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Supporters say vote shows desire to keep viaduct
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Members of the group trying to save the 85-year-old 16th Street viaduct are hoping city leaders take note of how many voters were willing to fork over extra taxes in order to rebuild it.

Voters narrowly rejected a proposed bond issue of up to $12.5 million to finance rebuilding the bridge in a special issue on Tuesday’s general election ballot.

Unofficial results showed 5,200 people (46.9%) voted against the bond issue. A total of 5,132 votes (46.2%) were cast in favor of the issue. There were 748 undervotes (nothing marked) and eight overvotes (both options marked).

Willis Hunt of Hastings, a former Hastings city engineer and city councilman, said the numbers are telling — especially due to the fact that a number of people who voted against the ballot issue were in favor of keeping the viaduct open, though wishing to do so at a lower cost.

“It tells me that in spite of what the council said on Dec. 9, 2019, the people of Hastings need that viaduct,” Hunt said. “Even though they (voters) were going to increase their taxes substantially, they were willing to do that.”

Dec. 9, 2019, is the date the Hastings City Council voted to demolish the bridge.

Hunt said Hastings Citizens with a Voice encouraged people to vote against the $12.5 million bond issue. The citizens’ group objected to the ballot issue due to the price tag and wants the city to repair the bridge, though two engineering firms say the deterioration is too significant to allow that.

Based on a forensic evaluation of the viaduct from Engineering Specialists Inc. of Omaha and the senior engineer at Olsson Associates concurring with ESI’s analysis, the Hastings City Council voted to include up to $12.5 million on the ballot issue. 

Mayor Corey Stutte said the viaduct is well past the end of its projected 50-year lifespan and it would be wasteful to try to pump money into a failing structure.

“For us to move forward, we need to consider the best use of taxpayer dollars,” he said. “That’s where the City Council was coming from.”

While Stutte was surprised by the number of people who voted in favor of the project, he pointed out that 748 people chose not to vote in the issue at all, which likely indicates those voters don’t have a preference one way or another.

City leaders agreed to put the issue on the ballot after a group of citizens collected about 2,700 signatures to reverse the decision to raze the bridge. That group later formed a nonprofit organization named Hastings Citizens with a Voice.

Among the group was Alton Jackson of Hastings.

He said the city should have more seriously considered the $3.1 million option to repair the viaduct.

“This is a common-sense issue for me and those who have been involved,” he said. “There are so many things that weren’t taken into consideration when they voted on it the first time.”

By continuing to fight for the viaduct, he said, the group simply wants the City Council to acknowledge the will of the people.

“We don’t want to be rabble rousers,” he said. “We just want to make sure those 3,000 people have a voice.”

But there doesn’t appear to be an option to repair the structure anymore.

That option was one of four outlined in a November 2019 report from engineering firm Olsson Associates based on a visual inspection of the bridge.

Since the repair estimate was based on a visual condition assessment of the viaduct, the city sought a forensic evaluation of the viaduct from ESI for more details before putting potential bond amounts before voters.

ESI President Anthony Siahpush provided a presentation about the evaluation and accompanying 260-page report at the Hastings City Council’s July 27 meeting. He explained repairing the bridge wasn’t an option due to significant issues with the structural integrity. Rebuilding the bridge to current standards would cost around $7.5 million with other related costs unknown.

“I think the pictures speak for themselves,” Stutte said. “It’s rather disturbing when you go out there and look at it.”

In light of new information in the ESI report, Jay Bleier, the senior engineer for Olsson Associates, told the council that the initial estimate of $3.1 million would not be enough to address the viaduct’s deficiencies.

Stutte said it would be wonderful if the city could fix the bridge for $3.1 million, but that doesn’t appear to be an option.

“To actually make it a safe structure, according to both engineering consultants we brought in to look at it, they would need to reconstruct the thing,” he said. “It’s just not a realistic option to think you could do this for $3.1 million.”

But Jackson disagrees.

Hastings Citizens with a Voice hired Jeremy Kyncl with JJK Construction of Ceresco to assess the viaduct, as well. Jackson said Kyncl, a bridge contractor qualified by the Nebraska Department of Transportation, told the group the cost would be less than $3.1 million, though that information hasn’t been provided to the city.

