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Higher taxes and new businesses top 2018 in the Sunland

Supreme Court asked to weigh in on Beatrice 6 case

Gage County is asking the nation's highest court to hear its case for overturning a $28.1 million verdict awarded by a federal jury in 2016 to six people wrongfully convicted in a 1985 murder.

Lawyers for Gage County petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court on Nov. 14 to review the jury's decision to award the multimillion-dollar judgment to the so-called Beatrice 6.

It's the last legal option available to Gage County in the federal civil rights case filed by Joseph White, Ada JoAnn Taylor, James Dean, Thomas Winslow, Kathleen Gonzalez and Debra Shelden in 2009.

Following a 1989 cold case investigation into the rape and murder of Helen Wilson in her downtown Beatrice apartment four years earlier, the six were convicted and spent a combined 75 years in prison.

DNA evidence later pointed to a seventh person — Bruce Allen Smith, who died in 1992 — as the actual perpetrator.

The six were exonerated in 2008, and the next year, sued Gage County for the reckless investigation that landed them in prison.

After two mistrials, a federal jury found enough evidence that then-deputy Burdette Searcey and then-reserve deputy Wayne Price had violated the six's rights, awarding them a combined $28.1 million.

Gage County appealed the decision to a three-judge panel from the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, but the panel affirmed the jury verdict in June. The 8th Circuit later rejected Gage County's petition for the appeal to be heard by the full court in July, leaving the Supreme Court as the county's only option remaining.

The court receives between 7,000 and 8,000 petitions annually, according to its website, but takes up only about .01 percent of those — roughly 80 per year.

Property tax on the rise

Officials hope the Supreme Court will overturn or reduce the $28.1 million judgment in the Beatrice 6 case, but are planning for the worst.

With chances slim the Supreme Court will even hear the county’s appeal, the Gage County Board of Supervisors voted in September to raise property taxes to the legal limit to start raising money to pay members of the Beatrice 6.

At its budgets meeting, the board raised the levy to the maximum allowable 50 cents in anticipation of having to pay off the $28.1 million judgment in the case.

The county levy increase of 11.76 cents is expected to generate $3.8 million annually. For taxpayers, that amounts to $120 annually on property valued at $100,000.

Gage County’s levy was at around 27 cents. Another 11 cents is allotted to townships, fire departments and other organizations, bringing the total close to 38 cents.

The increase will amount to around seven percent for the average property owner.

If property tax is the sole funding source for the judgment it’s expected to take around eight years to pay the debt.

There are also pending cases to determine if insurance should cover part of the bill. If the results favor Gage County, those funds would be applied to the $28.1 million balance.

The budget change was passed unanimously, and farmers are expected to be hit hardest by the increase.

If the ruling stands payments would be made to the Beatrice 6 in installments

Sales tax approved to build fire station

Two months after the county raised property taxes, voters approved a second tax increase, this one to fund a new fire station in Beatrice.

A city sales tax will be implemented in 2019 after around 53 percent of voters supported a sales tax issue in the November general election.

The additional half-cent sales tax will generate around $1 million annually and be removed once the station is paid off or in 10 years.

The current city sales tax is 1.5 percent and will be raised to 2 percent, bringing the total sales tax to 7.5 percent.

The current home of Beatrice Fire and Rescue is in the lower level of the city auditorium, and a lack of space was the driving factor in pursuing a new station that would move the department, as well as some Beatrice Rural Fire trucks housed at the station, into a brand new facility.

The city auditorium has been used as a fire station since 1965, when the department moved to the location as a temporary means.

At the time, there were five trucks in the garage area compared to 14 today.

A location for the new fire station has not been made public and officials have said there are four potential sites being considered.

Old hospital building falls

The building that served as Beatrice Community Hospital and Health Center for decades was demolished in March to make way for a new housing development that quickly took shape in central Beatrice.

The building had been unused since the hospital’s new location was put into service in 2012.

Attempts to repurpose the building were unsuccessful, and ultimately Excel Development Group purchased the property to build senior and income-based housing at 10th and Jackson streets. The development is known as Porter Estates.

Houses and duplexes are being constructed at the site and the project is expected to be finished in early 2019.

