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County Board proposes tax increase to pay Beatrice 6 ruling

August 30, 2018

Gage County taxpayers will begin to pay off the Beatrice 6 ruling next year if the County Board approves a proposed increase in the tax levy.

It was announced at Wednesday’s board meeting that the levy in the proposed budget would be raised to the maximum allowable 50 cents in the event Gage County ends up paying the $28.1 million ruling.

Officials still hope the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn the ruling, but are planning for the worst with no other options left.

“It’s not a sign of defeat,” said board chairman Myron Dorn. “It’s a sign of this is where we stand in the judgment process. This is what we’re required to do today.”

Gage County’s current levy is around 27 cents, and another 11 cents is allotted to townships, fire departments and other organizations, bringing the total close to 38 cents.

If the county raises the levy by the full available 12 cents it will generate an additional $3.8 million annually.

For taxpayers, that additional 12 cents amounts to $120 annually on property valued at $100,000.

These funds will be listed under a line item labeled “judgment” in the county budget.

Dorn added the first half of these funds would be collected next May when the first half of property taxes are due. The second half is due in September, which is in the county’s following fiscal year.

Making payments toward the judgment 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.

“I think everybody sitting on this board realizes that’s not going to pass in Gage County,” Dorn said.

Should the U.S. Supreme Court hear the case and overturn the ruling – Dorn said there’s “a slim chance of hope” this will happen – the collected funds could be credited back to taxpayers.

“If at any time through this we collect these taxes and something happens where we would not have to pay them, we can credit people in future years on their tax statement,” Dorn said. “It’s not like it’s money that’s just gone. It can be credited if something changes between now and then.”

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

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.

Dorn said the rest of the county’s budget is staying flat, with only required increases.

The County Board will hold a public hearing on the proposed budget at its next meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 12 at 10 a.m. on the second floor of the courthouse.

Dorn encouraged the public to attend and share their thoughts on the difficult situation in which the county finds itself.

“It’s taken a lot of conversations with a lot of lawyers and other people to get to this point,” Dorn said. “We’re thankful that we are to this point. We’re not thankful that the budget is the way it is.”

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