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Gage County expected to support sales tax bill to pay for Beatrice 6 judgment

December 20, 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.
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.

The Gage County Board of Supervisors is expected to formally support a sales tax bill at its next meeting that would generate funds to pay off the Beatrice judgment.

The board had a second discussion regarding the proposed bill at its Wednesday meeting, where it was stated the board will take action to formally support the proposal in two weeks.

The bill is being proposed by Myron Dorn, who is currently the County Board chairman. He was elected in November to represent District 30 in the state legislature next year and intends to introduce a sales tax bill to help Gage County pay off the $28.1 million Beatrice 6 judgment.

“I visited with state senators about it and I get a lot of positive feedback,” Dorn said. “I get some that would not be for it. This is countywide sales tax that could be collected in the whole county, which currently you can’t.”

Under the proposal, counties could impose a sales tax only to pay off federal judgments. Currently, Nebraska counties aren’t allowed to collect sales tax in communities that are collecting their own sales tax. The bill would allow counties to impose a blanket sales tax over the entire county.

Dorn clarified that while current regulations also require a vote of the public to implement, the draft of his bill would allow a county sales tax to be added by a supermajorty vote of a County Board, requiring 2/3 of the members to vote in favor.

A summary of the bill calls for a ½ cent sales tax that would be removed once a judgment is paid off. Dorn estimated that in Gage County, that ½ cent sales tax would generate around $1 million annually.

A reoccurring theme during years of discussions related to the Beatrice 6 case has been a belief that the state should pay for at least a portion of the judgment. County Board member Matt Baumann said a sales tax measure is a “more global view” and that pursuing the sales tax option has better odds of becoming a reality.

“The state is not going to pay for this,” he said. “This is a local issue. We’ve strung that guitar how many times up there and they’ve been very willing to listen, as we’ve got the same response.”

Board member Erich Tiemann added that the legislation could also be used by other Nebraska counties that someday find themselves in similar legal woes, and stressed that since the bill stipulates sales tax collected can only be used toward federal judgments, it would not be permanent.

“It’s one more place to tax people which I don’t like, but like Matt said, this spreads it out,” Tiemann said. “Instead of all of it being on property owners, it affects everyone equally that way.”

Dorn on Wednesday asked for a board vote at a future meeting to formally support the bill, saying it would help the chances of it passing.

Dorn has stated that allowing sales tax funds to pay towards judgments would ease 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 that would likely be paid in installments over eight years.

Dorn said if approved by the state, Gage County would use the additional sales tax funds in a similar way, making payments to the Beatrice over time.

“My thought was as you collect it, if you collect $1 million you pay that as you go along. What it would do is shorten up the final payments of what we’re doing now,” he said. “Currently we’re paying at that roughly 12 cents of levy.”

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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