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Church leaders gather for prayer vigil
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With deep division among Americans given the current state of politics, 12 spiritual leaders from area churches gathered Sunday afternoon to pray for the country to turn from its wicked ways and seek peace.

Dozens braved temperatures in the mid-30s to attend a prayer vigil at the field north of the Masonic Center.

The Rev. Stefanie Hayes of Grace United Methodist Church welcomed the crowd.

“Today we come together, not of one mind or one denomination, but striving to be of one heart,” she said. “We come together, doing the difficult work of acknowledging brokenness and the necessary work of turning toward love.”

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Valerie Bower of Hastings and her son, Desmond, sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” during a prayer vigil Sunday in downtown Hastings. A gathering was held in light of recent events in Washington, D.C.

Devoid of political preference, the pastors urged citizens to pray for the United States and its leaders through this turbulent time.

Organizing pastors decided to dust off the Advent wreath for the vigil, said the Rev. Jessica Palys of First Congregational United Church of Christ. Normally during Advent, the candles represent hope, peace, love and joy. The meaning of candles was shifted for Sunday’s ceremony to illuminate a journey from confession, to lamentation, through repentance, connecting with hope, and finally arriving at peace.

For each element, another oversized candle representing the Advent wreath was lit to represent bringing more light into the darkness.

Participating pastors included the Revs. Greg Allen-Pickett and Damen Jensen-Heitmann of First Presbyterian Church in Hastings; the Rev. Dustin Bower of First Christian Church; the Rev. Matthew Brooks with Hastings Berean Bible Church; Hayes; the Rev. David Johnson of Harvard United Church of Christ; the Rev. Greg Lindenberger of First United Methodist Church; Chaplain John Mueller with Mary Lanning Healthcare; Palys; the Rev. Joel Remmers with First St. Paul's Lutheran Church; the Rev. Matt Sass with Hastings Evangelical Free Church; the Rev. Andy Springer, chaplain at Good Samaritan Society-Hastings Village; and the Rev. Kathy Uldrich with West Adams County United Methodist Churches.

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The Rev. Damen Heitmann of First Presbyterian Church plays during a community prayer vigil Sunday in downtown Hastings.

Allen-Pickett, senior pastor at First Presbyterian, acknowledged that our nation has grieved God with sin, both collectively as a country and as individuals.

“Sin has seeped into our systems and structures and into our hearts,” he prayed. “From the days of our ancestors until now, this country has been steeped in sin. That sin continues today as some of us have traded truth for lies in pursuit of our own selfish agendas, or in dogged pursuit of power. That sin continues today in the hearts of those who refuse to recognize the image of God in others by enacting policies or engaging in actions that harm our fellow brothers and sisters. That sin continues today in the mouths of those who so wantonly utter falsehoods and bear false witness against others. That sin continues today in those who seek riches and comfort at the expense of the least of these. That sin continues today in those who have made a political party or a politician into a false idol, ignoring Your commandment that we are supposed to worship only You.”

He said the people of our country have abandoned the commandments found in the Bible: the call to love God above all else and the call to love our neighbor as ourselves.

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Community members gather in downtown Sunday afternoon for a prayer vigil in light of the recent events in Washington, D.C.

Brooks, of Berean Bible Church, prayed for God to stir a desire within people to know His ways and convict the hearts of all believers so that true repentance can prevail in every person and every worshipping community.

“Give us all the courage to face ourselves and to admit our sins to you and to one another,” he prayed. “Strengthen us to let go of anything that blinds us to the truth and holds us captive to sin. Give us the courage to speak prophetically into the public realm. When we see sin at work in our world, endow us with the voice to speak out and to actively work against that sin, as you did with the prophets of old. Rid our nation of corruption and raise up leaders who are wise and who understand your holy ways of compassion, mercy, justice and love.”

Bower, of First Christian Church, offered a prayer of repentance to return to truth, love and respect. He asked God to transform people from the inside out.

“We recognize that we are on a destructive path,” he prayed. “We are walking in the wrong direction. We have become strangers to the truth, and we lost touch with what makes for a good life.”

