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Farmers look to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue as trade wars continue

WASHINGTON — Struggling dairy farmers who flocked to an expo in Wisconsin last month hoped to hear some encouragement from one of their own — Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, a Georgia agri-businessman whose dad had run a small farm.

But some came away angry after Perdue — speaking in a state that lost nearly two dairy farms a day last year — remarked that small farms would not likely survive as the “big get bigger and small go out.”

The remark reverberated across the country, prompting calls for his resignation from some farm groups, angry editorials and even criticism from his own party. Critics said Perdue’s “go big or get out” line played into existing fears that the Trump administration is more interested in helping large corporations than the little guys.

Perdue later said he was only acknowledging the current market reality.

Over the last year, Perdue has emerged as President Donald Trump’s key evangelist in bruising trade wars, traveling the country to give pep talks to frustrated farmers who have seen their incomes drop and exports hit hard by tariff disputes.

As talks between China and the U.S. on a possible first phase of a trade deal continue, Perdue could have some welcome news for this key constituency that helped elect Trump — a third round of bailout payments on top of the more than $26 billion already being spent.

Two economists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said a third round of payments for farmers increasingly is seen as inevitable, particularly if a trade deal with China is not reached soon. The amount has not been determined.

Perdue said last week that he was “hopeful” that the pending trade deal would “supplant any type of farm aid needed in 2020.” But a third round of aid could be crucial to shoring up Trump’s support in rural America as the election looms, analysts say.

In more than two years in office, Perdue, a former Georgia governor, has regularly praised Trump. He spent more time in a recent podcast with Trump’s former press secretary Sarah Sanders lauding Trump than discussing farmers’ problems. Trump has said that what he doesn’t know about farming, “Sonny teaches me.”

Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s acting chief of staff, said the White House thinks its support within the farming community is “overwhelmingly solid” in large part because of Perdue’s efforts.

“The president really likes people who know their stuff. And it’s been very clear from very early on that Sonny knows this industry, that Sonny knows the people, Sonny knows the issues, he knows how to communicate the issues,” Mulvaney said in an interview.

As the head of USDA, Perdue has been a disrupter in the Trump mold. He has worked to transform the sprawling $140 billion agency of nearly 100,000 employees by cutting staff, discarding research and rolling back directives on forest preservation and food safety.

Perdue has run afoul of Democrats in Congress, child poverty advocates and science groups, who worry about his climate change skepticism — “I think it’s weather patterns, frankly,” he said recently — and moves they say have weakened the agency’s research wings.

Republicans praise Perdue for his relentless promotion of the administration’s agenda. In recent days he’s been touting China’s alleged commitment to more than double its agriculture purchases from the United States. The trade agreement is not yet committed to paper.

Perdue, 72, may be losing some support in rural America, where farm bankruptcies and loan delinquencies are rising. Before the “big get bigger” misstep, Perdue was booed in August in Minnesota over an ill-timed joke that suggested farmers were whiners.

“He’s supposed to be the head of the Agriculture Department, a true representative of farmers, but it felt like he was pretty out of touch with what was going on here in farm country,” said Darvin Bentlage, 63, a cattle producer in Golden City, Missouri.

A third trade bailout would help, he said, “but it won’t make us whole and we don’t want to be making our money at the mailbox. We’d rather be making it at the marketplace.”

A WWII submarine went missing for 75 years. High-tech undersea drones solved the mystery.

Tim Taylor was about to end the mission. His team had scoured the seabed off Japan with autonomous underwater vehicles, which are essentially high-tech drones, without a hit. His ship now needed repairs, and a $7 million drone had just reported an error on its latest dive.

All that remained was to download the data from that drone before heading hundreds of miles back to shore.

That's when they spotted it: an unusual reading on the ocean floor, more than 1,400 feet deep. The next day, another submersible with high-definition cameras went to investigate.

The images it beamed back left no doubt about what Taylor's team had found: A hulking ship lay rusting in the pitch-black water. As the camera rounded the bow and panned to the bridge, an eerily preserved plaque came into view: USS Grayback.

