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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.

Taxes are being raised to the legal limit in Gage County as officials anticipate making payments for the Beatrice 6 judgment.

The County Board approved its annual budget on Wednesday, including a measure to raise the levy to the maximum allowable 50 cents in anticipation of having to pay off the $28.1 million judgment in the case.

The budget change was passed unanimously by the board following a public hearing where nine people spoke in opposition to the tax hike.

Brian Koch of Beatrice said it’s unfair for residents like him to endure a tax increase to pay for mistakes that happened 30 years ago.

“In 1986 I was 7 years old,” he said. “Nor did I vote for the sheriff in this county, nor did I let the insurance lapse. I was barely old enough to get dressed at that age and for me to only be a resident of Gage County for four years, ended up here by circumstance, it’s ridiculous.”

Koch said the increase makes him want to move out of Gage County, a comment -- or threat to leave -- the board has heard numerous times in the years of discussion related to how the judgment would be paid.

Board Chairman Myron Dorn said these comments are rooted in fear, but in reality the increase is a small percent of the total levy property owners pay and will still be less than other areas in Nebraska.

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.

A property owner’s total levy varies by location in Gage County, but Dorn said in Beatrice - with school, city and other levies accounted for - a resident’s total taxes will go up around 7 percent under the increase.

Dorn said one home in Beatrice he chose at random currently has a total levy of $1.93 and the additional 12 cents would be less than a 7 percent increase, compared to Lincoln where the total levy is slightly above $2.

“I don’t know why people think and make those comments that they should move out of Gage County because we’re raising it 11.7 cents of mill levy,” Dorn said. “There are so many other decisions and things that should matter more than that 11 cents. On a $100,000 house that’s going to be $120 a year and we have everybody telling us that they should move because Gage County is in dire straits. Gage County is not.”

Officials still hope the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn the ruling, but are planning for the worst with no other options left if the court will not consider the case.

Another question posed to the board Wednesday was why filing for bankruptcy wasn’t more seriously considered. Dorn said Gage County’s attorneys have advised the board the situation isn’t dire enough to file for bankruptcy and filing for bankruptcy wouldn’t make the judgment go away.

“At the current time with that, because of the fact that we’re raising this just short of 12 cents, his conversation to us is we are not in dire enough need in this county to be able to qualify for bankruptcy,” Dorn said.

Wymore resident Greg Lauby disagreed that there are no other options. He suggested the county sell two properties it bought last year north of the jail for evidence storage. The two properties were purchased late last year for a total of $315,000, which Lauby thinks the county should try and resell and put the funds toward the judgment.

“There are other possible measures,” he said. “There were two properties north of the sheriff’s office that were purchased by this board knowing full well that this judgment was in place. Those properties could be sold and that money could be applied against the judgment…Evidence storage, both ample and secure, could be provided for less than $10,000.”

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.

Jurors also found there had been no conspiracy and that then-Gage County Sheriff Jerry DeWitt wasn’t liable for anything.

Board member Matt Bauman said it’s been difficult for board members to reach a decision on how to handle the case as some members of the public went so far as to threaten the board members and their families.

“We receive anonymous, and in some cases, we receive signed letters that could be construed as terroristic threats, threatening our families and ourselves,” he said. “It’s really gotten out of hand when you look at some of the procedural things we’ve had to go through and some of the emotions and people’s perceptions of how they think we feel.”

Should the U.S. Supreme Court hear the case and overturn the ruling the collected funds could be credited back to taxpayers.

Some at the meeting questioned how the public could be assured that if another source does come available to help pay for the judgment they would be credited back for the tax increase.

“We wouldn’t take advantage of an opportunity like that to take that 12 cents and spend the extra tax money,” board member Gary Lytle said. “That’s not where we want to be. That’s not what we want to do. We want to take care of our taxpayers as much as we can, so if we have that opportunity to reimburse that, we dang well will.”

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 county has spent more than $1.8 million in legal fees fighting the case, with more bills expected.

Making payments toward the judgment following the levy increase is more feasible for Gage County than a lump sum to the six, which would require either a change in legislation to allow a loan from the state or a voter-approved bond issue.

Dorn added there will also be multiple bills introduced in the legislature that could ease Gage County’s burden.

“This board has had multiple discussions that the Beatrice 6 is not winding down,” Dorn said. “…There will be in the next year or several years a lot of discussion in the legislature. There will be bills brought forward.”

Bauman added he hopes that with a payment plan in place - in case the Supreme Court’s decision, state’s involvement and insurance payment efforts fail to resolve the case - Gage County residents can keep in mind that the county is a great place to live.

“There’s a lot of good people here,” he said. “We have a lot of wonderful communities and there’s a lot of good things going on in Gage County. It’s a little bit of a black eye, but I think we’ll move forward. There’s a lot of good things going on down here.”

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Reach Scott Koperski at scott.koperski@beatricedailysun.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKoperski.

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