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Beatrice 6

The six people convicted and later cleared of killing Helen Wilson in 1985: (from top left) Joseph White, Tom Winslow, JoAnn Taylor, Deb Shelden, James Dean and Kathy Gonzalez.

The Gage County Board of Supervisors will likely approve an additional countywide sales tax during its Wednesday meeting. 

The tax follows a bill that was introduced by District 30 senator Myron Dorn of Adams this year, and was tailored to fit Gage County’s predicament as the county looks for ways to pay the $28 million federal judgment.

The legislation, which allows counties to create a countywide half-cent sales tax, is only available for counties facing federal judgments of more than $25 million and only if their property tax levy is at the maximum allowable under state law.

The board voted last September to raise the levy to the maximum allowable 50 cents. For taxpayers, that amounts to $120 annually on property valued at $100,000.

If approved by the board the tax will take effect on Jan. 1, 2020.

The sales tax will sunset in 2027 or when the judgment is paid in full, whichever comes first.

Implementing the tax will require affirmative votes from five of the seven County Board members.

Gage County previously had authority to approve a sales tax, though it wouldn’t have been able to collect in communities where cities had their own sales tax already in place, meaning Gage County couldn’t collect sales tax in Beatrice.

Currently, the only way for Gage County to pay the judgment is through property taxes.

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Property taxes being raised to the limit generate $3.8 million annually. As the only source of funds it would take approximately eight years to pay the judgment.

The sales tax would generate approximately $1.3 million per year and result in the judgment being potentially paid two years earlier.

Earlier this year the United States Supreme Court declined to hear the case, effectively sealing the county’s fate.

It was 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.

They 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 final option.

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