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Receding floodwaters in Nebraska, Iowa reveal farmers’ devastation

WINSLOW, Neb. — Farmers have been gambling they could ride out the U.S.-China trade war by storing their harvested corn and soybeans anywhere they could — in bins, plastic tubes, in barns or even outside — until prices rise.

Now, the unthinkable has happened: Record floods have devastated a wide swath of the Farm Belt across western Iowa, eastern Nebraska and several other states. Early estimates of lost crops and livestock are approaching $1 billion in Nebraska alone. With more flooding expected, damages are expected to climb much higher.

As the river levels rose, spilling over levees and swallowing up townships, farmers watched helplessly as waters consumed not only their fields, but their grain stockpiles — the one thing that could stand between them and ruin.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” said Tom Geisler, a farmer in Winslow, Neb., who said he lost two full storage bins of corn. “We had been depending on the income from our livestock, but now all of our feed is gone, so that is going to be even more difficult. We haven’t been making any money from our grain farming because of trade issues and low prices.”

The pain does not end there. As the waters began to recede, the damage to rural roads, bridges and rail lines was beginning to emerge. This infrastructure is critical for the agricultural sector to move products from farms to processing plants and shipping hubs.

The damage to roads also means it will be harder to deliver seed to farmers for the planting season. But in some areas, flooding will render fields almost impossible to plant anyway.

The deluge is the latest blow for the Farm Belt, which has faced several crises in the last five years as farm incomes have fallen by more than 50 percent due to a global grain glut. Then President Donald Trump’s trade policies cut off exports of soybeans and other products, making it worse for now.

Soybeans were the single most valuable U.S. agricultural export crop and until the trade war. China bought $12 billion worth a year from American farmers. But Chinese retaliatory tariffs have almost halted the trade, leaving farmers with crops they are struggling to sell.

As prices plummeted last year in the ongoing trade fight, growers, faced with selling crops at a loss, stuffed a historic volume of grain into winding plastic tubes and steel bins. Some cash-strapped families piled crops in their barns or outside on the ground.

Farmers say they now are finding storage bags torn and bins burst open, grain washed away or contaminated.

Jeff Jorgenson, a farmer and regional director for the Iowa Soybean Association, said he has seen at least a dozen bins that burst after the oilseeds swelled when they became wet.

Under Food and Drug Administration policy, flood-soaked grain is considered adulterated and must be destroyed, according to Iowa State University.

Some farmers had been waiting for corn prices to rise just 10 cents a bushel more before making sales, which would earn them a few extra thousand dollars, Jorgenson said.

“That’s the toughest pill to swallow,” he said. “This could end their career of farming and the legacy of the family farm.”

As of Dec. 1, producers in states with flooding now — including Iowa, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Wisconsin and Illinois — had 6.75 billion bushels of corn, soybeans and wheat stored on their farms, or 38 percent of the total supplies available at that time, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

Iowa suffered at least $150 million in damage to agricultural buildings and machinery, and 100,000 acres of farm land are under water, said Keely Coppess, a spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, who already had declared 41 of Iowa’s 99 counties disaster areas, added two more to the list Wednesday — Marshall and Audubon.

The record flooding has killed at least four people in the Midwest and left one person missing. The extent of damage is unknown as meteorologists expect more flooding to come.

Early estimates put flood damage at $400 million in losses for Nebraska’s cow-calf industry and another $440 million in crop losses, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said.

At Geisler’s farm in Winslow, two trucks and a tractor were buried in mud in wooden barns.

“We should have been getting into planting for next season, but now all of our equipment is flooded and it’s going to take at least three to four weeks to bring back that equipment into shape,” said Geisler.

‘Huge increase’ of teen vaping at some Eastern Iowa schools

VAN HORNE — In class, 16-year-old Anna Thiher has seen students sneak a Juul — a popular nicotine vaping device — out of a sweatshirt, inhale and discreetly exhale the vapor down the neck of their clothing.

She and other students at Benton Community School District’s combined middle and high school said they’ve seen use of vape pens — known as vaping — explode among their classmates this school year.

“We’ve never had problems with it until this year,” said senior Madison Wille, 17.

“I didn’t even know what it was before this year,” added Lauren Price, 18.

While cigarette use among high school students is declining, e-cigarette use has surged. More than 20 percent of students indicated they frequently vaped in 2018, according to the National Youth Tobacco Survey funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Federal Drug Administration.

Several Benton High students organized an anti-tobacco event at the school in Van Horne on Wednesday as part of an annual day of activism sponsored by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Students signed a pledge asking the federal government to ban flavored tobacco products — Juul pod flavors include mango, creme and mint.

