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County talks FOP negotiations

The Gage County Board of Supervisors is continuing its negotiations with the Fraternal Order of Police after a decision this week to allow sergeants into the union.

The board approved allowing sergeants at the Gage County Sheriff’s Office into the union following a closed session during Wednesday’s meeting.

Negotiations with the FOP are ongoing, but the decision should resolve a complaint the union previously filed with the Commission of Industrial Relations.

“We have not come to an agreement with the FOP yet with the whole contract,” said County Board Chairman Myron Dorn. “This was something that they were requesting as we went into negotiations…They did file with the CIR against Gage County to have sergeants in there. There was going to be a hearing on that in early February. Since then, the county has agreed to allow the sergeants back in. This is the legal process we need to go through to have both sides agree to the fact and that case with the CIR will be withdrawn.”

Board member Erich Tiemann said that sergeants were previously removed to prevent a conflict of interest that could follow being in the same union as subordinates, while board member Gary Lytle expressed frustration, saying that the FOP filed a complaint with the CIR before attempting to negotiate with the county.

“It was brought up in the first negotiating session and it was not something mutually agreed upon or disagreed upon at that point,” Lytle said. "Then they took it to CIR.”

Dorn also said the issue wasn’t discussed with the FOP, and that negotiations toward an overall agreement will continue at future meetings.

“The sergeants were not included in there, I believe maybe four years ago in that contract,” he said. “We knew as a county and they knew, also, that would be something on the table for negotiations this time. We never even had an opportunity as a county to discuss with them and basically agree with them if we would include it or not include it. They turned around and filed at the CIR before we really had much negotiations with that.”

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City Council approves Beatrice Leadership dog park grant

On Monday night, the Beatrice City Council gave its approval for Beatrice Plus funding to go to make improvements to the Big Blue Pet Park.

The improvements are the brainchild of the 2017-2018 Leadership Beatrice class that will add a drinking fountain, two concrete pads, a dumpster, park benches, leash holders, trees and a new sign to the dog park.

The Leadership Beatrice class, now in its 11th year, picks a project to collaborate on. Last year’s class installed the Little Free Libraries around town, and this year’s class hopes to leave a lasting legacy as well.

In December, the Beatrice Plus advisory board unanimously approved a grant of $4,500 for the class to make improvements to the dog park.

“This will be something perpetual,” said Susan Hartley, a member of Leadership Beatrice. “The city already maintains the park and they will continue to do so. The longevity is there for this to be ongoing and will be utilized long into the future.”

Beatrice Plus is a contribution program in which customers of the Beatrice Board of Public Works are enrolled, unless they specifically request otherwise. The program rounds up customers’ bills to the nearest dollar amount and puts that money in a fund for what the city calls “community betterment projects."

Any resident or business in Beatrice can apply for money from Beatrice Plus and their project must be approved by the Beatrice Plus board before gaining final approval from the city council. On average, the city says it costs residents about $6 a year.

The city council approved the funding request unanimously, something that Beatrice Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Lora Young said has become a trend. Last year’s funding request was also approved by the council, she said, and she’s happy the city finds it to be a worthy cause.

As a former member of the Leadership Beatrice class, Young now serves as an adviser. She took over the class five years ago when she started with the Chamber and said she’s been helping the group grow and change.

Leadership Beatrice is focused on developing community leaders and uses team-building exercises and skill training, Young said. Each year, the class sees a new batch of students who meet for a full day each month to visit with and learn from various businesses and industries around the community.

Each year’s project is a bit of a challenge, she said. There’s a tiny bit of seed money, and everything after that the group has to find.

“They only get $100 from the chamber,” Young said. “That's it. They have to figure out everything else to do.”

This year, the group will get assistance from Lineweber Dirtworks for material and labor for the concrete pads. Neapco will help the class to purchase benches and leash holders, with powder coating from Exmark and assistance from Black Hills Energy to purchase trees.

Hartley said that they’d estimated the total cost at more than $10,000, but due to the diverse backgrounds and skills of the group, they were able to find a way to make it feasible. She said the group wanted to do something that would be sustainable and be usable by the community for years to come.

“Every year, the Leadership Beatrice class picks a project that's going to benefit the community,” she said. “We discussed some different ideas and this is something the whole entire group decided on, as a whole.”

Young said that the group first meets in October and has to have their project completed by May. There isn't a lot of time to get the work done, Young said, but it’s a good way to build the next wave of community leaders.

“I think it's one of the great things that we do for this community,” she said. “I really believe in this wholeheartedly.”

Bill would restrict state employees from workday political activities

A state senator wants to delineate what a state employee can and can't do politically.

