Hitchcock County board OKs recall vote

Thursday, September 1, 2016
Marlene Bedore

TRENTON, Neb. -- At a special meeting Wednesday morning, Hitchcock County commissioners set Tuesday, Nov. 8 for an election asking voters if they want to remove Marlene Bedore as their county assessor.

On top of the local question, the Nebraska Department of Revenue plans a two-day hearing Oct. 18 and 19 to determine whether to put Bedore on a 1-year probation to give her the opportunity to comply with correctional measures from the state.

Frank Stehno of rural Stratton, a Hitchcock County property owner and a petition carrier, said Wednesday afternoon that he presented 526 signatures of county voters seeking to recall Bedore to county clerk Margaret Pollmann by the Aug. 29 deadline. "I had 466 valid signatures, and I needed 410," Stehno said.

According to the Hitchcock County News, Pollmann certified the signatures on petitions and informed Bedore of the certification on Tuesday, Aug. 30.

In a "Letter to the Editor" printed Aug. 19 in the McCook Gazette, Stehno explained why he carried a recall petition: "The county assessor didn't use professionally accepted mass appraisal techniques in valuing properties in Hitchcock County. The assessor made hundreds of changes to quality, condition, and building type but no uniform method was used in making these changes. These practices have resulted in Hitchcock County not having uniform and proportionate values." Stehno writes that a report from the state indicates that residential real property, commercial real property and agricultural land do not meet generally accepted mass appraisal practices.

The timing of the recall election will not require a special election, as it will be conducted in conjunction with the nation's general election. At their special meeting Wednesday, the three county commissioners unanimously approved the wording of the ballot question: "Shall Marlene Bedore be removed as the assessor from Hitchcock County, Nebraska? Yes No"

Hitchcock county commissioners and property owners throughout the county have questioned Bedore's property value assessment methods since she started the job in January 2015, after her election in November 2014. By May 2015, the Nebraska Department of Revenue was fielding questions about Before's methods of setting property values and started an investigation. The department's subsequent report indicated that there was a pattern to suggest that properties had been adjusted with a bias, that Bedore played favorites as she raised and lowered property valuations.

The investigation by Ruth Sorenson, the state's property tax administrator, lead to her recommendation that Bedore be placed on probation and comply with 14 corrective measures, that failures in Hitchcock County assessment practices were due to her "willful failure or refusal to perform statutory duties, coupled with a deliberate concealment of information from the public and from the (county) Board."

Bedore is alleged not to have complied completely with the corrective measures outlined by Sorenson, including later orders from the state, in June 2016, that she adjust CREP (Conservation Reserve Emergency Program) acres.

Jon Cannon, the revenue department's attorney, said Wednesday afternoon that Bedore's hearing before the state office was originally scheduled Monday and Tuesday, Aug. 29 and 30, and then delayed until Thursday and Friday, Sept. 1 and 2.

Cannon said that following conversations with the hearing officer, an attorney for Bedore and witnesses, the hearing has now been rescheduled to Tuesday and Wednesday, Oct. 18 and 19. The hearings are open to the public and the press.

In late 2015, Bedore asked for an attorney to represent her at the county's expense. In February 2016, District Court Judge Richard Birch ruled that petitions of error filed by Bedore against commissioners and against Sorensen should be dismissed, making her request for an attorney a moot point.

Sorenson's initial investigation included an order that Bedore complete five educational courses by September 2016.

Bedore herself paid for a two-column advertisement on page 3 of the McCook Gazette on Monday, Aug. 29, stating that she attended a three-day workshop sponsored by the Nebraska Association of County Officials (NACO) in Kearney on Aug. 22-25.

The information in the ad is identical to a form letter press release that LeRoy Janssen, NACO's editor and meeting coordinator, issued to newspapers across the state regarding county officials and employees who attended the workshop.

According to Janssen's press release, the workshop and "Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practices" class was attended by approximately 170 county employees, and is part of a continuing education and leadership development series sponsored by NACO. Janssen's press release indicates that the workshop and class updated county assessors and staff on recent changes in state laws and provided extensive training on the responsibilities of their offices.

A statement that Bedore issued recently to the Gazette indicates that "delinquent work" in appraisals, property inspections and updates/changes in agricultural land uses was evident when she took office in January 2015. She writes, "Hitchcock County was behind with all property types: residential, commercial and agricultural."

Bedore writes that the Hitchcock County's assessor's office was under the supervision of the State Department of Revenue for more than 10 years, and that Hitchcock County re-assumed responsibility of the assessor's office from the state in 2012. She notes that at the time of the election in 2014, "It was apparent that the responsibilities were neglected and an enormous amount of work (needed) to be done."

Bedore writes that the assessed value of oil production in Hitchcock County has declined by $50 million since she took office in January 2015, and that the state's Tax Equalization and Review Commission (TERC) still has not ruled on a number of 2014 Hitchcock County property owners' protests of ag land valuation. Both situations, she said, are beyond her control.

Bedore indicates that since taking office, she has completed more than 1,300 property inspections "and have all of them current," and that she has also properly identified and classified approximately 11,000 acres of ag land enrolled in government programs.

According to the Aug. 25 edition of the Hitchcock County News, Hitchcock County is the only county in Southwest Nebraska that dropped in valuation from 2015-16 to 2016-17. Hitchcock County's total taxable value in 2015 was $806,242,137. A year later, in 2016, it was $773,528,749, a decline in taxable value of $32,713,338, or 4.06 percent.

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