The uptick in teenagers using the products last year was “a sharp and startling reversal of overall declines in youth tobacco use,” according to the FDA.

Benton High School Principal James Bieschke said students found with tobacco products are suspended for two days. Although many e-cigarettes do not contain tobacco, they are regulated as tobacco products.

“We really try to work hard to educate kids on Juul and vaping,” Bieschke said. “The marketing for these products gives the impression it’s not harmful and it’s not going to hurt them, but there are severe (health) consequences.”

Cedar Rapids police officer Charity Hansel said students — and their parents — often don’t understand the risks of e-cigarettes, which can contain as much as four times the amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes, according to the FDA.

“Realistically, even if you didn’t understand the nicotine was there, there’s chemicals in that thing,” Hansel said. “Any foreign substance you take into your lungs should be turning on a light bulb for folks and saying, ‘If I’m taking a foreign substance into my lungs, it’s probably not going to be healthy down the road.’”

As a school resource officer at Kennedy High School, Hansel said she has issued more citations this school year for vaping — a $50 fine for first-time offenders — than ever before.

Arrest records show 42 arrests have been made at Cedar Rapids Community School District high schools this year for an alcohol or drug offense compared to just 16 last school year. At Kennedy, there have been 17 of those arrests since August.

“We all know it’s a really big jump,” Kennedy Principal Jason Kline said. “We’ve had a huge increase of kids doing it inside the building.”

Iowa legislators this session introduced a few bills that would tighten regulations on the sale or use of vaping products, but the legislation appears unlikely to advance.

Most students found with vape pens in their backpacks or caught using them in the cafeteria seem nonchalant, Kline said. Oftentimes the information the students and their parents have about vaping is incomplete, he and Hansel said.

“It’s the exact same thing as the 1960s with tobacco, when you had the Marlboro man, and he was sexy and young and tough and all those things. The same agenda is being pushed,” Hansel said. “ ... Parents really need to get educated on this. Don’t be afraid to go through your son’s or daughter’s car or room or their bookbag. A lot of times, kids are hiding these in plain sight.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

Property tax steady but water rates rising for Coralville residents

CORALVILLE — Coralville’s property tax rate will be unchanged for the 10th year in a row, but sewer rates will rise to fund improvement projects under the city’s fiscal year 2020 budget.

The budget, approved by the City Council last week, keeps the property tax rate at $13.53 per $1,000 of taxable valuation. Sewer rates will rise to a base rate of $13.75 for the first 200 cubic feet of water used, up $1.25 from fiscal 2019 rates, and each additional 100 cubic feet will cost $4.40, up 40 cents. A person on average uses about 400 cubic feet of water per month.

The increased sewer rate will fund a sewer treatment plant project that is already underway to accommodate city growth over the next 20 years, according to city budget documents.

City staff developed the 2020 budget with goals of balancing the budget, maintaining the property tax levy and funding any necessary infrastructure improvements.

In fiscal year 2020, Coralville plans to take in and spend $28.03 million, just up from 2019’s projected final budget of $27.48 million in both expenditures and revenues. The largest portion of the city’s general fund revenue comes from property and excise taxes — more than $12.7 million expected next year — followed by city services at almost $3.6 million, and hotel motel taxes at just over $3 million.

Some of the budget’s funding highlights include replacing a bus and paratransit vehicle, adding a Coralville police K-9 officer trained in explosives detection and public education, and hiring a new full-time library employee, according budget documents.

The city’s biggest expenditure comes in its Parks and Recreation Department at $8.14 million in fiscal year 2020, followed by public safety at $6.42 million. Repairs to the aquatic center’s pool and some additional rescue equipment are included in those expenditures.

The budget process got a bit more social this year after city staff put together informational videos they shared on Facebook and Twitter for residents. Residents can find more budget information on the city’s website, coralville.org/budget.

l Comments: (319) 339-3172; maddy.arnold@thegazette.com

Funding doubts delay Iowa mental health plan for children

DES MOINES — It’s not a question of if but of when Iowa will create a mental health care system specifically for children. according to legislative advocates.

House File 690 has been on the debate schedule the past two days, but not been debated. That’s not for a lack of support, according to Rep. Joel Fry, R-Osceola, but because of questions from legislators — especially over funding for the children’s system.

“We want to understand the costs and where the funding would come from before we create something that we couldn’t afford or wouldn’t be able to implement,” Fry said Wednesday. “So I’m crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s to make sure I’ve got everything in place.”

The non-partisan Legislative Services Agency estimated HF 690 would cost Iowans nearly $3.7 million in fiscal 2020 and more than $6.3 million the following year.

