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Bomgaars expanding; Schuyler adds police officer

Schuyler City Council added Michael Mejstrik as the police department's newest officer during last week's meeting.

After the vote, Mayor David Reinecke swore Mejstrik in while his parents, Dave and Marty Mejstrik, wife Brenda and infant daughter Lilianna watched.

“It made us very proud,” said Dave Mejstrik.

Michael and Brenda are both Schuyler natives. They lived in California the past eight years while Michael was serving in the Marine Corps.

Dave said the couple was looking for a home in Schuyler, but housing options are limited.

In other business, Schuyler Community Development economic development coordinator Kem Cavanah announced that Bomgaars plans to add 6,200 feet to its Schuyler store and undergo extensive remodeling.

“It’s both exciting and encouraging when a company elects to reinvest in the future of our community,” Cavanah read from a press release.

The project is expected to exceed $1 million and scheduled for completion this fall.

The city council also approved the one- and six-year street plans. City Engineer Steve Parr said the only change from the original proposal is the addition of a project that updates the concrete work and curbs on D Street from Eighth to Ninth streets. The estimated cost for that work is a little more than $82,000.

Also gaining approval was an Eagle Scout project by Ryan Johnson, who will build a park bench for the Oak Ballroom.

Schuyler Public Library Director MeMe Smith announced that during spring break, March 5-11, the library will celebrate Teen Tech Week with makerspace and technology activities for teens.

Smith also announced a GED class will begin April 3 if more than eight people sign up.

The city council also agreed to add a no parking sign on the north side of Fourth Street between Colfax and A streets.

Burrito House named business of the year

When Cristobal and Josefina Salinas opened Burrito House in downtown Schuyler, the couple still lived in Madison.

But Cristobal knew the hourlong commute would be worth it.

“He talked to the building owner and he said, ‘I think this is the one,'" said Jose Salinas, whose parents started the popular restaurant 16 years ago.

Schuyler had a sizable Latino population then, but nothing like it is today.

Jose, who has worked with his parents since high school and now serves as manager and co-owner, said the business draws a good mix of customers.

“For customers, we have 50-50 Hispanic and not-Hispanic,” he said. “We have all kinds.”

Cristobal and Josefina still work shifts at the popular Mexican restaurant, as well.

The whole family was on hand Feb. 18 when the Burrito House received Schuyler Area Chamber of Commerce's business of the year award during an event at the Oak Ballroom.

“It was a shock,” said Jose. “It was a surprise. We were members of the chamber of commerce since 2001."

RoseAnn and Verlyn "Buck" Kracl are this year’s honorary chamber members.

The Kracls own and operate Kracl Garage and Wrecker on Road E, but the award acknowledges their years of community service.

Buck volunteered with Schuyler Fire Department for 11 years and RoseAnn was involved with the firemen’s auxiliary for 15. They’ve also supported community fundraising through the garage.

“Whenever there’s events going on we do some sponsoring, raffle tickets, things like that through the business,” said RoseAnn. “Try to support as many organizations as the money allows.”

RoseAnn has a long list of charity walks she participates in. Whether it’s supporting the Shriners, American Heart Association or American Cancer Society, she's ready.

“I am walker,” she said.

RoseAnn said the community gave back to them while Buck was recovering from an infection in his leg. She said people from across town brought them food and drove them to doctor’s appointments.

“It’s just a good community,” she said. “I can’t say anything bad about it at all.”

The Legacy Award went to the family of the late Berlon “Lonnie” Spies.

Spies and a business partner started a manufactured home business in 1970. After his partner left, he built Lonnie’s Homes as a leading manufactured homes dealership and opened Gold Court Estates.

Spies’ grandson-in-law Ron Anderson now runs Gold Court Estates, which is home to approximately 500 Schuyler residents. Anderson said Spies was very intelligent and good at business.

“He was also a good negotiator at business and knew what he wanted,” said Anderson. “He also was known as being very direct and to the point.”

Spies, who passed away in 2012, also had a secret soft side. Anderson said Spies made special arrangements with residents when they had medical issues or fell on hard times.

“He was very generous behind the scenes,” said Anderson. “He never made his generosity known.”

Anderson and his wife, Spies' granddaughter Karrie Weber, make the commute from their home in Lincoln to run the business because it's important to the family.

“Schuyler is still very much part of their lives,” said Anderson. “They’re proud that they’re providing something for the community.”

As the community continues to grow and attract new residents, Anderson said the business will be here to serve them.

“We’re providing a significant number of homes for people,” he said. “It’s nice that we’ve been here for so long and we look forward to being here another 50 years.”