"It was amazing. Everyone was excited," Taylor said in an interview with The Washington Post. "Then you realize there are 80 men buried there, and it's a sobering experience."

Taylor's discovery on June 5 solved an enduring 75-year-old mystery about the fate of the USS Grayback, one of World War II's most effective submarines. The U.S. Navy confirmed Sunday that Taylor's team, part of a group dedicated to finding the 52 American submarines lost in action during World War II, found Grayback's final resting place in the ocean off Okinawa, Japan.

The news brought closure to relatives of the sailors lost that day.

"There's a book I read, and it said these ships are known only to God," Gloria Hurney, whose uncle, Raymond Parks, died on the Grayback, told ABC News. "But now we know where the Grayback is."

The Grayback's final mission started on Jan. 28, 1944, according to the Navy's official history, when it left Pearl Harbor on its 10th combat tour. Commissioned in 1941, the Tambor-class sub had spent the war patrolling the South Pacific and South China Sea, torpedoing numerous enemy vessels and rescuing downed American aviators. The Grayback sank more than a dozen Japanese ships in all, the New York Times reported.

Tim Taylor-Lost 52 Project 

Tim Taylor and his team use unmanned undersea submersibles to locate the USS Grayback in more than 1,400 feet of water off Japan.

On Feb. 24, 1944, the sub reported sinking two Japanese cargo ships days earlier and was ordered back to replenish its torpedo supply. But it never arrived in Midway.

After the war, the Navy used Japanese military records to try to piece together a history of its lost subs, and pinpointed the submarine's final resting place as about 100 miles east-southeast of Okinawa, the Times reported.

But its remains were never found - until Taylor took on the case.

In 2010, Taylor, an undersea explorer and CEO of a New York-based firm that provides autonomous underwater vehicles, discovered the USS R-12, which sank in an accident off Key West, Florida, in 1943. He set up a privately funded group called the Lost 52 Project, dedicated to using new technology to find long-lost World War II subs. Along with his wife, fellow explorer Christine Dennison, his team found three more vessels before tackling the Grayback.

In this case, he relied on a key discovery by Yutaka Iwasaki, a systems engineer in Kobe, Japan, who works with Taylor's team as an amateur researcher. Last year, while poring over original Japanese military documents, he found reports showing that on Feb. 27, 1944, a Japanese aircraft had dropped a 500-pound bomb on the Grayback. The coordinates given in that report suggested the Navy had made a crucial error when translating the coordinates where the sub was attacked.

"It was off by one digit," Taylor said. "That changed the location by more than 100 miles."

Armed with the correct information, his team journeyed in June into the open seas off Japan with a fleet of the latest submersible drones. The devices use sonar to create detailed images of the ocean floor, which are then sent back to Taylor's crew to search for any signs of wreckage, the Times reported.

The search team battled technical problems, though, and a broken refrigeration system on his boat would soon require a return to port for a fix. Some crew members were already packing up to return when the drone experienced an error a few hours into a 24-hour dive, Taylor said.

Instead, the data it returned led Taylor's team directly to the sunken sub.

"The most compelling moment was when the camera went from the bow up to the bridge and we all saw the plaque," he said. "There was no doubt about it."

After the Navy verified the find, Taylor and Dennison informed relatives of the men lost on the Grayback that they'd found their final resting place.

Hurney and Kathy Taylor, whose uncle John Patrick King was on the sub, learned about the discovery live on camera on ABC's "World News Tonight" on Sunday. Both women wept and thanked Taylor's team.

Tim Taylor-Lost 52 Project 

The USS Grayback sank in February 1944 after a Japanese aircraft hit it with a 500-pound bomb. 

"I committed from the very beginning when I was a little girl that I was going to find him or follow him or keep his memory alive, whatever I could do," said Kathy Taylor, who isn't related to Tim Taylor.

Navy officials hailed Taylor's discovery for closing a long-open chapter for the submarine and its crew.