Medicaid would cover $423,110 and $1,312,681 in years one and two, with Iowa’s 14 Mental Health and Disability Services regions — which are partly supported by property taxes — covering the remainder.

Although children are receiving mental health services now, Fry acknowledged legislators are questioning whether the existing funding is adequate to cover what is expected to be an expansion of those services.

“We have a lot of money in state government that is going toward various pieces of children and their well-being — education, juvenile justice, the department of Human Services and Public Health,” he said. “There are a lot of different pots of money … and we’re trying to get a handle on where all that money is at, what the total is and how it is used.”

Fry is concerned that people are losing sight of the services already being provided and the funds being spent on serving children’s mental health needs.

“I don’t ever want it to be said that we don’t have services in place for kids today,” he said. “We have providers who are doing amazing work with children.”

His goal with HF 690 is to “make sure that every child regardless of where they live has access to those similar services.”

Democrats are onboard with that, but Rep. Timi Brown-Powers, D-Waterloo, said they are not yet convinced the funding is adequate or that HF 690 would provide the services needed.

“If we’re starting a new children’s mental health system, we knew it would have some fiscal impact,” she said.

Current programming isn’t meeting children’s needs and “there are more (needs) out there than $5 million will cover,” Brown-Powers said.

Fry expects the bill to win bipartisan support. The debate will be about whether HF 690 goes far enough.

“I think I have 51 Republicans as well as all of the Democrats,” he said. “Everybody is interested in (children’s mental health) and how we can assistance youth in today’s culture.”

Brown-Powers said she’s a “yes,” however Democrats actually are split on the current bill.

“They’re frustrated because this isn’t a robust, comprehensive bill and it doesn’t address funding,” she said.

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

Rep. Steve King demurs on white society question, says he wasn’t aware of divisive meme on his Facebook page

U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, whose history of making racially inflammatory remarks has come under heightened scrutiny, demurred this week when asked by a constituent at a town hall meeting whether “a white society is superior to a non-white society.”

“I don’t have an answer for that. That’s so hypothetical,” King said, responding to a question posed at the meeting Tuesday night in Algona.

“I’ll say this: America is not a white society,” King continued. “It’s never been a completely white society. We came here and joined the Native Americans, who were here in many times numbers greater than ours.”

Later in the exchange, which was captured by CNN and other national media, King added: “I’ve long said that a baby can be lifted out of a cradle anywhere in the world and brought into any home in America, whatever the color of the folks in that household, and they can be raised to be American as any other.”

King, a nine-term lawmaker from Iowa’s 4th congressional district, was stripped of committee assignments by House Republican leaders in January after questioning in a New York Times interview if term “white nationalist” should be offensive.

His comments to the Times followed a string of remarks over the years that disparaged immigrants and minorities and suggested an embrace of far-right foreign politicians and parties that have been openly hostile to those groups.

He since has asserted that his comments were mischaracterized, but the newspaper has not retracted the story nor have congressional Republicans restored his committee assignments,

King was back in the headlines this week following a controversial post on his campaign’s Facebook page.

It included a meme of two fighting Frankenstein figures, one red and one blue, each an amalgamation of states supposedly based on their political leanings.

“Folks keep talking about another civil war,” the meme read. “One side has about 8 trillion bullets, while the other side doesn’t know which bathroom to use.”

Pressed by a CNN reporter at Tuesday’s town hall, King said he “wasn’t aware” that the image had been posted and that he does not personally manage the Facebook page. The post has since been deleted.

“The only people who care about that is national news media,” King added. “Nobody has raised the issue around here.”

Missouri man sentenced to 4 years for illegally having guns, committing perjury

CEDAR RAPIDS — A federal judge on Wednesday found a man committed perjury during his sentencing hearing and increased his prison time from nearly two years to four years in prison.

U.S. District Judge C.J. Williams said he didn’t find Damon Montano, 39, of Louisiana, Mo., to be credible when he testified a few weeks ago during the first part of his sentencing. But he did find Montano’s wife, who said he tried to strangle her and repeatedly beat her up throughout their marriage, credible when testified earlier this month.

Montano pleaded guilty in December to possession of firearms by a person convicted of domestic assault. He was convicted of domestic assault in 2007. According to evidence, he possessed three different firearms and over 1,000 rounds of ammunition last July while he and wife were camping or living at the Meskwaki casino’s RV park, according to court documents.

The domestic abuse charge originally filed in this case that involved his estranged wife was dismissed by the prosecution because there was jurisdiction issue but the court can consider the assault at sentencing.

