Property tax issues boil over in Northeast Nebraska

October 6, 2018

There’s a different way to say “the grass is greener on the other side” in Nebraska. It’s “everybody wants the property taxes they aren’t paying.”

Bill Robinson is no exception. As a parent and the associate superintendent at Norfolk Public Schools, he sees the issue from both an administrative and taxpayer standpoint.

“Everybody wants the tax they don’t pay,” Robinson said with a chuckle. “I’m no different. But everybody wants a fair system, too.”

In other words, taxpayers want to ease the burden of public schools’ reliance on them to fund public education — without sacrificing the quality of that education, he said.

As local taxpayers have grown increasingly fed up, navigating the property tax and public education funding issue is at the forefront of legislators’ and candidates’ minds.

The Norfolk Public Schools district, which is equalized, receives 21 percent of its funding from state aid and has a tax levy of $1.04 per $100 of assessed property, according to the Nebraska Department of Education. Conversely, the nearby non-equalized Battle Creek Public Schools district receives 8 percent of its funding from state aid and has a tax levy of 75 cents.

Taxpayers from agriculture-oriented, non-equalized neighboring districts have asked Robinson about why their district receives less funding than NPS.

“That’s the issue that a lot of our ag people are facing,” he said. “We want to make sure everybody gets something (in state aid), not just certain schools.”

Conversely, taxpayers in the NPS district are near the levy limit of $1.05 to cover costs for such mandates as special education, while state funding for the programs continues to decrease, Robinson said. The state-funded share for special education has declined since 1999 and is now at 43 percent state reimbursement.

“When you get less reimbursement from state and federal sources, locals have to pick it up,” he said. “None of the (programs) are bad, but those are things we need to look at — are we continuing to fund those adequately, where there is no choice.”

Because there is relatively little state funding for public education, the majority of state aid has to go toward equalizing districts, said Renee Fry, executive director of OpenSky Policy Institute. The nonpartisan organization is dedicated to fiscal research and analysis in Nebraska.

If more state money went to non-equalized districts, it would detract from state funding for equalized school districts, Fry said.

This year seems to be the breaking point, Robinson said.

“This has been on the table for 20 years, and it’s really coming to a head right now,” he said. “People are getting at their wit’s end.”

With midterm elections looming, property taxes have been a large part of candidate debates. In the first gubernatorial debate in August, Democratic candidate Bob Krist said he would try using more sales and income taxes to offset property taxpayers’ expenses. Incumbent Pete Ricketts said his approach of cutting state spending and lowering taxes has fostered state growth.

Legislators also are anticipating a lot of bills about property taxes and the Tax Equity and Educational Opportunities Support Act in the upcoming legislative session. Some will address the issue by increasing the allocated income tax, while others will focus on requiring a certain percentage of foundation aid.

During this time, people should focus more on commonalities than differences, Robinson said. Most Nebraskans seem to able to agree on two main things: one, that property taxes are high, and two, that Nebraska provides a great public education.

“Everybody needs to work together as much as we can (and) not get into polarizing political arguments,” he said. “Everybody can agree we’re paying high property taxes — what can we do to fix it?”

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