State controller launches new transparency website

Anyone curious about an Idaho state agency’s revenues or spending can now get up-to-the-day data from a website announced Jan. 10 by Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and State Controller Brandon D. Woolf.

“Gov. Otter has continued to ensure that there are no dark corners in government spending,” Woolf said at a news conference.

The site, transparent.Idaho.gov, is powered by an analytical tool used by the controller’s office’s Idaho Business Intelligence Solution, which uses IBM software. The new website cost approximately $28,000 in time and resources, which came out of the existing budget and staffing of the controller’s office.

Woolf and Otter said the system could be expanded to include lists of vendors the state uses, including IBM, as well as more county and local government data. That could require additional spending for the controller’s office, though Woolf said he isn’t seeking any added money for the project in the next state budget.

Otter said making more state monetary data online, besides making state finances more transparent, could lower costs for state agencies responding to open records requests.

“This is kind of like FOIA (the Freedom of Information Act) on steroids,” Otter said.

Brad Iverson-Long

Idaho firm makes list of leading wealth advisers

Boise-based The Caprock Group is the only firm from Idaho that made the Family Exchange Office LLC, or Fox, list of leading wealthy family advisers.

Caprock provides wealth management advice to families with investable assets of at least $20 million. Co-founder William Gilbert said, “Firms don’t pay anything to get on the list. In our little corner of the financial world, it definitely means something.”

Chicago-based Fox is a member organization that studies best practices for wealthy families and their advisers. In order to draw up the list, Fox used 10 criteria to screen each firm. They include financial strength, disciplined investment process, comprehensive financial reporting, and regulatory and financial compliance.

Fox Managing Director Karen Neal said in a phone interview her organization reviewed more than 40 firms worldwide and Caprock is one of 33 that made the list. She added The Caprock Group is not a member of Fox.

Caprock has $1.5 billion in assets under advisement and employs 21 people at its offices in Boise, San Jose, Calif., Seattle, and Park City, Utah.

By Scott Ki

Feds reverse decision on gold mine drilling plans

Federal forest managers say they are reversing an earlier decision giving a Canadian mining company permission to conduct exploratory drilling in the Payette National Forest.

The forest supervisor said Jan. 7 more time is needed to gather data on the kind of drilling proposed by Midas Gold in Valley County’s historic Stibnite Mining District.

The Vancouver-based company is contemplating an open-pit gold mine in the area. In October, forest officials granted approval for the company to continue exploration, including drilling in 26 areas using 139 separate drill pads.

Forest officials now say they want more information on how the company’s closed well drilling systems would impact ground water.

Environmental groups have voiced opposition to the project, saying it’s too close and risky to some of Idaho’sprized rivers and streams.

The Associated Press

Survey: Teachers concerned about class size, wages

A new survey commissioned by Idaho lawmakers finds that teachers and administrators in districts across the state have deep concerns about class sizes, salaries and negative public perceptions about teachers and their efforts in the classroom.

The findings presented Jan. 8 to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee also tone down previous reports by state agencies and media showing Idaho teachers are leaving the state and profession in significant numbers. The report found that 937 teachers, or 5.4 percent of certified staff, left during the 2009-10 academic year and 1,112, or 6 percent, during 2011-12. Those totals are less than the 1,884 teachers the Department of Education reported leaving during the 2011-12 school year.

“A teacher mass exodus has not really occurred,” Lance McCleve, an analyst with the Office of Performance Evaluations, told the committee. “But concerns about a mass exodus in the future may not be totally unfounded.”

Education Department officials say they track turnover differently, survey districts typically before contracts are signed and are routinely updating data.

The report, requested by JLOC a year ago, focuses on workforce issues affecting teachers, principals and superintendents at Idaho’s public and charter schools, from salaries to how well teachers are prepared and educated to challenges administrators face in hiring and keeping teachers on the payroll.

The Associated Press

Parent of Idaho trust bank doubles mortgage business

The corporate parent of Bell State Bank & Trust, headquartered in Fargo, N.D., plans to buy Minnesota-based The Business Bank. Bell State runs a trust office in Boise.

Financial terms of the purchase were not disclosed and the deal is subject to regulatory and shareholder approval.

Bell State’s mortgage business will nearly double in size if the deal goes through. Its Bell Mortgage division originated $1.65 billion in loans in 2012. The Business Bank’s Prime Mortgage business originated $1.3 billion last year.

Both banks are well-capitalized, according to generally accepted regulatory standards. Bell State Bank & Trust has more than $2.5 billion in assets and 750 employees, primarily in North Dakota and Minnesota. With assets of $200 million, The Business Bank employees more than 200 people in Minnesota and a satellite location in Naples, Fla.

