Editorial Roundup: Nebraska

Omaha World-Herald. Aug. 29, 2021.

Editorial: Nebraska communities’ vision and resolve provide important examples

Look around Nebraska and you’ll find that many cities and towns are doing something impressive: They’re not letting COVID stop them from addressing key civic needs and moving their communities forward.

Here are just a few of the examples: A transformative riverfront project in downtown Norfolk. Landmark progress in Valentine on universal broadband and Main Street revitalization. A new community center and a new Fire/EMT building in Laurel, in northeast Nebraska. Manufacturing expansions in Scottsbluff and Grand Island. Progress in meeting housing needs in North Platte. Resolute work by businesses in York to move ahead with investments for downtown revitalization.

Nebraska’s future depends in large part on a positive community spirit and vision. Examples of civic collaboration and success provide inspiration and guidance for other communities. Nebraska’s well-being depends on nurturing vitality in all parts of the state. And that effort starts at the local level.

Since June we’ve worked with eight Nebraska communities to learn about ways in which they’ve been striving for progress during the COVID era. These communities (Scottsbluff, North Platte, Grand Island, Valentine, York, Laurel, Norfolk and Nebraska City) have no monopoly on good ideas, and they haven’t magically solved every challenge they face. But each one, in its own way, has shown a spirit of determination to identify key local needs and address them.

Several major themes arose when we looked at the strategies these communities are pursuing. Here are some examples from each.

Importance of vision. Norfolk is in the final $2.5 million leg of fundraising for its far-ranging $11 million Riverfront Trail Project downtown that will include fishing access, observation points, pedestrian bridges, an amphitheater, festival spaces, playground elements and fountain/water features. Broadband expansion to rural communities remains one of Nebraska’s most difficult challenges, but Valentine didn’t let that get in the way of achieving a public-private partnership that has brought gigabit service to every property in the city. North Platte is pursuing plans for a rural rail park enabled by recent state legislation. Nebraska City is continuing its work to complete a sports complex and restore Veteran’s Memorial Building as community meeting space.

Outreach to young people. A set of students at Wayne State College will live in downtown Norfolk and work for area businesses their senior year through Growing Together Scholars program. Wayne State also is working with Grand Island on internships, and CHI St. Francis hospital and Grand Island Public Schools are developing an academic initiative to help young people pursue careers in the health profession.

Collaboration with partners. Nebraska City is pursuing collaborative initiatives to boost child care services and training and to address housing needs. JBS, the largest employer in Grand Island, has donated $400,000 to create a 50,000-square-foot early childhood learning center. Partnerships are a key tool as Scottsbluff works to boost its housing supply.

Size needn’t be an obstacle. Laurel, a Cedar County community with a population of 1,100, provides a sterling example of a small community that’s achieved big results. Among the highlights: Revitalization of downtown streets, sidewalks and sewer system. A new community center and new Fire/EMT building. A new child care center. Approval of an $18.5 million school bond issue. It’s no wonder that this year Laurel received two Nebraska awards for outstanding community achievement.

Regional vision/cooperation. Panhandle leaders often think regionally, and Nebraska City is doing the same as it pursues overall economic development. Norfolk this year hosted a virtual town hall that examined child care issues in northeast Nebraska.

Addressing housing needs. North Platte’s “Shot in the Arm” housing incentive program is now in Phase III. Valentine is finalizing work for water/sewer extensions to a 40-acre city-owned site for new housing. Grand Island is pursuing multiple housing projects.

Downtown strength. North Platte has taken a variety of steps to boost its historic Canteen District. In Scottsbluff, the majority of downtown buildings are now purchased or rented/leased, and businesses have seen a significant increase in pedestrian traffic. Valentine is partnering with the Nebraska Department of Transportation for a complete Main Street renovation in what looks to be the city’s largest infrastructure project ever. Norfolk has put particular emphasis on community appearance including facade improvements and murals.

Persistence. Leaders and organizations have stayed the course in moving ahead on projects even though slowed by the 2019 flood and COVID. As York pursues the final phase of its downtown revitalization initiative, “we are seeing a continued commitment of property owners to invest in their buildings,” said Madonna Mogul, the Chamber of Commerce executive director.

Print space allows us to highlight only a sampling of these communities’ projects and strategies, so we’ve put a full listing online in the Opinion section of The World-Herald’s website.

Civic vision in Nebraska communities has long been a focus of our editorial page, and in coming months we will look to the work in additional communities and talk to a range of Nebraskans about sound overall strategies.

Even in the face of COVID, Nebraska communities are reaching for progress. The more we understand strategies for success and embrace a spirit of resolve, the stronger our state’s future will be.

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Lincoln Journal Star. Aug. 26, 2021.

Editorial: Environmental Trust shake-up putting politics in wrong place

Amid the turnover and controversy roiling the Nebraska Environmental Trust that’s now led to the resignation of its executive director, it’s worth examining the group’s stated intent.

In 1992, the Legislature established the body for the purpose of “conserving, enhancing, and restoring the natural physical and biological environment in Nebraska, including the air, land, ground water and surface water, flora and fauna, prairies and forests, wildlife and wildlife habitat, and natural areas of aesthetic or scenic values.”

That purpose enshrined in state law must be the lens through which Nebraskans examine the Environmental Trust’s role, following an evident shift in priorities in recent years. Furthermore, it must also serve as a reminder that not all things government touches need to be politicized.