Springer, who preaches at All Saints Chapel on the Good Samaritan Village campus, said there is hope as prayers are lifted toward changing the heart of the country. Finding a way forward is crucial to ushering back peace to the nation.

“May we be the children of God who do the hard work of peacemaking instead of settling for the more popular and self-protecting ways of peacekeeping,” he said. “We resolve to celebrate and find joy in the self-sacrificial and often painful ways of righteousness knowing that the Kingdom of God is worth the abusive criticism we may face at times.”

Through that hope of moving forward, said Uldrich with West Adams County United Methodist Churches, peace is on the horizon.

“Whatever is going through your heart, mind and being, know that God is on the move,” she said. “The kingdom of God is breaking through.”

YMCA again exceeds fundraising goal
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Troy Stickels is brimming with gratitude after the Hastings Family YMCA again met its annual fundraising goal.

The YMCA raised $232,795 for its 2020 annual campaign. The goal was $230,000.

“Each year it seems to get higher,” said Stickels, who is CEO for the Hastings Family YMCA. “For us, I would hope it’s a culmination of all the things we are doing in the community; and through COVID I hope people recognize that we continue to try to help people whether it be through childcare or just calling members or doing online fitness classes or keeping the pool open for those who really needed it.”

He said there were 261 donors, which is about 15 more than 2019 when about $221,000 was given during a year when the fundraising goal was $220,000.

Stickels said several donors gave more than they had done in the past, sometimes twice as much.

“I don’t know the answers to specifically why we’ve had such great success,” he said.

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A group of teenagers play basketball Sunday at the 18th Street Y. The Hastings Family YMCA recently surpassed its fundraising goal of $230,000.

Based on his conversations with representatives from other area nonprofit organizations, Stickels said the YMCA isn’t alone in having done well fundraising.

The majority of the funds given to the YMCA go toward financial assistance with programs.

Some of those funds go to offset the cost of programs such as the Y’s blood pressure clinic, which is free to participants.

Likewise, the YMCA began an after-school program at Lincoln Elementary that is free to participants.

While that program is paid for by a grant for the first three years, the YMCA is gearing up for future years.

“We’ve got to start planning for the fourth year and beyond, and we have to start paying a percentage of that,” Stickels said. “So just being able to raise more and keep some of that aside for those future things that we know are coming up, the more we can do in the community.”

Exceeding the fundraising goal comes as the attendance at the YMCA is about two-thirds of what it was prior to the onset of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, pandemic. Membership continues to be down, as well.

“That’s concerning because we want people to use the Y,” he said. “We want them to be safe.”

He’s not aware of any reported cases of COVID-19 spread at the YMCA.

“I think a lot of Y’s around the country can say that, too,” Stickels said. “We’ve got to let people know it is safe to be here. We’re doing a lot to keep it clean and to keep people safe.”

Funds from the federal Paycheck Protection Program have helped tremendously, he said.

“January is always our biggest month for memberships, so I guess we’ll see how it compares to last year,” he said.

There are plenty of funds available for financial assistance, with up to 50% off membership fees for eligible applicants.

For more information go to hastingsymca.net, or call 402-463-3139.

“If people are reading this and saying ‘I just can’t afford it,’ we can help,” Stickels said.

Ricketts hints at ballot measure if property tax push fails
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts will push to reduce property taxes during this legislative session by limiting local government spending, and he warns the issue could go to voters if lawmakers don’t approve changes
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LINCOLN — Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts will push to reduce property taxes during this legislative session by limiting local government spending, and he warns the issue could go to voters if lawmakers don’t approve changes.

Ricketts said he’s hopeful lawmakers will take steps to slow local government spending, similar to a package he proposed last year that faced strong resistance from K-12 schools. Lawmakers ultimately approved a tax credit for property owners to offset some of their local property taxes but scrapped provisions that would have restricted school spending.

“It’s important that the Legislature acts on this or, as history demonstrates, the people of Nebraska will do it for them,” Ricketts said in an Associated Press interview.

Ricketts declined to say whether he would support a citizen-led ballot measure to restrict local spending, but the former TD Ameritrade executive has a history of bankrolling ballot campaigns with his own money.

