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Govt-and-politics
editor's pick
Nebraska tax revenue up in December

December appeared to be a better month for the state of Nebraska's tax collection, according to a state Revenue Department report. 

But state Tax Commissioner Tony Fulton "extended a note of caution" about just how the tax numbers can be interpreted. 

While gross individual income taxes were up 18 percent, compared to the October forecast, and 16 percent after refunds were accounted for, gross sales taxes were 0.3 percent below forecast. After refunds, sales taxes were 6 percent above the forecast. 

Looking at actual numbers, Revenue Department figures show sales tax collections were up slightly more than $8 million this December over the same month a year ago.  

For the fiscal year, net general fund receipts were 1.6 percent above forecast. 

Tax collections have been fairly consistently below projections for the past two years, with a few exceptions. 

Gov. Pete Ricketts struck the same cautionary tone as Fulton about the December report. 

“This may have been influenced by federal tax reform, and we will be watching closely to see if it is indicative of future growth," Ricketts said in a written statement. "My team will be closely monitoring future tax receipts as we approach final tax reporting for the 2017 tax year.”

President Donald Trump signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act on Dec. 22, and national media reports indicated widespread efforts by many Americans to prepay taxes, so filers could take advantage of the state and local tax deduction that was eliminated as a part of tax reform, he explained.


Local
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Acklie Hall taking shape at NWU ahead of 2019 ribbon-cutting

Without much in the way of fanfare Friday morning -- the pitfalls of construction during the winter months -- Nebraska Wesleyan University celebrated the “topping out” of a new classroom and laboratory building.

The arctic blast sweeping across the state this week couldn’t chill the liberal arts college’s excitement about the visible progress on the 80,000-square-foot Duane W. Acklie Hall of Science since construction began last spring.

President Fred Ohles said as construction costs on the $29 million building came in under original projections, Nebraska Wesleyan will maximize its science education offerings with $1 million of new equipment and furnishings.

The creative “workarounds” science faculty have employed in the 1960s-era Olin Hall -- extension cords wired through ceiling tiles, or rearranging classrooms to incorporate basic scientific instruments, for example -- have worked to date, he added.

“We’ve got excellent teaching going on now, but those workarounds take energy and time and effort that won’t be necessary in this building,” Ohles said.

Nebraska Wesleyan has made a conscience effort to create a clean, modern learning space for students, Ohles said, contemplating a range of details from how audio-visual capabilities will be integrated to how continuously poured epoxy floors in wet labs will make the building more durable.

“We can build the building we wanted and not cut corners," Ohles said.

Members of the university’s board, gathered on campus for their winter meeting, were given a brief tour of the construction site Friday morning -- more a short respite from the cold -- as the crew from Sampson Construction prepared to raise the final steel beam.

With work moving inside, biology classrooms and labs will begin taking shape on the first floor of the building. Psychology and other sciences will find their homes on the second floor, and the chemistry department will find a new perch overlooking campus from the third floor.

Mixed in among the classrooms on the second floor will be spaces for students to study alone or with peers. A coffee shop resembling a similar area in the basement of the university’s student center will be a focal point.

First announced as a $27 million privately financed project, the actual cost of construction and furnishing the new building will be closer to $29 million, spokeswoman Sara Olson said.

More than $28 million has been raised to date to support construction and equipping the new science building, the first academic building to be constructed at NWU since 1981, as the university continues a broader $62 million capital campaign called Bold Designs.

Launched in September, the fundraising effort will provide scholarships to students and added support for faculty, while also funding new internships and study abroad opportunities, service learning and bolster NWU’s athletic coaching staffs, Olson said.

As a crane pulled the final beam from its resting place on the ground high in the sky, a frigid wind rippled three flags draped over the iron, the stars and stripes, a black and gold banner emblazoned with a Prairie Wolf, NWU’s mascot, and the company logo of Sampson Construction, the general contractor on the project.

Mounted atop the beam was a small evergreen tree, a practice of ironworkers dating back centuries believed to signal a safe construction process or to show reverence for the power of nature over the works of man.

Ninety seconds after it was lifted skyward, the beam was hoisted into place by a pair of waiting construction workers. A drone buzzed overhead capturing the scene for posterity as the small crowd, gathered on the frozen surface of a future parking lot below, applauded.


Local
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Heidelberg's bar in north Lincoln appeals Liquor Commission decision canceling its license

A north Lincoln bar owner has asked a judge to reinstate his liquor license after state regulators cancelled it because of an August party there that spiraled into a melee.