Clean air, fresh water and preservation of Nebraska’s diverse wildlife and habitat aren’t items that belong to a political party or ideology; they’re matters of principle that matter to Nebraskans of all stripes.

These natural goals benefit all and should accordingly transcend any artificial boundaries humans have created.

Consider the matters of policy that have sparked much of the frustration, most notably by a group of former state senators and other leaders instrumental in the establishment of the Environmental Trust.

The decision to use the group’s grants to fund the installation of ethanol blenders at privately owned gas stations marked a clear departure from the agency’s past grants. The higher-rated grant applications that were passed over, including a restoration of saline wetlands near Lincoln, represented the types of projects the Environmental Trust has previously funded.

And the board’s shift on conservation easements – which aim to preserve private property, often by taking it out of agricultural production – has changed the composition to the board. Gov. Pete Ricketts has declined to renew the appointments of at least one member who supported conservation easements, which have been criticized in some rural counties for taking land off the tax rolls.

Regardless of the arguments that can be made for these as matters of policy, the debates surrounding the Environmental Trust are now focused on people – rather than the nature that the group is statutorily supposed to conserve, enhance and restore.

The 15 years of service Mark Brohman gave the Environmental Trust – more than half of its existence – as its executive director involved tens of millions of dollars of lottery revenues being directed toward a productive purpose in all 93 counties. Yet two board members refused to tell an Omaha World-Herald reporter if Brohman had resigned voluntarily or was asked to do so.

Though a board that awards grants will always generate complaints, the apparent injection of politics into the Environmental Trust’s actions is taking away from another stated goal for the greater good: “encompass(ing) the vision of all Nebraskans … in achieving the collective environmental goals of Nebraska’s citizens.”

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North Platte Telegraph. Aug. 29, 2021.

Editorial: Budget makers wrestle annual, impossible task

Leave it to a famous Hollywood movie to sum up the Holy Grail that Americans expect their local governments to seize this time of year.

Early in 1985’s original “Back to the Future,” as someone in a van in Hill Valley’s town square urges the re-election of Mayor Goldie Wilson (the one Marty McFly later — or earlier? — encourages to run one day while Marty visits 1955).

“Mayor Wilson’s progress platform,” the van’s bullhorn bellowed, “means more jobs, better education, bigger civic improvements and lower taxes.”

You remember now?

Those who must grapple with taxes and budgets in City Hall, the courthouse or school district headquarters — no matter what they said during their campaigns — learn the contradictions in Mayor Wilson’s campaign promise once in office.

The newest ones are learning them now during Nebraska’s annual “budget season,” when city councils, county boards, school boards and other consumers of property taxes try to reconcile demands to supply everything for nothing.

They all deserve to be judged fairly in tackling their frankly impossible task.

As a Telegraph story last weekend illustrated, west central Nebraska’s local officeholders generally aren’t the cause of some politicians’ charges that property taxes are still out of control.

Those would-be Mayor Wilsons should look to Salt Creek and the Missouri River instead.

They cried out in February that statewide property tax requests had grown 4.3% a year between 2010 and 2020.

As if to mark this year’s 25th anniversary of trying to control property taxes with local spending and tax-rate lids, they called for yet another lid — this one a 3% cap on growth in annual tax requests.

Before you cheer, note this well:

For 25 years, Nebraska’s local lids have featured limited exceptions. So would the proposed 3% tax request cap in Legislative Bill 408, which remains alive for 2022.

Taxes to repay bonds, for example, are excluded from current lids. And voters can override them. LB 408 would do likewise.

But what of that 4.3% growth rate over 10 years that so concerned the eastern powers that be?

It covers property taxes for all purposes. It rolls in taxes to repay bonds. It ignores any existing voter-approved overrides.

The better to rile up voters? You decide.

Be that as it may, The Telegraph adopted their kitchen-sink approach. We looked at property tax requests of all types for our region’s major tax consumers since 2016. (Statewide growth over that five-year period was 3.7% a year, by the way.)

Average annual growth was far lower — 1.2% a year — for our area’s cities and villages, counties, school districts, community colleges, NRDs and ESUs.

Many had one or two years when growth exceeded 3%, a failing that for smaller towns and counties might be a matter of a few dollars rather than a few hundred thousand.

Nonetheless, our region’s leaders have held the line on property taxes in recent times.

Who’s responsible, then, for statewide tax collections growing so fast that they must be made to cope with yet another lid?

Three guesses: Douglas. Lancaster. Sarpy.

Subtract tax requests in those three counties from the statewide totals, and average annual growth in the 90 counties outside the Omaha-Lincoln orbit was just 2.1%.

But the three metro counties combined for 5.7% average growth in tax requests, led by 7.7% growth as a group in 2019-20.

It’s not hard to guess why. Look around on a trip to Omaha, its suburbs or Lincoln. You’ll spot new housing developments or shopping centers on most every trip.

We expect to wait a long time for a Unicameral proposal on property taxes that would cap their annual growth only in counties with populations over 100,000.

But no matter where we live, we expect police and fire protection. Reliable roads and utilities. Good schools. The services the state created counties to provide. And so on.

We want those things as much as our metro counterparts. But no matter what Mayor Wilson promises, it all costs money, no matter who’s asked to supply it.

Once North Platte’s local governments finish approving budgets next month, their tax requests this year likely will again lag behind the would-be 3% lid.

This isn’t to say you will or should approve of every decision they make.

But we’re pretty sure they’ve learned just how worthless Mayor Wilson’s promise is.

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