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Thunderstorm winds hammer Tribland

Powerful straight-line winds associated with a line of strong thunderstorms that moved across Nebraska late Wednesday night and early Thursday morning left a trail of midnight damage in their wake.

Wind gusts as strong as 75 miles per hour were reported in Tribland, with many instances of winds clocked at 50-70 mph, the National Weather Service reported. Residents were left to clean up the mess on Thursday.

Some of the higher wind speeds included 75 mph at Carleton (reported at 12:24 a.m.); 72 mph four miles east of Pauline (11:51 a.m.); 70 mph one mile southeast of Doniphan (11:47 p.m.), four miles north of Doniphan (11:40 p.m.),and five miles south of Saronville (12:06 a.m.); 67 mph at the Hastings Municipal Airport (11:48 p.m.); and 65 mph one mile west of Trumbull (11:42 p.m.).

Hastings, Trumbull, Clay Center, Sutton, Edgar, Fairfield and Hebron were among the area towns where damage was reported. Harvard and Deweese were among several towns plus rural neighborhoods that contended with power outages, according to the National Weather Service storm information logs.

“It’s just straight winds,” said Tim Lewis, Clay County Emergency Management director, in a video he posted to social media Thursday morning while driving around the county assessing damage. “Seventy-mile-per-hour straight winds came through the county last night, and the daylight is showing us the problems.”

In Hastings, utility crews were out overnight dealing with several electrical outages, said Amanda Scott, city public information manager.

Service was disrupted along Ringland Road after a tree fell on a power line, Scott said. Power was restored several hours later, around 8 a.m. Thursday.

“That one took a long time to repair,” she said.

Other wind-related outages were reported in the 1800 block of West Third and West Second streets and in the area of West 14th Street between Lexington and Burlington avenues, Scott said. The 14th Street outage, which affected stoplights, was rectified by about 4 a.m.

Jeff Hassenstab, Hastings city parks and recreation director, said tree and limb damage around town was sporadic throughout the night, but nothing too bad.

“We’ve had way worse,” he said.

Parks and Rec is working to clear the limbs and trees from city property today, but some cleanup will continue Friday, Hassenstab said.

At 11:45 p.m., significant tree damage was reported at Trumbull, along with downed power lines. A Clay County Highway Department shop building in Trumbull suffered damage to its doors, so equipment inside couldn’t be removed.

Right around midnight, tree limbs were reported to have fallen on houses in Clay Center. Tree damage was reported in Edgar at 12:05 a.m. and in Sutton at 12:07.

Damage across Hebron was reported at 12:23 a.m., with one instance where a car trailer may have been blown across the street. Branches were reported down in Deshler at 12:27, and a power line was reported down in Gilead at 12:44.

Lewis, the Clay County official, was out throughout the night and Thursday morning assessing damage and issuing informational posts. He reported that Clay County customers of both Southern Power District and South Central Public Power District experienced electrical outages, and that city crews in Edgar, Fairfield and Clay Center were working overnight to clear streets of fallen tree branches and limbs.

Around noon on Thursday, he reported seeing downed corn in many fields and some instances of broken stalks, plus damage to at least one center pivot irrigation system. He encouraged producers to notify their Farm Service Agency and crop insurance representatives concerning damages.

Lewis said he hadn’t received reports of hail or any injuries in Clay County, and in his morning video post offered his assessment that the storm “could’ve been a lot worse.”

The largest rainfall amounts associated with the storms came from the southern and northern reaches of Tribland. According to NWS and the Nebraska Rainfall Assessment and Information Network, these amounts included 2 inches at Lebanon and 1.6 inches at Burr Oak in Kansas; 1.95 inches southwest of Naponee; 1.6 inches west of Doniphan; and 1.55 inches northwest of Giltner.

Other rainfall amounts, courtesy of NeRAIN, included:

Southeast of Harvard: 1.31

Southeast of Grafton: 1.25

Southeast of Clay Center: .85

Southeast of Lawrence: 1.11

Southeast of Guide Rock: .67

Northeast of Franklin: .93

Southwest of Nelson: .71

Southeast of Davenport: .96

Northeast of Byron: .63

Northeast of Blue Hill: .73

Northwest of Juniata: .72

Southeast of Roseland: .34

Southeast of Minden: .50Following a somewhat cooler day on Thursday, temperatures are expected to climb back into the upper 80s for the weekend with sunshine Friday through Sunday and beyond, the National Weather Service reported. A 30% chance of showers and thunderstorms is forecast for the early-morning hours of Saturday.

