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Not everyone happy with plan for farmland

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Todd Porter, superintendent of Wallace Public Schools, is concerned that his school district will lose property taxes paid by the farm when its private ownership changes to a public board.
(Connie Jo Discoe/McCook Daily Gazette)
McCOOK, Nebraska -- Not every one is pleased with the proposed purchase of a southern Lincoln County, Nebraska, farm to help Republican and Platte river Natural Resources Districts (NRD's) ensure compliance with interstate water agreements.

The Middle Republican NRD board of directors agreed Tuesday morning to participate in the $83 million purchase of the 19,500-acre "Lincoln Farm," retire its 15,800 irrigated acres and reseed it to native grasses.

The Wallace Public Schools is worried about lost taxes; a Middle Republican NRD board member is concerned that the project may jeopardize Nebraska's ability to comply with the Republican River Compact; and a Lincoln County farmer/rancher is worried about the "unknowns" and thinks the NRD's are rushing into a project not thought out thoroughly.

Todd Porter, superintendent of Wallace Public Schools, asked how he is to educate his students when a public entity purchases private land, that land is taken off the tax rolls and the school loses the tax money associated with the land. Porter is concerned about response to school taxes that would need to be increased to cover the shortfall. "How long?" Porter asked. "Forever?"

"How do I explain this to my patrons?" he asked.

Porter said after the meeting he could be looking at a loss in revenue of approximately $200,000.

Dan Estermann, a Lincoln County farmer/rancher, spoke against buying the property.
(McCook Daily Gazette)
However, Jasper Fanning, manager of the Upper Republican NRD, said that the four NRD's cooperating on the purchase of the Lincoln County property want the least impact on the school district. "We will work with Wallace Schools to address their shortfall," Fanning promised. "It's an issue we can work through. We will work with Wallace to come up with the best solution."

The school will collect irrigated taxes on this property next year, said MRNRD board member Joe Anderjaska. The potential revenue loss will become an issue as the school sets its tax levy for 2014, he said.

Fanning said that the NRD's have the ability to enter into an in-lieu-of-taxes situation or an interlocal agreement to provide funding replacements for entities adversely affected. It is the intent of all NRD's involved to take tax losses into consideration, Fanning said.

Dan Smith, manager of the Middle Republican NRD, said that the NRD's have discussed the potential impact on schools, and that discussion of taxes for the Wallace school will continue at the November meeting of a new joint public agency created by the four NRD's, "Nebraska Cooperative Republican Platte Enhancement Project," (N-CORPE).

Anderjaska urged that "we all work together, and have faith in our neighbors."

Although still admitting confusion about where the taxes go when a public entity buys private land, Porter said, "It's promising that they (the NRD's) want as little impact on the school as possible."

Porter said that the Dundy County Stratton School District went through a similar situation when the Upper Republican NRD purchased what it calls its "Rock Creek Project" and retired 10 irrigation pivots. "They (the school) lost about $26,000 in taxes," Porter said. "We could be looking at more than 100 pivots, and 10 times that amount."

MRNRD board member James Uerling is concerned that the special water master (William J. Kayetta Jr.) assigned to the latest Kansas vs. Nebraska Republican River Compact lawsuit has not yet made his decisions. "His decision may change the whole dynamic of our water policy," Uerling said, reading from a prepared statement to fellow MRNRD board members.

Other points Uerling made were:

* This augmentation project does not have Republican River Compact Association (RRCA) approval. If this project is approved by the RRCA, it is doubtful that Nebraska will receive 100 percent credit of the water pumped.

* Augmentation water will bypass the MRNRD's irrigation districts and the continued pumping of a full allocation by upstream wells will further deplete stream flow, adversely affecting surface water deliveries. This will in turn jeopardize Nebraska's ability to comply with the three-state compact. 0 surface water deliveries = 0 return flows to the Republican River.

* All irrigators depending on stream flow to recharge their wells in the MRNRD will be adversely affected because upstream wells will be allowed to pump a full allocation, further depleting stream flow.

* The City of McCook depends on stream flow to recharge its well field and will be adversely affected by upstream irrigators' wells continuing to deplete stream flow. Towns along the Republican River need stream flow for their wastewater treatment plants to function property.

Uerling concluded, "Well irrigators are important to our local economy, but all users of Republican River water should be considered in MRNRD decisions."

Joe Estermann of rural Wellfleet urged MRNRD members to "let nature take its natural course," because, he said, the Republican is "gaining water from the Platte watershed anyway." He said, "You're just taking money out of one pocket and shifting it to another. You'd better keep your mouth shut."

Dan Estermann, also a Wellfleet farmer/rancher on the Medicine Creek, questioned why there has been no extensive economic study done on the proposed project and its impact on southern Lincoln County. "You don't know the cost of the farm," he said. "You don't know when and how much water will be used by this augmentation project."

Estermann said the area has "been short of corn" since 2008 and it is needed in ethanol production and by livestock feeder operations. "Now you're taking 20 percent of production out of Lincoln County?" he asked. (Lincoln Farm grows potatoes).

He continued, "That farm paid $420,000 in taxes." Wallace schools will be impacted, he said, when 115 pivots are retired. "That's coming out of Wallace school pockets," he said.

"Lincoln Farms owners can sail to the Cayman Islands on their yachts," he shouted.

Estermann said 20 families will no longer have jobs, nor will truckers, harvesters, etc. "The economic impact will be wide-spread" he said.

Estermann said that the costs and benefits of this project have not been investigated, adding, "This come pretty fast ... pretty fast."

Ben Miller of North Platte Livestock Feeders agreed that the project is "moving way too fast. It's basically an $83 million project and there's no proof it can help comply with compacts. There's not enough information that it will do what you want it to."

Travis Barger chimed in, "It could be a good plan, but it's too quick on the gun. We need to know what Kansas will accept."

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Bottom line is the Upper needs to drastically cut back on their irrigation wells. It might be a good plan for the Upper NRD and Mr. Fanning but The Middle NRD and Red Willow County could be hurt. Hope our Red Willow County Commissioners, McCook and other school boards and other ag property tax governmental agencies are having a strong vioce in this. I believe Mr. Uerling has great points. Vote wisely for our local NRD members.

-- Posted by dennis on Wed, Oct 24, 2012, at 1:48 PM

Yes, I agree that the upper needs to reduce their usages greatly. I also agree with James Uerling that there are just too many unanswered questions to enter into such a huge commitment. Also the contention that you cannot allow one district to pump at full allocation to the detriment of the other districts/downstream users, need to be considered as well. Answers to the questions of how much or how little this is going to help us to be in complience with kansas needed to be answered before this land was purchased. Sounds like we had two people out of a crowd that actually were paying attention.

-- Posted by quick13 on Thu, Oct 25, 2012, at 10:37 AM

quick13, I fully agree that allowing one district to pump full bore and another has to cut-back is not fair. This purchase is just too large to not have more time to study and more public input. I thought the state had a policy of first well drilled is the last to be shut off and the last well drilled is the first to shut off. Again, where are the governmental agencies that rely on property tax to fund services on this issue?

-- Posted by dennis on Thu, Oct 25, 2012, at 3:38 PM

dennis, we are both in agreement that there is just too many unanswered questions here for comfort. This issue is a complex one that has ramification that extend beyond the irrigators.

-- Posted by quick13 on Thu, Oct 25, 2012, at 5:48 PM

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