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GALLAGHER: Basketball buddy inspires Morningside senior

SIOUX CITY | Eight days ago, Coach Jamie Sale presented Lauren Lehmkuhl with a basketball to commemorate her reaching the 1,000-point plateau as a Morningside Mustang.

One of Lehmkuhl's best buddies, Weston Miner, was there to take it all in. "Wes" is a 7-year-old from Lehmkuhl's hometown of Wakefield, Nebraska.

"Weston took the ball and wanted to start playing with it," Lehmkuhl said. "I told him this was a special ball, one that we don't really play a lot with."

TGallagher / Provided 

Weston Miner, left, shows off the commemorative basketball presented to Lauren Lehmkuhl, a senior at Morningside College, after she scored her 1,000th point for the Mustangs. Miner and Lehmkuhl have a special friendship they formed -- and continue -- while shooting baskets.

Lehmkuhl and Miner have shared the basketball in a friendship that began three years ago when the two met while Lehmkuhl worked at Humpty Dumpty Daycare in Wakefield. The two took to one another immediately, sharing time shooting hoops.

Weston Miner was 2 months old when he had open heart surgery. He has Williams syndrome, which causes learning and social delays. That doesn't stop him from lighting up whenever his friend shows up for a session of shooting baskets on the driveway, in the park, or in the gym.

"Weston loves basketball," Lehmkuhl said. "He'll even shoot outside his house during the winter. We hang out and play basketball and exchange cards and gifts. It's been very special."

Weston's mother, Tara Miner, said she and Weston will be at the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City when Lehmkuhl and her Mustangs open play against the University of Rio Grande, of Ohio, at 7 p.m. Thursday in the NAIA Division II Women's Basketball Championship.

"We've gone to the national tournament the past two years and we'll go again Thursday," said Tara, who works as a pharmacy tech in Wayne, Nebraska. "Wes likes to wear his 'Defend & Dominate' t-shirt," which the Morningside girls made after they won the title in Lauren's freshman year. "We put Lauren's number, 23, on the back of Wes' shirt."

Weston, a first-grader at Wakefield Elementary School, lost his dad, Shad Miner, who died in July 2015 following a bout with cancer. He was only 35. That's the summer Weston and Lauren met.

"Weston keeps me grounded and humbled," said Lehmkuhl, a senior majoring in graphic design and advertising with a minor in business. "I can get caught up in basketball and then he makes me smile. I like how he loves the little things, how he's fascinated with things like fans and vacuums."

Lehmkuhl once stepped off the court after not playing particularly well. She caught sight of Weston, who broke into a big smile for his Mustang hero. And, almost instantly, the gloom tied to playing poorly vanished.

"His big smile put me in a better mood," said the daughter of Jim and Jill Lehmkuhl.

TGallagher / Provided 

When the Journal's Tim Gallagher, right, interviewed Lauren Lehmkuhl following the 2016 GPAC Tournament championship game, Lemkuhl's pal, Weston Miner, age 5 at the time, waited with the game ball.

"They still shoot baskets at our place," Tara said. "Lauren came to our house for Weston's birthday in August. She took him to the Drop Zone Family Fun Center in Sioux City and then out for ice cream."

Lehmkuhl, owner of a 3.85 grade point average, does her best to find time for her friend. Her occasional shooting sessions in Wakefield and Wayne come amid a practice and class schedule, and part-time work for J&M Real Estate, of Dakota Dunes.

TGallagher / Provided 

Lauren Lehmkuhl, a senior majoring in graphic design and advertising, used mosaic tiles to create this depiction of former Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan.

"I have four classes now, but two of them meet just once per week," she said.

Lehmkuhl is also interviewing for job openings, having sent her resume for approximately 30 positions. A dream job, she said, would involve working for Hudl in Lincoln, Nebraska, or for Nike in Eugene, Oregon.

"I like drawing, it's relaxing for me," she said. "And I'm just getting into calligraphy."

With that, she pulled out her phone and showed a few of her creations, most of them done with colored pencils. Off the court, this 1,000-point scorer is obviously talented.

Jim Lee, Sioux City Journal file 

Dordt College's Kenzie Bousema (3) and Rachel Evavold (43) guard Morningside College senior Lauren Lehmkuhl during basketball action at Morningside College earlier this season. The Mustangs open play in the national tournament at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Tyson Events Center.

Tara Miner said Lehmkuhl isn't only talented, she's compassionate and patient, a giver of her time and talent. Her son, she said, has blossomed, in part, through his friendship with her.

"Their story is so sweet," Tara said. "It's been neat to watch them grow through the years together."

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Valley City basketball team suffers snowy bus mishap on way to NAIA tourney in Sioux City

WATERTOWN, S.D. | In all her years as a player and assistant coach in the collegiate ranks, Vanessa Keeler-Johnson had never been in a bus accident.

