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G8 drops lawsuit against Mason City

MASON CITY | G8 Development filed papers Friday to drop its lawsuit against the city of Mason City.

That fulfills one of the requirements in the development agreement with G8, approved by the City Council last week, to build a downtown hotel and conference center.

Interim City Administrator Kevin Jacobson said he received word Friday afternoon. "It's dismissed," he said.

Mayor Bill Schickel said, "I am encouraged to see this. It is one of the steps the state wanted to make sure got done, so it is progress."

G8, a San Diego-based development company owned by Philip Chodur, is the City Council's choice to build the hotel in the Southbridge Mall parking lot, connect it to The Music Man Square via a skywalk, and build a conference center inside The Music Man Square.

The lawsuit resulted from an earlier hotel proposal with G8 which fell through. G8 had negotiated with the city to build a hotel in the parking lot west of City Hall but was found in default when it failed to meet deadlines for starting construction.

When the city sought new bids, it received proposals from Gatehouse and G8 and chose to go with Gatehouse.

G8 then sued the city for breach of contract on its first hotel plan. An attempt to reach Chodur for comment Friday afternoon was unsuccessful.

As negotiations with Gatehouse bogged down, a quirk in state law allowed for new proposals to be accepted. Once again G8 offered what city officials considered a competitive bid to Gatehouse's and chose to go with it.

One of the provisions of the subsequent development agreement with G8 is that its lawsuit against the city be dropped. That's the action that was fulfilled Friday when the court accepted G8's filing that the case be dismissed with prejudice, meaning it cannot be brought up again.

The hotel is a key component in the city's River City Renaissance project that also includes a performing arts pavilion and an ice arena/multipurpose center.

The total project is estimated at just over $38 million. The city has applied for up to $10 million in state money through the Iowa Reinvestment Act to help leverage the project. One of the requirements is $10 million in private investment. The hotel value is $15 million.

The Iowa Economic Development Authority, which oversees the Iowa Reinvestment Act, met with city officials last month and put off making a final decision on the city's application, pending the signing of the development agreement, the dropping of the lawsuit and G8 having financing in place.

City officials said Chodur has preliminary approval on financing.

File photo 

Eagle Grove Superintendent Jess Toliver speaks to Hunter Martinez, 7, left, and Eddy Yackle, 6, in July 2016. 

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Eagle Grove Elementary receiving $6M addition in anticipation of pork plant

EAGLE GROVE | Construction for a $6 million, 13,200-square-foot addition to the Eagle Grove Elementary School has been underway since this fall, according to Superintendent Jess Toliver.

Toliver said ground was broken in August, and the project will add a much-needed fourth section to the school, since the incoming Prestage pork processing plant is expected to create a population increase in town.

It will include eight regular classrooms and two special education classrooms, and be located near the northwest corner of the school, between the swings and playground.

He said some of the new classrooms could sit empty when the next school year starts, but the project is for a long-term issue. Preliminary estimates suggest that the Prestage plant could add 200 kids to the district, 100 of which could be at the elementary school, according to Toliver.

"If you don’t plan for it, and they show up, there’s no place to put the kids," Toliver said.

Eagle Grove City Administrator Bryce Davis said the district is requesting $1 million for the project, to be used for "hard-construction costs." The Wright County Board of Supervisors are holding a public hearing and vote on that allocation of money this Monday, he added.

"If it’s a positive vote, then the board of supervisors and staff and other elected officials will base it on TIF financing," Davis said.

Typically, school districts finance building projects on their own, either through bonding, sales tax revenue or their physical plant and equipment levy. Tax increment financing, however, is a public financing method cities and counties use to subsidize redevelopment and infrastructure projects. 

Toliver emphasized that the county can only give him the money since his district lies in the area where the Prestage plant will be located. 

"The idea that the county is just giving us money is not correct," he said. "The county is already TIF-ing this land … we’re just requesting they’re TIF-ing our tax base so we can have prepare for the plant coming."

Rick Rasmussen, chair of the Wright County Board of Supervisors, said he would be in favor of an addition to the Eagle Grove elementary school, but wants to wait for Monday's public hearing to make an ultimate decision.

Davis said one of the main reasons for adding on to the elementary school is to also allow for space for much-needed amenities, alongside classroom areas.

Both Davis and Toliver said Eagle Grove Schools is close to operating at full-capacity.

