Property taxes in Gage County are increasing as officials prepare to pay six people wrongfully convicted of murdering a Beatrice woman.
Options are dwindling for Gage County in what’s become known as the Beatrice 6 case, and the County Board previously approved raising taxes to the legal limit. That's where they might stay for the next eight years as the $28.1 million judgment is paid down.
County Board members Myron Dorn and Erich Tiemann hosted an event Friday morning to address the public’s questions about the case and recap how Gage County will likely end up on the hook for the $28 million judgment.
The additional 11.7 cents of mill levy will bring the county’s total levy to 50 cents and amount in an average increase of up to 8 percent on a property owner’s total taxes, depending on where their property is. For taxpayers, that additional 11.7 cents amounts to around $120 annually on property valued at $100,000.
The increase is expected to generate $3.8 million annually, and it’s expected to take around eight years to pay off the judgment, though Dorn said it will need to be reevaluated every year.
“That could change, and also the board will need to approve this every year,” Dorn said. “This isn’t something that we as a County Board can say we’ll sign a contract to guarantee this for eight years. It is something that will need to be approved every year and be worked through the budget.”
Tiemann added that even with the increase, Gage County taxes are in the ballpark with other counties.
“We’re still going to be lower than Cass County and Lancaster County,” he said. “Lancaster’s not a good example compared to Gage County, but Cass is more comparable to Gage. That puts it in perspective and might make it seem a little bit better instead of doom and gloom. We still are on par with surrounding counties.”
The Beatrice 6, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Thomas Winslow, James Dean, Kathleen Gonzalez, Debra Shelden and the estate of Joseph White, were convicted in the 1985 rape and murder of Helen Wilson in her downtown Beatrice apartment, and ultimately spent a combined 75 years in prison until DNA evidence showed another man had committed the crime.
They sued Gage County for violating their civil rights in what they called a reckless investigation in federal court.
Officials are currently hoping the U.S. Supreme Court will agree to hear the case and ultimately rule in Gage County’s favor, though the board has advised it’s a long shot.
Had the board not raised property taxes to the limit, Dorn said attorney’s for the Beatrice 6 would have taken the issue to court and a judge would have ruled the increase needed to be implemented.
Five years ago, the County Board expected a much different outcome in the case. That’s why Dorn said settlement offers from the six totaling $15 million were rejected.
He said that at that time, there were strong indicators that Gage County wouldn’t be found liable in the case.
This includes a mistrial in the case in 2014 and the county being dismissed from the lawsuit, before later being brought back into the suit for another trial.
“We thought we had a really good argument, really good reasons why the county maybe wouldn’t end up paying this or they wouldn’t find us guilty,” Dorn said. “That didn’t happen. Somewhere this all changed. The board felt at that time the people of Gage County would have been really unhappy with a $15 million payment. If we would have agreed to paying them $15 million, I don’t know anybody in this room that would have been happy.”
Officials now hope the state will help pay for the judgment, despite previous disappointments on that front.
“At one point, there was a thought that Gage County could borrow from the state,” Dorn said. “The Attorney General’s Office ruled that ours is a federal case and statute does not apply to federal cases, only state cases.”
Additional lawsuits are pending to determine if insurance should cover some of the $28 million judgment.
In 1997, Gage County changed its insurance carrier to the Nebraska Intergovernmental Risk Management Association (NIRMA).
Dorn said part of the agreement was that NIRMA would provide retroactive coverage back to Aug. 2, 1989. The carrier today is arguing that because the six were charged prior to that date, it’s not liable.
The county is arguing that since four of the six hadn’t been found guilty or sentenced as of August 1989 that insurance should cover that portion of the judgment.
“That’s an important date because all six of them had been charged at that time,” Dorn said. “NIRMA is arguing because they were charged before then, we do not get coverage. Two of them had plead guilty in that scenario, four of them had not or been sentenced. Attorneys are arguing they still owe on those four because they had not been sentenced.”
Dorn said that if everything goes in Gage County’s favor the most it expects insurance to cover is $17 million.
He also estimated that it will be more than a year before the insurance debate is settled, and that the Beatrice 6 case is far from over.