That changed on her way to the NAIA Division II Women's Basketball Championship in Sioux City on Monday.

TGallagher / Provided 


Keeler-Johnson, head coach for the Valley City State University Vikings, held on tightly as the charter bus carrying her team slid off a slick Interstate 29 south of Watertown and barrelled its way a quarter- to half-mile from the roadway before coming to rest in a creek bed.

Thankfully, there were no injuries.

"We left at 10 a.m. Monday from Valley City (North Dakota) and made it 15 miles south of Watertown," Keeler-Johnson said. "The roads at that point were the best we'd seen, but a patch of slush pulled us and we must have slid a half-mile in the ditch. We ended up in a small creek at the bottom of a hill.

"We stayed upright, which I'm thankful for as it could have been way worse," she added while crediting the bus driver, Ron Lindgren, for his steady hand.

"The way we entered the ditch, he saved our lives," she continued. "We could have rolled. But, he kept the bus upright. He really did his job."

TGallagher / Provided 

The charter bus carrying the Valley City State University women's basketball team sustained some damage after sliding off Interstate 29 south of Watertown, S.D., during a winter storm on Monday. The team was headed for Sioux City, where it plays in the NAIA Division II Women's Basketball Championship on Thursday. No one was injured in the accident.

Coaches and team members sat with Lindgren on the charter bus until officers serving the South Dakota State Patrol arrived on the scene and made calls into Watertown for assistance. Two hours later, six trucks with the Watertown Search & Rescue unit took four players at a time to Stone's Truck Stop in Watertown, where the team waited for another hour before a second charter bus arrived.

"And then we made it as far as Brookings (South Dakota) before the interstate closed," Keeler-Johnson said. "As we left Watertown, we were hoping to get as far as Sioux Falls where we had motel reservations for the night. But, shortly after we started driving, we saw that Interstate 29 was going to close, so we called and got rooms in Brookings."

Viking team members had called their parents while sitting in that deep ditch to let them know everyone was OK. Players were quiet the rest of the afternoon, but all were unharmed.

The charter bus on Tuesday morning drove the Valley City State team east out of Brookings on Highway 14, since Interstate 29 remained closed as crews cleared snow and ice. The team went south through Pipestone, Minnesota, on Highway 75 and eventually through the Iowa cities of Rock Rapids and Sioux Center before pulling in to Sioux City over the noon hour.

TGallagher / Provided 

Members of the Valley City State University women's basketball team carry luggage from their bus back toward Interstate 29 on Monday. The team's charter bus slid up to one half-mile off the interstate in snowy, icy conditions. Six vehicles responded to the scene and hauled the players and coaches back to Watertown, S.D., where they awaited a second bus. The team arrived in Sioux City on Tuesday for the NAIA Division II Women's Basketball Championship, which begins Wednesday.

"Everyone has held up fine," said Keeler-Johnson, whose No. 14-ranked Vikings set a school record with 25 victories this season. The team practiced on Tuesday afternoon in South Sioux City before checking into its hotel in Sioux City. Valley City joined the other 31 teams in the field for the traditional pre-tournament banquet Tuesday night at the Sioux City Convention Center.

The fourth-seeded Vikings face fifth-seeded St. Francis of Illinois in the opening round of basketball action at 1:45 p.m. Thursday at the Tyson Events Center.

TGallagher / Provided 


While this is the program's fifth appearance in the national meet, it represents Keeler-Johnson's first as head coach.

"I made the comment that in 10 years of playing and coaching and traveling on a charter bus, this type of thing had never happened," she said. "And then in my first year as a head coach, it happened."

More NAIA content

Kevin E. Schmidt, Quad-City Times 

Sergeant Bluff-Luton's Conner Groves (10) puts a shot up over Oskaloosa's Tanner Dekock (30) during the first half.

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City of Sioux City approves budget as uncertainty on backfill dollars looms

SIOUX CITY |The Sioux City Council approved its fiscal year 2019 budget Monday amid uncertainty over whether it will need to make cuts if Iowa lawmakers approve legislation that would reduce the amount of money the state provides to cities.  

Prior to taking a unanimous vote on the budget, which will provide a 0.6 percent property tax decrease to residents, council members discussed a bill currently in the Iowa Senate Appropriations Committee that proposes to phase out over a three-year period the funds the state sends to local governments to compensate for lower commercial property tax revenue.

If passed, the bill would cost Sioux City more than $600,000 in the upcoming budget year, according to a city analysis of the plan. 

Some council members said they didn't want to increase property taxes as a precaution, as it may appear to the legislature that the city is resigned to losing the previously pledged state money this year. 

"My vote is we leave (the budget) right where it's at, and if we have a problem this budget cycle, I would be glad to point out why we're having a problem," Mayor Bob Scott said. "I would hope the governor ... does the right thing, and that's to veto any bill that compromises this." 