Heidelberg's owner John McManus appealed the ruling of the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission in a petition to the Lancaster County District Court on Wednesday.

At a December hearing, liquor commissioners said they lost confidence in McManus’ ability to follow the law after police testified that hundreds of drunken patrons began fighting in the bar at 33rd and Superior streets. The incident happened around closing time following an after-party for the Aug. 19 Terence "Bud" Crawford boxing match.

In the lawsuit, McManus' attorney Charles Humble called the commission's ruling arbitrary, capricious and contrary to Nebraska law.

Commissioners took issue with McManus' decisions to allow the event that other bars had canceled and to give control of the door to a third-party promoter he barely knew.

The bar had nine private security guards on duty that night.

These decisions were among the commission's legal errors in the case, Humble said.

"There was ample security already in place in and about the licensed premises in significant numbers to handle any situation which might take place, and, in fact, security and law enforcement personnel responded quickly to handle the situation on August 20, 2017, in a timely manner without serious injury to the patrons or the general public," Humble said in the lawsuit.

McManus told the commission at the hearing he would no longer host parties for promoters.

Fueled by feuds between rival North Omaha gangs, the fighting drained city resources as 30 officers responded to quell the violence, police said. Crawford is from Omaha.

If the judge doesn't reverse the commission's decision, the bar's license is set to be surrendered Feb. 1.


Govt-and-politics
editor's pick
Federal jury decides case alleging workplace discrimination at LES

A federal jury Thursday found against a longtime Lincoln Electric System spokeswoman who sued the city of Lincoln saying she felt driven out by her former employer after she complained when her new, 30-something supervisor told her she had a "reptilian brain."

The company gave Carolyn Douglas a retirement party when she decided to leave in 2015 after 37 years. Then she sued.

Her attorney, James Zalewski, said the "succession plan" at LES coded employees 65 or older in red, essentially putting a target on their backs.

"'You're too old to do your job. You're too old to understand what I'm trying to tell you.' Nobody wants to hear that," Zalewski said in closing arguments Thursday in U.S. District Court. "I don't care whether you're a salesperson, communications specialist, a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, an office manager, anything. Yet that's what happened to Carolyn Douglas in this case."

Soon after Douglas complained about her supervisor telling her, "I'd explain it to you, but with your reptilian brain you wouldn't understand it," suddenly Douglas couldn't do anything right, he said.

Age discrimination came first, Zalewski alleged, then retaliation.

But Susan Sapp, one of the attorneys representing the city, said the evidence failed on both counts.

"Mrs. Douglas came nowhere near meeting her burden of proof that being over 40 and filing an ethics complaint had anything to do with her evaluations or her performance improvement plan," she told the jury.

Sapp said Douglas didn't even allege age discrimination until after she left.

In the complaint against her supervisor, Douglas chose "workplace harassment" from the drop-down form, not age discrimination, she said.

Sapp said maybe jurors thought Douglas' supervisor shouldn't have made the comment about a "reptilian brain" mode.

"That's fine," she said. "What it's not is illegal."

Sapp said an employer is entitled to make its own subjective personnel decisions for any reason that is not discriminatory.

"That's what they did. It had nothing to do with her age," she said.

In the end, the jury agreed, returning with a verdict in favor of the city.


Education
editor's pick
New Innovation Campus building on track for September completion

Construction of a three-story, 80,000-square-foot modern office building at Nebraska Innovation Campus is “on time and on budget,” a project manager said.

The $15.3 million building, referred to internally by developers as Innovation Campus’s “Site Development Lease 3” by Tetrad Property Group, should be ready for tenants this fall, said Andy Widman.

"This is just a shell," Widman said. “Once the walls and roof are on, there’s nothing but a few common areas to finish."

The office building, modeled on the headquarters of several Silicon Valley tech companies like Pinterest and DropBox will be “blank space for future tenants” to build out how they see fit.

Hausmann Construction crews expect to turn the building just north and east of 21st Street and Transformation Drive over to Tetrad this September, Widman said.

Although no tenants have been announced, Widman said Tetrad is working with companies about how the new building could be configured to meet their needs.

Nebraska Innovation Campus executive director Dan Duncan said last year the research park has high demand for small offices for startup companies.

The as-of-yet unnamed building is designed to allow for Innovation Campus to quickly adapt to the needs of new tenants.