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Volunteers needed for pandemic-changed softball tournament

Organizers are searching for volunteers and finalizing safety precautions for the Nebraska state high school softball tournament next week in Hastings.

Mikki Shafer, president of the Hastings Area Chamber of Commerce, is organizing volunteers to help monitor entry to the three-day tournament Wednesday through Friday. She said the chamber has been sending out email blasts weekly, but only two shifts are completely filled for the tournament.

Shafer said that in previous years most of their regular volunteers were retired, but many of that group are at higher risk in the pandemic and aren’t volunteering as much at this time.

“It’s a little different, but we’re still needing the same amount of volunteers,” she said. “You get to speak with a lot of people. If you’ve been missing that interaction with people, this is a great thing to do.”

aroh / Amy Roh/Tribune  

State softball spectators go through the gates in between sessions Oct. 16, 2008, at Bill Smith Softball Complex.

Shafer said she has reached out to younger business professionals to help fill the gaps. Some businesses are allowing employees to take off a few hours to volunteer, which will help.

“It’s just a great way to give back to the community,” she said. “Obviously, this is going to be a huge boost to our economy.”

Volunteers at the Nebraska School Activities Association State Championships would work in three-hour time slots at the Bill Smith Softball Complex. The shifts are between 7:45 a.m. and 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and 10:15 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday.

Ticket sales will be handled exclusively on mobile devices this year, using the GoFan digital ticket app. Attendees present virtual tickets at the gate and volunteers validate the tickets for entry. There won’t be any cash sales at the gate.

The requirements implemented by the Nebraska School Activities Association for host schools of all NSAA fall subdistrict, district and playoff contests will be in effect:

  • Participants are permitted to wear face coverings during competition, but not required.
  • Coaches and non-active participants are strongly encouraged to wear face coverings.

Spectators are required to wear face coverings at all times while attending outdoor events when physical distancing of 6 feet is not possible.

aroh / Amy Roh/ Tribune  

Softball fans pack the stands at Bill Smith Softball Complex during the state championship Oct. 16, 2015.

Tracy Douglas, activities director for Hastings Senior High and one of the state softball tournament directors, said they are allowing fans to bring in chairs and sit in the outfield as another way to stay apart from other attendees.

She said the NSAA worked with the South Heartland District Health Department to develop a plan for the event.

The dugouts will be sanitized between games, and those accommodations are more spacious this year. Over last summer, the dugouts were expanded and now feature two openings each. She said that will allow players to spread out a little more in dugouts.

“Even though it’s outside, we want to make sure we do everything we can to make the workers, patrons and teams safe,” she said.

Farmers help shape justice center proposal
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Farmers who worked on the Adams County justice center proposal believe that while no one likes to see their property taxes raised, the new facility is the most cost-effective option.

Members of the Adams County Board of Supervisors voted 6-1 in August to place the question on the general election ballot for a bond issue not to exceed $38 million.

Three county board members participated in an informational meeting about the project on Zoom Friday with the Hastings League of Women Voters, including Scott Thomsen who chairs the county’s building, grounds and equipment committee and has organized efforts to prepare the justice center proposal.

“The way our tax system is set up, it’s not the fairest in the world,” he said. “The people that are going to get hit the hardest, and it’s very unfortunate because we live in an agriculture community, is the farmers. They own a lot more property than the average person in town who owns a house.”

Lance Atwater, who farms in the Ayr area, said when Thomsen asked him to participate on the citizens committee, Atwater agreed to serve because he believed it was important the agriculture community be represented.

“I encourage all the voters in Adams County to go out, research what our county supervisors are trying to do with the county jail,” Atwater said. “At some point we’re going to end up having to pay for it whether we build a new jail or we do nothing because we’ll end up shipping our inmates to other places around the state, which is a cost. What it really comes down to is how do we want to use property tax dollars in the best way and be the most efficient with those dollars.”

Adams County hired Omaha architecture firm Prochaska & Associates to help plan for the jail.

A cost not to exceed $38 million is far less than estimates presented by Prochaska in January that ranged from $45 million to $56 million.

Atwater said there was no way those higher costs would’ve been sent to voters.

The county is looking at constructing a new jail because the current county jail, which was constructed in 1962, has out-of-date infrastructure and doesn’t comply with state regulations. It can stay open only because it is grandfathered in to stay in operation under old rules.

The current jail has a 37-bed capacity with another three beds for booking and three special-purpose beds.

Phyllis Jacobitz, who farms in the Kenesaw and Juniata area, was excited to participate on the citizens committee, so she could learn more about the situation.

“I didn’t know how bad of shape our jail was in right now, how much needed repaired,” she said. “I was excited to go do that and see. As soon as we looked at the jail you obviously know something needs to be done.”

When the committee started working with Prochaska and got the numbers and saw what it was going to do to ag land taxes, Jacobitz said her first thought was, “We absolutely can’t do this.”

But looking at how much money the county is spending to transport inmates changed her mind.

In transporting and housing inmates elsewhere, Adams County’s annual costs are anticipated to increase from $1.69 million in 2018 to $13.74 million by 2050.

