A handful of area leaders expect a busy 2023 with federal stimulus dollars paying for new construction in Challis and Arco and a return to solid classroom learning and experiences in Mackay now that the pandemic is largely behind us.
A new building for the Custer County Sheriff’s Office and the courthouse annex will both be constructed this year, Custer County Commissioner Steve Smith said.
Both projects have been under discussion for years, but now county officials have “final guidelines” on spending American Rescue Plan Act money for those buildings, and the “roadblocks and hurdles” have finally been cleared, construction can proceed, Smith said. It’s possible that an elevator will be added to the courthouse in 2023, he said, and if not, that will occur in 2024.
“We’re moving forward,” Smith said. “Those projects are farther (along) than they ever have been.”
The other big construction project that commissioners have talked about for years—the jail—continues to be stalled, Smith said. The latest reason for holdups on a new jail is that county leaders are “gun shy when we hear stories from other counties,” he said. Smith used Adams County as an example. The jail in Adams County is “a good jail, meets all the requirements” but ongoing staffing shortages have prompted discussions about closing it, Smith said. That’s a concern in Custer County, too, he said.
“We raised salaries for the Sheriff’s Office,” he said, “a pretty good amount for us.” The raises were given in part to help keep employees in Custer County. “We’ve lost some pretty good employees. They’re leaving for more money.”
Smith is optimistic that the Garden Creek Road construction project will actually occur in 2023 and he thinks funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for Mackay Dam repairs will come through this year, too.
Challis Mayor Corey Rice is happy to finally be taking solid steps to address the city’s water problems in 2023.
Bids to drill a new water well were to be opened this week and Rice was optimistic the city would receive many bids. Once reviewed and a contract awarded, he thinks the well, pump house and other new infrastructure can be in place by summer, meaning more water for Old Town.
When weather allows later this year, another mile of streets in Old Town will be chip sealed and some chip sealing will occur in the Cyprus Eastern subdivision, Rice said.
The sidewalk and bridge across Garden Creek on Ninth Street should be replaced this spring or summer, Rice said. Getty Excavating was awarded a contract for the work that is being funded with a grant the city already received.
As the year progresses and shipments arrive, city employees will install more electronic water meters throughout Challis, the mayor said. About 200 of the new meters have been installed, with about 250 to still do. The city hasn’t been able to obtain all the meters from its supplier so the job can’t be completed.
“We are using and testing the new ones and so far they seem to be working well,” Rice said. The electronic meters can be read by a cellphone without city employees having to remove the covers and look inside to get a reading. That significantly cuts the time needed to read meters each month, the mayor said.
Construction isn’t on the list for Mackay schools Superintendent Susan Buescher. But she has two main goals for the next six months.
First is to “focus on learning, do what we’re supposed to do, educate these kids.” The last two years have been full of disruptions for school districts, she said, with COVID-19 closures and changes to education methods. “The culture of learning changed during COVID,” she said. “It was all about survival.” It needs to change back, she believes.
Steps to return to normalcy in Mackay include putting “a lot of focus on raising our test scores,” she said. Mackay school leaders are researching the multiple literacy programs now available from the state, reviewing data and conducting learning interventions, she said.
School board members spend time at every monthly meeting discussing student learning and looking at test scores, which Buescher says “helps get people talking about learning.”
Buescher is hopeful state officials will continue to fund public education based on enrollment numbers, as has been the case since COVID. Previously, funding was based on daily attendance, but COVID threw a curveball into that formula leading to the switch to enrollment-based funding. It’s important that sick children don’t come to school and spread colds or other illnesses, and enrollment-based funding takes some pressure off for sending kids to the classroom if they’re sick, she said.
She will also help district leaders search for her replacement. Buescher is retiring at the end of June. She’s been the part-time Mackay superintendent for six years, following her previous retirement from the McCall school district.
Brad Huerta, CEO of Lost Rivers Medical Center in Arco, is pleased that the Mackay Clinic, which the Arco facility operates, is reopening this month, with service offered two days a week. The Mackay Clinic has been closed on and off for the last two years, first because of the public health emergency during COVID when staff needed to be consolidated at the Arco facilities, and later because of trouble hiring medical employees to work in Mackay.
Lost Rivers is adding two nurse practitioners to its staff this winter, which will help across the board, he said.
Work continues in Arco to expand the surgery suite at the hospital, he said. And a new surgery pain program will soon be in place. Dr. Sergio Hickey will offer injections and surgery for certain types of pain.
Lost Rivers officials are working with Dr. Kenneth Newhouse, an orthopedic surgeon, who will begin performing minor orthopedic procedures in Arco. Huerta said Newhouse will do scoping procedures and minor surgeries, “but not hip or knee replacements.”
Huerta is especially excited that Lost Rivers received a $260,000 grant from the Idaho Department of Workforce Development to pay about half the cost for a new child care center that will be built on the southwest corner of the medical center property.
“We’re excited,” about that grant and the project, Huerta said. Like many small Idaho communities, the lack of child care options in Arco makes it harder for Huerta and his team to recruit employees to the hospital and clinic. Having a licensed day care facility with room for 25 children of Lost Rivers Medical Center employees should help that, he said.
Huerta learned the first week of January that the grant was approved, about a year after applying for it. Coupled with $250,000 from the hospital foundation, donations and the medical center’s budget, he expects to advertise for bids immediately so construction can occur this summer. Huerta is hopeful the day care can open by October, but he said, “supply chain issues” could affect the timeline.
The state awarded grants as part of its efforts to recruit and retain workers to Idaho, Huerta said. “Getting providers who are willing to move here and stay here has been challenging,” he said.
Lost Rivers was recertified in December as a Level 4 trauma center, good news for Huerta’s team. And the lab passed all inspections at the end of 2022. Next, his team will seek certification as a heart attack center.
Lost Rivers employees are already experiencing a “tough winter,” Huerta said, with many patients suffering from flu, strep and RSV. “Our staff is still masking up and we all need to take precautions to keep people safe and healthy,” he said.