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Pius X’s Joe Burt (10) drives to the basket for two points against Omaha South’s Jadriane Saunders (12) in the first half on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018, during the Class A-7 district tournament at Pius X High School.


Ron Meyer and his dog, Seka, frequent users of Cooper Park, walk on the south side on Monday. Many of its limestone retaining walls have grown unstable, and may need to be eliminated.

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Lincoln's oldest park, at the center of renewed attention

The dozen acres of green just south of the Haymarket is Lincoln’s oldest park, with both a proud history and a pattern of problems.

The trees planted by the city’s earliest leaders didn’t take. Then the well they envisioned supplying their new community failed.

They couldn’t settle on a name, either, calling it City Park and Lincoln Park and F Street Park. It was redesigned at the turn of the last century, and again 50 years later, when it became Cooper Park — an oasis surrounded by residential density, serving the neighborhood’s children and families and students at nearby Park Elementary School.

But it would suffer from a lack of maintenance. Retaining walls grew unstable. Playground equipment grew outdated. The park’s lighting dimmed, and Cooper Park became a target of vandals and other criminals. Lincoln police have logged more than 150 visits there in the past five years, for crimes ranging from arson to alcohol to assault to graffiti.

Now, on its 150th anniversary, the park is again getting attention. Brought together by NeighborWorks Lincoln, the city and Cooper’s neighbors have been meeting for nearly two years, creating a master plan to identify its immediate needs and create a long-term wish list.

The process is nearing its end. The Parks and Recreation Department will meet with neighbors Thursday to share ideas and listen to new ones, and should release its final plan in the next few months, said J.J. Yost, the department’s planning and construction manager.

The document will guide the future of the city’s original park, in a city that has changed in 150 years.

“It’s right in the middle of a very densely populated neighborhood and a neighborhood today that has quite a bit of ethnicity,” Yost said. “The park gets a lot of different and varied uses. The goal behind the master plan is to increase the opportunities for recreation to that immediate neighborhood.”

But the process also started something. The South Salt Creek Neighborhood around the park had lost some of its cohesion, and the focus on the park is pulling it back together.

* * *

The park appeared in the city’s first designs, drawn in 1865 — two years before Lincoln became Lincoln. A blank spot on a map, four square blocks from D to F, Sixth to Eighth.

“It kind of reflects the evolution of what a park is,” said Ed Zimmer, the city’s historic preservation planner. “They put it on the original plat, but they aren’t quite sure what to do with it.”

So in the meantime, it became a pasture. Nearby residents often kept cows, and they’d turn them loose in the field, Zimmer said.

Early attempts at planting trees failed time and again, he said. So did the waterworks built in the 1800s, in the park’s northwest corner. “That’s what happens when you drill into the salty ground.”

But then, in 1900, the Ladies’ City Improvement Association hired Jens Jensen to redesign the park. Before he came to Lincoln, he’d created parks in Chicago. Later, he designed landscaping for the Ford family, including Henry and Clara Ford’s 1,400-acre Fair Lane estate.

“He was a big deal,” Zimmer said. “Sort of the Frank Lloyd Wright of landscape architecture.”

Pieces of the park still reflect Jensen’s vision — like the winding paths — but some of it was replaced a half-century later, when the Cooper Foundation’s $35,000 gift gave the park a picnic shelter, playgrounds, a better ballfield, an ice-skating rink and yet another name.

As the decades piled up, the city’s maintenance budget didn’t keep pace. “Over the years, it’s been renovated several different times,” Yost said. “Some of the existing infrastructure is aged and deteriorated and just worn out.”

The focus on the park rekindled a few years ago, when NeighborWorks was considering building Cooper Commons, a seven-home project on a vacant lot a half-block away.

It met with neighbors to get their thoughts on the development. “But also, when NeighborWorks moves into an area, we don’t want to just start building housing, we’re about revitalizing areas,” said Pat Anderson-Sifuentez, the nonprofit’s community builder.

In those discussions, the park came up over and over again, she said. “They felt it was underutilized; they did not feel it was very well maintained.”

