By Russ Pankonin
The Imperial Republican
Owners of irrigated land in the Upper Republican Natural Resources District (URNRD) will be obligated to pay a $4 per-irrigated-acre occupation tax for the 2009-2010 tax year.
This marks the third year the directors of the URNRD have voted to assess the tax on irrigated ground under the funding provisions of LB 701.
Board members approved the action during their regular meeting Tuesday, Sept. 1, in Imperial.
Of the 11 board members, only Jeff Wallin voted against levying the tax.
Before voting, Wallin said he felt it was a bad idea to continue collecting the tax, especially since it’s presently being challenged in court. “I think we should just wait,” he said.
Once the court has settled the issue, then the board could decide on what action to take, he said.
Board Member Kerry Bernhardt said that, as a farmer, he thinks the occupation tax is a “great deal.”
He noted he and his brother pay a significant amount of tax but still remain in favor of it. He added he hasn’t heard complaints about the occupation tax.
Bernhardt said he’d rather pay $4 per-irrigated acre each year than getting hit with it all at once. “I’d just rather divvy it out small,” he added.
Haigler’s Olson testifies
The board also heard testimony from one individual on the issue.
Scott Olson of Haigler wore a couple of hats when offering testimony on the occupation tax.
His first comments were made as a farmer/rancher while later comments were on his own behalf as a county commissioner for Dundy County.
Olson explained he realized why the tax was levied last year.
However, he questioned the need this year when the loan to the NRDs from the state wasn’t paid back and no water projects are planned.
With court issues cropping up on the occupation tax, Olson figured the URNRD wouldn’t levy the tax again this year. However, he learned the board was planning to ask for the tax again.
“I’m here as a farmer/rancher to say I wish you’d lay off until we know whether it’s constitutional or not,” Olson concluded.
Then, Olson testified on his own behalf as a county commissioner for Dundy County. The two other commissioners from Dundy County were also present.
Olson noted Dundy County taxpayers paid in $2.945 million in taxes for the 10-cent property tax levy under LB 701.
Since the tax was declared unconstitutional, the Republican Basin NRDs have been holding that money. As a result, Olson said it’s cost Dundy County taxpayers an additional $117,000 if the money to pay the tax was borrowed at 4 percent.
URNRD Manager Jasper Fanning later corrected Olson, noting that Dundy County taxpayers paid only $294,500 in LB 701 property taxes, not the $2.945 million asserted by Olson.
While Olson noted he had figured the amounts incorrectly, he said the occupation tax may have cost irrigators an additional $31,580 interest this year.
Olson said one of the options to get the property tax returned, by issuing a tax credit to the current owner of record, was flawed. He said it wouldn’t work because if the land had sold, the money wouldn’t go back to the person who paid the tax.
Fanning told him it was the counties’ state association which made that initial suggestion. Fanning also noted this option was tossed out early in the process because it wouldn’t work.
Olson emphasized the NRD ought to be doing something to get the unconstitutional property tax money paid back.
URNRD legal counsel Joel Burke told Olson each basin NRD had filed suit against individuals who requested a refund of the property tax money.
Burke said the NRDs are asking the court for a summary judgment which may give them authority to refund the money. Presently, no legal way exists.
After listening to Olson telling the board it should get the money paid back, URNRD chair Greg Pelster responded.
“I’m teased how people suggest how we should behave,” he said. “From what legal counsel has advised us, we really don’t have legal right to refund that (tax money).
“So, when you come in here and tell me how to behave, I would suggest maybe you should learn how to behave, too, bringing three board members in here,” Pelster said. “Did you have a meeting called?”
Olson noted they did not publish any public notice.
Technically, with all three Dundy County commissioners present without some type of prior public notice, they were conducting an illegal meeting, according to Nebraska open meeting statutes.
Despite this, Olson wanted the record to show that “I, as a Dundy County commissioner, was very offended by your president’s actions.”