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BHS hosts speech meet

On Saturday, the Beatrice High School speech team hosted nine local high schools for The Big O Speech Meet.

Ed Ankrom, a speech coach at BHS, said that roughly 200 students were competing in the meet.

“We have two rounds where the kids are competing, and then they get ranked and scored,” Ankrom said. “Then we take those scores, and through a process take the top six into finals. Then they do it a third time in front of judges, where you get ranked first place through sixth place and earn medals.”

According to the Nebraska School Activities Association website, each type of speech has different factors to be judged on, with most speeches being judged on presentation, delivery and overall effectiveness.

BHS junior Holly Fischer and freshman Mackenzie Riesen participated in a duet acting speech about annoying flight attendants and passengers.

Fischer said the process went quickly after Riesen asked her to duet.

“We spent one day just looking online for speeches that we liked because we wanted something that fit both of our personalities,” Fischer said. “We found this one and we loved it, because it’s sassy and really fun. Then we had to tell Ankrom, and he had to look at it and then order it.”

Fischer said their speech ended up coming together at the last minute.

“You just kind of come to the competitions and you hope that you can do well under the pressure,” Fischer said. “It’s really fun to watch everyone else, too, because there’s so many different (speeches) that you never would have imagined.”

Ankrom said about a third of the students participating were ranked novices, so the main focus of the meet was for them to get feedback on their speeches.

BHS placed eighth overall, with Josie Guernsey and Kayla Gaertig getting sixth place for duet acting, and Zander Wells getting first place for humorous prose.

Malcolm High School received first place with 105 total points, followed by Auburn High School with 53 points and Humboldt Table Rock Steinauer with 40 points.

Bill advances to ensure rentals can't be prohibited

A bungalow in Bethany that sleeps four and rents for $100 a night on Vacation Rentals By Owner, aka VRBO, is frequently booked — already reserved for more than half of February.

A two-bedroom apartment near downtown, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Memorial Stadium sleeps four for $41 a night, and is usually full-up through Airbnb.

Those and other short-term rentals in Lincoln and around the state, booked on popular internet sites, would be protected in a bill (LB57) advanced Friday to a second round of consideration.

Lincoln has some restrictions on short-term rentals that fall under several ordinances and zoning codes.

Lincoln Sen. Adam Morfeld's bill would keep cities from prohibiting the booking of short-term rentals of residences online, such as those advertised through VRBO and Airbnb.

The bill would allow regulation of the rentals for health and public safety reasons, just as cities pass ordinances and regulations for long-term rentals. For example, the short-term rentals couldn't house sex offenders or be used for selling illegal drugs or for sexually-oriented business. Cities could regulate noise, nuisances and property maintenance.

And, with the bill, taxes could be collected efficiently and remitted to the communities and state, Morfeld said.

The bill advanced on a 29-1 vote, with some questions from senators about regulation and taxation on the short-term rentals.

This is a growing business and an opportunity for citizens to rent a room, an apartment or their entire residence out for short-term rental — not more than 30 consecutive days, Morfeld said.

In Nebraska last year, there were 46,000 guest arrivals for these short-term rentals, with visitors paying $4.3 million to residence owners and in state and local taxes.

"Airbnb is a service I have personally used numerous times and found it to be safe, efficient, affordable and a fun way to travel and meet people," Morfeld said. "It is also an important addition to our efforts to expand and promote tourism in Nebraska."

He said he's heard from rural participants in Airbnb there aren't a lot of short-term rental options when an event comes to a smaller Nebraska town, and this allows them to provide lodging when there would not otherwise be places for visitors to stay.

The bill was introduced last year and added to an Urban Affairs Committee omnibus bill (LB873) that was vetoed by Gov. Pete Ricketts, after the Legislature adjourned sine die, because it contained an expansion of Nebraska's land bank system.

Ricketts said in his veto letter that Morfeld's bill was a provision of LB873 he supported because it would provide clarity on the taxation and regulation of online hosting platforms, such as Airbnb. The bill would have been a valuable and needed addition to Nebraska law, he said.

SOTU among most sensitive security challenges

WASHINGTON — It's one of the most sensitive security challenges in America: The State of the Union address puts the president, his Cabinet, members of Congress, military leaders, top diplomats and Supreme Court justices all in the same place at the same time for all the world to see.

Protecting everyone requires months of planning and coordination involving multiple law enforcement agencies, led by the U.S. Secret Service. Thousands of officers work across agencies in ways seen and unseen.

Security for the speech was in the spotlight during the partial government shutdown, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi cited safety concerns as her reason for delaying President Donald Trump's speech. But law enforcement officials said the shutdown would not have compromised security if the speech had gone forward as originally scheduled.