Thomsen estimated during his 10 years on the board, Adams County has spent at least $10 million to send inmates to other counties.

Over 20 years, the cost to continue “as is” with the current jail is estimated at $81.3 million.

Closing the jail and transporting all inmates is estimated to cost $119.2 million over 20 years.

“I hate the idea we are losing all that money every year — I guess not losing it, but we’re not gaining anything with it,” Jacobitz said. “At least this way, it’s going to cost us some more but we’re going to have something to show for our money.”

A new, more efficient jail won’t require the same ratio of staff to inmates that is there currently, Thomsen said.

While the ballot language says “not to exceed $38 million,” the cost estimate is actually about $37 million.

The Board of Supervisors is prepared to put it to a vote to pay for a new jail with a nickel tax, for a maximum amount allowed of $25.8 million, if the ballot issue fails.

According to updated information provided by the county’s bond counsel, D.A. Davidson, at $37 million the property tax levy to pay off the bond would be 5.95 cents per $100 valuation.

The average-priced home in Hastings is $123,526. According to current projections, the average annual increase on such a home to fund the justice center would be $73.49, or $6.12 per month.

For a house valued at $100,000 the annual cost would be $59.50, and $119 for a house valued at $200,000.

For irrigated farm ground the annual increase would be $3.27 per acre, or $2,093.25 per section.

During a public presentation about the justice center last month, Thomsen heard concerns from a farmer about now not being the right time for the ag community to take on such a costly project.

“I definitely get what people are saying, I don’t want to see the property taxes on my ag land going up,” Atwater said. “That being said I think we also have to ask ourselves, ‘When will be the right time be?’ I don’t know when the right time will be because ultimately no one ever wants their taxes to go up. I don’t know if there will ever be a perfect time to do it.”

A levy of 5.95 cents includes an estimated annual payment of $2.3 million. Thomsen said during Friday’s presentation that offsetting the annual bond payment with savings from not having to transport could lower that levy amount.

“Before you get too carried away thinking, ‘5.95 cents per $100 is quite a bit of money,’ yeah, it is, but that’s what would be required to repay this bond, but if you look at what we’re spending today at $1.65 million, if you take just a $1.5 million of that it would decrease that levy 4 cents, so you’re probably looking at less than 2 cents per $100 of valuation,” he said.

A few county officials said they have received overtures from officials in other counties stating if Adams County constructed a new jail those other counties would send inmates there.

For a new jail alone, at $25.8 million, with an annual interest rate of 2.45%, the property tax levy to pay off the bond would be 4.29 cents per $100 valuation.

According to current projections, the average annual increase on a home valued at $123,526 to fund the jail would be $52.99, or $4.42 per month.

For a house valued at $100,000 the annual cost would be $42.90, and $85.80 for a house valued at $200,000.

Atwater encouraged voters to educate themselves.

“That’s what I’d encourage voters to do, really go out there and learn what’s trying to be done and then vote on what you think would be best for your situation and also think down the road 10, 20 years,” he said. “My biggest fear is that we’re going to have to address it some time, but if we wait five, 10 years could it possibly cost us even more and what will the impact be on property taxes then.”

White House ups virus aid offer, resumes talks with Pelosi
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WASHINGTON — The White House is boosting its offer in up-and-down COVID-19 aid talks Friday in hopes of an agreement before Election Day, even as President Donald Trump’s most powerful GOP ally in the Senate said Congress is unlikely to deliver relief by then.

Trump on Friday took to Twitter to declare: “Covid Relief Negotiations are moving along. Go Big!” A top economic adviser said the Trump team was upping its offer in advance of a Friday conversation between Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The two spoke for more than 30 minutes Friday afternoon, said Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill.

A GOP aide familiar with the new offer said it is about $1.8 trillion, with a key state and local fiscal relief component moving from $250 billion to at least $300 billion. The White House says its most recent prior offer was about $1.6 trillion. The aide requested anonymity because the negotiations are private.

“I would like to see a bigger stimulus package than either the Democrats or Republicans are offering,” Trump said on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show Friday. Earlier this week, Trump lambasted Democrats for their demands on an aid bill.

Pelosi’s most recent public offer was about $2.2 trillion, though that included a business tax increase that Republicans won’t go for.

But GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told an audience in Kentucky that he doesn’t see a deal coming together soon out of a “murky” situation in which the participants in the negotiations are elbowing for political advantage.

“I’d like to see us rise above that like we did in March and April but I think it’s unlikely in the next three weeks,” McConnell said. McConnell said later that “the first item of priority of the Senate is the Supreme Court,” suggesting there isn’t time to both process a COVID relief bill and the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett before the election.

He spoke after Trump apparently performed an about-face, empowering Mnuchin to resume negotiations with Pelosi, D-Calif., on a larger, comprehensive coronavirus relief package despite calling off the talks just days before.

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told reporters Friday that “developments are positive” and that “the bid and the offer have narrowed” in advance of a the telephone conversation later Friday between Pelosi and Mnuchin.

