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County issues outlined
January 08, 2016 Jerry Purvis   

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Scotts Bluff County Commissioner Mark Masterton was unanimously elected to his 17th year as board chairman during the Jan. 4 reorganization of the county board.

Appointments were also made for commissioners serving on various agency boards, appointed county officials were reappointed for another year, and the Gering Citizen was designated to publish the 2016 delinquent tax list.

Commissioner Sherry Blaha, who was the sole member of the commission to comment on the motion, provided some historical background on newspapers publishing the county’s official records. Her father, Maurice Van Kirk, was editor and part owner of the Chadron Record before coming to Scottsbluff as editor of the Star-Herald until his retirement in the late 1960s. She said that local newspapers are instrumental in keeping people informed about local government and community happenings.

After the meeting, Masterton spoke with the media and said he appreciated the board’s vote of confidence in naming him the chairman.
“This is very interesting work,” he said. “Over the years, I’ve acquired a certain institutional memory of issues that have been addressed before. That’s beneficial to the county.”

With regard to issues the commission will be dealing with this year, Masterton said roads will continue to be a top priority to the county. There are 820 miles of county roads and 210 bridges requiring maintenance. Those infrastructure costs continue to rise each year.

“We never seem to have enough money to do all the road and bridge maintenance work that’s needed,” Masterton said. “We’ll continue to look at ways to help fund those projects.”

Masterton said a “huge concern” is the county jail. Built seven years ago and projected to be full in 20 to 25 years, it’s now reaching capacity.

When it was built, the county jail was designed with footings to allow for expansion if needed. However, construction costs have almost tripled since then.

“It’s not because of the federal prisoners we hold for the Marshal’s Service,” Masterton said. “We’re generating more local prisoners.”

Another challenge is in classifying inmates. The county has about three times the number of female prisoners it had in the old county jail, so separating inmates becomes a logistics problem.

The state has been implementing corrections reform for some time as discussions continue on how to efficiently handle the jail population.

Masterton said, often, persons sentenced to terms in the state prison system are left in the county jail because the state is also running out of housing space. In addition, the state continues to debate on which agency will administer the prison system, and has yet to develop definitive guidelines.

“We’re reluctant to commit to building a facility that will cost us a lot of money unless there a need for it.” Masterton said. “There’s a need but the state hasn’t figured out how to do it. So we’re not going to touch it until they decide how to handle this situation.”

On the subject of the county budget, Masterton said he expects it be somewhere between the extremes of having a surplus and having to lay off employees. Farm land should go down in value while commercial property appears to be increasing in value.

“The Legislature keeps talking about lowering property taxes,” he said. “If that happens, the reduction will just have to be made up somewhere else. Politicians tell us they want to reduce taxes, but I don’t see much of it happening. The counties are an extension of state government. We simply carry out the regulations they tell us to follow, and we don’t have a whole lot of choices.”

Masterton said he thinks the best tax is a user tax, paid by those who use the product or service provided by the county. “We have a lot of services paid for by general taxation that should really be reimbursed by user fees, like the roads and weed control.”

Masterton said the county continues to beef up security measures in its buildings. “You only have to look at the news to see we have a problem with violence in this country. No one is completely immune to it, so we have to be watching for what could happen.”

As part of increased security, the county will be remodeling the ground floor of the administration building this summer. Plus, the sheriff’s office has conducted training exercises for county officials on how to respond to an active shooter situation.
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