Photo by George Lauby
Kirk Olson talks to the commissioners
With a dozen concerned property taxpayers present, the Lincoln County Commissioners voted Monday to appeal a recent state ruling that the NCORPE water project in southern Lincoln County is not required to pay property taxes.The dispute between the county and NCORPE goes back to 2014.
NCORPE’s land comprises about 19,000 acres, so a significant amount of tax money is at stake.
NCORPE (Nebraska Cooperative Republican Platte Enhancement Project) pumps water from Lincoln County’s underground aquifer toward the Republican River to comply with an interstate agreement over the amount of water in the Republican that flows into Kansas.
NCORPE’s position is that both its land and water have a public purpose, and are therefore exempted from property taxes.
Lincoln county officials agree the water has a verifiable public use, but they assert that the land does not and is therefore taxable.
The dispute between the county and NCORPE reached the state’s Tax Equalization and Review Commission in May 2016. After prolonged delays and deliberations, TERC ruled on July 28, deciding in NCORPE’s favor.
With the commissioners vote Monday, the county will appeal that decision to the courts. It is possible the Nebraska Supreme Court will take up the case, because of the unprecedented dynamics of the situation.
NCORPE itself is a conglomeration of other government agencies; specifically, four Natural Resources Districts in southwest Nebraska, including the Twin Platte NRD headquartered in North Platte.
The NCORPE water project is virtually unprecedented in Nebraska. There is only one other such project in the state – a smaller-size project in Dundy County of 3,200 acres.
A handful of property owners addressed the commissioners Monday. Lincoln County landowner Kirk Olson asked if all the other property taxpayers in the county have to pick up the slack because no taxes are paid on NCORPE property.
Lincoln County Assessor Julie Stenger said yes -- not only in the future, but also back through 2014 tax year.
Stenger also said the TERC decision rests in part on the NRD’s authority to conserve natural resources, including land that might be prone to erosion. She said private landowners are also mindful of the need to curb erosion and conserve resources.
Attorney Kendra Stromen told the commissioners that there is evidence that NCORPE is not being good stewards of the land.
Deputy Lincoln County Attorney Joe Wright said the appeal will be based on the evidence that was submitted to TERC, with limited opportunity to tack on more arguments. Wright said the Legislature might need to step in and revise public policy.
Another landowner urged the commissioners to support efforts to persuade NCORPE to sell the land, as a group of 50 taxpayers discussed last week in a meeting in Wallace.
He said court cases can go on and on, but if the land were sold, it would definitely go back on the tax rolls.