In 2016, Ricketts spent $300,000 on a successful ballot measure that reinstated the death penalty after lawmakers voted to override his veto and abolish capital punishment. He also has donated extensively to conservative legislative candidates, including some who challenged more moderate Republicans who supported ending the death penalty.

Anti-tax activists and conservative lawmakers have tried property tax ballot campaigns before, but most of their efforts failed in part due to poor funding.

In the interview, Ricketts pointed to a 1966 constitutional amendment that voters approved to bar the state from collecting property taxes. Farmers and some homeowners have complained in recent years that their property tax bills have soared over the last decade, and they’ve pressured lawmakers and Ricketts to intervene.

“I believe if it were on the ballot, people would overwhelmingly support it,” Ricketts said.

Ricketts said lawmakers have made headway on property taxes, but “now what we need to do is slow the growth of government so that property tax relief actually ends up in people’s pockets.”

K-12 school officials argue they already spend conservatively, and some rural schools note they have lost state equalization aid because of Nebraska’s school-funding formula. The formula distributes money to schools based on their needs and what they can generate locally through property taxes. Farmers argue the arrangement is unfair because they own large amounts of land and must pay higher taxes on it regardless of whether they make a profit.

State senators have passed dozens of laws over the last decade to try to slow the growth of property taxes, but rates have continued to rise.

Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, chairwoman of the tax-focused Revenue Committee, said more of the burden is shifting to homeowners in Nebraska’s larger cities and pressure will build on urban lawmakers.

“People are going to get their property tax bills and see that they’re not going down,” she said. “We can’t keep this up.”

One state lawmaker who has worked on property tax ballot initiatives in the past said he’s confident voters across the state would approve a tax cut.

“Every time we polled people, it was their number one issue, whether they were 18 or 80 and whether they lived in Scottsbluff or Omaha,” said Sen. Steve Erdman, of Bayard, .

Erdman has introduced a constitutional amendment this year that would replace most of the state’s taxes with a single “consumption tax,” based on purchases, with tax credits for low-income residents who would be disproportionately affected. The proposal has eight cosponsors, but it still faces long odds in the Legislature.

Ricketts also said he’ll propose additional money for Nebraska’s prison system and a new, two-year state budget with a focus on controlling expenses. The state corrections department is seeking $230 million from lawmakers to build a new state prison.

He said he’ll also be watching the Legislature’s redistricting efforts this year, a once-a-decade ritual that’s usually partisan and contentious.

He said he wants to ensure that “all Nebraskans, both urban and rural, are treated fairly” in the process, but declined to give specifics.

Western Nebraska is expected to lose at least one legislative district because of population shifts from rural areas to Omaha and Lincoln.

Vaccine rollout confirms public health officials' warnings
Public health officials complained for months about not having enough support or money to get COVID-19 vaccines quickly into arms
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PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Public health officials sounded the alarm for months, complaining that they did not have enough support or money to get COVID-19 vaccines quickly into arms. Now the slower-than-expected start to the largest vaccination effort in U.S. history is proving them right.

As they work to ramp up the shots, state and local public health departments across the U.S. cite a variety of obstacles, most notably a lack of leadership from the federal government. Many officials worry that they are losing precious time at the height of the pandemic, and the delays could cost lives.

States lament a lack of clarity on how many doses they will receive and when. They say more resources should have been devoted to education campaigns to ease concerns among people leery of getting the shots. And although the federal government recently approved $8.7 billion for the vaccine effort, it will take time to reach places that could have used the money months ago to prepare to deliver shots more efficiently.

Such complaints have become a common refrain in a nation where public health officials have been left largely on their own to solve complex problems.

“The recurring theme is the lack of a national strategy and the attempt to pass the buck down the line, lower and lower, until the poor people at the receiving end have nobody else that they can send the buck to,” said Gianfranco Pezzino, who was the public health officer in Shawnee County, Kansas, until retiring last month.

Operation Warp Speed, the federal vaccine program, had promised to distribute enough doses to immunize 20 million people in the U.S. in December. It missed that target, and as of Friday, about 6.6 million people had received their first shot, according to a tracker from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 22 million doses have been delivered to states.

