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Kids building robots
Siouxland students learn science, other skills with Legos

SOUTH SIOUX CITY -- Jackson Wagner, 14, is laser-focused on the science behind robotics while his best friend Ean Van Osdel, 14, serves as a one-man pit crew, ensuring a mechanical tank nicknamed "Aries" carries out a series of special missions.

Wait, aren't these two North Middle School eighth-graders simply having fun, playing with Legos?

Well, actually Jackson, Ean and their fellow Kobra Kai members are learning about problem-solving, teamwork and technology as a part of a First Lego League (FLL) team, which regularly meets inside the South Sioux City Middle School library.

Coached by Jackson's dad Sam Wagner as well as South Sioux City Middle School teacher Jerry Plathe, other members of Kobra Kai (named after the dojo made famous in "The Karate Kid" movies) are Grace Wagner, 10, Olivia Wagner, 11, and Aaron Plathe, 15.

An international robotics competition for elementary and middle school students, FLL involves designing and programming Lego Mindstorm robots to complete assigned tasks. This year, participants work out solutions related to space travel at regional contests where they share knowledge, compare ideas and show off their robots.

Kobra Kai is one of two Dakota County teams who are advancing after participating in the FLL pre-qualifying round held in Bellevue, Nebraska, on Feb. 2. Kobra Kai, along with Space Bones (made up of team members Ross Abts, Matt Bousquet, Connor Schamp, Samuel Shadbolt and Maximus Wiggs, as well as coaches Lisa Bousquet, Anita Eckert and Angela Abts) will be among the 12 teams invited to compete at the Nebraska FLL Championships Saturday at the Strategic Air and Space Museum.

Kobra Kai coach Sam Wagner said he didn't think his son was ready for Lego when Jackson won a set at age 5.

"To the surprise of my wife and myself, Jack ended up loving to build things with Lego," Wagner said. 

Indeed, Jackson's interest in Lego as well as his involvement in FLL contests got his younger sisters involved. Well, at least in a roundabout way.

"Jack would go to these all-day FLL competitions," Olivia Wagner, a North Middle School sixth-grader, explained. "The entire family would have to tag along."

"And we'd be bored out of our minds," Grace Wagner, a Perry Creek Elementary School fifth-grader, interjected. "That is, until we were old enough to participate."

Since then, Grace and Olivia have been active members in Team Kobra Kai.

"It's more fun now." Olivia said. "There's always something to do."

Indeed, FLL teams need to demonstrate a variety of different skills. They must demonstrate core values in teamwork and professionalism; excel in research and presentation skills; be concise in mechanical design, programming and strategy; while keeping their wits during three timed rounds of robot games.

Luckily, Kobra Kai has a Mr. Fix-It in Aaron Plathe.

"I have a knack for making things work," the East Middle School eighth-grader explained. "That's my role in the team."

Which makes things easy for Jackson and Ean, who remains the most engineer-minded member of Kobra Kai.

"I like FLL because it always challenges you," Jackson said. "Once you think you have things figured out, something happens. Then, it's back to the drawing board."

Ean nodded his head in agreement.

"When it comes to FLL competitions, you always have to come with Plan A," he said. "But you also have a Plan B in case everything else goes wrong."

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Woodbury County supervisors reduce additions to sheriff's office in making $650,000 in changes

SIOUX CITY -- In order to reduce spending from property taxes to the level of the current year, the Woodbury County Board of Supervisors came into its Tuesday meeting looking to fix a budget gap of $550,000 for the 2019-20 fiscal year.

Instead, the supervisors went further, making changes amounting to $650,000.

With those combined moves of reducing proposed expenses and finding some more revenue, it is possible the county property tax levy for next year could be going down. That levy figure will be aired at the next supervisors meeting on Feb. 19, when they expect to last tinker with the financial plan that began two months ago at $56.9 million.

Over seven meetings since the beginning of January, the supervisors have worked through issues related to the county budget that was initially proposed at $2.3 million more than the current year. All that time, they have aimed to reduce the property tax rate, as has been done for four consecutive years.

Going into the Tuesday meeting, county Finance Director Dennis Butler's projection showed the property tax rates at $7.34 per $1,000 of assessed valuation for city residents and $9.77 per $1,000 for rural residents. The tax rates in the current year are $7.29 per $1,000 for city residents and $9.53 per $1,000 for rural residents.

In making the Tuesday budget moves totaling $650,163, a big piece involved adding only one of three proposed new deputy positions in the Sheriff's Office, at a savings of $169,486. Sheriff Dave Drew said he's wanted more deputies for six years, as law enforcement tasks increase and rural areas continue to have large swaths to cover with just a few on-duty deputies.

Drew said the current 28 deputies who handle patrol work aren't enough.

"My guys work their tails off ... We are very stretched," Drew said.

County Supervisor Marty Pottebaum added, "It is not getting any safer out there."

Supervisor Jeremy Taylor said he could only support one new deputy, not three, although other deputies could be considered in upcoming years.

The final vote on the measure to add only one deputy passed 4-1, with board chairman Keith Radig saying he couldn't support any new personnel. All three deputies would have cost $254,000, with salaries and benefits.

"I'm one to hold the line on where we are staffing-wise," Radig said.

Drew responded, "Maybe this is a hard word for you, but maybe you've got to raise taxes ... I respect your opinion."

Some other cuts set Tuesday included $19,839 for part-time personnel in the emergency services department, $140,298 to reduce the cash reserve level of the district health department and $250,000 to reduce the cash reserve level in the Debt Service Fund.

One revenue change to drop the take in property taxes involved moving $59,800 from county gambling revenues into the General Fund.