Local training addresses mental health

Guadalupe Marino got involved with mental health because of what she saw in her community and within herself.

“Some of the people around me suffer from mental illness possibly — friends, family members and even myself,” said Marino. “Learning more about it opens the doors to look for the help that people need.”

Marino is part of a behavioral health coalition through CHI Health Schuyler, where she learned about mental health first aid. She and another member of the coalition traveled to Washington, D.C., in June to become certified mental health first aid trainers.

On Presidents’ Day, while students had a day off from class, Marino trained Schuyler Community Schools administrators, counselors and nurses in mental health first aid. Marino, who is an administrative assistant at SCS, has also organized training sessions for others, including Schuyler Police Department.

Mental health first aid was first developed in the early 2000s in Australia, and by 2008 the concept migrated to the U.S.

Steve Hecker, a certified trainer with Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services’ Behavioral Health District IV, led the police department’s training.

Hecker, a retired law enforcement officer, said this type of training has been in the region for about five years and is of particular interest to police officers.

“They’re a very important group of people involved with people that are having a mental health crisis,” he said.

The training involves learning about various mental health conditions and the crossover between mental illness and substance abuse.

“(Law enforcement) are on the first line of assistance for people who have a mental illness or are in a mental illness crisis,” he said. “They should be able to apply it to every event or every mental health call they are on.”

A key component of the training is learning de-escalation tactics.

“They just need to be able to provide reassurance that the person’s going to be OK,” he said. “Treat that person with respect and dignity, have realistic expectations and provide that person with hope for recovery.”

Hecker said he’s led training sessions with hospital staff, corrections officers and groups that work with juveniles, including schools.

Marino hopes the training will increase awareness in the community about mental health.

“The main goals for mental health first aid training is to de-stigmatize what mental health is and by doing so hopefully people can find the assistance they need,” she said. “Remove the stigma and build awareness of how and why somebody might suffer from this, otherwise they might not look for the help they need.”

Although last week's training with SCS staff focused primarily on adults, Marino hopes some aspects can also be used to assist students.

Groups pushing for property tax relief

When more than 50 people meet to talk about property taxes for almost two hours on a Thursday night, it indicates how serious the situation has become.

The Colfax County Farm Bureau office organized last week's meeting at the Schuyler fire station with Farm Bureau vice president of governmental relations Bruce Rieker, Reform for Nebraska’s Future executive director Trent Fellers, Schuyler-area agricultural producer Carl Grotelueschen and Schuyler Community Schools Board of Education member and ag producer Brian Vavricek.

Reform for Nebraska’s Future was founded one day before the 2017 state legislative session to advocate for a more-balanced tax system that reduces property taxes.

Fellers said the property tax issue has grown beyond the ag community. In an open-ended poll the coalition conducted in the beginning of January, Fellers said the top three issues listed were health care, education and property taxes.

Seventy-seven percent of respondents said property taxes should be the No. 1 issue this legislative session. With that kind of support, even in urban areas such as Omaha and Lincoln, Fellers said the coalition thought it would have no problem pushing its agenda.

“We thought we had the wind at our back, that we’d show the numbers and this session would be easy,” said Fellers. “We’ve seen immense pushback.”

Rieker commiserated at the lack of progress in Lincoln to address the issue. Nebraska has the fifth-highest property taxes in the nation, according to USA Today, and property taxes account for 48 percent of the total taxes collected in the state.

But while many senators seek office on a platform of property tax relief, they seem to come down with what he called “property tax amnesia” once the legislative session begins.

Rieker and the Farm Bureau want to reduce the property tax burden from 48 to 40 percent by getting $600 million in annual revenue from other sources, namely sales taxes. Two bills introduced by Sen. Tom Briese, LB312 and LB313, received Farm Bureau support.

LB312 proposes expanding the sales tax by removing certain exemptions, including those for soda, flavored drinks, candy, bottled water, lottery tickets, food sold at schools and more. LB313 would raise the state sales tax rate from 5.5 percent to 6.5 percent.

Sales tax opponents have argued they disproportionately hurt lower-income families and stymie consumption and economic growth. LB313 would also raise the earned income tax credit an additional 7 percent to offset the cost to low-income families.

Rieker argued that money saved by property owners would likely be spent in the local economy.

But after attending a legislative hearing on Briese’s bills, Rieker wasn’t optimistic they would move forward.

“They got to a fork in the road and decided not to do anything,” he said.

Rieker reported that Revenue Committee Chairman Sen. Jim Smith has said income tax reform is his first priority and asked what the agriculture industry would be willing to give up.

“When senators ask, ‘What’s ag going to put on the table?’ We’re already on the table,” said Rieker.

