Property taxes are going up as Gage County prepares to chip away at the $28.1 million Beatrice 6 judgment with options running out.
The additional 11.7 cents of mill levy approved by the County Board Wednesday will bring the county’s total levy to 50 cents and amount to an average increase of up to 8 percent on a property owner’s taxes, depending on where the property is.
Board members have said for residents in town, the increase will be manageable and lower than taxes in some other Nebraska communities.
The ones likely to feel the pinch are farmers.
“That is probably the segment of the people of Gage County that we have heard the most from, and rightfully so,” said County Board chairman Myron Dorn. “The way the current system today is, this outcome is affecting farmers the most. We would like to go in and change that but we as a board cannot do that. That’s going to take legislative action.”
Tax relief from the legislature is something the board hopes to see in the coming session.
Dorn, a farmer in the Adams area himself, said without state aid, Gage County farmers could go out of business.
“It definitely will affect my bottom line,” Dorn said. “I will not make as much money and I fully believe we will have some farmers in Gage County that this may be the difference between them farming and not farming next year.
"There is enough stress in the farm economy today because of tariffs and other things that we may never know directly that a farmer went out of business because of that, but when they look at the big picture it may be the last thing that tips the scale to having to sell out. I would not be surprised if you hear about farmers going out of business and that one main reason was because of this increase.”
The levy increase of 11.76 cents is expected to generate $3.8 million annually. For taxpayers, that additional 12 cents 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.
Dorn said if the county didn’t raise its mill levy to the limit, attorneys for the Beatrice 6 would have sued and the increase would have happened anyway, after more battles in court adding to the county’s legal fees.
Remaining alternatives seem to be long shots, but Dorn is hopeful for state aid and that pending insurance lawsuits will favor Gage County.
The county is currently awaiting a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court to find out if it will consider overturning the ruling.
If the ruling is overturned, the collected funds could be credited back to taxpayers. Dorn said the county’s attorneys have advised that bankruptcy is likely not an option.
The property tax increase comes as the city of Beatrice is hoping voters will approve a sales tax increase to build a new fire station.
The additional half cent sales tax will be on the general election ballot this November. Mayor Stan Wirth is confident voters will recognize the need for a new fire station to replace the location in the city auditorium and support the measure, saying a station with more space would result in faster response times.
He added the sales tax would also impact visitors to Beatrice rather than residents alone paying the tax.
“I think the takeaway here is it’s spread over a huge base, it isn’t just Beatrice and Gage County,” Wirth said. “It is everyone in the state who comes and visits and anyone from another state who comes to Beatrice will share in that cost. The obligation for each individual is going to be very small and in return, we are providing this whole area with better response time for first responders and firefighters.”
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.
Higher property taxes are a major concern for Gage County residents, but Dorn hopes they will remain optimistic as the county hopes for the best but prepares for the worst as it collects funds to pay the judgment.
“There are a lot of really good things happening in Gage County,” Dorn said. “Gage County is not closing down. I see a lot of businesses coming in and Beatrice with new houses going up. We have an unemployment rate where we need more workers. Gage County is open for business and a great county to live in.”