Ian Richardson / Provided 


When Iowa lawmakers passed a commercial property tax cut in 2013, they promised to backfill cities and counties to help them partially absorb the loss of local revenue. The state provides approximately $152 million in backfill money each year to Iowa cities. 

That backfill would gradually phase out if Senate File 2081 were to pass in its current form. The bill proposes to eliminate one-third of the scheduled backfill payments for the 2019 fiscal year, which begins July 1. It would then eliminate two-thirds in the 2020 fiscal year and completely eliminate them in the 2021 fiscal year. Several Iowa cities are lobbying against the bill.

Sioux City finance director Donna Forker told the council Monday that one-third of the city's backfill funds amounts to around $665,000.

If the legislature were to cut the backfill without allowing the city to re-open its budget, Forker said the city would have to either make cuts or find more revenue sources.

"We would open up both (the capital improvements program) and operating (budget) and go through everything that we’re using cash for to try to come up with the money," Forker said. "Jobs would be our last option, but with that kind of dollar amount I wouldn’t stand up here and say we wouldn’t do jobs."

The council considered deferring its vote to next week, but decided minimal action will likely be taken before the deadline to certify the budget on March 15. Forker said after that date, the city cannot raise its tax levy, only lower it. 

Scott said the state should do the right thing and not consider cutting any backfill money until the 2020 fiscal year at the earliest. He added that the city shouldn't give the state the impression that it is willing to lose backfill money this year. 

"They want to see how many cities are going to accept this by doing it," Scott said. "They're going to wait and see how many -- and if half the cities blink, guess what? I'm not blinking." 

Councilman Pete Groetken said he agreed but hopes the city doesn't have to make painful cuts later that would sacrifice jobs and services. 

"We're moving forward to a lot of great things in the community, both public and private, and I hate to see anything get slowed down," he said. 


City Manager Bob Padmore said hopefully the state would allow the city to re-open the budget if such a bill passes.



"We would at least lobby that they allow us to re-open our budget and re-certify our budget," he said. 

As approved Monday, Sioux City's fiscal 2019 budget will provide a $5 tax decrease on a home assessed for $100,000, and a tax increase of $27 per $100,000 of commercial property. 

The city is one of a handful of entities whose tax levies make up an owner's overall property tax bill, which will be due in two equal installments, Sept. 1 and March 1. Other local taxing bodies include the Sioux City School District, Woodbury County and Western Iowa Tech Community College.

Read Senate File 2081

Woodbury County begins process to address ordinances on selling fireworks

SIOUX CITY -- The Woodbury County supervisors have directed a county commission to develop recommended zoning ordinance changes about the sales and use of fireworks in rural areas, one year after a new state law expanded the type of fireworks that can be shot off in Iowa.

"We can come up with reasonable, safe, practical policies," Community and Economic Development Department Director David Gleiser said Tuesday.

Currently, there are no Woodbury County ordinances that address fireworks. Several of the county supervisors, including Matthew Ung and Rocky De Witt, said they were not interested in reducing the maximum state window of weeks in which fireworks could be ignited.

The Legislature in 2017 handed cities and counties the power to allow fireworks discharge for the first time in eight decades. Since that time, many cities and counties have discussed what times and places they want fireworks to be sold and shot off.

Some Northwest Iowa cities and counties allowed their residents to shoot off fireworks for five weeks -- the state maximum -- to celebrate the Fourth of July holiday. Other local governments set stricter limits.

Under Iowa's law, licensed retailers or community groups can sell consumer-grade fireworks out of permanent structures to adults between June 1 and July 8 and also between Dec. 10 and Jan. 3 to celebrate the New Year's holiday.

The Woodbury County supervisors in a Tuesday board meeting approved a proposal by Gleiser to use the zoning commission and board of adjustment to work through recommendations about zoning on fireworks sale and use.

Given the new state law, Gleiser said the county needs to add the sale of fireworks to amend the 2008 zoning ordinances concerning the Land Use Summary Table of Allowed Uses. Gleiser said any new county ordinance would only apply to rural portions of the county, not any of the towns or Sioux City, which have set or are setting their own rules.

Gleiser said it might not make sense to allow the sale of fireworks near industrial or heavily agricultural portions of the county. He said one merchant used a sales tent along U.S. Highway 20 in the county last summer, and that merchant has also inquired about a more permanent building.

Gleiser said he wants a very open process in working through the fireworks issues in the county.

"That process could include public hearings," he said.

Sergeant Bluff and Sioux City officials have tinkered with the fireworks times in recent months.

In mid-December, the Sioux City Council shortened July fireworks discharge from 10 days to two. Sioux City's current hours are 1 to 11 p.m. July 3 and 4 and from 1 p.m. Dec. 31 to 12:30 a.m. Jan. 1. Sioux City was among several cities tweaking their ordinances after the first year and is currently the largest city in Iowa that will allow fireworks discharge within city limits.