The new 144,000-square-foot, $45 million hospital is located north of Beatrice on Highway 77 and has since been added on to.

The Beatrice City Council previously approved economic development loan agreements for the new development.

A $70,000 loan agreement to Midwest Housing Initiatives will go to build eight duplex units. A $100,000 loan agreement will be for workforce housing units, built on the site of the former hospital’s parking lot.

New owners make use of DeWitt factory

Plier production is returning to DeWitt after Malco Products announced its new line of Eagle Grip locking pliers, clamps and seamers that will be made in Nebraska.

The Annandale, Minn. based company held an event in October to unveil the new line of pliers and give the public a glimpse inside the former Vise-Grip factory in town, which underwent a two-year renovation.

More than 300 jobs were cut in 2008 when Newell Rubbermaid, the owner of the Vise-Grip brand and its plant in DeWitt, announced production would be transferred to China.

The plant’s roots can be traced to Danish immigrant Bill Petersen patenting a pair of locking pliers in 1924 and starting production at his blacksmith shop in DeWitt.

In 1985, the Petersen family sold to American Tool Company Inc. Newell Rubbermaid bought the plant in 2002 and it has operated under the name of Irwin Industrial Tools, a company American Tool bought in 1993.

Malco will initially use about half of the 300,000-square-foot building, with no immediate plans for the rest of the facility.

The company received a $500,000 grant from the state’s site and building development fund to reopen the plant.

At one point, more than 600 workers were employed at the plant, and there were more than 300 employees at the time the plant closed.

Wind farm plans resurface

NextEra Energy Resources is planning to build around 50 wind turbines in northern Gage and southern Lancaster counties, picking up where the project left off with a different company.

Known as the Blue Prairie Wind Project, the turbines could be operational in as little as two years.

NextEra bought the project from Volkswind, a company that planned to build a wind farm four years ago.

Volkswind failed to follow through on the project after it prompted both Gage and Lancaster county officials to reevaluate their zoning regulations for wind turbines.

Gage County updated its regulations related to wind farms the following March, setting decibel limits of 60 for participating property owners and 45 during the day and 40 at night for nonparticipating residences.

A nonparticipating property is one that does not have an agreement with the wind system operator.

According to information from NextEra, the project consists of turbines up to 90 meters tall.

NextEra anticipates the $141 million project would create around 200 jobs during construction and generate more than $25 million in property taxes over a 30 year period for the two counties.

NextEra will likely apply sometime late next year for the special use permit to build turbines in Gage County with hopes of construction the following year.

Once NextEra applies for a permit there will be public hearings at both Planning and Zoning and County Board meetings before final approval is given.

Leadership roles filled

Beatrice Public Schools and Beatrice Community Hospital and Health Center each have new leaders this year.

Jason Alexander began his new role at BPS as superintendent in July after seven years as the superintendent of Ord Public Schools in central Nebraska.

Alexander was selected from four finalists to be the superintendent of BPS following an announcement that former superintendent Pat Nauroth was retiring.

At Ord, he achieved student achievement NeSA scores above state averages in every subject and was a final project manager of a 29,000-square-foot addition. He also led the passage of a $9.8 million bond issue for the school.

Alexander, who grew up in Wyoming, was an elementary school principal before being the superintendent at Ord. He served as the elementary administrator at Burwell Elementary School and taught sixth grade, in addition to coaching four sports.

Richard Haraldson of Sidney, Mont. Began his role as hospital CEO on Jan. 1.

When hired, Haraldson has worked in healthcare for 23 years, 17 of those as a CEO. He was CEO of Sidney Health Center in Sidney, Mont. In 2003.

Haraldson has also held CEO and administrative positions with Banner Health System in Torrington, Wyo.

He has a bachelor’s degree in healthcare administration from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn. and a master’s of business administration from the University of Wyoming. He is a Certified Public Accountant, as well as a Fellow in the American College of Healthcare Executives.

The hiring ended a national search for a CEO that began when Thomas W. Sommers announced his resignation as CEO at Beatrice Community Hospital.


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Officials stress importance of flu shots after local death

Area health officials are stressing the importance of getting a flu shot following the death of a 12-year-old Beatrice boy.