Montano, during his statement to the court, wasn’t dissuaded by the judge’s perjury finding and blamed his wife for the abuse incidents, saying she was a “pathological liar.” He said she was the one who hit him and she would hit herself “all the time.” He called the woman “crazy and violent.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Lisa Williams asked the court to vary upward in guideline sentencing to 63 months because he is a “true danger to society.” When Montano’s grandparents were going to commit him to a hospital for mental health issues in 2005, he threatened to burn down their home. He also turned off his grandmother’s supplemental oxygen and ripped out the phone line to prevent her from calling for help, she said.

The prosecutor also cited past incidents where Montano, with his fist, busted out a girlfriend’s car window, shattering pieces of glass into her face, and another woman said she had to attempt to leave him while he was showering to ensure her escape from him.

Judge Williams said Montano is a “dangerous and abusive” person who blames others, especially women, for what has happened to him. He pointed out that Montano assaulted another inmate in August over an argument about Bible verses while in jail pending sentencing.

The judge also ordered Montano to serve three years of supervised release following his prison time, and placed a no contact order, which prohibits Montano from contacting his estranged wife while on supervised release.

l Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

Mandarin Spice restaurant planned for downtown Cedar Rapids

Marion restaurant Mandarin Spice Asian Grill announced it will open a second location, set for downtown Cedar Rapids.

The restaurant’s Facebook page announced the plan to open at 415 Third St. SE. The space, known as the Sokol Building for its history as a Czech Sokol gymnasium, previously housed Backpocket Pilot Pub, which closed in July.

No opening date is specified, but the Facebook note said owners hope to open in the next month or two.

A 1980s theme bar, the Rewind, previously had announced it would open in the space. But owner Nassor Cooper now says he open The Rewind at 1010 Second Ave. SW sometime this spring.

Mandarin Spice Asian Grill, owned by Kong Ni, first opened at 1412 Twixt Town Rd. in January 2015. The menu focuses on Chinese and Japanese cuisine, with a large selection of sushi, as well as a few Thai and Singaporean dishes.

l Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

Chicago locomotive manufacturer buys Cedar Rapids company Pickwick Manufacturing

Pickwick Manufacturing Services, an 80-year-old Cedar Rapids company, has been sold for $5.8 million to a suburban Chicago company.

RELCO of Burr Ridge, Ill., manufactures, repairs and rebuilds railroad locomotives and other rolling stock.

The company, which lists Pickwick under engineering and support services on its website, acquired nine industrial buildings with a total of 89,000 square feet of space on a 20-acre site at 4200 Thomas Dr. SW in Cedar Rapids.

RELCO’s main shop in Albia, Iowa, is capable of manufacturing 23 locomotives at the same time, according to the company’s website.

Pickwick Manufacturing Services, founded in 1939, provides design, engineering, custom manufacturing and assembly services.

Walt Corey, president and CEO of the company, assumed ownership and leadership of the company after his father died in 1972.

Walt Corey died in June 2019 after an extended illness.

During his tenure, Pickwick added new technologies and processes.

BCC Advisers of Des Moines represented the owners of Pickwick Manufacturing Services in the sale to RELCO.

Facebook will start withholding demographic data from some advertisers

Facebook on Tuesday agreed to overhaul its lucrative targeted advertising system to settle accusations that landlords, lenders and employers use the platform to discriminate — a significant shift for a company that built a business empire on selling personal data.

The settlement compels Facebook to withhold a wide array of detailed demographic information — including gender, age and ZIP codes, which often are used as indicators of race — from advertisers when they market housing, credit and job opportunities.

Facebook long has allowed advertisers to target potential customers and employees based on their demographics and interests, as gleaned from the vast trove of data the platform collects.

Now, the social media giant is stepping away from that approach for certain advertisers, amid mounting evidence that its micro-targeting techniques were abused.

Although those techniques helped propel Facebook into one of the world’s most successful advertising businesses — with 99 percent of its $55.8 billion in revenue last year deriving from ads — Tuesday’s settlement is unlikely to deal a major blow to the company’s bottom line.

But it could make the platform less valuable to certain advertisers. Many companies use Facebook to recruit workers and promote credit cards.

“It may not affect Facebook very much, but it will hurt small advertisers who require that narrow targeting to sell products,” said Laura Martin, a senior internet analyst at the investment bank Needham and Co.

“If companies can’t reach their micro-targeted demographic, they are going to walk away from advertising on Facebook. All ad pricing could go down if demand by advertisers fall.”

The change arrives at a moment when Facebook and other social media platforms face growing scrutiny from regulators, lawmakers and the public. The company is being investigated by the Federal Trade Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission and several state attorneys general over the Cambridge Analytica data privacy controversy.

Civil rights advocates have warned for years that Facebook’s ads violated anti-discrimination laws because advertisers were able to use the data to exclude blacks, women, seniors, people with disabilities and others.