Scott Ki

Feds sue Jerome County over National Guard job

Federal prosecutors are suing the Jerome County Sheriff’s Office over allegations the law enforcement agency intentionally refused to rehire a member of the Idaho Army National Guard.

U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson filed the lawsuit in federal court Jan. 7 on behalf of Mervin Jones.

The lawsuit accuses sheriff department administrators of terminating Jones while he was recovering from a knee injury suffered in 2004 while serving in Iraq and re-injuring in 2008 during weekend training exercises.

The lawsuit accuses the sheriff’s office of violating the federal Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994.

Jones began working for the department as a corrections officer in 2002, and by 2007 had risen to the rank of corporal.

A telephone message left Jan. 7 with the Jerome County Attorney was not immediately returned.

The Associated Press

Water supply looks promising for 2013

The season’s first snow survey shows the 2013 water year, which began Oct. 1, has seen enough precipitation to help soil moisture recover from 2012’s dry summer.

Precipitation since October is at 100 percent to 150 percent of normal, according to a news release from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Mountain snowpack varies from 80 percent to 100 percent of normal, compared to a 30-year reference period adopted this year.

“The new normal use the period from 1981 to 2010, which allows comparison to the most recent climactic norms,” Idaho NRCS water supply specialist Ron Abramovich said in the Jan. 8 release. The new period drops five wet years during the 1970s from the average calculation and adds eight dry years from the 2000s.

Idaho Snow Survey SNOTEL Data shows the snowpack for January 2013 is higher than it was in January 2012 in nearly every water basin in the state. Only the Weiser Basin is at the same level as in January 2012, with snowpack at 56 percent of normal, but the Weiser and Owyhee basins have the state’s lowest snowpack, according to the release. The Owyhee Basin’s snowpack is at 66 percent of normal, compared to 19 percent in January of 2012.

The highest snowpacks are in the state’s higher-elevation watersheds, such as in the Lost River Range and the Pioneer Mountains. In January 2012, the snowpack in the Big Wood, Little Wood and Big Lost basins was at 64 percent, 55 percent and 52 percent of normal. This month the snowpack is at 118 percent, 131 percent and 147 percent of normal.

The U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook indicates the 2012 drought in southern Idaho will persist at least through March 31, but Idaho’s system of reservoirs should help mitigate any drought that persists into the growing season.

The NRCS report states many Idaho reservoirs are near average, with the exception of some in central and southern Idaho.

In a September 2012 interview, John Roache, a civil engineer with river and reservoir operations at the Bureau of Reclamation Pacific Northwest regional office, said that even if Idaho’s snowpack were as low as 75 percent to 80 percent for water year 2013, Idaho would not expect a severe shortage of irrigation water.

“There is some water in the bank,” Abramovich said in the NRCS release. “Idaho’s reservoirs should be in good shape this year with some stored water and snow in the high country waiting to melt and fill them up.”

IBR staff

Pioneer Newspapers now called Pioneer News Group

Northwest newspaper company Pioneer Newspapers is changing its name to Pioneer News Group to reflect its expansion into the digital world.

Marnie Roozen of the Seattle-based company says it has become much more than a print newspaper organization, including mobile and e-reader publications as well as advertising and social media products.

Pioneer Newspapers, Inc. was formed in 1974 by James G. Scripps. The family-owned multimedia business is now chaired by Roozen, who is Scripps’ granddaughter.

The company owns and operates 23 print and online daily and weekly newspapers in Washington, Montana, Idaho, Utah and Oregon.

The Associated Press

Boise zoo raises more than $200K for monkey exhibit

Zoo Boise has raised nearly $220,000 to build a new exhibit for its patas monkeys in just five weeks after the City of Boise contributed $100,000 from its Parks and Recreation Department budget.

The Friends of Zoo Boise raised the remaining $119,000 from private donors.

Construction is expected to start this spring on a new, 1,000-square-foot patas monkey exhibit to replace the previous primate exhibit, which was built in 1967. Officials hope to have the new building finished by fall.

The fundraising campaign was precipitated by a Nov. 18 break-in at the zoo that led to the death of one of the zoo’s two monkeys.

Two female monkeys arrived from a New York zoo on Dec. 3 and will be gradually introduced to the remaining male after a quarantine period.

The Associated Press

Idaho treasurer revamps documentation after audit

Idaho Treasurer Ron Crane has revamped how he documents some of his office’s expenses, after concerns raised by state auditors last year.

A 2012 audit of Crane’s office determined expenses from his annual bond-rating trips to New York, including limousine transportation, weren’t properly reported.

