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.
A tip of the hat to Laurie Pfeifer
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
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
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.
A serious contender
Nebraska’s race for governor just got interesting.
Though there is still plenty of time for others to throw their hat in the ring, as they surely will, Dist. 34 Sen. Annette Dubas announced this week that she will be among the candidates trying to replace Dave Heineman. Having observed her work as our own state senator for the past seven years, local constituents know Dubas will be a serious contender.
Whether or not you agree with her political persuasion -- a Democrat in a staunchly Republican state and district -- Dubas has earned her stripes in Lincoln. Now we’re about to find out if she can spread her message effectively on a statewide scale.
From day one on the campaign trail, Dubas touted herself as a good listener and a hard-working rancher not afraid to get her hands dirty and roll up her sleeves when necessary. She has become a voice to be heard in the state capitol, taking a seat at the table for some of the most challenging issues.
She took the railroad to task, for example, demanding answers on questions that deserved asking. She was also a key player in the TransCanada debate last year, one of a handful of senators who helped steer the early conversation. She has stepped up to the leadership table late in her tenure to chair the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee.
At the root of her resume, the thing that is quite frankly most impressive about Sen. Dubas’ time in Lincoln, is her willingness to do her homework and attempt to understand every aspect of an issue. That’s an admirable trait, one that has earned her respect from all her colleagues.
As for her chances to become governor, it’s way too soon to know. Mike Flood would have been the front-runner if life circumstances would have allowed, but as it stands it’s a wide open race, perhaps the most intriguing in years.
Sen. Dubas and Chuck Hassebrook, among others, promise to deliver a spirited debate in the Democratic primary. Several names have been mentioned for the Republican ticket, though the list of official candidates is still uncertain.
Sen. Dubas upped the ante for any and all who choose to run. With her family’s full support, we can expect her to be tireless on the campaign trail, travelling the state, making speeches, and most importantly, listening.