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Gage County taxpayers

A Gage County farmer watches as the soybean harvest wraps up in 2017. Property taxpayers expect to foot much of the bill for a judgment in a wrongful death lawsuit.

News that a $28.1 million verdict against Gage County and two sheriff's deputies was affirmed spread slowly Monday, farm by farm, like gathering clouds shrouding the sun.

In rejecting Gage County's argument that it bore no liability in the wrongful conviction of six people for the 1985 murder of a Beatrice woman, an 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel forced county officials to re-examine their options for paying the judgment.

"We've had a lot better days," said Myron Dorn, chairman of the Gage County Board.

Gage County supervisors will meet Wednesday morning in an emergency session to hash out the potential ways forward with their team of private-practice attorneys.

Dorn said the board will likely request a rehearing by the entire circuit court, instead of a three-judge panel. The deadline for doing so is June 25.

Gage County will also assess other Beatrice 6-related litigation it's currently involved in, including parallel lawsuits against two insurance carriers who denied the county coverage for damages in the case.

A hearing in Gage County's suit against Employer's Mutual Casualty, which was the county's insurance carrier from 1989 to 1990, is scheduled for June 29 in Lancaster County District Court, while a second lawsuit, against the Nebraska Intergovernmental Risk Management Association, which offered retroactive insurance to the county dating to 1989, is scheduled for a July 11 hearing.

Decisions in both lawsuits, filed in January 2017, could still be months away.

County officials could also further explore applying for Chapter 9 bankruptcy to pay the $28.1 million judgment, attorney's fees and other costs, potentially becoming the first county in Nebraska to do so.

Dorn said the county board will talk about the county's next moves, as well as the potential effects to be felt by taxpayers, behind closed doors Wednesday, as well as at the board's regular meeting June 20.

"You realize that type of judgment will have a tremendous impact on a county going forward," Dorn said. "There are a lot of concerns, a lot of questions. A lot about this is unknown and that's the biggest thing."

But farmers in Gage County, who own roughly 70 percent of the taxable property used to fund county operations, sounded a somber note Monday, saying they expect to shoulder the burden.

"I'm pretty devastated," said Marc Hroch, who plants corn and soybeans and raises Angus cattle in southeast Gage County. "I think they are going to have to sock it to us farmers."

Hroch and other farmers and landowners in the county — Republicans and Democrats — met several times in early 2017 to discuss options for the county, including asking state lawmakers to budget for the judgment, requesting a loan from the State Treasurer's Office, and petitioning Gov. Pete Ricketts for relief.

"Nothing came of it," said Don Schuller, who farms near Wymore and organized the meetings as chairman of the Gage Taxpayers Organization.

Schuller and Dorn are both candidates for the District 30 seat in the Legislature.

"I like being prepared, I like to have a plan, that's just the way I do things, hoping I don't need it," said Schuller. "This was just out there waiting to strike Gage County, and today it has."

Schuller and Hroch said the state should step in to help. The county prosecuted the case on behalf of the state, they said, and the six people were incarcerated in the State Penitentiary.

"(The six) weren't tried by the farmers of Gage County," Hroch said. "I don't know why this is going to come down on them."

Larry Gronewold, who farms northeast of Beatrice, said he believes Gage County should have settled when the six offered to do so for $15 million in 2013. He put the blame at the feet of Gage County's attorneys, both elected and retained, who have kept the case circulating in the courts with little success.

"They just keep dragging this out, but eventually we're going to have to pay, and we're going to pay a lot more," he said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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