If Colfax County property owners look real close when their tax statements arrive in the mailbox, they’ll see an ever-so-slight dip in the county levy for the sixth consecutive year.
“The levy is down just a little bit,” said Chairman Gil Wigington just before the three-member Colfax County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to OK a $21.5 million spending plan for the coming year that includes a property tax request of $5.5 million.
The 2017-18 budget asks for about $12,000 more from property taxpayers to support county operations compared to the prior year.
The board’s vote followed a public hearing during which nobody spoke.
The 2017-18 budget calls for a tax levy of 29.616 cents for every $100 in valuation, down from 29.921 cents for 2016-17. The county’s levy has dipped about 10 cents per $100 of valuation over the past six years.
The county property tax tab for the owner of a $100,000 home will be $296.16 for the coming year.
Tax bills for individual properties vary from year to year depending on annual revaluation numbers. The county’s valuation for 2017-18, as certified in August by the assessor’s office, is nearly $1.87 billion, an increase from roughly $1.84 billion last year.
A couple of big-ticket items in the 2017-18 budget are an exterior renovation of the nearly century-old courthouse that's expected to cost more than $800,000 and replacement of a couple of bridges.
The county will spend an estimated $1.1 million to replace the bridges, including one on Road 17 that fell into Maple Creek.
The commissioners also set budget levies for the county’s rural fire districts, agricultural society and Platte Valley drainage districts. Levies for the county and governmental subdivisions make up the combined county levy, which will be 37.62 cents per $100 of valuation.
Counties can set a maximum combined property tax levy of 50 cents per $100 in valuation.
Fifty-three years is a long time to stay in business.
Dennis and Donna Dubsky managed to reach that mark by changing with the times.
Dennis graduated from Schuyler High School in 1958 then attended the Nebraska Vocational Technical School, which is now the Milford campus of Southeast Community College.
After working at a few automotive garages in Beatrice and Columbus, Dennis decided he wanted to open his own business in his hometown of Schuyler.
“I was 24 years old and I thought the world was passing me by,” he said.
“One day he quit and bought a hat and he came home and he said, ‘I'm starting my own business,'" Donna recalled.
From Dubsky’s Auto Center at 1609 Fort St., you can look across the street and see the two-door garage where the business got started before the current building opened in 1971.
Dennis did the repairs and Donna handled the bookkeeping.
“I was always behind the scenes,” Donna said. “I don't know if some people even knew that I was involved.”
In addition to fixing vehicles, Dubsky’s also sold and repaired Toro lawn mowers for 40 years, repaired small engines and offered motorcycle sales and boat repairs for brief stints.
“Whatever worked at the time we would go into,” Donna said.
After Dennis’ father Frank retired from his job as a custodian at Schuyler High, he went to work in the shop.
“He helped out here a lot, especially with the customer relations because he knew all the old-timers,” said Dennis.
Dennis’ grandfather came to the U.S. from Czechoslovakia, and while Frank was born in the U.S. and spoke both languages, Dennis said he was more comfortable with Czech.
“I always said he'd rather speak Czech than he would English,” Dennis said. “When I started, they'd come in talking Czech to me or real broken English.”
Dennis worked on vehicles for multiple generations of some local families.
“I know families where I’ve worked on four generations in that family,” he said. “Because when I started working back in the '60s the great-grandpa came in with his car and probably was 70 years old. And then his son came in and his son came in.”
As the population evolved to include more immigrants, he picked up those customers, too.
The Dubskys' son Scott worked part time at the shop throughout high school. After attending Southeast Community College in Milford like his father, Scott worked at the shop full time from 1982 until about a dozen years ago.
Dennis still has copies of a 1989 Schuyler Sun story about the shop’s 25th anniversary that features a photography of Frank, Scott and Dennis together at the business.
About a dozen years ago, Dennis had both of his hips replaced and they considered closing the garage. He recovered and was able to continue working, but decided to cut back to where it was just him in the shop doing what he could handle.
Around that time, a lot of classic car owners started bringing their vehicles to Dubsky's Auto Center.
“There aren't too many mechanics that know (those cars) anymore,” said Donna.
“I really like it because that's what I grew up with was the older classic cars,” said Dennis. “So it was like going back to the good old days.”
The last vehicle Dennis repaired, a 1948 Studebaker, was waiting for its owner at the garage.
In July, Dennis had his knee replaced. This time he tried to go back to work and couldn't.
“After about three weeks I came back to the shop and I started working for a few hours and I went home and I told Donna, I said, ‘I can't do it,’” he said. “So I stayed home for a couple weeks and I came back down and tried it again and came home and said, 'I can't do it.' So we decided together that maybe this is the time to retire.”
They closed Dubsky’s earlier this month, but haven’t decided what to do with the building. Dennis still has mixed emotions about retirement.
“Just last night a friend of mine said, 'How do you like retirement?' and I said, ‘I don't know,’” he said.
If it works for him, Dennis said he’d like Scott, who works in North Bend, to buy the building.
“(Scott) said, 'What are you going to do?’ And I said, ‘Right now, nothing. Before I do anything I’ll talk to you about it,’” said Dennis. “And he seemed to like that answer.”
Donna still has to finish the year’s financials and taxes before she can officially retire. Once that happens, she looks forward to doing more with art in her retirement.
Dennis doesn’t know what's in store for him moving forward, but he looks back on his time at the repair shop with pride.
“It’s been what I call quite a journey,” he said.
