This Week's Editorial
Confusing issue PDF E-mail

The calendar continues to count down toward nationwide implementation of the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

Much has been said and written since this historic legislation was passed in 2010, though the reality of how it will impact families and businesses is still largely unknown. What we do know is that applications for the Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP) will be accepted from businesses with fewer than 50 employees as of Oct. 1, 2013, which means millions of Americans are now trying to make plans and decisions for their future health care coverage.

That seems like a daunting challenge, especially when you hear members of Congress continue to debate the funding details, suggesting that the plan itself may be changed before the start date arrives. This massive reform came too fast for Congress to digest those details, let alone anxious Americans who want and need to know how their families will be covered in the years ahead.

Though the mandate to provide health insurance for employees has been postponed to Jan. 1, 2015, the time is now to seriously start paying attention, if you weren’t already.

The goal, as defined by the law itself, is to increase the quality and affordability of health insurance, lower the uninsured rate (there are an estimated 220,000 uninsured Nebraska citizens), and reduce the costs of health care for individuals and the government. It provides a number of mechanisms, including mandates, subsidies and insurance exchanges, to accomplish that goal. The law also requires insurance companies to cover ALL applicants within new minimum standards and offer the same rates, regardless of pre-existing conditions.

There is a great deal of new terminology involved, as well as options that may or may not apply to you, depending on a number of factors. It can all be a bit confusing, if not overwhelming.

In hopes of providing unbiased, factual stories on this most important issue, the News-Register, in partnership with press associations from Colorado and South Dakota, as well as the Nebraska Press Association Foundation and Commonwealth Fund, has announced plans to begin year two of the Rural Health News Services series.

National health reporters will create timely news stories, some with detailed graphics, to help all of us better understand the health issues in our community, state and nation. In reading the articles over the past year, we’ve found them to be well written and helpful.

We welcome your comments and ideas about this continued project.

Kurt Johnson

A closer look PDF E-mail

It’s number-crunching time in Hamilton County, and across the state and nation.

The process of preparing, proposing, adopting and implementing budgets for all taxing entities has consumed hours and hours of time in recent weeks, as well as a great deal of space in this publication. Schools, cities and in fact all tax-supported governmental subdivisions are required to publish their financial plans in the form of budget notices, and also host public hearings inviting citizens to share their thoughts in open forum. The News-Register staff has attended as many of those meetings as possible, and printed numerous stories in our on-going effort to keep the community informed.

There is a lot of detail in those line-item budgets, which all add up to a year-end bill to be paid by taxpaying citizens. It can all be a bit overwhelming, quite frankly. Judging by the lack of attendance at those public hearings, citizens are busy with their own lives and trust our elected officials, and respective administrative staffs, to handle the job.

This year seems different, however, if for no other reason than the unprecedented surge in property valuations. The county assessor’s office certified property values in late August at $2.21 billion, which is a whopping $470.5 million more than just a year ago. That’s a staggering sum, boosted in part by $72.8 million in new growth.

Factoring that massive valuation growth into the budgeting process, we suggested early on that tax levies should go down across the board. Some did, as much as 21 cents per $100 valuation at Hampton Public Schools, and some did not.

Hoping to add some perspective to this process, the News-Register will be delving into the numbers with a series that begins next week. Our goal is to provide 10 years of financial history for Aurora, Hampton, Giltner and High Plains school districts, as well as Hamilton County, the city of Aurora and the villages of Hampton, Giltner, Phillips, Marquette and Stockham.

With the help of clerks and superintendents in each of those entities, we plan to report the valuation, total and general fund budget numbers, tax levy, tax asking and actual expenditures for each of the last 10 years.

The most significant number in that list, in our view, is actual tax asking. How much more, or less, money is spent from year to year? And, how did revenues and expenses change to reach the final number?

Those are questions every family/business can relate to and understand. Stay tuned for a broader perspective, and some interesting reading.

