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Voters to consider sales tax
October 28, 2016 Jerry Purvis   

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As Gering’s streets, and water and sewer mains continue to age and crumble, the city needs to consider how to finance projects that increase in price every year.

For example, the estimated cost for all of Gering’s needed street repairs is $5.6 million. Replacement of water mains, some which date back to 1917, would cost another $3.4 million. Another million would be needed for upgrades to the sanitary sewer lines.

Proposition 1 will appear on the Gering ballot in the Nov. 8 election. It asks voters to consider an additional one-half cent sales tax that would enable the city to generate about $350,000 a year. The sales tax would be used exclusively for infrastructure projects, such as streets, sidewalks, curbs and water mains.

Kerri Schnase-Berge, a Gering stay-at-home mother, is part of the grassroots effort to meet with Gering residents, letting them know the extent of the city’s needs.

“I care about utility rates and where the city is going in the future,” she said. “I see Proposition 1 as an opportunity to bring in diversified revenues, as a sales tax is paid by everyone, not just Gering residents. It’s a tool the city can use to help keep utility bills down.”

Gering resident Jeff Wolfe, with the M.C. Schaff and Associates engineering firm, said he’s also concerned about the city’s aging infrastructure.

In the past, all Nebraska municipalities would contribute into a pool to finance those large projects. The Legislature later changed that arrangement, giving a specified allotment each year to communities. That amount was a lot less then cities could get through sharing an infrastructure bank.

“Everyone is in the same boat,” Wolfe said. “We ended up with aging infrastructure, multi-million projects, and fewer tools to finance them.”

The additional sales tax was made possible by the recent passage of LB 357, which allows municipalities to implement an additional one-half cent sales tax to pay for large projects. The sales tax for infrastructure will sunset and expire 10 years after it’s implemented.

A Community Redevelopment Authority, required by the legislation, would determine how the funds may be spent. Membership would include representatives from Gering, Terrytown and Scottsbluff.

Schnase-Berge said the sales tax would allow the city to be more proactive in replacing aging infrastructure rather than waiting until it fails entirely. Replacement would be much costlier in those situations.

Wolfe said a common question residents have is why the city hasn’t budgeted for those repairs in the past. There is money set aside in water and sewer bills to pay for those upgrades.

”Unfortunately, in the past 10 years, the federal government has issued unfunded mandates that have to be done right away,” he said. “They keep changing regulations regarding water standards, sewer discharge rates, even road signage standards. When that happens, we have to use our set-aside funds to pay for the federal mandates. They’re eating up those funds faster than we can save them. The sales tax is a measure that will allow us to get a little ahead of the game.”

Pat Heath, Gering Director of Public Works, said it was federally mandated stricter limits on the trace elements uranium and arsenic in the water system that forced the city to open a new water well north of the river. That project cost over a million dollars.

An informational meeting has been scheduled for Wednesday, Nov. 2 at 5:30 p.m. in the Gering City Council Chambers for people to learn more about the proposed sales tax and how it can benefit the city.
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