- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 22, 2014

NORTH PLATTE, Neb. (AP) - Lincoln County commissioners have refused to exempt from taxes thousands of acres of land bought by a group of natural resources districts so groundwater that had been used for irrigation would instead flow into the Platte and Republican rivers.

On Monday the Board of Commissioners decided to tax the property on its grassland value although it expects additional appeals, The North Platte Telegraph said (http://bit.ly/1kWP9S8 ).

Farmers and ranchers from throughout the county gathered to hear the board’s comments about exemption requests on land owned by Nebraska Cooperative Republican Platte Enhancement.

The co-op is an agency composed of the Twin Platte and Upper, Middle and Lower Republican natural resources districts. The agency bought 19,500 acres in southern Lincoln County so it could stop groundwater irrigation and direct the water into the Platte and Republican rivers.

The water would help the region meet its state river water obligations and help the state meet Platte River water agreements with the federal government for wildlife and with other states for river flow, especially into Kansas under the Republican River compact.

The agency appealed to the county board after tax exemptions were denied on 42 parcels of the land. The agency attorney, Vanessa Silke, reminded the board that land that is publicly owned and used for a public purpose can be exempted from property taxes.

But county assessor Julie Stenger told the board that only the water is being put to public use, so she thought the ground should stay on the tax rolls. Thus, she assessed the parcels at their grassland value.

“That way, I’m basically giving them an exemption on the water,” Stenger said. “This is the first issue like this that Lincoln County has been faced with. I’m trying to do this the best way I know how.”

Farmer Dick Hasenauer from Dickens said the project “is probably good for Nebraska and good for the natural resources districts, but Lincoln County is going to pay the bill” - a situation he didn’t favor.

And Wallace school board member Kenneth Ogier said that if the land were exempted, the district would lose 8 percent of its valuation, which probably would result in an increase in the local tax levy.

Kent Miller, general manager of the Twin Platte Natural Resources District, said the joint agency would pay the taxes if it could, but its legal counsel has said that public funds can’t be used to pay property taxes.

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Information from: The North Platte Telegraph, http://www.nptelegraph.com