Senator plans to introduce bill to help pay Beatrice 6 judgment

December 6, 2018
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.

Officials are looking to sales tax as a way to pay off some of the Beatrice 6 judgment, easing concerns that property taxes will be increased for the next decade.

Myron Dorn is the current chairman of the Gage County Board of Supervisors. Dorn was elected in November to serve as the District 30 representative in the Nebraska Legislature and is wasting no time to propose legislation to help Gage County pay off the $28.1 million Beatrice 6 judgment.

Dorn briefed the County Board Wednesday on his plan to introduce a bill in the legislature that would allow the county to impose a voter-approved sales tax to pay off federal judgments.

“The senators I have visited with have been receptive to the fact that this would be maybe a different avenue other than property taxes to help pay for the Beatrice 6 situation that we’re in,” Dorn told the County Board on Wednesday. “I hope to have that ready by the next meeting to bring here and this board can have that discussion to see if it’s something that would interest this board or not.”

Dorn said current legislation allows for counties to put sales tax measures on ballots for a vote of the people, but there are limitations on where funds can be collected, including in the city of Beatrice.

“Currently, counties can impose a sales tax, but it has to be by a vote of the people and then they cannot collect it wherever there’s another government or municipal entity collecting,” Dorn explained. “In Gage County, it looks like, round numbers, if we had a sales tax or could try to collect a sales tax there wouldn’t be many dollars collected.”

The bill Dorn plans to propose would allow counties to collect sales tax countywide. The funds could only be used for paying federal judgments and would be removed when a judgment is paid.

Dorn said the bill is being drafted without a specific amount of sales tax that counties could collect, but speculated that a half to 1 cent sales tax increase across the county would generate approximately $1 million.

Dorn added he doesn’t intend to introduce the bill next year without the County Board’s knowledge and support.

Board member Erich Tiemann suggested taking the idea a step further and convincing the legislature to impose a small statewide sales tax to pay the judgment.

“I would love to see that instead of all of it being burdened on Gage County,” he said. “…If that could be put across the entire state, it might encourage them to change statute also so this doesn’t come up again. Now that there’s a big dollar amount out, this is going to happen again in other counties, cities and municipalities. We’re just the beginning of the fallout. We’re not the end of it.”

Dorn said allowing sales tax funds to pay towards judgments would ease property tax concerns in Gage County after the board voted to raise property taxes to the legal limit as a means of paying the Beatrice 6 judgment.

The board voted in September to raise property taxes, adding 11.7 cents of mill levy and bringing the county’s total levy to to the legal limit of 50 cents. That amounts to an average increase of up to 8 percent on a property owner’s total taxes, depending on where their property is. For taxpayers, that additional 11.7 cents amounts to around $120 annually on property valued at $100,000.

The increase is expected to generate $3.8 million annually, and it would take around eight years to pay off the judgment.

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.

Officials are currently hoping the U.S. Supreme Court will agree to hear the case and ultimately rule in Gage County’s favor, though the board has advised it’s a long shot. Additional lawsuits are also pending to determine if insurance should cover some of the $28 million judgment.

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