"We are busting at the seams," Davis said. "Prestage changes the conversation to where we’re going to be in five years, to how we are going to add more space."

Ultimately, the addition is a good sign for Eagle Grove, Toliver said. 

"Anytime you have growth, you have a positive sign," he said. "We’re looking for ways to handle the growth as best as possible for our students, the community and taxpayers."

Boosting workforce skills a top priority for Iowa governor

DES MOINES | When she steps to the speaker’s podium next week in the Iowa House to deliver her first condition of the state address, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds will spend much of her time talking about ways to boost the credentials of Iowa workers without post-high school education or training.

Reynolds said helping Iowa workers improve their skills will be a top priority of her administration in 2018.

The 2018 session of the Iowa Legislature, which begins Monday, will be the first since Reynolds took over as governor this past year.

“Probably my top priority is workforce (and) taxes, but it’s workforce, workforce, workforce. Because that provides opportunities for Iowans. It provides an opportunity for a better quality of life,” Reynolds said.

Since a 2012 state report indicated Iowa does not have enough qualified workers to fill middle-skill job openings throughout the state, Reynolds, former Gov. Terry Branstad before her, and state lawmakers have worked on myriad state policies and programs designed to help workers obtain more education or training in order to obtain a higher-paying job.

The 2012 report, from the state workforce development department, said half of the jobs in Iowa require “middle skills,” but only a third of workers possess those middle schools.

Reynolds is pushing the state’s Future Ready Iowa program, which has the goal of 70 percent of the state’s workforce having post-high school education or training by 2025. Created in 2016 with a grant from the National Governors Association, the program provides guidance for students and workers and promotes partnerships between educational institutions and businesses with middle-skill job openings.

Reynolds and legislative leaders said they regularly hear from employers that they have job openings but not enough skilled workers to fill those jobs.

Late this past year, Reynolds said she hopes to include in her budget proposal new funding for Future Ready Iowa in the state budget year that starts July 1. She did not specify how much she will propose, but suggested it will be in the millions of dollars. The new funding would help create new grants and fund efforts to increase apprenticeships, foster more public-private partnerships, and more.

“That’s probably one of the biggest things that I can do to get this economy growing again, because when they have a job then our businesses can grow. That’s preventing them from expanding. I hear that a lot,” Reynolds said.

Economists at Iowa State University have disputed the existence of a lack of middle-skill workers in Iowa. According to their analysis, the job openings actually are the result of insufficient salaries and a long-term migration of skilled workers to urban areas or other states.

“First, when employers say there’s a skills gap, what they’re often really saying is they can’t find workers willing to work for the pay they’re willing to pay,” ISU economist David Swenson said in a 2015 report. “If there was a skill shortage, people would be working longer hours and workers would be getting higher wages. Researchers have yet to find that evidence in several categories where people are arguing that there’s a skills gap.”

Still, in the statehouse the governor’s efforts have support among legislative leaders, both Republican and Democrat.

“One of the things that Iowans are asking for is the ability to help them move their skill set up to the next level, to be able to build their career and increase their earning capacity for themselves and their families,” said Janet Peterson, the Democratic leader in the Iowa Senate.

While there is bipartisan support for the ends, there are diverging opinions about the means.

Reynolds will do what she can as the state’s chief executive to promote Future Ready Iowa, and plans to introduce funding for the program in her budget proposal.

Republicans in the Iowa Legislature responsible for crafting their own budget proposal may not have the stomach for new program funding in what is expected to be a tight budget year.

“It seems like there might be a unique opportunity to actually implement at least some of those recommendations (from Future Ready Iowa),” said Linda Upmeyer, the Republican House Speaker. “They don’t all look like they are high-dollar items, and I think some of those things we can take resources and change up a program a little bit and redeploy it in a little more focused fashion. I’m optimistic we can get something done with that.”

Petersen and Mark Smith, the Democratic leader in the Iowa House, said the focus should be on funding for the state’s community colleges.

Advocates who would like to see a pay increase for Iowa’s minimum-wage workers likely will be disappointed by the upcoming legislative session. Republicans have majorities in both legislative chambers and occupy the governor’s office, and GOP leaders say they are focused on creating opportunities for those middle-skill workers, not the minimum wage.

“What I hear is employers are paying far above the minimum wage now,” said Bill Dix, leader of the Senate Republicans.