And Rieker did not mince words regarding Gov. Pete Ricketts' proposal (LB338), calling it “smoke and mirrors.” But he’s skeptical that senators will oppose the governor.

“There are a majority of senators that are afraid that what happened to Jerry (Johnson) will happen to them,” said Rieker.

Johnson, who attended the Schuyler meeting, represented District 23 for one term before losing his re-election bid to Bruce Bostelman, a fellow Republican endorsed by Ricketts.

The Farm Bureau also supports reforming the state school aid formula so districts will not be so dependent on property taxes. The counterargument is that school spending is out of control and property owners need to be monitoring their schools.

“So many people with property tax amnesia turn around and blame the school boards and property owners,” said Rieker.

In the poll conducted by Reform for Nebraska's Future, Fellers said respondents in all 93 counties said property tax relief should be a top priority.

“How is it that we have a local spending issue in all 93 counties?” said Fellers.

Of the 245 public school districts in Nebraska, Vavricek said Schuyler Community Schools is eighth-lowest in terms of cost per student and the district spends more than $1,000 less per student than the statewide average, despite serving largely low-income and immigrant families.

He was also cautious about a bill from Sen. Curt Friesen (LB265) that would provide each school district with a minimum amount of state aid per student. SCS receives equalization aid, so any bill reducing that revenue stream could affect the district and its property owners.

Vavricek said the district would like to hear more from the community on the issue.

Rieker encouraged people to contact their senators to advocate for property tax relief.

“If we don’t push them, we’re not going to get it,” he said. “If you’re not at the table, you’re going to be dinner.”

Commissioners unhappy with valuation delays

Colfax County commissioners got some reassurances last week that the reappraisal of Schuyler residential and commercial properties being reworked since last June will meet the March deadline for being submitted to the state.

“As of right now, we’re on track to meet the state’s March 19 goal,” said County Attorney Denise Kracl, who prepared paperwork for the board detailing the state’s timeline for valuation certification and the possible consequences if the county is late.

The county may be able to get a seven-day extension, but that is all, Kracl said.

The county could also be called before the Tax Equalization and Review Commission or be forced to assess uniform property values to any neighborhoods that are not completed, she said.

“The worst-case scenario for not hitting the March deadline on time would be a black eye for the county and (County Assessor Viola Bender)," Kracl said.

The three-member board called Stanard Appraisal Services Inc. owner Darrel Stanard on the carpet at the Feb. 21 meeting to answer questions about why the contractor missed a deadline to have the new values ready for Bender’s personnel by Feb. 17.

The Central City-based contractor inked a $190,000 contract in December 2015 to complete revaluations by that date, leaving a window until March 19 for the local assessor’s office to do the data entry into computer software to perform mass appraisals of individual properties.

“I’d like to have had it done sooner,” Stanard told the commissioners.

The contractor said the effort was hindered by language barriers with local property owners and the fact that only one member of the appraisal crew was bilingual. A software glitch that caused mass valuation miscalculations of several hundred properties resulted in further delays.

That language barrier with Schuyler’s diverse population seems like a problem that could have been foreseen without creating a situation where the assessor’s office had to scramble for two months to keep up after getting information late, board Chairman Gil Wigington told the contractor.

“It’s kind of like waiting until the last night to do your homework,” Wigington said while describing the time that was allowed to slip away since the appraisal got underway.

“Viola has been under a heap of stress (working 12-hour days),” the chairman said. “Valuation reviews could have been done in a more timely manner, that’s the issue.”

Commissioner Jerry Heard was also puzzled by pushing the deadline.

“We paid them good money to do this job. I see no good reason to be paying extra money (in overtime costs for county employees) to do work they didn’t do,” Heard said.

Stanard Appraisal was hired to reappraise more than 2,000 properties — 1,700 residential and 233 commercial and approximately 230 mobile homes.

The residential properties account for $144,500 of the county’s reappraisal spending. The county is paying $47,765 for the new commercial values to be done.

The residential property valuations generated by Stanard are scheduled to go on the tax rolls in 2017 and the commercial values in 2018. State law requires that every parcel in the county has to be reviewed at least once every six years.

Stanard said he shared the commissioners’ concern.

“I’m not pushing off any blame,” the contractor said. “In hindsight, we could have jumped on it harder and faster.”

The board and Stanard agreed the county would withhold the contractor’s next monthly payment of more than $16,000 for the reappraisal until they see if the March deadline is met.

The parties also agreed to remove the contract’s time limitation for the reappraisal company to defend new valuations at board of tax equalization hearings.

“I want to get it done and I want to get it done right,” Stanard told the board.