Doris Pleskac was incensed when she opened her property tax bill and found what looked like a glossy election campaign pamphlet from Lancaster County Treasurer Andy Stebbing inside.
The front of the tri-fold pamphlet has a picture of Stebbing and a list of his accomplishments.
"This unusual pamphlet ... looks like a thinly veiled attempt at political self-promotion,” Pleskac said in her recent complaint to the state Accountability and Disclosure Commission.
Pleskac believes the brochure violates state laws prohibiting using tax dollars for campaign mailings.
Lancaster County commissioners checked out the brochure and its legality when they received their first complaints about it in December, soon after local property tax statements were mailed.
Though the cover may look like campaign advertising, their research indicates the glossy brochure contains useful information, including information required by state law, and it would not likely be considered a campaign mailing, said Ann Ames, deputy chief administrative officer for the Lancaster County Board.
Commissioners have no authority over the treasurer’s decision to provide information through the glossy pamphlet with his picture on the front, but they don’t object to much of the information presented inside.
The brochure provided information on how to pay online, a practice county commissioners are promoting.
“We are really trying to drive traffic to the website to pay taxes online. That really increases efficiencies, rather than having to open all the pieces of mail,” Ames said.
And the information may have helped.
In December 2016, the county had about 150 online payments. In December 2017, that jumped to 2,600 online payments — though some of the interest was undoubtedly from homeowners trying to get ahead of the new income tax rules.
The treasurer’s office spent about $1,200 more on the glossy pamphlet than it spent on previous inserts that provided the basic information required by state law, Ames said.
Setting mayoral records
Mayor Chris Beutler, who announced this month he will run for a fourth four-year term, has already set one mayoral record. He's served the most years as mayor — almost 11.
But Beutler will not be setting any term-related records, even if he wins a fourth term in the 2019 spring election.
Frank C. Zehrung, a Republican, served five terms, back during the era of two-year terms. Zehrung was mayor from 1913-1915, from 1921-1927, and again from 1931-33.
Street funding on fall ballot
Lincoln city leaders will not seek voter approval in the fall on a bond issue to help build a central Lincoln library to replace Bennett Martin Library.
Instead, Mayor Chris Beutler is hoping to get City Council approval to put a sales tax proposal on the fall ballot, using the money for street improvements and public safety.
Asking voters to raise both the property tax with a bond issue vote and the sales tax at the same time would likely doom both proposals.
Pat Leach, Lincoln Libraries director, said the timing for building a new central library has changed, but not the desire.
“We still like the idea of a central library. We still think it is a great idea. We are in a holding pattern, but we are not saying we no longer wish to do it.”
Also on hold is the final work of library consultants at Godfrey’s Associates of Dallas, who are helping put together the details for a new central library. Initial plans indicated a 100,000-square-foot, two- to three-story building that is about one-third bigger than Bennett Martin.
The library board was hoping to bring forward those specific plans about a new library about the same time it announced a potential site for that building.
All of that is on hold, Leach said.
Corporate welfare or economic development?
Last fiscal year, Lincoln did not receive $1,427,728 in property tax revenue because of tax-increment financing projects, according to a recent city report.
The city also gave back $967,044 in city sales tax to corporations that had agreements with the state under two incentive programs.
That specific information about tax-abatement programs is now easily available in an annual report because of new reporting guidelines from the nonprofit Government Accounting Standards Board.
How much cities gave away to corporations in tax breaks is one way of describing the information.
Others might call it the cost of encouraging economic growth.
The property tax loss for the city is just a portion of the total local property taxes lost to TIF last year.
The city makes TIF decisions, but all of the local governmental units — the school district, county, natural resources district, community colleges and others — are affected by lost tax revenue.
The total amount lost to these governmental units was closer to $9 million last fiscal year.
To qualify for the sales tax credits, companies must make investments and/or increase the number of employees. The city has no control over these contracts, which are with the state.
The city does make the TIF-related decisions.
In order to qualify for TIF, companies must say they would not make the investment unless they get TIF help from the city. It’s called the “but for” clause — but for this help the business would not be able to expand.
With TIF, the property owner does pay taxes, but that revenue is used to pay off a bond over 15 years. The company uses that bond for improvements that have some public benefit.