The American Hospital Association has estimated that 1.8 million people need to be vaccinated daily from Jan. 1 to May 31 to reach widespread immunity by the summer. The current pace is more than 1 million people per day below that.

President-elect Joe Biden on Friday called the rollout a “travesty,” noting the lack of a national plan to get doses into arms and reiterating his commitment to administer 100 million shots in his first 100 days. He has not shared details and was expected to discuss the effort this week. His office announced a plan to release most doses right away, rather than holding second doses in reserve, the more conservative approach taken by the Trump administration.

The Trump administration defined its primary role as developing coronavirus vaccines and delivering them to states, which would then take over and ensure that vaccine doses traveled “the last mile” into arms.

Each state had to develop its own plan, including issuing guidelines for who gets vaccinated first. Several health experts complained about that approach, saying it led to confusion and a patchwork response.

“Let’s just say that I was disappointed how they handled testing, and the vaccine deployment has reminded me of how disappointed I was when they handled testing,” said Dr. Mysheika Roberts, health commissioner in Columbus, Ohio.

Several public health officials and experts say they believe some of the early glitches are smoothing out. Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said the slow start should not be surprising given the immense scale of the task.

“It was not going to be seamless,” he said.

Still, Plescia said the federal government could have done more ahead of the rollout — such as releasing billions of dollars earlier to help with staffing, technology and other operational needs.

An ongoing investigation by The Associated Press and Kaiser Health News detailed how state and local health departments have been underfunded for decades. Public health officials have warned since the spring that they lacked the staff, money and tools they needed to deploy a vaccine. The money was not approved until the end of December.

Vaccine distribution involves a long, complex chain of events. Every dose must be tracked. Providers need to know how much staffing they will need. Eligible people must be notified to schedule their shots, given the vaccine’s handling requirements and the need to observe people for 15 minutes after the shot — all while social distancing is observed.

It’s difficult to plan too far ahead because the number of doses the state receives can fluctuate. Hospitals cannot give all their workers shots on the same day because of possible side effects and staffing issues, so they must be spaced out.

Rhode Island health officials said it can take up to seven days to get doses out to people once they are received. Officials in several states, including Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and New Jersey, said the lack of supply is one of the biggest obstacles to getting more people vaccinated.

Some communities have seen large numbers of medical workers put off getting the shot, even though they are first in line. Columbus, Ohio, has had lower-than-expected demand among top priority groups, including emergency medical workers.

A public education campaign could have helped address the hesitancy among health care workers that has slowed the rollout of the first shots, said James Garrow, a spokesman for the Philadelphia health department. Instead, officials for months talked about the speed at which they were developing the vaccines — which did not help alleviate concerns that it might not be safe.

“There just hasn’t been good messaging about the safety and the purposefulness of the safety protocols,” Garrow said.

The federal government has done little to provide information resources that local officials can tailor to their own communities, to address concerns of people such as pregnant women or Black men living in rural areas, said Dr. Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota, who is a member of Biden’s COVID-19 advisory board.

“You don’t need 50 different states trying to do this kind of work. What you want to have is a smorgasbord of information sources that address different populations that any one state can use,” Osterholm said. “That’s what we don’t have right now.”

Some states are getting creative. Oregon held a mass vaccination event at the state fairgrounds with the help of the National Guard. The governor said it aimed to vaccinate 250 people per hour. New Jersey planned to open six vaccine “megasites” where officials hope more than 2,000 people per day can eventually get their shots.

But without a federal plan, such efforts can amount to “throwing spaghetti at a wall to see what sticks,” said Chrissie Juliano of the Big Cities Health Coalition, which represents metropolitan health departments.

What’s needed is a national, wartime-type effort to get vaccines out to as many people as possible, multiple experts said. Medical emergencies can be covered 24 hours a day, seven days a week, said Pezzino, who is also a senior fellow at the Kansas Health Institute. Why not make vaccinations available on that schedule?

“It is possible. It is feasible,” he said. “I don’t see the level of urgency, the feeling of urgency in anybody around here. And that’s really, honestly, that’s the only thing that could make a difference.”