Draven Findeis, a Beatrice Middle School student, died unexpectedly on Wednesday at Children's Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha due to complications from the flu.

In an obituary posted on the Harman-Wright Mortuary website, Draven's family encouraged everyone to get a flu shot in his memory.

Draven was an avid artist and reader, his obituary said. The sixth-grader enjoyed video games, Legos, cartoons, super heroes, music, drawing, comic books and Taco Bell.

Draven's death is the third confirmed this flu season. Two earlier deaths were adults older than 65.

Officials with Public Health Solutions said the flu virus is on the rise throughout the area.

“The flu is definitely increasing right now, said registered nurse Kate Lange. “We’re seeing H1N1 as the primary flu and that’s the one we had back in 2000 when it was a new flu. That’s now a component of the vaccine and has been for several years.”

Lange said anyone experiencing fever, coughing or a sore throat should suspect the flu and see a doctor.

She added that healthy lifestyle choices can also reduce the impact of getting the flu, and people with diabetes, asthma and other conditions are at a higher risk.

Lange said it’s too early in the season to predict if it will be a bad year for the flu, but stressed that it’s not too late to get a flu shot.

“That’s your best protection against the flu, even if it’s not 100 percent effective, and no vaccine is 100 percent effective,” she said. “That’s still your best protection against the flu. Otherwise, get enough rest, have a healthy diet, stay away from people with flu symptoms and go to your doctor if you think you have the flu.”

Lange said even into January and February it’s not too late to get a flu shot.

Public Health Solutions offers flu shots, and can make accommodations for those unable to afford the vaccination.

Those wishing to schedule a flu shot can contact Public Health Solutions at 402-826-3880.


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Authorities urge people to use caution New Year’s Eve

New Year’s Eve can be a fun night, but local law enforcement officials are stressing the importance of drinking responsibly and not driving drunk to ensure people don’t start 2019 behind bars.

Beatrice Chief of Police Bruce Lang and Gage County Sheriff Millard “Gus” Gustafson both caution people around the holidays to drink responsibly and ensure that they plan a safe way to get home.

Because drunk driving has been on the decline in Gage County in recent years, both men said they do not plan to increase the number of officers on duty.

Gustafson said that attitudes and practices around driving drunk have changed considerably during his time in law enforcement. He said people have gotten better at lining up designated drivers or calling taxis.

Gustafson credited this to an increase in responsibility in members of the public surrounding driving under the influence. He said a steep increase in public awareness and a change in culture have been instrumental to keeping the public safer.

“We don’t bring drunks in like we used to,” Gustafson said. “We’re there to protect the public, not wanting to arrest them, but we’re there for a reason and a purpose.”

Gustafson stressed that a DUI charge comes with serious consequences that can derail someone’s life. The first offense can include jail time, a fine, and revocation of their drivers license. The sentences for repeat offenders get worse rapidly.

Driving while drunk can cause tragedy for more than just the driver, Gustafson said. He said there is often collateral damage that hurts people who were innocent.

The story can be particularly tragic around the holidays. Gustafson recalled one terrible accident many years ago on Thanksgiving morning in which a drunk driver hit a family’s vehicle head on. Gustafson said all but one of the people involved were killed.

“I’d like to say stay home and don’t drink, but we all know that won’t happen,” Gustafson said. “Have a designated driver, have a safe way to get home, and be responsible.”

Lang said that the Beatrice Police Department sees more activity at bars and restaurants than usual on New Years Eve, but the night functions basically the same as any for them.

He said that an increase in reports of erratic driving from the community has allowed the police force to apprehend drunk drivers more efficiently. He encourages the public to call 911 and let dispatchers know if they see someone driving dangerously in Beatrice.

Since more people are being caught, Lang said, those who might have driven drunk before are now less likely to do so.

“The chances that you’re going to get caught in this day and age are very high.” he said.

Lang also said that people who think they are safe to drive may be over the legal limit of .08 percent blood alcohol content. Often people who think they haven’t had very much to drink are stopped by police, so Lang stresses caution when drinking.

“With a .08 standard, that’s not very much.” he said.