A Lincoln homeowner with a $150,000 house is paying about $116 a year to an assortment of agencies overseen by boards not directly elected by voters. 

That money is used to run the county fair, construct train overpasses and pay off bonds used to build the County-City Building and the Lancaster Event Center.

More than a third is being used to pay off bonds for building the new county jail.

Most of these arrangements allow local governments to work together legally. For example, Lancaster County and the city of Lincoln can join hands as the Public Building Commission to maintain and manage their buildings and to buy or build new ones.

The ability to work together allows for efficiency and avoids duplication, said Larry Dix, executive director of the Nebraska Association of County Officials.

"There is often public criticism -- why aren't these folks working together, consolidating," Dix said. These boards allow that.

The Legislature created these vehicles to encourage local political subdivisions to work together and then gave them some taxing authority as an incentive, said Gary Krumland, legal counsel for the League of Nebraska Municipalities. 

Most of these boards can issue bonds, backed by the property tax, without a vote of the people, making it simpler to buy or build.

But this ability to use tax dollars and to bond brings criticism that these joint entities shield elected leaders from spending scrutiny. 

It creates new taxing authorities without any direct accountability, said Lincoln City Councilman Jon Camp. And that ability to use the property tax can be abused, he said.

Camp has maintained for several years that entities like the building commission and the Railroad Transportation Safety District could reduce their property tax rates to provide some tax relief.  

And they shelter elected leaders by making it more difficult to tell what is being spent, he said.

For example, the city used to pay the county more than $1 million a year to house prisoners in the jail. 

To help build the new jail, the city created a new joint public agency, or JPA, which taxes city property. 

In return, the city no longer pays for housing prisoners. But the city did not reduce its tax levy by the $1.2 million, Camp said.  

These boards are all creatures allowed by state law. The oldest are the agricultural societies, run by private citizens elected at annual meetings. Ag societies have run county fairs for more than 100 years.

The newest are the JPAs allowed under a 1999 state law. Lincoln and Lancaster County have created four JPAs in recent years, three to pay off bonds.

Six of these groups are listed on your tax documents, because they have a tax levy.

But two of the most well known -- the West Haymarket JPA, which is building the Pinnacle Bank Arena, and the Antelope Valley group, which oversaw the Antelope Valley road, bridge and flood-control construction project -- are not on that list.

They do not have their own tax levy but get money indirectly from local, state or federal governments.

Public Building Commission

1.7 cents per $100 valuation

A five-member board (two City Council members, two county commissioners and one at-large member) oversee commission work.

Money from the property tax is used to pay off the approximate $53.3 million in bonds used to build the County-City Building and Hall of Justice, purchase and renovate other buildings.

The commission also has an operating budget of $7.2 million which comes from rent on the buildings it manages, including a number of buildings used by county and city government like the Hall of Justice, the County-City Building, Court House Plaza, health department offices and some senior centers.

State statute allows a building commission in counties when a majority of the population resides in a city. Lincoln-Lancaster and Omaha-Douglas County have building commissions. 

Lancaster County Agricultural Society

.1581 cents per $100 valuation

The nine-member board is elected by registered voters who show up for annual meetings.

The Ag Society is one of more than 80 across the state created to own and operate county fairgrounds. The society can ask the county board for a tax levy to operate the fair and to maintain the property.

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Lancaster County Agricultural Society JPA

.3731 cents per $100 valuation

The board is made up of three Ag Society board members and two county commissioners.

Property tax dollars are being used to pay off the remaining $8 million in bonds for construction of the Lancaster Event Center. This board also would handle bonds for any future event center expansion.

Railroad Transportation Safety District

2.6 cents per $100 valuation

A board of three county commissioners and three City Council members oversees the budget and projects, though the County Board has ultimate control over the tax rate.

The RTSD was created to improve railroad crossing safety, generally by closing some crossings and improving others, often with overpasses or underpasses. The RTSD recently has worked on establishing quiet zones where trains can't blow their horns.

This year, the Lancaster County Board has proposed eliminating 1 cent of the RTSD tax rate and raising the county tax rate by 1 cent to provide the County Board money without raising the overall property tax rate.

Lancaster County Correctional Facility JPAs

Lancaster County: 1.0511 cents per $100 valuation

City of Lincoln: 1.8534 cents per $100 valuation

The board for both JPAs includes the mayor, chairman of the City Council, chairman and vice chairman of the County Board. This board is overseeing jail construction and meets once a month to approve bills.

Property tax revenue for both JPAs is being used to pay off the $65 million bond issued to build the new jail that is expected to open some time next year. Property in Lincoln only is taxed under the Lincoln JPA. All property in the county is taxed under the county JPA, which includes Lincoln real estate.

So Lincoln property owners pay both rates.

The Lincoln JPA was created to use the city's bonding authority to help fund jail construction. In return, the city does not pay any of the jail operating costs.

Reach Nancy Hicks at 402-473-7250 or nhicks@journalstar.com.

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Reporter

Nancy Hicks reports on Lincoln city government, but she’s been following the leaders of local and state government for more than 40 years.

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