Hunt said the group doesn’t believe the report from ESI included enough evidence that the repair option wouldn’t work. He hopes city leaders consider the voters who indicated they want to keep the viaduct and listen to public input on the subject.

“There are a lot of people who really, really, really want this location,” he said. “They want a serviceable viaduct. My hope is that the mayor and council will see that.”

Biden wins Michigan, Wisconsin, now on brink of White House
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WASHINGTON — Joe Biden won the battleground prizes of Michigan and Wisconsin on Wednesday, reclaiming a key part of the “blue wall” that slipped away from Democrats four years ago and dramatically narrowing President Donald Trump’s pathway to reelection.

A full day after Election Day, neither candidate had cleared the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the White House. But Biden’s victories in the Great Lakes states left him at 264, meaning he was one battleground state away from crossing the threshold and becoming president-elect.

Biden, who has received more than 71 million votes, the most in history, was joined by his running mate Kamala Harris at an afternoon news conference and said he now expected to win the presidency, though he stopped short of outright declaring victory.

“I will govern as an American president,” Biden said. ”There will be no red states and blue states when we win. Just the United States of America.”

It was a stark contrast to Trump, who on Wednesday falsely proclaimed that he had won the election, even though millions of votes remained uncounted and the race was far from over.

The Associated Press called Wisconsin for Biden after election officials in the state said all outstanding ballots had been counted, save for a few hundred in one township and an expected small number of provisional votes.

Trump’s campaign requested a recount, though statewide recounts in Wisconsin have historically changed the vote tally by only a few hundred votes. Biden led by 0.624 percentage point out of nearly 3.3 million ballots counted.

Since 2016, Democrats had been haunted by the crumbling of the blue wall, the trio of Great Lakes states — Pennsylvania is the third — that their candidates had been able to count on every four years. But Trump’s populist appeal struck a chord with white working-class voters and he captured all three in 2016 by a total margin of just 77,000 votes.

Both candidates this year fiercely fought for the states, with Biden’s everyman political persona resonating in blue-collar towns while his campaign also pushed to increase turnout among Black voters in cities like Detroit and Milwaukee.

Pennsylvania remained too early to call Wednesday night.

It was unclear when or how quickly a national winner could be determined after a long, bitter campaign dominated by the coronavirus and its effects on Americans and the national economy. But Biden’s possible pathways to the White House were expanding rapidly.

After the victories in Wisconsin and Michigan, he was just six Electoral College votes away from the presidency. A win in any undecided state except for Alaska — but including Nevada, with its six votes — would be enough to end Trump’s tenure in the White House.

Trump spent much of Wednesday in the White House residence, huddling with advisers and fuming at media coverage showing his Democratic rival picking up key battlegrounds. Trump falsely claimed victory in several key states and amplified unsubstantiated conspiracy theories about Democratic gains as absentee and early votes were tabulated.

Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien said the president would formally request a Wisconsin recount, citing “irregularities” in several counties. And the campaign said it was filing suit in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Georgia to demand better access for campaign observers to locations where ballots are being processed and counted, and to raise absentee ballot concerns.

At the same time, hundreds of thousands of votes were still to be counted in Pennsylvania, and Trump’s campaign said it was moving to intervene in the existing Supreme Court litigation over counting mail-in ballots there. Yet, the campaign also argued that it was the outstanding votes in Arizona that could reverse the outcome there, showcasing an inherent inconsistency with their arguments.

In other closely watched races, Trump picked up Florida, the largest of the swing states, and held onto Texas and Ohio while Biden kept New Hampshire and Minnesota and flipped Arizona, a state that had reliably voted Republican in recent elections.

The unsettled nature of the presidential race was reflective of a somewhat disappointing night for Democrats, who had hoped to deliver a thorough repudiation of Trump’s four years in office while also reclaiming the Senate to have a firm grasp on all of Washington. But the GOP held onto several Senate seats that had been considered vulnerable, including in Iowa, Texas, Maine and Kansas. Democrats lost House seats but were expected to retain control there.