McConnell remains a skeptic that a deal can come together — and he has issued private warnings that many Senate Republicans will oppose a deal in the range that Pelosi is seeking.

“We do need another rescue package,” McConnell said. “But the proximity to the election and the differences about what is need at this particular juncture are pretty vast.”

Later Friday, during an appearance in Tompkinsville, Kentucky, McConnell said, “I don’t know whether we’ll get another (virus relief) package or not.”

McConnell’s remarks capped a tumultuous week in which Trump sent conflicting signals and made unworkable demands. On Tuesday, he ordered an end to the weekslong talks after being told that few Republicans in Congress would end up voting for a possible Pelosi-Mnuchin deal.

After taking blowback for that decision, Trump sought to revive the negotiations Thursday. Yet even as Mnuchin was reengaging with Pelosi, staffers in the White House — working under chief of staff Mark Meadows, a key negotiator — were issuing demands for a smaller package stuffed with Trump’s priorities.

All this comes as Trump is sliding in the polls and is sidelined by his COVID-19 infection. The White House is short-staffed and dealing with infections among its employees. And the president and Pelosi are attacking each other’s mental health.

That the talks were headed nowhere was an open secret among close observers in Washington, but both sides had been reluctant to declare them dead until Trump did so Tuesday, making himself a magnet for blame. The talks are still unlikely to produce results in the near term because even if there was a breakthrough, it could take weeks to process.

McConnell says he is open to resuming the negotiations in a post-election lame-duck session, but that prospect is murky as well, depending on the results.

On Friday, Pelosi issued a downbeat assessment in a letter to her colleagues but expressed some optimism in an appearance on MSNBC.

“I do hope that we’ll have an agreement soon,” Pelosi said.

Plot puts focus on governors' safety amid threats, protests
  • Updated

A plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor has put a focus on the security of governors who have faced protests and threats over their handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

While the alleged plot against Gretchen Whitmer is the most specific and highest-profile to come to light, it’s far from the first threat against state officials, particularly Democrats who imposed business closures and restrictions on social gatherings.

In New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said this week that news of the arrest of 13 men accused of planning the overthrow of Michigan’s government rattled members of her family.

“I started to get calls from both my daughters who were terrified and who were often included in some of the negative messaging,” Lujan Grisham said this week. “Early on in this pandemic. one of the threats that we got was ‘I hope your grandchildren get COVID.’ ”

In August, a man pleaded guilty to making threats against the Democratic governor on social media and was sentenced to 14 months in prison.

During the pandemic, the state Capitol that houses her office has been closed to the public. But its grounds have been the site of protests, including some who carried weapons and are militia members.

Even with the glass doors locked, State Police have at times deployed additional security measures, such as putting up opaque screens inside the doors to hide their exact location from protesters.

Across the country, armed protesters have rallied this year against coronavirus-related shutdowns. In Michigan, some protesters with guns were allowed inside the statehouse in April after passing temperature screenings. Some lawmakers wore bulletproof vests.

Protests both against virus restrictions and racial injustice this year have targeted not just the offices but also the homes of government executives. Fourteen unarmed protesters calling for the release of prison inmates, for instance, were arrested outside the gates of the residence of California Gov. Gavin Newsom in July.

The offices of governors and those in charge of protecting them have declined to say how security has changed because of specific threats they face or the Michigan case. Several praised the security efforts around them.

But some governors are linking the threats to President Donald Trump, who on Twitter late Thursday condemned “extreme violence” while also blasting Whitmer, saying she has done a “terrible job.”

At a briefing Friday, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, said elected officials “but especially at the top, must realize that words matter” and that rhetoric can lead to violence.

“We are reaching a boiling point in this country,” he said. “So it’s up to all of us to lower the temperature.”

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee singled out the president, who has often criticized Whitmer, for responsibility.

“It is very unfortunate that she has been troubled not just directly by these threats, but a constant barrage of, frankly, incendiary criticism from the president, and I think that’s been very unfortunate,” Inslee said.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, who also serves as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, called on Trump to denounce extremist groups.

“This shocking development is the most disturbing of the increasingly violent threats being made against Democratic governors by some of the most extreme and violent fringes of the right,” Murphy said in a statement. “Unless and until President Trump openly denounces such right-wing extremism, groups like the Michigan Militia will continue to act as if they hold a permission slip from him to openly engage in such terrorist plots.”

The threat this year against public employees has risen enough that the bipartisan National Governors Association sent its members a memo in August laying out ways to try to discourage and deal with threats. Among them: Encouraging civil discourse with protesters, personally complying with mask and social distancing orders and prosecuting threats.

Over the nation’s history, violence against governors has been rare. The only time a U.S. state governor died of assassination was in Kentucky in 1900, when Kentucky Gov. William Goebel was shot in the chest near the old state Capitol days before he was sworn in after a disputed election. He died shortly after he took office.

In the same city this spring, current Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, was hanged in effigy from a tree on the state Capitol grounds in Frankfort in a protest of his coronavirus restrictions. In April, a man was charged after being accused of making threats against Beshear and Kentucky State Police troopers online.

This week, a fence began going up around the state’s executive mansion.