Photo by George Lauby
Stenger, at left, County Appraiser Henry Vogt and Deputy County Attorney Joe Wright talk about the box between them, which is full of NCORPE property tax records.
Lincoln County officials continue to insist that the water-rich N-CORPE land in the southern part of the county should be taxed. On Monday, they laboriously reviewed 44 tax valuation protests.The commissioners, sitting as the board of tax equalization, agreed that each parcel should be considered non-irrigated grass land for tax purposes.
N-CORPE says it does not have to pay property taxes on any of the 44 tracts.
NCORPE pumps water from what was once the biggest farm in the state into the Republican River system, to fulfill a legal obligation to Kansas.
Also, the so-called “water farm” will start sending water into the Platte River in coming months, under a similar-but-separate obligation.
So, N-CORPE insists the farm is now used for public purposes, and it all should therefore be tax exempt.
Lincoln County Assessor Julie Stenger agrees that the water is exempt, but notes the land is still capable of generating income.
As non-irrigated grass, the land is assessed about $250,000 in taxes per year.
The initials NCORPE stand for Nebraska - Cooperative Republican Platte Enhancement Project. The government agency was created in 2012. It once generated about $500,000 annually in property taxes, but since N-CORPE took the cropland out of production to pump water, they have paid no property taxes.
The unprecedented dispute has been before the state tax equalization and review commission for more than a year.
During the meeting Monday, Lincoln County Attorney Joe Wright said a decision is likely, now that a related court case – Estermann v. Bose & NCORPE -- has been settled by the Nebraska Supreme Court.
Estermann claimed the water pumping operation is illegal, but the court ruled otherwise.
Lincoln County has lost $11.5 million in tax base from the farm, because the land shifted from irrigated crops to non-irrigated uses. But the county insists there is about $11.5 million in remaining tax base.
The farm once consisted of some 110-center pivot irrigated tracts that produced grain and potatoes. It provided about $500,000 a year in property taxes.
Originally, $135,000 went each year to the Wallace school. And, Lincoln County, North Platte schools, cemeteries and fire districts also benefitted from its property tax receipts.
Many of the irrigation wells were shut off, while a few were replaced and ramped up, pouring irrigation water into the head of Medicine Creek, from where it meanders 150 miles or so toward its destination in Kansas.
Now that the farm is technically non-irrigated, about $250,000 a year is levied in taxes, according to county records.
Stenger said a couple parcels of land that are used by N-CORPE staff have been fully exempted.
N-CORPE manager Kyle Shepherd attended the commissioner’s meeting but did not comment.
However, county resident Chuck McCarty addressed the board.
McCarty said the land is very valuable and formerly returned millions to the owners, including a corporate investment firm in Delaware.
McCarty said the taxes on his home continue to go up, and he has little-to-no choice about it. He also said the taxpayers don’t have much control over how N-CORPE operates.
“Now they want their taxes reduced,” he said, “but the land is still valuable.”
“I want you to know how I feel,” he said, “and (I want you) to treat them like you treat me.”
Deputy Lincoln County Attorney Joe Wright told McCarty that the county’s position “is much like yours.”
“It’s in appeal now,” Wright said.