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Beatrice hopes for public’s approval of sales tax issue for fire station

August 25, 2018 GMT

Beatrice voters will have their say this November whether or not a new fire station in built with sales tax dollars.

The Nov. 6 general election ballot will feature an item that could add a ½ cent sales tax in Beatrice to fund the proposed new fire station.

This isn’t the first time an area governing body has asked for the public’s vote to construct a new building, entice potential businesses or fix county roads. These measures have been met with mixed results over the last decade.

Voters rejected building a new jail and a new elementary school. What makes a fire station different?

According to Mayor Stan Wirth, this issue is more important than dollars and cents. It’s a question of public safety.

“That is the mayor and City Council’s responsibility to continue to provide public safety for not only city, but rural residents,” he said. “I think protection of the public is first and foremost and that’s what we’re trying to do with this proposal, to enhance the facilities to encourage better response times.”

Wirth added that the call volume for Beatrice Fire and Rescue has been on a steady rise for years. The department also has an aging workforce nearing retirement and a new station would entice young firefighters starting their careers to consider Beatrice.

A failed jail

On the county side of government, it’s been nearly a decade since a bond issue to build a new jail was defeated in 2009.

The $11.4 million mail-in jail bond issue was rejected by approximately 80 percent of voters. The measure would have replaced the existing 40-year-old, 30-bed facility with a brand new, 85-bed jail.

Gage County Sheriff Millard Gustafson said officials are still evaluating what the future holds for the jail.

Reflecting on the proposal, Gustafson thinks two adjustments would have greatly increased its chances of passing – reducing the proposed size to around 60 beds and keeping the jail at its current location at Sixth and Lincoln streets.

“From what I’ve heard from people in the past, they would like to have seen something smaller and have it built right here in this general area,” he said. “That’s the two things I’ve heard from people the most. People didn’t want it on the west side.”

Additionally, the economic downturn that struck the year prior may have played a role in the failed bond issue.

Nine years later, the County Board has approved numerous repairs and upgrades required by jail standards to keep the building in operation.

The board budgets nearly $250,000 to house inmates in other counties due to a lack of space in Gage County, which is accompanied by staffing issues to transport inmates.

Gustafson said the jail hit a new record this week with 55 inmates it was responsible for, approaching double its capacity.

One thing Gustafson feels the county did right was keeping the public educated about plans for the jail.

“I felt pretty good about what we had done to get the word out,” Gustafson said. “Some told us we were full of hot air, but I felt very comfortable the public knew what we wanted. From that standpoint, it’s all about educating the people. Never go to vote unless they know what you’re doing, what it will cost and why you need it. We spent a lot of time getting all that taken care of.”

Seeking answers

The City of Beatrice has publicly answered some of these questions. Beatrice Fire and Rescue held open houses and is planning more tours and town hall meetings aimed at educating the public about the space issues at the city auditorium, which has been the department’s home since 1965.

Where the fire station would be build and what it would cost have yet to be determined, but Wirth said more details, including cost estimates, should be available for the public before the November election.

“There’s going to be plenty of information available,” he said. “We’re going to have firefighters going to the different service clubs and express what our thought process is, what the schematic look like, and also have some cost estimates. We know what the half cent sales tax will bring so have to work backward to determine what we can afford.”

Revenue generated by the sales tax would be used to fund either a new standalone department for Beatrice Fire and Rescue or add on to the current department. If Beatrice Fire and Rescue would relocate to a new building somewhere, Wirth said the public properties and engineering departments would both use some of the vacated space in the auditorium.

Wirth said the current fire station is plagued with space issues, both in the vehicle apparatus bay where Beatrice and Beatrice Rural’s equipment is held and also in the living quarters.

“It’s not only cramped but many people are in one room and that can be extremely difficult,” he said. “The new configuration of the station on the drawing board today would have separate rooms for each individual and a restroom area in the middle. The bedroom would have a bed, small desk and that would basically be the amenities.”

Beatrice Fire and Rescue Chief Brian Daake said space issues at the station are impacting the department’s response times. For firefighters to get the hazardous material truck out of the station, Daake said they first have to move four other trucks and a trailer out of the way.

“Our response times really play a critical role in responding to an incident,” Daake said. “We always try to have a quick turnout time. Say there’s a hazardous material incident in in the industrial park area. We’ve got move all those different vehicles to get that truck out. There’s a considerable delay in getting the hazardous material vehicle.”

If approved by voters, the sales tax would generate an estimated $1 million annually in addition to the current $3.2 million generated by city sales tax. The addition would be in place for either 10 years or until the bonds for the fire station are paid off. The current city sales tax is 1 ½ percent.

Wirth said one aspect he hopes sets the proposal apart from past bond issues is that everyone would pay for a sales tax increase rather than just property owners picking up the tab with a property value assessment.

“Sales tax is spread over a larger base of taxpayers,” he said. “Anyone that buys goods and services in Beatrice will have the sales tax of a half cent more assessed. The broader base is anyone that visits our community pays that and helps pay for our fire department, whether they’re from in state or out of state. That I think is a more positive perception than assessing property.”

Questions of where and how much are being considered by JEO Consulting Group, a firm hired by the city earlier this year.

Success stories

The public has supported several ballot issues over the years, including another city proposal related to sales tax.

In 2012 an initiative that allowed the city to collect $250,000 annually by designating 50 percent of one-half of a half-cent sales tax to economic development in Gage County was approved with around 56 percent of votes. The money, commonly referred to as LB840 funds, has been used to support existing businesses and as an incentive to draw new business to the area. LB840 funds are in effect for 10 year and will likely be reconsidered in 2022.

In 2008, a special bond issue election for courthouse renovations that coincided with the primary election gained a narrow approval of 51 percent, though only saw a 26 percent turnout.

In 2013 Gage County voters gave wide approval to a $5.64 million bond issue to resurface and build approximately 30 miles of blacktop roads in the count with 61 percent of voters approving.

Closing the book

One measure that failed to gain public approval – twice – was a proposal to build a new elementary school near Beatrice High School. The school would have consolidated Beatrice’s four aging elementary schools into one location.

The School Board first proposed a bond issue to build a $34 million elementary school in 2015. The issue failed with more than 60 percent of voters in opposition. The board tried again the following year, failing again with nearly 70 percent in opposition.

A recent renovation of Paddock Lane Elementary School was the result of the failed bond issues.

Lisa Pieper, who was president of the BPS Board of Education at the time, echoed Gustafson’s comments that communicating with the public is key when taking an issue to a ballot.

“My advice for (the city) from what I’ve learned with the school bond is it’s vitally important that they involve the community as they move forward,” Pieper said. “Invest the time and effort in delivering the information via various outlets and give details as the information becomes available. That was one of the things we heard a lot. ‘We want the details.’

“As far as the city’s issue I think they’re already ahead of the game because they already established the need for a new fire station. I think the community recognizes the need for that and I think that will resonate with the voters because emergency response time is critical.”

City officials are hopeful that the public will approve the sales tax issue, allowing plans to move forward. But whatever the results this election, Daake said the department will always do its best to serve the area.

“We’re called public servants for a reason,” he said. “We’ll always do everything we can for our citizens.”