More than four years after a federal court verdict, Gage County continues to collect the maximum amount of property taxes allowed by law, and has levied a countywide sales tax, to pay damages to six people wrongfully convicted of a 1985 Beatrice slaying.
State Sen. Myron Dorn of Adams, who represents the county in the Legislature, asked state lawmakers for relief in order to speed payment of the $28.1 million judgment awarded to the Beatrice Six.
Dorn’s measure, Legislative Bill 103, would provide Gage County $4 million over the next two years to pay the judgment to the six, who were awarded damages after a jury found that the county-led investigation had violated their civil rights.
If passed by the Legislature and approved by the governor, the legislation would help counties ordered to pay a federal judgment in excess of $25 million, if the judgment is equal to or greater than 20% of that county’s annual tax collections.
Dorn, a former chairman of the Gage County Board who sponsored a similar bill two years ago, told the Appropriations Committee that county officials were told that the state would not step in until all of the county’s legal options were tried.
After the county settled with several insurance carriers last year and collected $5.9 million to put toward the judgment, Dorn told lawmakers that “all legal avenues have been exhausted.”
The six — Ada JoAnn Taylor, Thomas Winslow, James Dean, Kathleen Gonzalez, Debra Shelden and Joseph White — spent a combined 75 years in prison after a cold case investigation wrongfully pointed the blame at them.
After DNA evidence later proved that another man had committed the crime, the six were exonerated and eventually won the judgment in 2016.
To date, the county has paid almost $14.2 million toward the judgment from a combination of property taxes, sales taxes and insurance payouts. Including $2 million in lawyers’ fees and interest, there is about $16.8 million remaining to be paid.
“We’re using every tool we have access to to retire this debt that looms over the county every day,” Erich Tiemann, the current chairman of the Gage County Board, told the committee.
Tiemann said Dorn’s bill would not pay the federal judgment in full, nor would it pay half or even a quarter of the total owed by Gage County.
But it would help speed fulfillment of the judgment to the six and take the burden off Gage County taxpayers.
“As soon as this judgment is paid off, property taxes will go down, the sales tax goes away,” he said. “It will help our communities get back to normal more quickly, and simply move forward.”
Angie Bruna, executive director of the Beatrice Area Chamber of Commerce and Gage County Tourism, said the increased tax rates, including a one-half-cent sales tax assessed countywide, have caused the county to lose both business and people.
“The sooner we can pay this off and put it behind us, the sooner we can heal and grow as a community,” she said, calling Dorn’s bill an investment in the people living in Gage County.
Raising Gage County’s property tax rate to the maximum allowed under law — from 38 cents to 50 cents per $100 of valuation — has fallen primarily on the farmers in the county, Don Schuller said. About 70% of the property valuation in the county is agricultural land.
That’s affected farming families, Emily Haxby told the committee. Haxby, who is also on the Gage County Board, said her family has paid an additional $1,400 in property taxes each year toward the judgment.
“There needs to be some relief to help with this size of judgment,” she told senators. “I would not wish this on any county or any family.”
The Appropriations Committee did not take any action on the bill Friday, but at least one senator appeared to agree that the burden to pay the judgment shouldn’t fall entirely on the county.
Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard, a former member of the Morrill County Board, said the job of enforcing state laws falls to local law enforcement and prosecutors paid from local property taxes.
“The state does nothing to help you pay that off and do the things you need to do to keep the citizens of the state safe,” he said. “It’s an unfunded mandate.”