Auditors also questioned Crane’s use of a state credit card to buy $8,000 in gas for his personal car, and his office’s funding of a women’s financial conference.

In a report released Jan. 8, auditors say Crane buttressed record-keeping for the New York trips, requiring employees to document specific expenses.

He now tracks gas purchases, reimbursing Idaho for personal trips.

And while auditors contend Crane is still inappropriately funding the women’s conference, he has revamped its nonprofit board – to distance its leaders from the treasurer’s office.

The Associated Press

Monsanto not pushing personal property tax cut

One of Idaho’s biggest companies, Monsanto, isn’t pushing to eliminate the personal property tax, on grounds such a move could undermine services in its home county.

Monsanto government affairs director Trent Clark said Jan. 8 the St. Louis-based maker of Round-up herbicide believes there are problems with the tax, whose repeal Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter named as a 2013 session priority.

However, local governments and schools in Caribou County, where Monsanto has phosphate mining and refining operations, depend on the business-equipment tax for more than 40 percent of their revenue, to fix roads, educate kids and provide law enforcement protection.

Clark said the potential that repeal could send local officials scrambling to preserve those services — or shift costs to others — convinced Monsanto to refrain from joining the legislative fight.

The Associated Press

Idaho gas prices among lowest in the country

A new report by AAA shows that Utah has the lowest average price of gasoline in the country.

AAA reported Jan. 8 that the average price in Utah for a gallon of regular gasoline is $2.90. That’s 50 cents lower than last month, and two cents lower than a year ago.

The report shows the average gas price falls below $3 in only five other states: Oklahoma, Idaho, Minnesota, Colorado and Wyoming.

The national average is $3.30, which is seven cents lower than last year.

Hawaii is the only state where the average gas price is above $4.00 at $4.01 per gallon.

The Associated Press

Education referendum rejection leaves about $30M on table

Idaho lawmakers have at least three options for $30.6 million that the repeal of public schools chief Tom Luna’s education overhaul left stranded ahead of the 2013 Legislature.

The Idaho Legislature’s education analyst, Paul Headlee, on Dec. 9 told budget writers they could simply bank the money in public education rainy-day accounts.

They could use it to restore programs eliminated by the Nov. 6 vote, including nearly $850,000 to pay for high school students to earn college credits and nearly $5 million to pay for math and science teachers.

And perhaps most controversial: They could take the money, which amounts to about 2.4 percent of this year’s $1.28 billion public education budget, and redirect it for other uses within state government – possibly personal property tax repeal, as some lawmakers have suggested.

The Associated Press

Former Idaho businessman sentenced for wire fraud

The owner of a former Idaho company has been sentenced to 51 months in federal prison for wire fraud and filing a false tax return.

Federal prosecutors say 46-year-old Michael Wayne Davis was sentenced Jan. 9. Davis was also ordered to pay nearly $1 million in restitution and serve three years of supervised release after prison.

Davis once lived in Eagle and is the former owner of Xpress Flex Inc. and Payroll America Inc. He was accused of misappropriating funds in 2009 and 2010 that were to be held by Xpress Flex to pay off personal credit cards and business expenses for Payroll America.

Prosecutors said he used the funds this way without the knowledge or permission from his clients.

He pleaded guilty to the charges in September.

The Associated Press

Idaho pension fund exceeding expectations in 2013

The state pension fund is ahead of its target through the first six months of the fiscal year.

Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho director Don Drum told budget writers Dec. 10 the more than $12.5 billion, 125,000-member fund is returning 7.44 percent through this month, above the 7 percent estimate.

If the trend continues, Drum says PERSI will reduce its unfunded liability that now stands at $1.6 billion, a figure that’s lower than in many other states whose pensions have had to make benefit changes to help balance their books.

State employees are scheduled to pay more money from their paychecks this year into the account as part of already-planned contribution hikes.

As part of that, state taxpayers’ share of contributions will rise by about $2 million this next year.

The Associated Press

Meridian contractor gets probation, fine for fraud

An Idaho roofing contractor has been ordered to pay a $20,000 fine and serve two years on probation for federal wire fraud.

A federal judge also ordered 62-year-old Patrick Large to serve eight months of his probation on home detention and forfeit $150,000.

Large is the owner of Meridian-based Quality Tile and Roofing, Inc. But he pleaded guilty in September to orchestrating a scheme to defraud federal agencies by representing that two of his employees lived in a HUB Zone – a program that encourages economic development in underutilized business areas.

Prosecutors alleged Large created another company – McDonald Roofing and Construction – and said its principal place of business was an in Emmett, which falls within a HUB Zone.

Based on the application, McDonald Roofing received a $218,000 contract.

The Associated Press

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