First day of spring, final supermoon of 2019 line up on Wednesday

The first day of spring is the last for supermoons in 2019.

Wednesday evening will bring the year’s last supermoon, known as the “full worm moon.”

Coincidentally, it’s also the spring (vernal) equinox — one of only two days during the year when most people on earth will see near-exactly 12 hours of day and 12 hours of night. It marks the official beginning of spring, in scientific circles.

The equinox will arrive just before 5 p.m. Wednesday — 4:58 p.m., to be exact.

During a supermoon, the moon can appear bigger and brighter than normal, because the moon is in its closest proximity to earth, also called lunar perigee.

The “full worm moon” is expected to peak around 8:43 p.m. Wednesday in the Cedar Rapids area.

If you’re thinking this supermoon business sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve experienced two supermoons already in 2019. So why is this one called the “worm moon?”

According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, it’s because this is the time of year when the soil starts to thaw and earthworms appear.

Each full moon of the year has a name like this — for example, February was the “snow moon,” June is the “strawberry moon” and September is the “harvest moon.”

Wednesday’s supermoon event will be the first time it has coincided so closely with the spring equinox since March 2000, according to EarthSky.org. It won’t happen this closely again until March 2030.

According to National Geographic, Wednesday’s supermoon will be 223,309 miles from Earth at 2:45 p.m. It won’t reach its full phase until 8:43 p.m., appearing 14 percent larger and 12 percent brighter than usual.

Equinox explained

The astronomical start of spring, or the vernal or spring equinox, arrives Wednesday at 4:58 p.m., according to the National Weather Service. The meteorological start of spring, however, began March 1 and is based on “annual temperature cycles and the Gregorian calendar,” according to AccuWeather.

The spring equinox is the one of just two times per year when “the Earth’s axis is tilted neither toward nor away from the sun, resulting in a ‘nearly’ equal amount of daylight and darkness at all latitudes” — about 12 hours and 12 hours — according to the weather service. The other instance, of course, is the autumnal equinox, or the start of fall that will come Sept. 23. The spring equinox means that the days will continue to get longer as the sun rises higher in the sky, eventually bringing the summer solstice on June 21.

Largely because of the Earth’s rotation. The planet makes its way around the sun 365.24 days, not exactly 365 days, which is why leap years exist and why the starts of the spring and autumnal equinoxes and summer and winters solstices have varied, according to the National Center for Environmental Information.

Latest Cedar Rapids Aldi to open next week

CEDAR RAPIDS — Grocery chain Aldi will open its newest Cedar Rapids store next Thursday, March 28, in the space formerly occupied by Fresh Market, at 180 Collins Road NE.

The 24,000-square-foot store in the Collins Crossing shopping center, across the road from Lindale Mall, is part of a $3.4 billion investment by Aldi to expand to 2,500 stores nationwide by the end of 2022.

Essen, Germany-based Aldi has more than 1,800 stores in 35 states, including a store less than four miles away, at 5425 Blairs Forest Blvd. NE.

The company will operate three stores in Cedar Rapids and one store each in Marion, Coralville and Iowa City.

Aldi has remodeled the Cedar Rapids and Marion stores within the past two years.

The Collins Road Aldi store layout will provide an improved in-store experience, the company said in a news release, and feature additional refrigeration space to accommodate more fresh products. Twenty percent of the product selection will be new items when compared with last year.

The new Aldi will be open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Fresh Market, a Greensboro, N.C.-based specialty grocery chain, opened a store in Collins Crossing on Oct. 1, 2014. The company closed its Cedar Rapids and West Des Moines locations in May 2016 along with 11 other stores in three states, citing the completion of an organizational analysis.

The Cedar Rapids Fresh Market employed about 90 people when it opened.

Iowa City man identified as car fire victim

The Iowa City Police Department has identified an elderly Iowa City man as the victim in a car fire Monday night.

Police stated in a news release that Donald Lee Schrader, 72, was the victim in a vehicle fire in the parking lot of 1213 Gilbert Ct., Iowa City. Through their investigation, police determined that “no circumstances or crimes are being considered regarding the cause of the fire, which was determined to have originated in the passenger compartment area.”

Police also stated that autopsy results will not be available for up to several weeks and their investigation remains open.

Some employers go all in with March Madness

When the NCAA men’s basketball tournament tips off Thursday, millions of viewers at offices across the country will huddle over their screens of choice, doing their level best to look busy while toggling between spreadsheets and the Michigan State-Bradley game.

Welcome to March Madness, an annual rite of spring, where businesses decry the billions of dollars in lost productivity as workers cheer on their picks and check their office pool instead of filing that overdue report.