"Each discovery of a sunken craft is an opportunity to remember and honor the service of our sailors," Robert Neyland, the head of the Naval History and Heritage Command's Underwater Archaeology Branch, said in a statement. "Knowing their final resting place brings closure, in some part, to their families and shipmates as well as enables our team to better understand the circumstances in which the boat was lost."

Taylor said he hopes his project casts more light on the thousands of sailors who died on submarines, many of whose heroic exploits were classified until decades after World War II.

"It's a missing piece of their family stories and their legacy," Taylor said. "It haunts these families for their whole lives. It's very sad but rewarding to show these people finally where their loved ones sacrificed their lives."

How to get a $5,000 state tax credit: Omaha may designate neighborhoods 'extremely blighted'

The City of Omaha may declare large portions of the city as “extremely blighted” to help boost homeownership and affordable housing development in those neighborhoods.

The designation would allow people to receive a $5,000 state income tax credit if they buy a house for their primary residence in one of the designated areas during the next five years.

In addition, affordable housing projects in the designated neighborhoods must receive preference for grants and loans from the Nebraska Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

The provisions are in a new piece of state legislation, LB 86, introduced by State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha. The Legislature passed the bill 47-0 in May.

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For the incentives to kick in, Nebraska cities must declare the areas extremely blighted, as defined by the new state law. To qualify, the areas must already be in an existing Community Redevelopment Area. They also must have an unemployment rate that’s at least twice as high as the state’s unemployment rate. And the areas must have a poverty rate of at least 20% as determined by the most recent U.S. Census.

The “blighted” language comes from the Nebraska Constitution. The Legislature created the “extremely blighted” category to differentiate the state’s “hardest-hit” neighborhoods from relatively better-off areas that have been declared “substandard and blighted” to enable developments to receive tax-increment financing, Wayne said.

“We are trying to incentivize homeownership and affordable housing development in the hardest-hit neighborhoods,” Wayne said. “We are trying to push homeownership, especially in areas that have been redlined, like in my district.”

The Omaha Planning Board voted unanimously last week to recommend that the City Council approve the city’s proposal to declare 19 areas of the city extremely blighted. The council will consider the proposal in a few weeks.

At least two other Nebraska cities, Lincoln and Grand Island, are considering similar proposals.

The proposed extremely blighted areas in Omaha are in north and South Omaha. They’re almost all east of 60th Street. The Planning Board documents include maps of all the individual areas.

To define the areas, city staff looked at existing community redevelopment areas, then studied census data within those areas to find blocks that met the criteria for unemployment and poverty, Bridget Hadley, the city’s economic development manager, told the Planning Board.

The incentives would be available from 2020 to 2025. If the incentives work, they might be extended and expanded, based on new data from next year’s census.

To qualify for the tax credit, people would have to live in the houses they bought. A homebuyer couldn’t rent the house out or sell it within five years. The law includes provisions for the Nebraska Department of Revenue to claw back the tax credit if it’s misused.

Wayne said the provisions add to the very few incentives Nebraska and its cities have for redevelopment in economically challenged areas.

“It is critical that we move this forward,” Wayne said. “We are trying to spur homeownership. We know that is part of building assets and wealth for our community, particularly the community I represent.”

Nebraska voters also will consider a ballot measure in November 2020 to amend the state constitution to increase the maximum amount of time to repay tax-increment financing debt from 15 years to 20 years in extremely blighted areas.

Wayne said he realizes that people might not like to hear their neighborhood labeled extremely blighted.

“But the only way we’re going to get out of extreme blight is to provide more economic development tools, which is what we’re trying to do,” he said. “Maybe in five or 10 years, it won’t be extremely blighted any more.”

Changing Omaha: More than 50 stories of local development projects in the works

Pay raise for Omaha's mayor? Council members back it, but some say proposed 3% hike isn't enough

Omaha’s mayor needs a raise, members of the Omaha City Council say. Their only question is how much more the city’s chief executive should be paid.