She arranged an initial meeting between parks staff and residents, and they took a night walk through the park last summer, where they identified — and rectified — lighting issues. The city replaced light bulbs and trimmed trees to brighten the paths.

Those are minor but important improvements.

“People walk more in older neighborhoods, and you want them to walk and feel safe,” she said. “In older neighborhoods we have older lighting, so the bulbs aren’t as bright.”

The city hosted an open house in September to seek input on some of its plans. More than 30 nearby residents attended, she said, an impressive turnout in an area that let its neighborhood organization go dormant a few years ago.

But now it’s waking back up, and the timing is good. The development moving south through the Haymarket will ultimately put pressure on the neighborhood, Anderson-Sifuentez said.

“South Salt Creek really needs to be organized to have a say in how their neighborhood is going to evolve.”

A group of residents, many of them members of the old organization, met Monday to elect a new board, and they’ll select officers next week, said longtime resident Gary Irvin, who was active on the old board and is part of the new group.

“It’s a formative year, getting the word out that everything is starting back up,” he said. “This neighborhood has really never been as close as some of the other neighborhoods.”

Irvin hopes the reborn organization fosters unity, so neighbors get to know each other. He also worries about downtown’s slow march toward his neighborhood, and he wants to make sure the park’s importance is preserved.

“There’s a lot of history here and we don’t want to lose that,” he said. “It needs to be kept for some of the later generations.”

* * *

The city isn’t planning a major facelift for Cooper Park.

At the meeting Thursday, Yost will release a two-tiered draft of its master plan — a list of the park’s pressing needs and the broader changes the department could make in the future, money permitting.

On the first list: continue to improve lighting, replace roofs on the bathroom and picnic shelter, and address the eroding retaining walls.

Neighbors are fond of the ledges, but some are too unstable to save, Yost said.

“There are so many retaining walls in that park, and that’s a very costly item to address,” he said. “The master plan is looking at a proposal to have some of those eliminated.”

The long-term vision includes adding a soccer field in the park’s northwest corner, disc golf in its southwest, rerouting sidewalks, installing public art and turning the baseball field into multipurpose open space.

That last proposal is more complicated, Yost said. Cooper’s baseball field is used for league play, and the department would have to add a diamond somewhere else to accommodate demand.

The city will work with residents to prioritize the plans, he said, with the neighborhood responsible for some of the fundraising. And soon, the park should restore some of its pride.

“Cooper Park is important to maintain,” said Shawn Ryba of the South of Downtown Community Development Organization, which is hosting Thursday’s meeting. “There’s no green space in that area, so we have to take care of what we have.”

GWYNETH ROBERTS, Lincoln Journal Star 

Stone walls and steps lead into Cooper Park on its west side.

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Online sales tax bill escapes filibuster in Nebraska Legislature

Legislation designed to collect state sales taxes already owed on Internet purchases cleared a legislative filibuster Tuesday and headed toward a final vote and an almost certain gubernatorial veto.

Following a full morning of debate, the bill (LB44) was freed from the grip of a filibuster on a 35-8 vote, clearing the 33-vote threshold required to invoke cloture and end debate.  

That was followed by a 34-7 vote sending the measure to its final round of floor consideration.

Ricketts administration officials were actively engaged in the Capitol Rotunda during Tuesday's debate, talking with senators. Thirty votes ultimately would be required to enact the bill over the governor's objections. 

Responding to advancement of the bill, Ricketts appeared to preview a veto message: "LB44 as advanced by the Legislature remains flawed and contains burdensome regulation and unnecessary red tape on companies doing business in Nebraska."

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Dan Watermeier of Syracuse, would raise an estimated $30 million to $40 million in annual revenue by collecting state sales taxes already owed. 

That figure would be in addition to the estimated $30 million already being voluntarily collected by Amazon on purchases by Nebraskans and submitted to the state.

Gov. Pete Ricketts actively opposed the bill, arguing the state should wait for a U.S. Supreme Court decision later this year that may reverse its earlier position that states could not impose taxes on sales made by businesses with no physical presence in that state.

Watermeier's bill is patterned after a Colorado law that already has been affirmed by a more recent U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision.