The high-stakes election was held against the backdrop of a historic pandemic that has killed more than 232,000 Americans and wiped away millions of jobs. The U.S. on Wednesday set another record for daily confirmed coronavirus cases as several states posted all-time highs.

The candidates spent months pressing dramatically different visions for the nation’s future, including on racial justice, and voters responded in huge numbers, with more than 100 million people casting votes ahead of Election Day.

Trump, in an extraordinary move from the White House, issued premature claims of victory — which he continued on Twitter Wednesday — and said he would take the election to the Supreme Court to stop the counting. It was unclear exactly what legal action he could try to pursue.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell discounted the president’s quick claim of victory, saying it would take a while for states to conduct their vote counts. The Kentucky Republican said Wednesday that “claiming you’ve won the election is different from finishing the counting.”

Vote tabulations routinely continue beyond Election Day, and states largely set the rules for when the count has to end. In presidential elections, a key point is the date in December when presidential electors met. That’s set by federal law.

Dozens of Trump supporters chanting “Stop the count!” descended on a ballot-tallying center in Detroit, while thousands of anti-Trump protesters demanding a complete vote count took to the streets in cities across the U.S.

Protests — sometimes about the election, sometimes about racial inequality — took place Wednesday in at least a half-dozen cities, including Los Angeles, Seattle, Houston, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis and San Diego.

Several states allow mailed-in votes to be accepted as long as they were postmarked by Tuesday. That includes Pennsylvania, where ballots postmarked by Nov. 3 can be accepted if they arrive up to three days later.

Trump appeared to suggest those ballots should not be counted, and that he would fight for that outcome at the high court. But legal experts were dubious of Trump’s declaration. Trump has appointed three of the high court’s nine justices — including, most recently, Amy Coney Barrett.

The Trump campaign on Wednesday pushed Republican donors to dig deeper into their pockets to help finance legal challenges. Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, during a donor call, spoke plainly: “The fight’s not over. We’re in it.”

The momentum from early voting carried into Election Day, as an energized electorate produced long lines at polling sites throughout the country. Turnout was higher than in 2016 in numerous counties, including all of Florida, nearly every county in North Carolina and more than 100 counties in both Georgia and Texas. That tally seemed sure to increase as more counties reported their turnout figures.

Voters braved worries of the coronavirus, threats of polling place intimidation and expectations of long lines caused by changes to voting systems, but appeared undeterred as turnout appeared it would easily surpass the 139 million ballots cast four years ago.

Thomsen: Voters made 'wise' decision in approving justice center bond

Scott Thomsen, the member of the Adams County Board of Supervisors who worked most closely on the proposed justice center — bringing the project to voters for approval —was pleased with the outcome of Tuesday’s general election vote.

According to unofficial results from the Adams County Clerk’s Office, 6,911 people voted in favor of the bond issue and 6,448 people voted against it.

The planned 168-bed jail and justice center is anticipated to cost $37 million, and must not exceed $38 million according to the bond issue.

“I think the voters made a wise decision,” Thomsen said. “I think this is much needed in the county. Like I’ve said before, I think it was the most important issue that was facing the county today.”

The county board approved an agreement in March to purchase 11 acres south of M Street at U.S. Highway 281 for $180,000 as a site for the justice center. The property will allow room to expand the facilities in the future if needed.

Many county departments that deal with law enforcement or court functions will have offices in the new justice center. Thomsen the county officials that run those departments are working hard to also minimize project costs.

Thomsen said the new justice center should ultimately save the county money and keep money in Adams County.

The county is looking at constructing a new jail because the current 37-bed county jail, which was constructed in 1962, has out-of-date infrastructure and is non-compliant with state regulations. It can stay open only because it is grandfathered in to stay in operation under old rules.

Most of the feedback Thomsen received was concerns about the cost of the project and the effect on taxes.

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 equal 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 likewise $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.

“I suppose nine out of 10 times when somebody expressed a concern that we were able to at least alleviate that concern by giving them information,” he said.