High temperatures of 93 degrees in Hastings are forecast for Monday and Tuesday, respectively.

Officials discuss HU absorbing credit card fees

The days may be numbered for the $3.75 credit card processing fee at Hastings Utilities.

Brian Strom, HU manager of customer accounts, led a discussion about service fee changes during the Hastings Utility Board meeting Thursday.

The current policy requires customers paying with credit card, debit card or eCheck pay a fee of $3.75 per transaction with a limit of $500. There is no fee for automatic electronic bill pay through bank accounts.

The utility department doesn’t receive any portion of that $3.75.

Beginning March 19, the utility department began crediting the $3.75 fee back to customers.

“Of course, we did this to be more customer friendly, make it convenient for customers who pay their bill and keep everybody safe,” Strom said.

The move coincided with the utility department closing its doors to the public because of the novel coronavirus.

“But we have been successful still servicing our customers and bringing in revenue for the utilities,” Strom said.

From March 19 through June 30, the number of credit card payments increased 96% from 2019 and 167% from 2018.

During that same 3½-month time period, dollar amounts received included the following:

  • 2018: $406,375
  • 2019: $572,181
  • 2020: $1,074,860

So, the estimated annual payments through credit cards would be more than $4 million.

“There’s going to need to be some more analytics and more research on this, but this does lead me to believe if there is not a fee for customers we’re going to get credit card payments,” Strom said.

There are several benefits to accepting cards, besides convenience for the customer.

Payments are in real time and applied to customers’ account immediately.

It saves on labor in handling and processing checks and cash.

There is no paper. The customer receives an e-receipt.

It improves cash flow for the utility department.

Among the changes under consideration, the utility department would absorb the fee.

The fee, per transaction, would be roughly $2 with a limit of $500 per transaction.

Strom said he was told from the utilities’ third-party processor the fee would go down from $3.75 to $2 if the utilities department paid it because there is less of a chance of a charge-back when the merchant pays the fee.

“There’s less opportunity of them not getting paid,” he said.

Strom said, based on transactions between March 19 and June 30, the annual cost for the utilities department to absorb the fees would be $46,000.

In addition to possibly absorbing that processing fee, utility department staff members are evaluating instituting a $200 deposit. Hastings Utilities’ current deposit policy doesn’t require a deposit for residential customers.

For new commercial customers, a $500 deposit or 2 ½ times the largest anticipated bill, whichever is least, is required.

Deposits are returned after 36 months of good payment history or applied to a final bill.

While the North Denver Station has been closed to customers due to COVID-19, new residential customers have paid a $100 deposit.

Among changes being considered, all new utility customers would need to pay a $200 deposit.

The deposit would be waived if the customer enrolled in ACH payment agreement, or if the customer can provide a satisfactory letter of credit from another utility company.

“We’ve also been banging around the idea if a property owner was coming in to sign up for service we would potentially waive the deposit then too,” Strom said.

The deposit would be refunded after 24 months instead of 36 months.

Strom provided justification in his presentation for requiring a deposit.

“The obvious one is a security payment in case the customer does not pay their final bill.”

He said 27% of the service accounts that were written-off this year paid a deposit. The dollar amount of those deposits recovered 17% of the total amount that was written off.

“In a nutshell, if we are able to charge a deposit we are able to recoup more funds and are better off down the road,” he said.

The average electric bill for residential customers is $88.09. If a customer doesn’t pay the final bill that amount includes 2 ½ months worth of service.

A $200 deposit will recover a majority of the electric bill only.

Strom presented a table stating if all customers paid a $200 deposit, there would’ve been $24,586 written off in 2019, instead of the $72,986 that was actually written off that year.

He also presented a matrix showing how many other Nebraska utilities handle deposits and credit card fees.

Of the nine utilities surveyed, including Hastings Utilities, only one other utility — Black Hills Energy — carries a credit card fee for residential customers, and that was $1.95.

Six of the utilities have some sort of deposit requirement for residential customers.

“The security deposit question is always a challenge,” Utilities Manager Kevin Johnson said. “I’ve been at several different utilities, and every one of the utilities has some nuance of security deposits required.”

Staff members are still discussing when to return the deposit.