But in an era of full employment and smartphone streaming, some employers are taking a different approach: Put the games on big screen TVs, serve up some pizza and embrace the Madness.

“Everybody is doing it — watching the games — and everybody is in a pool,” said Tom Gimbel, founder and CEO of LaSalle Network, a Chicago-based staffing and recruiting agency. “The more the boss tries to hide it, the more people want it.”

Gimbel’s company was an early adopter. It hosts an annual March Madness office party on the first Friday of the tournament, inviting hundreds of clients and employees to don their favorite college sweatshirt and enjoy the games on 10 flat screen TVs, with a hot dog cart, kegs and other decidedly non-business amenities on hand.

The epiphany for Gimbel came about 10 years ago, when he learned to stop worrying about employees slacking off during the tournament.

“It hit me once, ‘Wait a minute — let’s go all in on this, let’s really enjoy it,’” Gimbel recalled.

Celebrating March Madness instead of fighting it may be a long-term win for recruitment. But with more than 75 million employees spending 6.4 hours of work time watching basketball, it is projected to cost employers nearly $13.3 billion in lost productivity this year alone, according to Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas.

Productivity is not the only item in the March Madness cost-benefit analysis, however.

“It is an enormous cost, but at the end of the day, trying to ban March Madness activities from the workplace would cost employers far more in employee morale, camaraderie and culture, which is particularly important when the labor market is really tight and companies are fighting to retain and attract the best people,” said Andrew Challenger, the outplacement firm’s vice president.

With legalized sports betting coming to a number of states, watching the games could become even more of an office distraction — or perk, depending on how it’s viewed — in the years ahead.

This year, 47 million American adults are projected to bet $8.5 billion on the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, according to a survey released Monday by the American Gaming Association.

More than half that action — $4.6 billion — will be placed in 149 million brackets, including office pools.

The other $3.9 billion of March Madness wagering funnels mostly through illegal channels such as bookies and offshore gambling sites, but legal sports betting is on the rise after a Supreme Court ruling last year opened it up beyond Nevada to all states.

Some Iowa lawmakers are confident a sports betting bill will be sent to Gov. Kim Reynolds this session.

If all 50 states allowed legal sports betting this year, total wagering on March Madness would nearly double, topping $15 billion, according to Eilers and Krejcik Gaming, a California-based research-and-consulting firm.

On Monday, accounting firm BKD also opened up its official company bracket to all employees. There is no entry fee, everybody participates, and employees are encouraged to follow along as the games play out.

The grand prize is a $25 gift certificate.

“It’s nothing significant — more the bragging rights,” LaMorte said.

Not all companies are as open-minded. The NCAA created a “boss button” so viewers streaming games could toggle to a faux spreadsheet when prying eyes got to close to their computer screen.

But the proliferation of smartphones makes streaming the games a relatively unobtrusive activity for any employee, and a bad bet for employers to try to suppress it.

“I think there’s just a can’t beat them, join them attitude, and a lot of companies are embracing the tournament in the workplace and I think that’s a really smart move,” Challenger said.

Iowa public health officials urge caution as flood cleanup begins

State public health officials are seeing more cases of hypothermia this week in parts of the state experiencing historic flooding.

That’s not unheard of, officials say, but unique given the state typically doesn’t see overflowing banks until later in the year.

Western Iowa and two other states have been slammed this month as snow melt and ice jams caused a number of levees to be breached along the Missouri River, inundating nearby small towns and farms and forcing some to evacuate their homes.

The city of Cedar Rapids also took precautions against flood damage when the Cedar River rose to major flood stage this week, closing roads throughout the city that included Bowling Street SW and Edgewood Road NW.

As some Iowans in the western part of the state begin returning to their properties to assess damage and salvage what they can, officials from the Iowa Department of Public Health are cautioning residents to take steps to stay healthy.

“The health concerns most typically align with cleanup efforts after waters recede,” said Ken Sharp, Department of Public Health division director for acute disease prevention, emergency response and environmental health.

But this year, Sharp said they’ve had more reports of the cold floodwater becoming a safety concern.

“What’s unique this year, since the flooding started early due to snowpack melting and ice jams, we’ve heard anecdotally of increased reports of hypothermia,” Sharp said. “There are reports of individuals going into very cold water and then later showing up at the hospital with hypothermia.”

The state public health department encourages anyone entering flooded areas to be cautious, as low visibility in the water can result in injury.

People commonly ask about the risk of tetanus during floods, Sharp said, but “flooding and exposure to floodwater has not been shown to increase tetanus disease.” Iowans do not need a tetanus booster unless they are injured and their wounds are contaminated by the environment.

