- Associated Press - Monday, February 26, 2018

Omaha World Herald. February 23, 2018

Bill before Legislature promotes more accountability, consistency for TIF projects

Difficult issues often produce stalemates at Nebraska’s State Capitol. That’s been the case for years in the long-running debate over tax-increment financing, a much-used but also much-criticized economic incentive.

Municipalities point to local projects and argue that TIF is vital in allowing economic development to proceed in a timely manner.

Others disagree. School districts, concerned about their funding, lament that TIF projects can take major properties off the tax rolls for extended periods, and that school-finance needs receive too little consideration when local officials weigh TIF requests. Citizens charge municipalities with arrogance when they approve tax-forgiveness privileges for projects in so-called “blighted” areas that look far from blighted.

A report by State Auditor Charlie Janssen’s office in 2016 fueled further angst. Auditors concluded that TIF is subject to “remarkably little monitoring and oversight” and that there’s considerable variance in how local governments decide to use it. In the wake of the audit, the Legislature’s Urban Affairs Committee held TIF-focused hearings across the state.

Under TIF, a city diverts the increased property taxes generated by a project to repay the cost of improvements associated with it, such as building new streets and tearing down old buildings. The new development remains off the tax rolls for up to 15 years or until the improvements have been paid off. The law says a key aim is to redevelop “blighted” urban areas and that TIF should be granted for projects that wouldn’t move forward “but for” the granting of the tax privilege.

Efforts at the State Capitol to set more restrictions on TIF tend to fizzle, but this session, that changed.

In a display of positive compromise, the Legislature is moving forward with legislation to place a set of sensible requirements on TIF projects. Municipalities initially opposed the proposal, Legislative Bill 874 by State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha. But the various parties have pursued constructive negotiation, and lawmakers and the legal counsel for the Urban Affairs Committee have done conscientious detail work, producing an amended bill that’s winning major support. Senators voted 31-0 in favor of it this month on first reading.

The bill promotes greater accountability and consistency in various ways. Among them:

“ A cost-benefit analysis, made available to the public, would be required describing the revenue impact on school districts.

“ Local governments would need to provide documented analysis about an area’s “blighted” conditions, to back up the claim that a project would not be economically feasible “but for” TIF. That idea was amended into the bill from a proposal by State Sen. Tom Briese of Albion. State Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte supported Briese’s idea, saying, “When we use TIF, it should be for the purpose of urban renewal.”

“ A planning commission hearing would be required for redevelopment plans considered for TIF.

“ Local governments would need to prepare an annual report on their TIF projects.

These welcome developments, the fruit of positive compromise, serve the public interest. This process sets an example Nebraska leaders would do well to follow on other difficult issues.

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The Grand Island Independent. February 23, 2018.

Candidates needed for local elections

With a lot of city council, county board and school board seats to be filled in the 2018 election, it has been encouraging to see several people stepping forward and filing to run for a local government position.

But it is discouraging to see that there are several positions, especially on the Grand Island City Council, for which there is only one declared candidate. In fact, Grand Island Ward 3 doesn’t have anyone seeking to represent it on the City Council.

The deadline for nonincumbents to file for office is March 1. That’s six days away.

In nonpartisan races all seats for which there are only one or two candidates, they will not be on the primary election ballot May 15. Those candidates will automatically advance to the general election ballot in November.

It is so important that we have quality leaders making up our city, county and school boards, as well as in the elected county officials’ positions. But we seem to find ourselves often looking over the ballot and just voting for the incumbent because there’s no opposition. And if the incumbent decides not to run for re-election and only one nonincumbent files, we’re “stuck” with that person, regardless of qualifications and abilities.

A democracy thrives when the voters are regularly called upon to determine who is the best candidate for each position. But apathy, both among voters and possible government leaders, is the enemy of a democracy.

So far, the most interest has been shown in running for a position on the Hall County Board of Supervisors. The District 1 seat has three candidates, incumbent Doug Lanfear and challengers David Ziola and Butch Hurst. For the District 3 seat, there are four candidates, Dick Hartman, Amber Schuppan-Gerdes, Robert Humiston Jr. and Steve Johnson. The District 5 and District 7 seats all have an incumbent and a challenger: incumbent Jane Jeffries-Richardson and Scott Davison in District 5 and incumbent Scott Arnold and Ron Peterson in District 7.

Those county elections will be interesting and there may be a lot of new members of the Hall County board next year.

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But for the other elected county officials, there is no choice of candidates for Hall County Airport Board, Hall County Weed Board, county clerk, county treasurer, county attorney, county assessor/register of deeds, county surveyor and clerk of the district court. Only the Hall County sheriff’s race has two candidates, Sheriff Jerry Watson and challenger Rick Conrad.

The city of Grand Island only has one candidate for mayor so far, Roger Steele. Running for City Council are Vaughn Minton, Ward 1; Clay Schutz, Ward 2; Mitch Nickerson, Ward 4; and James Duff and Michelle Fitzke, Ward 5.

No one from Ward 3 has filed for the position that is being opened with the retirement from the council of Linna Dee Donaldson.

The Northwest school board only has two candidates running for three seats, Daniel Leiser and Kim Meyer. As for the Grand Island school board, Dan Brosz and Kelly Enck, both incumbents, are running for two open seats in Ward A; incumbent Bonnie Hinkle is running for the open seat in Ward B; and incumbent Carlos Barcenas is the only candidate in Ward C, even though there are two open seats.

This is a very serious situation, especially in the elections with no candidates. School board, city council and county board members make decision about how our tax money is spent and how much we pay in taxes. If you care about how your taxes are being spent, throw your hat in the ring and give the voters a choice.

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Lincoln Journal Star. February 24, 2018

County jails shouldn’t be mental health care facilities

One outlier can have a big effect on an average.

Take statistics provided earlier this month by the Lancaster County Jail. On a day earlier this month, the 572 inmates at the Lancaster County Jail had averaged 11 bookings. Yet one man, a transient battling alcoholism, has been in the jail 132 times over the past 20 years, meaning he’s been detained by Lancaster County once every 55 days for two decades.

Despite being a fraction of a percent of the jail population, this man alone accounted for more than 2 percent of the total jail visits by all inmates.

Clearly, this man has problems that far exceed the intended capabilities of county jails, which hold suspects until trial or house low-level offenders serving out their sentences. His situation represents the logical outcome of an inadequate safety net, particularly in regards to mental health, that sees too many people fall through the cracks and end up incarcerated as a last resort.

By no means is this man’s problem exclusive to Lancaster County or Nebraska, nor is it indicative of any failure by the jail. Instead, he highlights a problem without borders, that of individuals with mental illness and substance abuse receiving jail time rather than treatment.

County officials’ attempts to reduce recidivism, part of a growing wave to empower people from becoming repeat offenders, are encouraging. Crusades to ease transitions back to the outside remain a vital component of efforts to reduce the financial and humanitarian strain mass incarceration has on society.

A three-year, $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, set to start later this year, aims to get young men - particularly those in high-poverty areas - out of jail and into treatment and support programs designed to provide a stable environment for them.

That demographic represents a critical population to try diverting from future arrests. These men may have children or families for whom they must provide. Because of their youth, there’s also a financial cost to long-term incarceration for those who could spend years or even decades behind bars.

While that group represents a very important segment of the jail population, so, too, do those whose medical conditions often result in their frequent arrests on petty crimes. The lack of available treatment options means these individuals too often return to custody, at taxpayer expense, without addressing the root problem causing the behavior.

County jails are doing admirable work under difficult circumstances with the small, but costly, crowd they call frequent flyers. However, a jail isn’t the place to address the underlying health concerns that land these people into custody in the first place.

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Kearney Hub. February 23, 2018

Senator, don’t tax irrigation water in Nebraska

Any legislation that would increase the tax burden for Nebraska farmers deserves a quick and unceremonious defeat in the Unicameral. We’re speaking specifically about LB1022, a proposal to tax irrigation water.

The idea makes little sense because farmers and ranchers already are paying more than their fair share in property taxes and are struggling to turn a profit, so why has Columbus state Sen. Paul Schumacher proposed taxing irrigation wells? Schumacher is regarded as one of the most intelligent state senators, but he’s casting doubt on his intellectual capacities with LB1022.

The bill would create a one-cent tax on every 10 gallons of water pumped from an irrigation well capable of producing at least 5,000 gallons of water per day.

The daily total for a 5,000-gallon well would be $5. That sum doesn’t sound like a lot, but multiply it times five wells, and a 50-day irrigation season would result in added taxes of $1,250.

Schumacher thinks his irrigation tax could provide needed revenue for schools, which shows his heart is in the right place, it’s just not pumping blood to his brain. Added taxes could further cripple farmers and ranchers, undermining our state’s No.1 industry that contributes $11 billion annually to the Nebraska economy and is responsible for more than 31,000 jobs.

Not surprisingly, most of the state’s major agricultural organizations have told Schumacher what he can do with his legislation. Those groups are Nebraska Farm Bureau, Nebraska Cattlemen, Nebraska Corn Growers Association, Nebraska Pork Producers Association, Nebraska State Dairy Association, and the We Support Agriculture coalition. State legislators should listen to these groups.

Let Schumacher’s bill die in committee.

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