“We want to give it back if they establish themselves, if they haven’t established themselves previously,” Johnson said.

He said he thought 36 months was too long.

Utilities officials are discussing that duration and whether 24 months, or even 12 months, would be appropriate.

Within the current deposit policy, Hastings Utilities allows two delinquent letters and the customer would still receive the deposit back after 36 months.

“There’s still opportunities for blips,” Johnson said. “If we drop it to 24 months, we’d have to discuss ‘do we give them blips, one or two opportunities for errors or mistakes? If we drop it down to 12 would there be a requirement for 12 straight?”

He said even though the utilities department is considering absorbing the credit card fees, it is relatively small in the estimated amount of $46,000.

“Not small in the scope of the utility budget, but small if it generates guaranteed money for the utility without the risk of uncollectibles, write-offs, or even, as Brian mentioned, office staff handling of cash or checks,” he said. “That $2 is easily offset by efficiencies.”

Board member Shawn Hartmann said it is inevitable that the processing fee eventually will be waived.

“It’s going to keep circling around,” he said. “If you do business, you’re going to have to absorb those fees.”

Mayor Corey Stutte, who is 38, said credit card process fees for utility payments are among the subjects of complaint he hears about most often from constituents his age or younger.

“I think this is a step in the right direction,” he said, of the consideration for the utilities to absorb the credit card fees. “I think it makes a lot of sense to make that jump now and to figure out a way to make this work.”

Also during the meeting, Johnson provided a preliminary summary of capital project history in addition to upcoming budget discussions.

Suspect injured in Deweese confrontation with officers pleads not guilty to charges

CLAY CENTER — A 45-year-old Lincoln man has pleaded not guilty to charges arising from a pair of shooting incidents with area law enforcement officers in April.

Wesley Blessing filed a written not guilty plea on Monday in Clay County District Court.

Clay County District Judge Stephen Illingworth set a pre-trial hearing for Sept. 9 at 2:15 p.m.

Blessing faces two counts of attempted assault on an officer, two counts of use of a firearm to commit a felony, and one count of possession of a firearm by a prohibited person for an incident on April 14. In a second case, Blessing has been charged with attempted assault on an officer, use of a firearm to commit a felony, possession of a firearm by a prohibited person, and possession of a controlled substance for an incident on April 16.

According to the arrest affidavit, a woman came into the Hastings Police Department on April 14 and told a detective that Blessing had held her against her will and assaulted her over three days in Adams County.

Officers also determined that Blessing had absconded from parole and multiple warrants had been issued for his arrest.

According to the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services website, Blessing had been on parole from the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln where he had been serving a 23- to 42-year sentence for burglary, second-degree arson and theft by taking in Gage County. His sentence began in 2007, and he was released on parole Dec. 26, 2018.

The alleged victim reported that she had left Blessing at an abandoned rural farmhouse in Clay County and he was armed with a 9mm handgun.

HPD contacted the Clay County Sheriff’s Office, and deputies located the farmhouse on April 14. When officers were starting to enter the location, Blessing yelled that he was armed and fired a shot from inside the building. Deputies told Blessing to surrender and not make things worse, but he refused.

Blessing allegedly fired another shot and deputies took cover, at which point Blessing started running from the scene. Deputies gave chase, and Blessing reportedly fired two or three more shots at deputies. Deputies returned fire. Blessing continued running, and the deputies lost sight of him.

Authorities then launched a manhunt to find Blessing, calling in deputies from Adams, Hamilton, Fillmore and Nuckolls counties to assist, as well as support from the Nebraska State Patrol. Residents were asked to shelter in place until Blessing could be apprehended.

On April 16, a deputy sheriff responded to a 911 call that Blessing was in Deweese, according to a news release from the Nebraska State Patrol.

The deputy found Blessing with a handgun in downtown Deweese. Eyewitnesses saw Blessing fire at the deputy, who returned fire and wounded the suspect.

Troopers and other law enforcement officers arrived soon after to render medical aid. Blessing was taken to Mary Lanning Healthcare in Hastings, then transferred to Bryan Health West Campus in Lincoln.

Possession of a firearm by a prohibited person is a Class 1D felony punishable by three to 50 years in prison. Attempted assault on an officer and use of a firearm to commit a felony are each a Class 2 felony punishable by up to 50 years in prison. Possession of a controlled substance is a Class 4 felony punishable by up to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine.