Mike Motz, Sidney Sun-Telegraph
Commissioners and Board of Equalization met on March 6, and among the many topics discussed, plans to disperse American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds and county road concerns were the big concerns during the meeting.
After discussion of a cybersecurity audit that went over the merits of a private company doing an audit, versus the Department of Homeland Security providing an audit at no cost, it was decided that the county would move forward with contacting DHS to get the Homeland Security audit moving forward, then if any suggestions are made to change or improve security services, a private company would be contracted to work with the county to provide services. Commissioner Miller said he would feel more comfortable going forward with DHS as they would not be trying to sell any type of service. "Going first to a private company would be like bringing your pickup to a mechanic and saying, "What's wrong with it?" and then wondering why they find dozens of things wrong." City resident David Jansen who was in attendance, offered his son's expertise as a cybersecurity specialist to come in prior or after the audit to give an evaluation. Commissioner Miller directed County Clerk Beth Fiegenschuh to contact Homeland Security to get the process of an audit moving forward.
ARPA Disbursement Allocation Discussion
Next came a detailed discussion about what to do with ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) Funds that the county has access to, and getting some basic costs evaluated on needs of the county that had been identified and that qualify for ARPA fund expenditures.
The commissioners went down a list of needs, and approximate costs, and talked about actual, or more realistic, costs involved. There was talk about the expenditure of $150,000 for a new evidence room for the Sheriff's Department, but a potential site still hadn't been selected, so the discussion was tabled.
County Buildings & Grounds Manager Tom Payne discussed the progress of getting pricing and other details concerning an ADA ramp at the Fairgrounds for the Grandstand. Payne stated he is in discussions with the appropriate people and will have more information soon.
$350,000 was allocated to purchase two new graders for road and highway maintenance, and to hold on to, rather than trade in, one of the graders the county already uses. Telephone upgrades for the courthouse and Sheriff's Department were also discussed, with an amount of $50,000 allocated. The commissioners, Sheriff Adam Frerichs and Tom Payne discussed the benefits and challenges of switching over to Internet-access phones. Although there were many benefits including cost and flexibility, the concerns were that an Internet outage would put all the phone lines down, because even with a back up provider, the two that service Cheyenne County (Charter and Allo) share the same hub, so the backup plan would not work. Also, the lines in the building would be need to be upgraded from CAT 5 to CAT 9 to accommodate the increased bandwidth. Tom Payne was going to investigate the matters further and provide more details at the next meeting.
A Console for the Emergency Communications Center was budgeted at $50,000, but Deuel County and the City of Sidney wanted to combine the services together, so the budget was increased to $140,000. Funding for two road culverts had been allocated for $150,000, and Superintendent Doug Hart spoke with the commissioners about size differences for pre-cast concrete Boxes and Stainless Steel Culverts. Commissioner Miller was in favor of the steel culverts due to costs and recommendations from hydrologic studies. There was also discussion about a new Tahoe for the Sheriff's Department, but these are not even being made until June, so no delivery date can be made, and the County's Fiscal Year ends on June 30. Commissioner Miller recommended Sheriff Frerichs look in other areas to try to secure a Tahoe-style vehicle. Also, two pickup trucks were budgeted from the ARPA funds, and will go out to bid as per usual practice.
Chairman of the County Planning commission Bill Sydow recommended the commissioners approve additions and amendments to Cheyenne County Planning Regulations regarding Wellhead Protection and Conservation Easements. Sydow noted that the easement language, that applies to home and property owners in the county, would give the Federal Government easement rights in perpetuity, and that citizens need to have the ability to voice there concerns about this change prior to approving the new regulations. Commissioners approved the additions to allow public comment on the proposed changes.
Action on Road 109 Safety
Next up, county resident Ernest Schmidt addressed the commissioners about the poor quality of road maintenance and the difficulties he and neighbors have with Road 109 just west of town. After bring up the issue months ago with the Road Department, a grader went over the road once, to little effect. Since that time, with additional storms and freezing temperatures, the road in many places has been limited to one lane and mud and standing water create hazards that damage or get vehicles stick. Schmidt noted how bottoming out over the damaged road poked a hole in the oil pan of his vehicle. Schmidt noted the cause of these problems was an incorrectly placed culvert that was forcing water into the road, rather than out of the road and into the runoff area. Commissioner Sanders noted the difficulties on the road, and Commissioner Johnson said he was just on that road on Monday afternoon, and didn't see any large amount of water on the road. Schmidt noted that the water comes in the afternoon when the ice thaws and runs out into the road, then freezes overnight. Schmidt had pictures of this that were taken on Monday at 5 p.m. Discussions turned to making a bypass to circumvent the culvert that was built in 1912, and get the water to runoff properly. Schmidt expressed his frustration with the lack of action taken by the road department on this issue after repeated calls and missed appointments. Commissioner Sanders said that although its not an excuse nor does it make the situation on Road 109 less important, there are other areas of the county like in Gurley that are much worse and had taken priority. Superintendent Doug Hart then said that they would get a backhoe out as soon as possible to start working on a fix for the runoff problem. Commissioner Miller asked if Union Pacific could be of assistance or what responsibility they had since the culvert in question borders their land.
Schmidt said that he and his neighbors had been keeping the road open as best as they could with their small tractors and other equipment, but he also noted that they appreciated the work the road deportment was doing and that Schmidt personally thanked the workers that had been out to the site. Commissioner Miller noted that this has been a brutal winter that really tested the capacities of the road department, and said "It's going to be a busy Spring for the Road Department."
Next Lorenzo resident Mike Fleming addressed the commissioners about the new Tornado Siren for Lorenzo, and how the location for the siren was not only a major inconvenience for the town residents, but also is not the most effective placement for the siren to cover the Lorenzo area. Fleming said, "I'm just trying to get this resolved before I get put in jail," explaining that he and his neighbors were absolutely against the siren in the proposed location as the sound waves would reverberate and amplify off of the elevator in town making the siren too loud, plus the elevator would block the siren from being heard on the outskirts of town. Fleming proposed a different location, a pasture not too far away that had power hookups available and that would cover a greater distance for the area serviced. Fleming, Emergency Manager Ron Deal and Commissioner Miller went over a map to try to determine if the proposed location would work better. Deal was hesitant to change the position, noting the sirens in other areas like Brownson and Sunol are always placed near the center of town. Miller then asked if there was any way of testing a siren to see if moving it would work. Deal said no, as the siren is placed on a 50 ft tall tower. Miller then noted that he thought they were helping the community out, and if they didn't want the siren, that they could just cancel getting it. Fleming noted that they didn't object to the siren, they just don't want it where they plan on putting it, and that no residents were asked permission to put the siren at that location. Fleming said to Commissioner Miller, "We don't have a problem with a siren, it's just that we don't want it in front of our house. Would you want a siren in your front yard?"
Miller responded, "I've got one." Miller and Deal agreed to go out to the newly proposed location to determine if it would work.
County Attorney Paul Schaub then addressed the commissioners about the proposed resolution
discussed at the last meeting about giving authority to the commissioners and Highway Superintendent to close roads in emergency situations, the resolution (2023-9) was approved.
Highway Superintendent Doug Hart then addresses the commissioners about details over the culvert situation that hadn't been discussed earlier. Commissioner Miller reminded Hart to have patience with the residents about the road conditions. Although there are many important roads in the county, Miller explained, the most important road to a resident was the road that goes in front of their house. Hart said that he was receiving phone calls at his home residence, which is why some calls were not returned. Miller commended the great job Hart and his crew had been doing, and that he and the other commissioners know that the department is doing the best they can with their resources to keep the roads as well maintained as possible.They then discussed details about certain roads that need immediate work and where they anticipate trouble spots will be as the weather changes and we enter Spring.
Inheritance Tax – Where Does It Go?
During the public comment portion of the meeting, resident Eric Pool addressed the commissioners and asked if the Inheritance Tax Fund had any designation as to where those funds are spent. Commissioner Miller responded "No" and that there would difficulty assigning specific budget uses as to the unpredictable variance in dollars the fund collects every year. "We don't know who's going to die," Miller explained.
Miller went on to say that the money collected by the Inheritance Tax is used to shore up funding for other projects and is also there for a funding source if a major trial is litigated here. Poll then responded by clarifying the the Inheritance Tax Fund was created to fund roads and road construction. Some years back there was a change and the Inheritance Tax Fund could then be used for other projects and at the discretion of the commissioners. Pool noted that with nearly $2 million dollars in the fund, couldn't some of that fund be given back to the taxpayers to offset the nearly $500,000 tax increase from the previous year? Pool also explained that he felt that while the State of Nebraska is projecting budget surpluses for the next few years, we seem to be going in the other direction. Pool suggested the Mill levy amount be lowered with the offset made up from the Inheritance Tax Fund, and to give a portion back to the taxpayers in an effort to be more competitive, especially with the Kimball area with the missile project coming soon. Miller also noted that it could be difficult to give back collected monies properly when the beneficiary is deceased.
Commissioner Miller responded to the perception of a continuous cycle of tax increases, saying, "One year does not make a cycle." Miller reminded the group that the mill rate had been lowered every year for the prior seven years. Pool responded that his house payments have gone up three years in a row, and it wasn't because of a change in interest rates. Miller responded by saying the county tax increases took up a small part of the overall increase, and to look more to the City of Sidney and State tax increases to see why you're paying more.
Miller concluded the remarks period by seeing the merit in some of the suggestions, and while not committing to any of them, he did say that the commissioners will look into the ideas.