Kurt Johnson

A tip of the hat to Laurie Pfeifer PDF E-mail

Great story teller.
Gifted photographer.
Creative page designer.
Tech-savvy problem solver.
One of the most genuine people you will ever meet.
Laurie Pfeifer has written and edited literally hundreds of thousands of adjectives describing the people of Hamilton County over the past 38 years, but the time has come for some of those descriptive words of praise to be written about her. Looking forward to turning her own page of life, Laurie will be retiring as the News-Register’s managing editor effective Oct. 1.
Though the community she covered and the tools she used to do her job changed dramatically over the past four decades, Laurie has been a constant in so many ways. She is one of the lucky ones who found her passion -- journalism -- early on and devoted her life’s work to perfecting her craft. That has been a blessing, both for her and her hometown.
In any business these days, anticipating and adapting to change is a key ingredient to success. Newspapers have most certainly seen a paradigm shift in that regard, and Laurie has helped this publication stay ahead of the curve. She embraced detail and change, whether it involved complicated stories, digital photography or a shift toward social media reporting. Indeed, she was the whole package.
One thing that has not changed in the information business is credibility, and on that subject Laurie Pfeifer was the News-Register’s anchor. She understood how important it was to get the story right and to treat sources with respect, working as many hours as needed, on deadline, to maintain her high standards of reporting.
Laurie’s commitment to quality journalism shone the brighest in her coverage of school and agricultural issues. Talk about a perfect fit for Hamilton County! A farm girl at heart, she was very comfortable putting on blue jeans and talking with farmers out in the fields, as well as delving into the classroom to tell local readers about the quality of Aurora Public Schools.
She constantly sought to “raise the bar,” as she put it. For example, she suggested we scrap the monthly Ag Scope edition a few years back, pointing out that there is so much innovation and change unfolding on the county’s rural landscape that agriculture deserved more time, space and attention. The end result was a weekly, two-page Ag Life section that has become one of the News-Register’s hallmarks.
Though she wasn’t motivated by accolades, Laurie’s ag coverage earned the Omaha World-Herald’s prestigious Service to Agriculture award 14 of the past 15 years. That speaks volumes about her ability, and her vision for telling stories that deserve to be told.
On behalf of the News-Register and all of our readers, I wish you a happy retirement, Laurie, and thank you for giving so much of yourself for so many years.
You will be missed!
Kurt Johnson

State fair settling in nicely to new home PDF E-mail

There’s a pretty cool party going on just 20 miles to the west of Aurora.
For the 145th consecutive year, the Nebraska State Fair is unfolding as a statewide celebration of our ag-based heritage. Much has changed during that span, but the core components -- agriculture, animal exhibits, entertainment and lots of good food -- remain very much the same.
Topping the list of change, of course, is the state fair’s move from Lincoln to Grand Island four years ago. Many were skeptical the move would work in terms of sustained attendance and funding, but four years later it’s pretty clear that the gamble paid off.
Grand Island’s one millionth state fair visitor -- Aurora’s own Angela Lents and her family -- passed through the gates on Saturday. We’ll be watching with interest at fair’s end to see if the total head count continues its upward trend.
Now that the newness of the Grand Island venue is wearing off, we’re starting to see why this transition made sense. The game plan wasn’t just to move the event 90 minutes west on Interstate 80, but rather to give it a fresh, new look that would draw bigger crowds and more exhibitors, which in turn would attract more sponsors and revenue needed to keep this giant Ferris wheel rolling.
So far, so good.
Another interesting twist, from a local perspective, is the benefits of living so close to this annual showcase. Folks from Hamilton County have volunteered each year, both in a coordinated one-day effort, and in other various roles. There are judges, board members, ticket takers and other hands-on volunteers who all call Hamilton County home.
There’s a financial impact here as well, though that is harder to quantify. We do know that the local hotels and campgrounds are full, and it’s not a leap of logic to assume that many others are fueling up as they head to or from Grand Island.
There is so much to see and do at the Nebraska State Fair. The event seems to just keep getting bigger and better, confirming yet again that this bold move was a great idea.
Kurt Johnson

Growth factor PDF E-mail

Property valuations in Hamilton County jumped a staggering 21 percent in 2013, setting the stage for an interesting series of budget discussions amongst all local taxing entities.
Hamilton County Assessor Pat Sandberg certified the 2013 valuations this week, penciling in a whopping $2.21 billion for the final tally. That’s up from $1.74 billion a year ago and far more than double the $909 million sum reported just a decade ago. (See related story in this week’s edition.)

Sandberg and her staff have been crunching a lot of numbers in recent weeks as they prepared this year’s valuation report. One number that stands out, in our view, is $72.8 million, representing the value of new growth. That’s a whole lot of brick, mortar, drywall and pivot systems purchased in just one year.

There is a significant difference, obviously, between new growth and increased valuation. On that note, it is encouraging to see so much investment in new businesses, single-family dwellings and ag-related equipment. That is clearly not a universal trend across the country.

In Hamilton County we’ve seen new and expanded business projects at Syngenta Seeds, Casey’s General Store, Hamilton Sales & Service, T.O. Haas, Giltner State Bank, Aurora Cooperative and others. Add to that approximately 168 new and used pivot systems and you get a relatively healthy snapshot of our local economy.

The new property valuations are also a critical piece in a budgeting process set to unfold across the county. Administrators and board members at various taxing entities, including the city, county and area schools, are now busy plugging in their respective valuation totals and will soon set their own individual levies.

In theory, a 21 percent increase in valuation should provide an opportunity for those taxing entities to lower their levies. Historically, however, that’s not what we’ve seen happen. Just last year, for example, total valuations jumped 11 percent, though many individual levies were flat or up slightly. That translates to higher taxes and more spending.

Local citizens don’t seem overly concerned with this trend, based on the limited amount of input and feedback shared during past public budget hearings. We also recognize how challenging it is to deal with increased health care premiums, technology upgrades, etc. Nonetheless, we are concerned with the sustainability of such increased spending, particularly when the lion’s share of the tax load falls on the ag sector’s shoulders.

Hamilton County is fortunate to record such significant new investment year in and year out, though taxing entities should avoid the temptation to bank heavily on continued valuation growth.

Kurt Johnson

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