In an effort to improve communication between himself and residents of the City of Neligh, mayor Joe Hartz hosted a town hall meeting Thursday night; however, few residents spoke or voiced concerns to the newly elected leader who is already facing a recall attempt.
Nearly all vocal opposition toward Hartz and the annexation came from people living outside of city limits who cannot sign a recall petition. A majority of the 80-plus attending sat in silence during the nearly two-hour meeting at the Neligh Senior Center. After the mayor addressed each concern or comment, two residents braved the opposition to publicly make statements in support of the City's efforts.
Brian Christiansen said in his years working as an accountant he was asked whether economic development was feasible. He said his response was, “You cannot afford not to.”
“If you want to move forward, you had to spend the money and move forward to do something. You can’t stand there and stick your head in the ground because if you stick your head in the ground everybody is going to run right past you,” Christiansen said.
Rick Eickholt wrapped up the economic discussion by praising officials, saying that despite not having all of the answers right now, they still have a vision for Neligh.
“Visions mean looking into the future, and looking into the future is sometimes a little scary because we don’t always know what the future holds. I’m proud of the fact that you and the city council have a vision for our community,” Eickholt told the mayor.
Throughout the meeting, Hartz graciously allowed non-residents to question him although he specifically invited only city residents to the meeting, which was not an official meeting since it did not have a quorum. City Council members were not present.
Hartz, who has been in office since December, scheduled the meeting for residents the day after a petition was filed to recall him and all city council members. Hartz stated he wanted to give residents another opportunity to communicate, although all of the city council meetings are open to the public.
David and Rebecca Williams, who addressed the council several months ago in hopes of changing an ordinance to allow them to keep a blind goat in their home, were two of the few residents to speak in opposition of annexation, saying they moved to Neligh from Tampa, Fla., because it was a small town and don’t want to see it grow into a larger community.
Hartz said most of the comments he’s heard from both businesses and residents is that they support annexation. Rebecca Williams suggested if that’s true, then a vote from residents on annexation should be the next step.
Hartz said that’s not possible at this time. This annexation plan, which was created based upon suggestions from the public at meetings more than a year ago, is expected to be officially approved on July 13 during the third reading, about a month before the petitioners turn in signatures. If successful in acquiring enough signatures to force a special election, which is estimated to cost about $5,000, the City of Neligh could potentially be without a governing body if an election removes all officials. Another special election, again at the cost of taxpayers, would have to take place.
Hartz said most businesses in the areas are in favor of annexation, but Pat Veik, who owns Tri-Valley Electric, disagreed and said he is not. Recently having built a new location just outside current limits, Veik said having to pay to install utilities would force him to sell or move his company.
Tom Borer told Hartz the City of Neligh is required by state statute to put in utilities within one year of annexation. Hartz corrected Borer and said the City is only required to have a plan in place for utilities, not that the City must provide the services. He said annexation does not force City utilities onto homeowners or businesses, and he suspects few businesses will ask for City water within a year considering they have their own well.
Several business owners and residents who are in the areas of proposed annexation, including Veik, Eldean and Bonnie Reinke, and Connie Baker, criticized the mayor for not answering questions and providing more data on the projects, including projections on future utility costs and tax levy.
“The reason the recall got established is we’re not trying to oust anybody. Slow down, people want figures on a piece a paper,” Dale Kallhoff said. “No figures have been shown.”
Hartz said earlier in the meeting that his hands were tied, alluding to the threat of future litigation. He said he would like to provide more information but engineers have advised against it. Hartz has said estimates could be misinterpreted as bids, leading to unnecessary legal expenses for the community, all of which would be paid by taxpayers.
“By law we can’t spit out figures saying this is what it’s going to be and then in six months we turn around and do it and it’s all changed. Now, you’re held liable for what you said because that’s what people do today,” he said.
Sandy Koinzan asked for specifics on the annexation locations, which Bennie Taylor, who is chairman of the city zoning commission, stepped in to answer. Koinzan asked what land in those areas could be used for new businesses, and Hartz said “there’s a lot of odds and end small places that could be developed,” including near Blackstrap.
David Wright suggested only annexing the land that owners wanted in city limits, but Hartz said state law doesn’t allow leaping over land tracts for annexation. For future growth, Hartz said it is key for current annexation to reach the edge of business and industry located along the highway.
“By law we’re locked into doing what we have available to us. Right now, that’s within those boundaries, so we have nowhere to grow,” Hartz said. “We cannot jump over top another business, and that’s by state law.”
Taylor said small businesses may want to build on Main Street, but larger companies simply need more land. One of the larger retailers to consider Neligh in some time is Shopko Hometown, which is currently looking at land options around the community in hopes of opening a store in 2016.
“Where are you going to put Shopko on Main Street? That’s not the way businesses are built any more,” Taylor said. “Smiths (Craig and Melissa) are going to tear a bunch of buildings down and make a complex there (along Highway 275 where Helmer's Furniture formerly was), which the city ought to be very grateful for them to clean up some old buildings to do that. But that area wouldn’t have been big enough for Shopko or some company like that.”
Taylor said the City of Neligh has to be prepared for when those companies want to come to town.
“Eventually when we have a new business come to town, they’re probably going to want to be on water and sewer, and they need 3-4-5 acres, they’re probably going to have to be on the edge of town. We have a real disadvantage because we have hills on one side and a river on the other. The only corridor we have is down the highway,” he said.
Borer said Neligh should wait to address these needs until a business has put in writing that they are coming to Neligh, pending all of these details.
“That’s not the way business works,” Craig Smith said.
Baker voiced concern about the costs associated with building the 6.5 megawatt bio-diesel electric generation plant in 2012, which was the first of its kind in Nebraska, as well as the debt the city currently has. Baker suggested TIF funding and LB 840 dollars add to the city’s debt and shouldn’t be used.
LB 840 is a law passed by Neligh voters by a 9-1 margin in 2011, putting one-fourth of one percent of city sales tax toward economic development. Loans are then made available to businesses wanting to either expand or start in Neligh. TIF funding is a 15-year tax break for the business requesting assistance with a portion of a project that has public-use benefit, for example a public parking lot.
“What you want is Bomgaars’ sales tax,” Baker said. Numerous residents immediately fired back, “Yes, we do. Why not?”
Bomgaars is planning to nearly double the size of the Neligh store, which is its smallest store in the company, and has asked to be annexed into the City of Neligh.
After the meeting, Hartz was commended by those in attendance, including many who had just criticized him publicly, for having the meeting to answer questions. Several of those individuals stayed afterward to thank Hartz for his service to the community.
The recall was filed last Thursday by Bernadine Hughes and Merlin Mortinson and stated it was due to “continued support/vote to approve the annexation ordinances has been done with repeated admissions that he/she has no idea what the future costs and revenues will be to the taxpayers of Neligh. This pattern of political conduct is alarming and sets the stage for future harm to the people of Neligh and to the business sector.”
The mayor and council members have 20 days after receiving written notification of the recall from county clerk Lisa Payne to submit a defense statement. Hughes and Mortinson then have 30 days to collect 162 signatures per council member and 187 against the mayor.