Gage County officials are looking at a countywide sales tax as a way to pay off some of the Beatrice 6 judgment, easing concerns that property taxes will be increased for the next decade.
Myron Dorn, who was elected in November to serve as the District 30 senator in the Legislature, told the Gage County Board of Supervisors about his plans for legislation to help the county pay off the $28.1 million judgment.
Dorn, who is also the chairman of the Gage County Board, said he will introduce a bill that would allow the county to impose a voter-approved sales tax to pay off federal judgments.
“The senators I have visited with have been receptive to the fact that this would be maybe a different avenue other than property taxes to help pay for the Beatrice 6 situation that we’re in,” Dorn told the County Board on Wednesday.
Dorn's proposal would allow counties to collect sales tax countywide. The funds could only be used for paying federal judgments and would be removed when a judgment is paid.
State law already allows county voters to consider sales tax measures, but there are limitations when another government is already collecting a sales tax, such as the city of Beatrice.
Dorn said the bill won't specify an amount to be collected, but he calculated a half- to 1-cent sales tax increase across the county would generate approximately $1 million annually.
Dorn said he won't introduce the bill next year without the County Board’s knowledge and support.
Board member Erich Tiemann suggested trying to convince the Legislature to impose a small statewide sales tax to pay the judgment.
“It might encourage them to change statute also so this doesn’t come up again. Now that there’s a big-dollar amount out, this is going to happen again in other counties, cities and municipalities. We’re just the beginning of the fallout. We’re not the end of it.”
Dorn said allowing sales tax funds to pay off judgments would ease property tax concerns in Gage County.
The board voted in September to raise property taxes to the legal limit, adding 11.7 cents of mill levy and bringing the county’s total levy to 50 cents.
That amounts to an average increase of up to 8 percent on a property owner’s total taxes. For taxpayers, that additional 11.7 cents amounts to about $120 annually on property valued at $100,000.
The increase is expected to generate $3.8 million annually, and it would take about eight years to pay off the judgment.
The Beatrice 6 — Ada JoAnn Taylor, Thomas Winslow, James Dean, Kathleen Gonzalez, Debra Shelden and Joseph White — were convicted in the 1985 rape and murder of Helen Wilson in her downtown Beatrice apartment, and ultimately spent a combined 75 years in prison until DNA evidence showed another man had committed the crime.
They sued Gage County for violating their civil rights in what they called a reckless investigation in federal court.
Officials still hope the U.S. Supreme Court will agree to hear the case and ultimately rule in Gage County’s favor, though the board has advised it’s a long shot. Additional lawsuits are also pending to determine if insurance should cover some of the $28 million judgment.