The proposed budget covers the period from July 1, 2019, through June 30, 2020.

Also in the meeting, the supervisors reviewed a Capital Improvement Program proposal for $1.1 million to fund larger expenditures. The main pieces include $475,000 for an asphalt resurfacing of roads in Little Sioux Park near Correctionville and $220,000 for a truck for the Emergency Services Department.

One other notable CIP piece would pay an estimated $60,178 for security cameras to be placed on the exterior of the Woodbury County Courthouse, plus cameras in the nearby downtown Woodbury County Law Enforcement Center and Trosper-Hoyt Building.

For the last several years the county has typically borrowed from $800,000 to $1.5 million annually to a Capital Improvement Program. The current budget includes a CIP of $1,074,153.

Terry Turner, Sioux City Journal 

Kingsley-Pierson's Delaney Iseminger moves the ball down court under pessure from Akron-Westfield's Cassy Vanderlinden during Kingsley-Pierson vs Akron-Westfield Class 1A regional basketball action played Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019, in Kingsley, Iowa. Sioux City Journal photo by Tim Hynds

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Steve King shares letter from supporters in bid to regain House committee slots

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. Steve King on Tuesday released a letter signed by 200 "pro-family" leaders who urged House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to "do the right thing" and reinstate King to his House committees.

Last month, McCarthy, R-Calif., stripped King of all his committee assignments for the next two years after the Iowa 4th District Republican, in a New York Times story, was quoted as saying, "White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?"

In the aftermath, King claimed his comments were taken out of context, and repeatedly denied that he harbors white supremacist or white nationalist views. Instead, the outspoken conservative described himself as a nationalist fighting to preserve Western civilization. 

In a Feb. 5 letter to McCarthy, the pro-King leaders said they were "appalled that Republican leadership would choose to believe a liberal news organization famous for their bias over an outstanding member of Congress who has served the people of Iowa and the United States honorably and faithfully for 16 years."

"We call on you to do the right thing as Minority Leader: issue a public apology and reinstate Rep. King to his committee assignments," the letter said. "If you don't stand with this good man against the media-manufactured assault today, none of us will be safe from it tomorrow."

King shared a link to the letter in a tweet Tuesday in which he described the signers as "pro-family leaders." 

"They know when the 'outrageous misquote' of a biased & liberal NYTimes takes free rein to 'falsely brand' Republicans, no conservative is safe," King tweeted.

Among those signing the letter were former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, evangelical leader James Dobson, Operation Rescue president Troy Newman and several members of the Phyllis Schlafly Eagles group. A few Iowans also signed the letter.

King, an outspoken abortion opponent, has repeatedly pushed for measures such as the "fetal heartbeat" bill to limit or outlaw abortion.

In the letter, the religious leaders noted that unlike in North Korea, Americans are "innocent until proven guilty," and "hold to the principles of Western Civilization, as Rep. King so admirably does."

"The foundational principles begin with the self-evident truth that 'all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,'" the letter said. "These are the principles to which Rep. King was referring and which he has championed for more than two decades of public service."

Since his removal from the House Agriculture, Judiciary and Small Business committees, King has attempted to make the case he is still an effective representative for the district. He has released a series of photos showing him meeting with 4th District residents and advocacy groups in his congressional office. 

Last month, he also held the first of 39 town hall meetings this year in each county in the district. His second town hall is scheduled for noon Monday in Rock Rapids at the Forster Community Center, 404 Main St.

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Big Ox mitigates January digester spill

SOUTH SIOUX CITY -- Big Ox Energy has mitigated a Jan. 25 spill in which up to 80,000 gallons of sludge overflowed from a plant digester and spilled onto the company's grounds, company officials and Nebraska state regulators said.

The biofuels plant notified the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality on Jan. 25 that 60,000-80,000 gallons of digester material had spilled at its South Sioux City plant. The material breached an earthen berm and ran into a drainage ditch but was stopped short of entering a stormwater outlet, according to NDEQ records.

By the time NDEQ inspectors arrived later in the day, the berm had been repaired and cleanup had begun. The sludge did not spill onto adjacent property.

"It was an unfortunate overflow incident that we were able to contain to the property there," Big Ox spokesman Kevin Bradley said Tuesday.

Bradley said Big Ox continues to work with state regulators to address the incident and prevent it from happening again.

Courtesy of Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality 

A Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality map shows the location of a Jan. 25 spill at the Big Ox Energy plant in South Sioux City.

No notice of violation was issued for the Jan. 25 incident, but it falls under an order issued under a Jan. 7 notice of violation the NDEQ issued the Denmark, Wisconsin-based company for improperly stockpiling digester solids on site. Big Ox was ordered to cease stockpiling solid waste materials and remove the material that had been stored there.

"There will be followup of one kind or another," said Reuel Anderson, the NDEQ's National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits and compliance section supervisor.

Big Ox has indicated an interest in building a permanent storage site for solid materials consisting of a concrete containment structure and sumps system, according to NDEQ documents.

Bradley said he had no comment on the possibility that Big Ox may build a storage facility at the site.

The January spill was not the first at Big Ox, which converts organic waste from local industries to methane. The NDEQ issued notices of violation in June and August for sludge spills. Big Ox also was issued a notice of violation in July and again in November for air quality violations.

The plant has been the subject of numerous odor complaints from area residents, and a class action lawsuit has been filed against the company claiming that its odors are a nuisance and the result of negligence. A total of 15 homeowners also have filed individual lawsuits against the company, claiming that toxic odors and gases backed up into their homes shortly after the plant began operations in September 2016, causing health issues and making their homes uninhabitable.