Supporters of the measure argued that collection of Nebraska sales taxes already owed on Internet purchases would level the playing field with Main Street businesses in Nebraska that already must collect the state tax on top of their retail purchase prices.

A few senators also noted the state needs the revenue at a time when its budget is being stressed by a revenue shortfall that has led to a continuing round of budget cuts.

"Nebraska needs the revenue," Sen. John McCollister of Omaha said, and the measure provides "fairness for Main Street businesses."

"This is not a new tax," Watermeier stressed, but rather a tax already owed.

"It makes sure taxes that are owed are taxes that are paid," Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete said. 

Internet sellers would be required to collect the tax or inform purchasers of the amount of state tax that is due.

The amended proposal includes a trigger mechanism that does not allow it to go into effect unless the Supreme Court reverses its earlier decision.

Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion argued against the bill, suggesting it creates a new reporting burden for businesses and raises "a false hope of collection."

Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln said the earlier Supreme Court decision has "tied our hands" and the state should wait for the upcoming court decision before determining how to proceed.

"We are going to get clarity," he said.

Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha said the Legislature should act now instead of waiting until 2019 when the next legislative session convenes.

The bill was stuck at second-stage consideration when the Legislature adjourned last year. Watermeier offered amendments on Tuesday to ease or eliminate some of the concerns or objections that had been raised in its first go-around, and they were adopted before the bill was advanced.

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LPS looking at jump in state aid for coming year

Lincoln Public Schools is looking at a substantial jump in revenue for the second year in a row — a nearly $20 million increase in state aid for 2018-19.

It's the largest increase the district has seen in recent years.

Last year, an $18.9 million bump in property tax revenue helped fund the district’s $420.8 million budget. That windfall was the result of a countywide reassessment of property that ended with a 9 percent valuation increase.

This year, LPS has the state to thank. The district's state aid jumped from $126.7 million to $146.6 million, thanks largely to changes in the way the state aid formula determines how much districts should receive to help educate students in poverty.

“The biggest factor is the poverty calculation,” said Liz Standish, LPS associate superintendent of business affairs. “The state changed the way they pull the data.”

In 2016-17, Nebraska joined other states in testing a new way to calculate which children are automatically certified for the federal free- and reduced-lunch program — the major determiner of poverty in schools.

That method considers families who receive Medicaid services to be automatically eligible for the federal lunch program, Standish said. Any family can submit an application for the program, but families that are on some public assistance programs are automatically eligible and used in the formula.

Adding those who receive Medicaid services meant the number of students automatically eligible for free lunch went from 13,702 in 2015-16 to 15,427 the following year, Standish said.

That change wasn't reflected in the state aid calculation until the 2018-19 year. 

That meant that the “poverty allowance” — the amount of extra money the state calculates the district will need to educate students who live in poverty — jumped by $11.3 million, said Bryce Wilson, the Nebraska Department of Education’s director of finance and organizational services.

Omaha Public Schools saw the impact last year, when its poverty allowance jumped by $9.4 million, Wilson said. OPS' total state aid increased by $62 million to $288.2 million last year. For the coming year — without that bump — its state aid decreased by $12.5 million.

The other factor fueling the state aid increase for LPS this year is overall student growth, Standish said. The district has absorbed nearly 5,000 additional students over the past five years.

Because of the way the formula averages growth over time, Standish said, the full effect of that growth is beginning to be reflected in the formula.

“So the growth Lincoln is experiencing is catching up in the formula,” she said.

The changes in the poverty allowance and the district’s overall growth offset what likely would have been a decrease or much smaller increase in state aid, Wilson said.

Typically, a big increase in property valuations one year will mean less state aid the following year.

For the past three years, LPS' state aid stayed essentially flat, though the year before that it jumped nearly $17 million.

The 15.75 percent increase for 2018-19 falls in line or is lower than some increases prior to 2015. But in real dollar terms, it's the largest since at least 1990.

LPS also will benefit in its upcoming budget from an expected 17 percent increase in commercial and industrial property valuation in Lancaster County.

The overall dollar amount of that valuation increase will be lower than last year's, Standish said, because commercial and industrial property makes up just 28 percent of the total valuation used to determine property tax revenue.