Mayor Jean Stothert, serving her second four-year term, just got her first pay raise as mayor this year, to $104,358. She’s set to get an additional 3% a year through 2022.

City Council President Chris Jerram recently proposed extending that 3% annual raise through 2026. Under that plan, the mayor would then make $124,645.

But some council members say Jerram’s proposal doesn’t go far enough, fast enough. They use data from other cities to argue that Omaha’s mayor would still be underpaid.

Stothert cut her mayoral salary in 2013 while still serving on the City Council. Stothert had just won the mayoral election but hadn’t been sworn in yet.

As a candidate, she criticized then-Mayor Jim Suttle’s budget decisions, including pay raises for some Mayor’s Office employees. At the time, the city faced a budget shortfall of more than $13 million. Stothert proposed a 10% reduction to the mayor’s pay.

The council agreed to reduce the mayor’s salary by about $11,000 a year and freeze it for four years at about $102,000 a year.

A later council, in 2015, approved the 3% annual raise for the mayor that took effect this year. Now some on the council want Omaha’s mayor to see a more substantial pay increase.

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Council members Aimee Melton, one of the mayor’s closest allies, and Ben Gray, who disagrees with Stothert often, say the mayor should get more than the 3% that Jerram has proposed.

Melton and Gray cited a council study of comparable cities that found that Omaha’s mayor makes about 18% less than the median pay of mayors of similar-size cities.

Only Colorado Springs paid its mayor less, with an annual salary of $103,370.

Several cities, including Albuquerque, New Mexico, pay their mayors thousands of dollars more a year. New Orleans and Tampa, Florida, pay more than $160,000 a year.

Stothert told The World-Herald in a recent interview that she would not object to a raise for whoever is the city’s next mayor, as long as the council is reasonable about the size.

She said that she didn’t request the raise and that she sees the job as public service. She said she understands that taxpayers are footing the bill.

“It’s up to the council if they want to do that comparison,” Stothert said.

But she did compare the mayor to “the CEO of a large company.”

Melton, Gray and Councilman Rich Pahls said they and council staffers have spent months studying the appropriate pay for the mayor.

Melton said she doesn’t like the message it sends that Omaha’s first female mayor makes less than her predecessor, even though that was of Stothert’s own doing, or less than other mayors in comparably sized cities.

“She manages a billion-dollar budget,” Melton said. “The pay needs to be commensurate to the job that’s done.”

Pahls pointed to Omaha-area leaders in education and public utilities who make double or more what the mayor is paid.

The Omaha public school district pays its superintendent a base salary of $300,000 a year, he noted. The Omaha Public Power District pays its CEO more than $500,000 annually.

Council members said they understand that there’s a political cost associated with paying public officials more. The mayor, Pahls said, would pay a political price if she asked for a raise.

“I’m no rubber stamp for the mayor,” said Pahls, who voted against the city trash contract backed by Stothert. “But we need to get the salary up.”

Stothert said making a decision now about pay for the next mayor boosts transparency and gives the city time to budget for additional costs.

She has not yet said whether she intends to run in 2021 for a third term as mayor. People around her are already raising money.

Jerram also proposed extending the council’s current 3% annual raise through 2026. Members make about $38,000 a year today. They would make $45,537 in 2026.

“It’s reasonable, responsible and in line with what other city employees are getting,” Jerram said.

Public hearings on Jerram’s proposals are set for 2 p.m. Nov. 19 in the Legislative Chambers of the City-County Building at 1819 Farnam St.

8 local mayors and their salaries

8 local mayors and their salaries


A student crosses the field at Memorial Stadium as snow falls on Monday in Lincoln. Omaha commuters trying to adjust to wintry conditions dealt with slick spots Monday morning. Eastern Nebraska snow totals ranged from a half-inch to 2 inches; Omaha had about an inch. Wind chills were in the single digits Monday, and Norfolk saw record cold, while Omaha missed matching a record by 1 degree. Story in Midlands.