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Ray Scherer / Ray Scherer | News-Press NOW  

Sales of natural Christmas trees in the St. Joseph area will officially kick off later this week. There should be an ample supply of five- to seven-foot trees this season, thanks to favorable weather for their growth.

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An Artist’s eye | Students perform preservation renderings on dilapidated buildings
Group reimagining St. Joseph's architecture

For those who possess drive in life, reviving an old structure from neglect can be a tiring task. Perhaps it’s not as tiring as the diligent paramedic who performs chest compressions to save a life, but preserving an old St. Joseph building remains stressful.

There are a roughly 160 vacant structures in St. Joseph that have unpaid vacancy fees. They are evenly spread out through the city. Some of these old buildings were “lookers” in their heyday, including 924 N. 24th St., which sits on a hill just off Frederick Avenue. Paul Helmer, an architect with Touch of Distinction, remembers it having large stained-glass windows that overlooked the avenue.

Helmer had students in a school for preservation perform renderings of this building and others in town. They show what the home and others could look like with more appropriate color schemes.

“One of them is a Gothic revival — the brick arches over the windows are pointed. It has lots of ornamental tin work and woodwork on a projecting porch on the second floor,” Helmer said. “It’s a beautiful building.”

That one, at 819 N. Ninth St., is another vacant building.

“Most people are in a hurry to get from one point to the next, but if you take the time to stop and look at that fabulous buildings that are just along Frederick,” Sharon Kosek, president of the Friends of the Symphony, said. “The detail that is offered there, and the beauty that they can be brought back to St. Joseph is just filled with (history).”

She helped plan a recent Holiday Homes Tour to raise money for the Saint Joseph Symphony in mid-November by allowing community members to tour the city’s rich history.

One of the other student-artist renderings reimagined Chet’s Barber Shop on Frederick Avenue, although it is not a vacant building.

“This building with restoration, with good-quality paints, is the kind of thing that could last 10 to 15 years without very much maintenance,” Helmer said. “Suddenly you have a building that is declaring itself and making people know that what a beautiful shop this is.”

To find out more about the city’s vacant properties, go to st-joseph-mo.tolemi.com. At the top of the page are tabs that allow users to narrow searches regarding properties in town, including “vacancy.”

Missouri officials tout 'Clear the Air' campaign

A new initiative has Missouri officials hoping to bring more awareness to the dangers of vaping.

In October, Gov. Mike Parson signed an executive order setting the “Clear the Air” campaign into motion. With the Departments of Elementary and Secondary Education, Health and Senior Services and Public Safety, the goal of the campaign is to provide parents, educators and students various resources to better inform them of the risks of vaping through online toolkits and informative videos and graphics.

“DESE’s role in the campaign is really ensuring that we are using all of our existing communication platforms to share this message with our Missouri public school districts and charter schools so that our educators and Missouri families are informed about the vaping epidemic and really how this is affecting our children — both their well-being as well as their academic success,” DESE Communications Coordinator Mallory McGowin said. “Our educators in Missouri schools are seeing this every single day, and so making sure that DESE is helping to put these resources in front of them is the least we can do to help them address this every day.”

Vaping has been around since the mid to late 2000s, Randall Williams, the director of DHSS, said. However, in the last two years, a doubling in the amount of teenagers vaping has been seen.

He added that 90% of people who become addicted to nicotine do so before the age of 21, and the effects of vaping are becoming clearer.

“What the science is showing is that some of the toxins and additives that children can be exposed to when they vape cause damage to areas of their brain that specialize in attention, learning and mood,” McGowin said. “In all of those (campaign) materials, it talks about that the amount of nicotine that one receives while vaping is almost or exactly equivalent to the amount of nicotine that’s in an entire pack of cigarettes. I think there is a misconception by a lot of folks and even some of our families in Missouri that vaping may be a healthier alternative to smoking, and while some may make that case, it’s certainly something we need to make aware that it is not healthy in and of itself with these additives and some toxins that are in there.”

Williams added that 43 deaths have been associated with EVALI (E-Cigarette Vaping Associated Lung Injury) in the U.S., with two of those being in Missouri.

It’s all part of the information that the campaign hopes to relate to families, educators and students across the state.

“We’re being very purposeful working with our advocacy partners: The American Lung Association, the American Heart Association, Missouri State Medical Association, the National Council for Alcohol and Drug Abuse,” Williams said. “But I think the major difference in our campaign is we’re partnering all of those with DESE. The first step was to get out the message, ‘Do not vape if you’re a teenager, and nobody should be vaping vitamin E or tampering with devices using marijuana.’”

Cessation and treatment options also are included in the campaign’s materials.

And while some initiatives may show signs of fizzling out over a certain period of time, McGowin said that as the issue evolves, so too will the campaign.

“I certainly think that there’s a lot of attention on this right now, and there’s some new information that’s going to be added to the toolkit very soon, if it hasn’t already,” she said. “But I do suspect that, you know, like any public health awareness campaign, this will evolve.”

Williams agreed, saying that the campaign is the start of a process that should push for more robust conversations on the topic.