The Colfax County Board of Commissioners voted 2-1 to buy a new Caterpillar motor grader for the highway department despite a contention by one member that the expensive machine is more sophisticated than local drivers are trained to operate.
“This (motor grader) is more machine than any operator in Colfax County is capable of operating,” said Commissioner Jeff Bauman, who has run his own earth-moving business for 25 years.
Bauman said the three-member board was prepared to make the purchase, but not with his vote.
“We don’t need this type of equipment if we’re not going to do anything with it,” Bauman told fellow board members Jerry Heard and Gil Wigington. “If we’re going to spend the money, let’s utilize all the functions.”
Heard voted to accept the $223,750 bid from Nashville, Tennessee-based Caterpillar Financial Services Corporation, but agreed with Bauman that local operators could do more with the quality of machines the county has.
“Sometimes we need to shape up our operators ... work on them to do a little more,” said Heard, who spent more than a decade operating heavy machinery for the highway department with some of that time spent behind the wheel of a road grader.
“When I went out and graded roads, I tried to do a good job,” Heard said.
Wigington, who said he has no experience operating a motor grader, suggested the county sponsor some additional grader training classes focusing on expectations for operators, followed by regular evaluations of their job performances.
Colfax County Highway Superintendent Mark Arps agreed.
“We can evaluate performance, and if operators don’t do what we tell them to do, we can send them down the road,” Arps said.
Colfax County has nine road graders and nine operators on staff, with a 10th machine owned as a backup.
The county has approximately 700 miles of gravel roads, with each operator assigned a regular route to maintain by building a road crown and graded slopes that allow water to run off into ditches. Over time, the crown can get beaten down and the slopes level and widen, leaving standing water that can undermine the road.
The highway department has a target of rebuilding 80 to 100 miles of those roads on an annual basis.
Bauman said being a “finish blade operator” is a skill built on patience.
“It’s finesse if you’re really going to do it right,” he said.
Colfax County Attorney Denise Kracl has a message for local parents: don’t let your underage kids drive or you’ll both receive a ticket.
Kracl’s office has seen an uptick in the number of young juveniles caught behind the wheel without the proper driver’s license, including a recent incident in which a 14-year-old crashed into a tree in Schuyler with three other minors in the vehicle.
“We are lucky they walked away,” Kracl said of that accident. “I can’t believe they did.”
The county attorney reported 10 to 15 cases so far this year involving youths driving without the necessary license.
The infractions aren’t limited to a specific ethnic group, she said, although her office is working with Comite Latino on an educational campaign to combat the issue.
“I think some of the bigger issues that we’re seeing is the parents are letting them (drive),” Kracl said.
“It feels like there’s some level of parental apathy,” she added. “They just don’t care.”
But they should.
Kracl said minors caught driving without the proper license will be ticketed and considered for the youth diversion program for the first offense. If it happens again, they could be sentenced to probation.
It’s also against the law for adults to let an unlicensed minor drive their vehicle, and they can also be charged.
“I want parents to understand that they’re going to get a ticket,” Kracl said.
There are four types of driver’s licenses someone under the age of 17 can have in Nebraska.
School learner’s permit — minimum age 14
This permit allows a student to practice driving for a school permit. They must be accompanied by a licensed driver at least 21 years old at all times.
School permit — minimum age 14 years and 2 months
A school permit can be issued if a student lives outside a city of 5,000 or more residents or attends a school outside a city of that size.
This allows students to drive from their home to school and any extracurricular activities at the school. However, they must take the most-direct route between the two locations.
Kracl said one problem she sees is parents who send their children with school permits on errands, which isn’t allowed under the license. Students with school permits can drive at any time if they’re accompanied by a licensed driver at least 21 years old.
Learner’s permit — minimum age 15
This permit allows a youth to practice driving for a provisional operator’s license, operator’s license or motorcycle license. Learner’s permit holders must be accompanied by a licensed driver at least 21 years old when behind the wheel.
Provisional operator’s permit — minimum age 16
Provisional permit holders can drive unsupervised between 6 a.m. and midnight, or at any time if they’re traveling between home and work or a school activity. They can also drive between midnight and 6 a.m. if they’re accompanied by a parent, guardian or licensed driver at least 21 years old.
During the first six months after receiving the permit, the driver can’t have more than one passenger who is younger than 19 and not an immediate family member.
A rewrite of Nebraska’s school funding formula put Schuyler Community Schools in a tight spot.
The district's board of education approved a $27.87 million budget for 2017-18, a decrease of $800,000 from the previous year.
However, the property tax rate and asking will increase for the coming year.
SCS will collect $14.07 million in property taxes for 2017-18, up from $12.92 million during the previous year. The district's tax rate jumps from 95 cents for every $100 in valuation to $1.02.
SCS Superintendent Dan Hoesing said the new formula reduced the district's state aid by $1.3 million, which led to the tax increase despite efforts to cut spending.
“The state was short $1 billion,” Hoesing said, referring to Nebraska's projected budget shortfall. “That resulted in many schools losing funds.”
Hoesing said school districts can’t reduce staff numbers after April 15 and don't receive state aid figures until June. By then, it's too late to cut positions to reduce spending.
“We had to try to predict where we thought we would be,” he said.
The 2017-18 property tax rate of $1.02 for every $100 in valuation is nearing the limit of $1.05, but Hoesing said certain exemptions allow districts to exceed that amount.
However, he'd prefer not to do that.