Floodwater often contains contaminants such as mud, sewage or chemicals. So when in doubt, “throw it out,” Sharp said. Never keep food that may have had contact with water.

“Any time we have water, it’s always safe to assume there are things in there that you want to reduce your exposure to,” Sharp said.

As people re-enter their homes and begin the clean up process, the Department of Public Health encourages “good, old-fashioned hygiene practices,” Sharp said. Always wash your hands and use bleach when cleaning items, he added.

Carbon monoxide exposure is a major issue seen by Department of Public Health as individuals using gas-powered generators or washers sometimes put them in areas not well-ventilated.

“we want to remind folks to be careful with those,” Sharp said. “Be sure to place those in well-ventilated areas, and preferably outdoors.”

For more flood-related disease precaution and best practices for cleaning up after a natural disaster, visit idph.iowa.gov/flooding.

l Comments: (319) 368-8536; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

Edgewood Road and other Cedar Rapids streets now open

The City of Cedar Rapids announced late this morning that Edgewood Road NW is now open between River Bluffs Drive NW and Glass Road NE.

Also, the intersection of C Street and Bowling Street is now open, as well as Ely River at Old River Road.

Here is the current status of road and park closures and openings in the city.

Current Road Closures

• Otis Rd

• Ellis Blvd Between Ellis Ln and 18th St SW

• Ellis Rd west of Edgewood Rd

• A St SW

• Bowling St between A and C St SW

• Old River Rd

• 1st St NW between E Ave and Penn Ave NW

Recently Opened:

• Intersection of C Street SW and Bowling Street SW

• Ely Road at Old River Road

• Edgewood Rd NW between Glass Rd and River Bluff Drive

• Bowling St SW from 33rd Ave to 41st Ave

• Hawkeye Downs Rd from 6th St to J St SW

• J St SW

Park Closures

• Cheyenne Dog Park closed

• Trail at Cedar Lake closed

• Trail from Ellis Park to Edgewood Rd. closed

• Prairie Park Fishery Trail closed

• Cedar Valley Trail from A St. to Tait Cummins closed

• Sac and Fox Trail from Cole St. to Rosedale Ct.

• Cedar Valley Trail from 7th Ave to 12th Ave Bridge

Judge rules Iowa will pay for expert witness for man accused of killing Mollie Tibbetts

MONTEZUMA — A judge ruled Wednesday that a $3,200 stipend will be paid by the state for an expert witness to assist the man accused of fatally stabbing Mollie Tibbetts last summer.

Lawyers for Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 24, who is charged with first-degree murder, said the stipend was needed to hire a forensic expert with Criminal Case Consultants in Buffalo, N.Y. The expert can provide insight on interrogation techniques and analytical investigative methods given the “length, context, language barriers and other factors involved in the police interrogation” of Rivera, Chase Frese, Rivera's lawyer, said in the motion.

The stipend is required for the expert to begin looking into these issues but it doesn’t cover costs of testimony at trial or travel expenses, Frese, in motion, said. The defense will make separate requests for those funds if necessary.

Eighth Judicial District Judge Joel Yates approved the stipend Tuesday, saying a financial affidavit filed with the court shows Rivera is indigent and qualifies for public funds, which will be paid by the state. If additional funds are needed, the defense will have to obtain court approval, he added.

Assistant Iowa Attorney General Scott Brown didn’t resist the motion for funds but disagreed with defense’s “characterizations” of why the funds were needed. Not only in this motion but in others as well, the defense said a language barrier between law enforcement and Rivera during police interviews on August 20-21. The prosecution is not aware of any significant language barrier, he said.

Brown, in the motion, said authorities had a person to interpret for them when they first talked to Rivera at Yarrabee Farm, where Rivera worked as a farm hand, on Aug. 20, and the police officers who conducted the majority of the interview on Aug. 20 and 21, were fluent in Spanish. Spanish is the first language of the primary officer conducting those interviews, he added.

“The defendant never indicated a lack of understanding or any question due to a language barrier at either the farm or the sheriff’s office,” Brown said in the motion.

The interview was lengthy but there were frequent breaks, Rivera was allowed to access his cellphone for most of the interview and he was provided with food and drink, Brown pointed out.

The defense previously asked the court to move the trial out of Poweshiek County because of extensive pretrial publicity and that hearing is set for next Wednesday in Poweshiek County District Court.

The defense also filed a motion to toss out Rivera’s police interview, which includes a confession, claiming police violated his rights. That hearing will be June 25.       

The prosecution hasn’t filed a resistance to either motion at this time.

Rivera is accused of abducting and killing Tibbetts, a 20-year-old University of Iowa student who vanished while jogging July 18 in her hometown of Brooklyn, according to a criminal complaint.