He added that much of the country seems to be in a sort of data-collection mode regarding e-cigarettes and vaping. Only seven states have banned flavored vaping, while the other 43 have not, he said.

“And I think you’re going to see in the next six months a lot of movement nationally by the federal government, both the legislature and President Trump, around this whole issue of whether or not vaping should be illegal federally for anyone under 21,” Williams said. “I think you’re going to see conversations in both Congress and in Missouri about the flavored vaping, especially the marketing of it to teenagers.”

From a local perspective, the St. Joseph School District’s Superintendent of Schools Dr. Doug Van Zyl said he appreciates the state bringing more attention to vaping as a problem among young people, though educators will have to find the time to incorporate such messages into their days.

“And we hope that parents would partner with us and be checking students’ pockets, backpacks, etc. so those items aren’t making their way to school, because it does take away from the instructional time and from what our administrators and staff can do.”

Van Zyl also said he hopes students and parents take an active role in keeping themselves educated on the effects of vaping going forward.

County continues struggle with prisoner repayments

Headaches abound for Missouri counties, including Buchanan, that are forced to hold on tight to their checkbooks while awaiting reimbursement for housing state prisoners.

Under the current system, the state is obligated by statute to repay counties for incurring the daily costs of housing Missouri prisoners. The state reimburses county jails for holding prisoners for the number of days they spend incarcerated while their cases wind their way through the courts. Upon any conviction and sentencing of an inmate to serve time in the Missouri Department of Corrections, the counties are then due the reimbursement before a transfer.

An appropriation certified by the Missouri General Assembly funnels the “per diem” funding reimbursements to the counties. The reimbursement clock starts ticking from the first day of a prisoner’s incarceration in a county facility, according to the Missouri Association of Counties.

As of Oct. 31, Buchanan County officials said they had an almost $586,000 total pending reimbursement for per diem charges still not received from the state of Missouri. That’s an increase from the Sept. 30 total of more than $314,000, based on data from MAC. There are never any certain guarantees when the funds will arrive from Jefferson City.

“Every year, we try to budget for the jail per diem that we’re supposed to receive,” said Western District Commissioner Ron Hook. “And it’s difficult on the budgeting process whenever we don’t get allocated the money. We’ve learned to live with it a little bit.”

Hook said Gov. Mike Parson has committed to resolving the issue on what the counties are owed under the per diem program. He said the uncertainty has become common the past two years.

“We’re hoping this next year will be a turnaround,” he added.

Eastern District Commissioner Scott Burnham said the state’s process is essentially configured on a first-come, first-served basis, with state officials typically providing about $40 million a year, with roughly $10 million available for distribution to the counties per quarter.

Lawmakers have affixed the per diem reimbursement rate at $22.58 per inmate, the same rate they’ve affirmed for the past three years.

Burnham explained the importance the funds have for the county’s financial planning, even while understanding the monetary straits gripping state government’s coffers.

“We have to provide health insurance, utilities, food, supplies ... uniforms,” he said. “Everything that goes into operating that jail.”

Presiding Commissioner Lee Sawyer said skyrocketing health insurance premiums for county employees and the prisoners are one major reason officials fret over delays in the per diems. Promptly submitting the quarterly paperwork is every county’s goal in garnering a fair share of the per diem, he said.

“We think it’s a good deal,” Sawyer said of the system’s practicality. “The bottom line is, this (lack of receiving reimbursements) isn’t a good thing for anybody.”

He said Sheriff Bill Puett does well to inform the commission of any changes in jail operations and finances that could have a bearing on the county budget. Taking care of a prisoner’s basic necessities is a paramount issue, according to Puett.

County officials say the absence of the state money can fold directly into an inability to hire “boots on the ground” — that is, deputies to help confront and control crime in the St. Joseph area.

“It does impact our budget in a negative way,” Burnham said.

Puett echoed the sentiment that the voids that crop up in the state’s reimbursement can harm his job of running the jail in the midst of new demands from an evolving corrections industry.

“This is a tremendous amount of responsibility,” he said of the prisoner-related operations he oversees. “We’re doing daily arraignments and bond hearings. We continue to see changes that are directed from court decisions and the legislature. There’s just constant changes.”

Andrew County Presiding Commissioner Bob Caldwell said county officials listened intently to discussions on the topic during last week’s MAC meeting at the Lake of the Ozarks.

“We’re not as bad off as some counties,” he said. “Every little bit would help us.”

Judge Dan Kellogg, who serves as presiding judge for the Fifth Judicial Circuit, said officials strive to keep daily jail costs feasible.

“We just try to keep an eye on things,” Kellogg said.

Sen. Dan Hegeman, R-Cosby, said he had hoped the Missouri Senate would have been able to supply enough state funding during the session to cover the reimbursement due the counties and pay them any arrears as well.

“It comes under some scrutiny,” Hegeman said of the per diem program. “I’m eager to see what the governor wants to do with that. We’ve been struggling on how to handle this.”

The senator said one potential solution might be found in a grant program that blends in with the per diem formula.

“I think that would bring more certainty to it,” Hegeman said.

The per diem rate was $22.50 from 1998 to 2002, and ever since has fluctuated slightly in a range of about $2 from that amount.