Gage County is making the first of several payments this week to the so-called Beatrice 6.
During Wednesday’s regular Board of Supervisors meeting, a claim of $1.9 million was approved, the first payment toward the $28.1 million verdict.
Chairman Erich Tiemann said the payments are a tough pill to swallow, but are the first step to put the matter behind Gage County.
“This has been so many years in the making, so many years in court and so much talk about what’s going to happen, at least it’s in process and being paid now,” he said. “I would look at this as being one step closer to it being over and we’ll keep trying to work through this as efficiently as possible. It’s one step closer to the end.”
Gage County plans to make two payments each year, which will follow property taxes being collected in May and September. The exact dollar amount may fluctuate depending on how much the county collects.
The board voted in September to raise property taxes to the legal limit to help pay members of the Beatrice 6.
It raised the levy to the maximum allowable 50 cents in anticipation of the judgment, which will generate approximately $3.8 million annually. For taxpayers, that amounts to $120 annually on property valued at $100,000.
The increase will amount to around 7% for the average property owner, which has been a concern for many residents.
“It’s a daily thing still where people ask about that and how we’re going to continue developing Gage County when the tax levy is at the 50-cent mark,” Tiemann said. “There are good arguments where we can keep developing. We have lots of benefits to being in Gage County and the economic development group NGage is working with businesses and outside people to bring them in, but it is a detriment.
“The sooner we get this paid for the sooner it will go back to business as usual. It’s a cloud that looms over us all the time. If there are any positives, we’re in the process of getting rid of that cloud of doom.”
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Using property tax dollars, the judgment could be paid off in about nine years, though it could be sooner if the county implements a sales tax. The tax is allowable under a new law championed by District 30 senator and former County Board Chairman Myron Dorn.
The sales tax is available to counties facing federal judgments in excess of $25 million, but only if their property tax levy is at the maximum allowable under state law. The sales tax will sunset after seven years or when the judgment is paid in full, whichever comes first.
The County Board has yet to discuss if it will implement a sales tax or not. Tiemann said those talks will likely begin in the coming months and he hopes to have a series of town hall meetings where the public can ask questions.
“We’re looking at every avenue to try to pay this off faster,” he said. “We talked about town hall meetings to get information out about that.”
In March, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear the county's appeal, effectively sealing its fate. It was the last legal option available to Gage County in the federal civil rights case filed by Joseph White, Ada JoAnn Taylor, James Dean, Thomas Winslow, Kathleen Gonzalez and Debra Shelden in 2009.
Following a 1989 cold case investigation into the rape and murder of Helen Wilson in her downtown Beatrice apartment four years earlier, the six were convicted and spent a combined 75 years in prison.
DNA evidence later pointed to a seventh person — Bruce Allen Smith, who died in 1992 — as the actual perpetrator.
The six were exonerated in 2008, and the next year sued Gage County for the reckless investigation that landed them in prison.
After one mistrial, a federal jury found enough evidence that then-deputy Burdette Searcey and then-reserve deputy Wayne Price had violated their rights, awarding them a combined $28.1 million.
Gage County appealed the decision to a three-judge panel from the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, but the panel affirmed the jury verdict in June 2018. The 8th Circuit later rejected Gage County's petition for the appeal to be heard by the full court, leaving the Supreme Court as the final option.