Now the speech is set for tonight. The Secret Service is, well, secretive about its plans, though it provides some details:

Long before the speech, a steering committee is formed to explore the best way to secure the event. The Secret Service works with U.S. military, parks and local police, Capitol police, emergency management experts and the FBI. There are 19 subcommittees on areas like crowd management, intelligence and counterterrorism, traffic and crisis. Each subcommittee contains experts across law enforcement.

Teams run drills. Officials perform tabletop exercises, running through potential disasters and pore over the report from the previous year to see how they can improve. Analysts comb social media for signs of threatening behavior and monitor world events to help inform how security should be tailored for the event.

The tradition and familiarity of the event is also the biggest security challenge; it's basically the same every year, officials said. And there are only so many ways officials can vary traffic routes or arrivals and departures.

"You have to be creative," said Wes Schwark, assistant to the special agent in charge of the Dignitary Protective Division. "You try not to stick our head out in the same place twice."

On the day of the event, an operations center is set up at an undisclosed location where law enforcement officials scan social media, monitor traffic and protests, drones and other aircraft and communicate potential threats with agents in the field.

"We don't want the problem to be in the chamber, we want the problem to be as far away from the chamber as possible," said Ken Valentine, special agent in charge of the Dignitary Protective Division, which is tasked with coordinating the event. "We're trying to push that out so if there is an issue, we're dealing with it as far away as possible."

The streets around the building are frozen and secured. The Capitol Plaza is locked down and those inside are limited from moving around the building. The president and his entourage typically gather in a room off the House floor to await their entrances to the House chamber.

Metro stations are checked, counter-sniper teams with long-arm rifles perch on rooftops, bomb-sniffing dogs, uniformed officers and plainclothes agents patrol. Traffic is locked down. The House Chamber is swept randomly and consistently for explosives.

"All of those are more traditional means of countering an attack, but they serve as a deterrent," Valentine said.

The biggest shift in recent history has been the prevalence of technology, both as a possible security concern and a tool.

"It gives us a heads-up, or a warning when we are going to start engaging in something that maybe before would have been right up on us," Schwark said on technology. "It allows us to start taking some type of action sooner."

Despite the heavy security, there is a traditional precaution in case of a disaster: At least one Cabinet member in the line of presidential succession, and at least one Supreme Court justice, stay away from the speech.

"Given their public profile, National Special Security Events are potentially attractive targets for malicious actors who may seek to hurt attendees or incite fear into our way of life," said Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. "DHS, our component agencies and federal partners work tirelessly to secure the State of the Union."

In the end, Secret Service agents are trained to protect the president and do it every day, so shifting from working the South Lawn to the State of the Union isn't much of a difference for them, officials said.

"It's just another day at work," Valentine said.

Exmark donates to United Way

A large contribution from Exmark will help support a variety of nonprofit groups this year.

The mower manufacturing company recently presented Gage County United Way with a check for $76,351.73.

Misty Gibson, administrative coordinator with Gage County United Way, said Exmark employees Rod Benson, Laurie Leners, Dave Berkler, Dave Rayburn, and Exmark general manager Daryn Walters were instrumental in leading the fundraising efforts that made the contribution possible.

Gibson said Exmark raised the funds in a variety of ways, including a golf tournament. They also sold ice cream to company employees last summer with proceeds going toward the United Way, while some workers opted for a payroll deduction option to donate.

In addition to the funds raised locally, Exmark’s parent company, Toro, contributed $20,000 to the cause.

The United Way is a nonprofit group that supports other area organizations in need by providing them with financial support.

“Gage County United Way is a nonprofit organization that helps businesses or nonprofits here in town,” Gibson said. “We help them with their funding and depending on the agency, we fund what they need to keep their nonprofit going. All the money stays here in Gage County.”

Rayburn, who has served as the past chairman of Gage County United Way in addition to working at Exmark, added the company has done raffles, sells Exmark clothing and other activities to raise funds for the group.

“We believe that we’re good shareholders in the community and we hope we’re providing the needs for the community,” he said. “It’s a really nice feeling that our employees want to help others in the community that are less fortunate.”

Rayburn said Exmark first began raising funds for Gage County United Way in 2008 when it raised $16,000. This year’s contribution of more than $76,000 is its largest to date, and is around $1,500 more than last year.

The donation accounts for more than half of Gage County United Way’s annual budget, Gibson said.

“It is extremely important and every employee is willing to donate,” she said. “I think they all go above and beyond to keep us going, which helps the agencies keep going.”