The Hatch Act does that for federal employees, and for state and local government employees that are paid at least in part with federal funds. But it's not clear what is required of state employees, said Sen. John Kuehn of Heartwell.

Thursday, he introduced a bill (LB1129) that would prohibit state employees from holding office in a political club or party, and a list of other political activities.

Kuehn said federal employees are clear on how they can engage in political activities, and his bill would clarify for Nebraska state employees how they can engage in the political process during the workday.

It's the third year he's introduced bills dealing with "ethical, transparent behavior," he said. Last year's bill focused on lobbying and legislative behavior during public hearings. Those bills are still sitting in the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee.

This year he turned his focus to state employees. He says LB1129 was not motivated by any recent controversies involving University of Nebraska employees, including a confrontation between a graduate student lecturer and an undergraduate student recruiting for a conservative organization.

"It's a broader discussion about what does the public expects of state employees when they're on state employee time. Should they be engaged in electioneering? Should they be engaged in political activities?" Kuehn said.

It's worth addressing to preserve the integrity and the public's trust in state government, he said.

The bill would restrict state employees, while on state time, or in their official capacity or using government resources, from:

  • Campaigning for or against a candidate, or making a campaign speech;
  • Collecting campaign contributions;
  • Selling tickets to a political fundraiser;
  • Developing or distributing campaign materials or communications;
  • Organizing or managing a political rally or meeting;
  • Circulating petitions for a candidate or a ballot initiative;
  • Working to register voters for one party only;
  • Using any digital medium to communicate about party politics, a candidate for office, or a ballot initiative unless required in the performance of his or her official duties;
  • Wearing political buttons.

The state Attorney General would investigate and prosecute any violations, which could result in a Class I misdemeanor or firing of the employee.

Beatrice incumbents file for re-election

Two Beatrice incumbents have filed to run again, seeking to keep their positions in Beatrice city leadership.

Beatrice Mayor Stan Wirth filed to run again, as has Beatrice City Council member Joe Billesbach, who represents the 4th Ward. Both men are running for their second terms in the 2018 primary.

Wirth, who also serves as market president at Pinnacle Bank in Beatrice, was elected mayor in 2014. Wirth first came to Beatrice in 1971 from Dunbar, Neb. and said that for the past few years, he has had a focus on economic development and infrastructure, which he said will be an ongoing process.

The city has been repairing, upgrading and replacing streets, something that will continue to be budgeted for in the future. Demolishing old, unused structures in desirable areas has cleared the way for future economic development, he said.

“I think that ridding the community of some of the dilapidated buildings that we have is a real plus,” Wirth said. “It opens the way for new building potential. It opens the way for new business and industry in some areas.”

The opening of Hybrid Turkeys in the industrial park and the occupation of the old Husqvarna building by World Lawn have been two high points for the area, Wirth said. The last few years have also seen some new life brought to the downtown area as well, he said. Those changes increased after the city began to offer downtown revitalization grants last year.

In the coming years, Wirth said, working on infrastructure and finding ways to afford it will be a major challenge. Another big priority for next year, and in the years to come, will be to incorporate fiber internet connectivity that will provide faster internet to businesses, as well as households.

As Beatrice grows, Wirth said, the demand for more firefighters and EMTs is a prevalent issue, as is the possibility of a need for a new fire station. Revising city statutes will be a key issue, he said.

“I think we need to continue to work with updating our building codes, revising our junked motor vehicle ordinances, in addition to looking at other amenities for the community like the water park improvements,” Wirth said.

One future challenge, he said, is to keep working with economic development professionals to increase the city’s workforce. Building the workforce is a step toward increasing the viability of the economy and future job creation, he said.

Billesbach currently represents the 4th Ward of Beatrice and said he was excited to hear that Wirth would be running for another term as mayor. He said he likes the progress he’s seen in town over the last three years he’s served, and he’d like to continue on city council.

“There's a lot of good stuff going on with the town right now,” Billesbach said. “I see a lot of progress being made and I'd love to be a part of that, the change. We've seen a lot of buildings coming down, but we've seen a lot of buildings going up, too.”

Billesbach, who co-owns Leo’s Jewelry on Court Street in Beatrice and has lived in the area his entire life, said he’s proud of his home town and wants to see it succeed and grow.

“I think one of our biggest challenges is to get businesses to come to Beatrice and to keep the businesses that we have,” he said. “I believe to keep a town going, you need to have infrastructure, the roads, the businesses, to attract people to stay in a town like Beatrice and not run out of town when they need something.”

Bob Morgan, current Beatrice City Council member for the 1st Ward, also filed to run again in the 2018 election on Friday afternoon. The terms of current council members Rick Clabaugh of the 2nd Ward and Dwight Parde of the 3rd Ward will expire this year, but they have not yet filed for re-election.