A preliminary autopsy showed Tibbetts died from “multiple sharp force injuries,” which indicates she was stabbed with a knife or other sharp object.

Rivera, a native of Mexico who was illegally living and working in the United States, worked at Yarrabee Farms and had been living in the area for years, authorities said.

Rivera remains in jail on a $5 million bail. His trial is set for Sept. 3.

• Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

Cedar Rapids house and parked cars hit in shots fired incident overnight

A house and three parked cars were struck by bullets early this morning in northwest Cedar Rapids.

Neighbors called 911 around 12:30 a.m. regarding gunshots in the area of 11th Street and B Avenue NW. Cedar Rapids police officers found damage to the home and cars and determined that no one was injured. They also collected evidence and witness statements.

Police believe occupants in a vehicle may have been the source of the gunfire. Police also think the house and cars were not the target and this was not a random incident.

Police stated that no arrests have been made and there is an ongoing investigation.

Chicken and cat survive Iowa City house fire

A baby chicken and a cat were found by Iowa City firefighters last night after they quickly brought a house fire under control.

At 7:14 p.m., neighbors reported smoke coming from the second floor of a house at 954 E. Davenport Street. Upon their arrival four minutes later, Iowa City Fire Department crews observed heavy smoke and flames showing from the second floor of the two-story house.

Within 20 minutes the fire was put out and only a chicken and a cat were located in a search of the house. No other occupants were found in the home. The animals were removed to safety.

The fire department estimated $20,000 in damage to all three floors of the structure. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

Additional support and assistance was provided by the Iowa City Police Department, Johnson County Ambulance Service, Johnson County Joint Communications Center and Mid-American Energy.

Instagram now to allow purchases through app

After years of ogling beautiful images of food, fashion and design on Instagram, people now will be able to buy things they see and like directly through the app — providing instant gratification for the trend-obsessed and a new source of income for parent Facebook.

The photo-sharing app began testing a shopping feature on Tuesday, called Checkout, with a handful of retailers including Nike and designer fashion platform Revolve.

“Over time, as we are creating value for people, this could be a significant part of our business,” said Vishal Shah, Instagram’s head of product.

On Checkout, people will be able to buy directly within Instagram, rather than being directed to a retailer’s website.

It’s unlikely Instagram will release further details about the financial specifics until next year, although Shah said he sees it as the next big business model opportunity after advertising.

Facebook has tried many times to build e-commerce businesses, with varied success.

On Instagram, the transition is happening more naturally, as people tend to follow brands and influencers for lifestyle inspiration from fashion to design to food and travel.

Some of those who have large followings on Instagram have been able to launch products, from merchandise for famous pets to makeup lines for well-known beauty artists.

With advertising growth in Facebook’s news feed slowing, the company is seeking new lines of business and will become more dependent on other properties it owns, such as Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp.

Importance of ‘Patience’ cited in any U.S.-China deal

WASHINGTON — Top White House officials plan to travel to China next week to try to work through unresolved issues as part of ongoing trade negotiations, a sign that talks are continuing but that a deal remains elusive.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin will meet with their Chinese counterparts, a senior administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss undisclosed travel plans.

White House officials had hoped that President Donald Trump would be able to host Chinese President Xi Jinping by the end of this month so that the two countries could announce a formal accord, but talks have bogged down over disagreements about how to enforce a new deal.

Now it’s possible that the two leaders will not meet until April or even later as deadlines keep moving.

Trump originally had given negotiators until March 1 to finalize the terms of the deal, or he threatened to raise tariffs on billions of dollars in imports.

But he backed down from that threat several weeks ago, declaring that he thought there was progress and that more time was needed.

“Talks with China are going very well,” Trump told reporters Tuesday.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump attacked the Chinese government, accusing it of using unfair currency and trade rules to rip off U.S. companies and consumers. He said that because the United States imports more goods from China than it exports, it creates an unfair imbalance that must be remedied.

He has placed tariffs on imports of about $250 billion in Chinese goods to try to force Chinese officials to negotiate, and the strategy has worked — last year, Xi agreed to begin formal discussions with Trump on a broad trade deal.

Trump and other White House officials have said they are making progress, particularly in areas related to currency manipulation and intellectual property theft.

They also have said that Chinese leaders agreed to increase purchases of U.S. energy and agricultural products. But they have not released specifics about the pact.

White House officials have said the deal would not need congressional approval.

Asked about the status of the China talks, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow said that both countries were trying to work through difficult issues and that the Trump administration was happy to take its time to reach an agreement that Trump likes.

“Patience is a virtue,” Kudlow said on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” program.

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