Every state that borders Iowa, except Wisconsin, has in recent years increased its state minimum wage above the federal level of $7.25 per hour.

During the 2017 legislative session, statehouse Republicans passed a law that stopped Iowa counties from approving their own minimum wage increases.

“Politicians like to talk big about improving wages, but last year the legislature literally voted to lower wages,” said Matt Sinovic of the progressive advocacy group Progress Iowa. “With Iowa’s low unemployment rate, the problem isn’t a lack of jobs, it’s a lack of good-paying jobs and the workers to fill them. Raising the minimum wage would make it easier to keep workers in Iowa, and boost the local economy. It’s time for Gov. Reynolds and Republicans in the legislature to not only talk the talk, but take action to raise wages.”

Reynolds said she, too, is focused on middle-skill workers, but would be willing to entertain a minimum wage increase if legislators approve one.

Tom Thoma / Picasa 


2 GOP senators urge criminal probe of Trump dossier author (copy)

WASHINGTON — Two Republican senators have made the first known criminal referral in congressional investigations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, targeting the author of a dossier of allegations about President Donald Trump's ties to Russia.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said Friday they had referred former British spy Christopher Steele to the Justice Department for investigation about false statements he may have made to the government. Graham is the chairman of a Judiciary subcommittee that is investigating the Russian meddling.

The referral comes after Republicans in Congress have made several attempts in recent weeks to undermine the credibility of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, the Justice Department and the FBI, charging there is anti-Trump bias within the ranks of federal agents and prosecutors.

In a cover letter to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray released by the committee, the senators said the referral relates to "certain communications between Christopher Steele and multiple U.S. news outlets regarding the so-called 'Trump dossier.'" The rest of the referral is classified and was not released.

Lawmakers cannot prosecute, but generally refer any criminal violations they find to the Justice Department. On Friday, Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said the department had received the referral and will review it.

The dossier is a compilation of memos Steele wrote during the 2016 campaign that contained several allegations of connections between Trump and Russia, including that Trump had been compromised by the Kremlin. Trump has called the dossier "phony" and derided it as a politically motivated hit job, and many Republicans in Congress have been focused on discrediting it.

The cover letter does not say who the senators believe Steele lied to, but Grassley said in a statement about the referral that "everyone needs to follow the law and be truthful in their interactions with the FBI."

Republicans have been asking the Justice Department for months whether the dossier was used as part of its initial investigation into Russian interference.

The dossier was turned over to the FBI in 2016, and federal investigators worked to corroborate portions of it. Some of the information was distilled into a summary that then-FBI Director James Comey presented to then-president-elect Trump in January 2017.

More recently, Mueller's investigators interviewed Steele in Europe as part of their probe into Russian election interference and ties between Trump associates and the Kremlin.

Trump's effort to keep Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a vocal and loyal supporter of his election bid, in charge of an investigation into his campaign offers special counsel Mueller yet another avenue to explore as his prosecutors work to untangle potential evidence of obstruction.

The federal investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia already includes a close look at whether Trump's actions as president constitute an effort to impede that same probe. Those include the firing Comey, an allegation by Comey that Trump encouraged him to end an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn and the president's role in drafting an incomplete and potentially misleading statement about a 2016 meeting with Russians.

The latest revelation — that Trump directed his White House counsel, Don McGahn, to tell Sessions not to recuse himself from the Russia investigation — is known to Mueller's investigators, who have interviewed many current and former executive branch officials. It adds to the portrait of a president left furious by an investigation that he has called a hoax and suggests that he worked through an intermediary to keep the inquiry under the watch of an attorney general he expected would be loyal.

Three people familiar with the matter confirmed to The Associated Press that McGahn spoke with Sessions just before he announced his recusal to urge him not to do so. One of the people said McGahn contacted Sessions at the president's behest. All three spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid publicly discussing an ongoing investigation.

Although the episode makes clear Trump's exasperation with the investigation, it remains unclear whether Mueller's team has evidence to establish that the president's collective actions were done with the corrupt intent needed to prove obstruction of justice.

Trump and his lawyers have repeatedly maintained that he did nothing improper and that, as president, he had unequivocal authority to fire Comey and to take other actions. They may also argue that the president was empowered to want the attorney general he appointed to oversee the Justice Department's Russian meddling investigation or, as McGahn contended to Sessions, that there was no basis or reason at that time for the attorney general to recuse himself.