Thomsen said he didn’t receive any feedback saying a new facility was unnecessary.

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.

The annual payment for the justice center would be $2.28 million to pay off the debt in 20 years.

Thomsen said saving the $1.6 million the county is spending now to transport prisoners will help offset the bond.

While Adams County grows into the new 168-bed jail, the county also can offset the bond by renting out open beds to other counties.

A few Adams 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.

“There’s a million reasons why it is a good thing it passed,” Thomsen said. “I’m very happy.”

The justice center bond passed just before Thomsen leaves the county board.

He lost his bid for re-election to Republican challenger Harold Johnson in the May primary election. There were no Democratic challengers for the position.

“I’m certainly hoping the board will allow me to stay involved in this project,” he said. “I’ve put in hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours on it, and I think the real work is just going to start.”

He expects the project to take a year and a half to two years to complete. Adams County soon will begin looking at architects and contractors.

He said a steering committee, similar to the citizens’ committee that worked on planning for the project, might begin to work on it now.

Adams County also will be in contact with Omaha architecture firm Prochaska & Associates, whom the county hired to help plan for the jail.

“Hopefully we can keep some of this local,” Thomsen said.

South Heartland COVID-19 risk needle steady this week
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The South Heartland Health District will remain at a 2.7 reading on its COVID-19 “risk dial” for a second consecutive week, the district health department reported Wednesday evening.

The reading is in the mid-to-high portion of the dial’s orange zone, signifying “elevated” risk related to further spread of the novel coronavirus in the four-county district.

Several factors related to current conditions are used to establish the risk dial reading, which is updated each Wednesday. Zones on the dial include green (low risk), yellow (moderate), orange (elevated) and red (severe).

For the week of Oct. 25-31, the district saw a coronavirus test positivity rate of 11.6%. The rate is the number of positive virus test results the health department receives in a given week as a percentage of all tests administered during that week. Positivity rates have exceeded 15% in recent weeks.

A positivity rate of 15% or higher indicates severe community spread of the virus, whereas a rate below 5% signifies low spread, according to the health department.

South Heartland’s average number of daily new cases for the 14 days ending Oct. 31 was 63.1 per 100,000, said Michele Bever, health department executive director.

“If we had low community spread, we would expect an average of eight or fewer new cases per day per 100,000,” Bever said.

As of Wednesday, 11 school systems in Adams, Clay, Nuckolls and Webster counties were seeing student and staff absences related to the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19 — the disease caused by infection with the virus, which can cause no symptoms at all in some patients but serious and even deadly illness in others.

Districtwide, nearly 200 students and staff were absent from the 11 school systems, including 27 students and 11 staff members in isolation after testing positive for the virus. Others who were absent may have been in quarantine due to exposure.

“The schools continue to do a good job assuring COVID prevention practices are in place to protect their staff and the students,” Bever said. “We encourage school families and community members to follow their example.”

In addition, nine long-term care facilities in the South Heartland district have seen staff, residents, or both test positive for the virus in the past two weeks.

As of Wednesday, 10 patients were being treated for COVID-19 in hospitals within the South Heartland district. (The three hospitals are in Hastings, Superior and Red Cloud.) Two of the patients were requiring critical care, Bever said.

Since March, a total of 75 residents of the health district have spent time in a hospital in connection with COVID-19.

“On Sept. 15, the cumulative hospitalizations totaled 31 for the previous six months,” Bever said. “The rate of hospitalization has been accelerating, with 44 South Heartland residents needing hospitalizations due to COVID-19 in the past month and a half.”

Bever is reminding residents to maintain 6 feet of distance from people they don’t live with, to mask up to reduce risk of close contact exposures, and to wash their hands frequently.

“If hospitals are caring for patients with severe symptoms of COVID-19 or influenza, they have less capacity to care for any of us or our loved ones when we have other critical needs, like heart attacks,” she said. “We can all help reduce this burden by avoiding the three Cs: avoid Crowded places, avoid Close Contact and avoid Confined spaces.”

For more South Heartland COVID-19 statistics visit the health department’s website, www.southheartlandhealth.org.