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'People, take advantage of it': Nebraskans can ask for tax break on flood-damaged properties

The questions about flood recovery came fast and furious at an Iowa community meeting in April, just one month after floodwaters hit eastern Nebraska and western Iowa.

Several residents asked variations on the same question: What about taxes due on properties that had significant flood damage? Would residents still have to pay taxes on homes that are uninhabitable or farm fields that are too wet to plant?

“Don’t pay ’em,” someone shouted from the audience, to laughter and applause.

Nebraskans in disaster-stricken areas have another option besides tax evasion, thanks to a law change approved by legislators and signed by Gov. Pete Ricketts last month. Owners of properties destroyed or significantly damaged by flooding, a tornado or other natural disasters can request a new property assessment — what could amount to a tax break if officials agree that a property’s value has dropped.

That applies to all types of properties — homes, businesses and agricultural land. The measure amends a previous state law that required a property’s assessed value to be set as of Jan. 1 — no exceptions, even if a house burned down on Jan. 2.

State Sen. Steve Erdman, the amendment’s sponsor, actually introduced the bill last year and again this year before the March floods. The proposal gained new urgency, and supporters, afterward.

“Hopefully the word will get out,” said Debbie Churchill, the Dodge County assessor. “People, take advantage of it. Don’t wait until the last minute.”

There are fairly strict parameters and a narrow window to apply:

  • The damage has to have occurred between Jan. 1 and July 1 of the current assessment year.
  • “Significant property damage” is generally defined as damage exceeding 20% of the assessed value of land, a structure or the property’s total assessed value, if it’s in an area with a disaster declaration or if the property has been declared unlivable.
  • Owners have until July 15 to fill out and send in a form — available at — to their county assessor and county clerk.
  • The damage cannot be man-made — you can’t apply for a reassessment if your house caught fire because of a lit cigarette, for example.
  • A county board of equalization has final say on any assessment adjustments, which must be approved before July 25 or, if an extension is requested, Aug. 10.

Thousands of properties across Nebraska could be eligible for valuation adjustments. Churchill estimates that at least 800 homes in the Fremont area alone are substantially damaged, plus more in hard-hit towns like North Bend and Winslow. Roughly 900 have been affected by flooding in Douglas County, although not all may meet the damage threshold. In Sarpy County, hundreds, maybe 1,000 or more, homes, businesses and fields covered by sand or water could qualify for some property tax relief.

That’s not the case in Iowa.

Barring any change in state law, residents will have to pay full taxes on the preflood assessed value of their property. Iowa taxes are paid nearly two years in arrears, so the tax bills that will appear in mailboxes this August reflect valuations as of Jan. 1, 2018. Residents could appeal for a lower valuation due to flood damage, but that wouldn’t be reflected in tax bills until 2021, at the earliest.

“It’s difficult to tell people devastated by flooding, ‘Sorry, you got to pay taxes for two more years on your house that floated down the river,” said Brenda Mintle, the Fremont County, Iowa, Assessor.

Floods devastate Nebraska, Iowa in March 2019

Kay Askew lives in Omaha but owns and rents out two houses in Pacific Junction, Iowa, a small city inundated by floodwaters. Her tenants had to relocate and both houses have to be stripped of the ruined drywall, insulation and flooring inside. In April, she said it stung that she would still have to pay taxes on two properties that were all but destroyed.

Askew said she understands that taxes are paid in arrears, “but it still doesn’t seem right.”

After devastating flooding in the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, area in 2008, Linn County officials offered a tax abatement to displaced residents and business owners. For a one-year period, they could apply to not pay taxes while their property was unlivable or unusable. Local taxing entities, including school districts, had to sign on to the provision, and more than 2,700 applications were received.

Whether new valuations go into effect now or in two years, some towns and counties are already worried about the toll flood damage will take on the local tax base. If a portion of property valuations decrease in a small town, that could affect how much tax revenue is collected at a time when some places are scrambling for funds to fix mangled roads, bridges and water pipes.

“The fear is out there,” said Christina Govig, the assessor in Mills County, Iowa. “You’re going to lose so much value, you just are.”

In Nebraska, the possibility of tax savings and amounts will vary by circumstances. Even if a house was swept away in a flood, for example, the owner could still be taxed on the value of the land left behind. If someone renovates or rebuilds, the property valuation will change again. Because Nebraska taxes are paid one year in arrears, any adjusted valuation this year will show up on tax bills mailed in December and due in 2020.

State and county officials are taking different tacks to get the word out through traditional and social media sources. The Nebraska Department of Revenue uploaded the reassessment form on its website Wednesday. Sarpy County posted a notice on its website, the neighborhood app Nextdoor and Facebook groups, and is preparing a mailer to send out to property owners who may be eligible.

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Douglas County Assessor Diane Battiato said, “I’d love to see radio stations do PSAs (public service announcements).”

Sarpy County Assessor Dan Pittman has no doubt that residents will apply — they’ve been calling his office since March.

Nebraska officials have one very important tip: document, document, document. Property owners applying for a reassessment should submit anything that shows the extent of the damage, such as photos, letters from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, contractor estimates or the difference between this year and last year’s crop production. Assessment teams may have to do on-site inspections, too.

“We need something besides just their word for it,” Dodge County’s Churchill said.

Photos: Iowa and Nebraska brace for more flooding

In White House talks, Mexican officials work to avoid tariffs

WASHINGTON (AP) - Straining to stave off threatened U.S. tariffs, Mexican and American officials claimed progress in White House talks late Wednesday, but President Donald Trump declared that it was "not nearly enough" to halt the import taxes he is holding out as a way to force Mexico to stanch the flow of Central American migrants flooding America's southern border.

Talks continued into the night at the State Department and were to resume Thursday.

Underscoring the scope of the problem, the Department of Homeland Security announced separately that U.S. Border Patrol apprehensions of migrants illegally crossing the border hit the highest level in more than a decade in May: 132,887 apprehensions, including 11,507 children traveling alone. "We are in a full-blown emergency, and I cannot say this stronger: The system is broken," said John Sanders, acting head of Customs and Border Protection. The agency has more than 19,000 migrants in custody.

The tariffs carry enormous economic consequences for both countries, and politically they underscore a major ideological split between Trump and his own party. Trump has increasingly relied on the import taxes as a bludgeon to try to force other nations to bend to his will, dismissing warnings about the likely harm to American manufacturers and consumers.

Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said immigration, not tariffs, was the main focus at the White House meeting, which included Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Vice President Mike Pence and other U.S. officials.

"We are optimistic," he said at a press conference.

Republicans in Congress have warned the White House that they are ready to stand up to the president to try to block his tariffs, which they worry would spike U.S. consumer costs, harm the economy and imperil the pending U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday, "There is not much support in my conference for tariffs, that's for sure."

Reporters asked Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa, chairman of the key Senate Finance Committee, repeatedly on Wednesday about the prospects of congressional action to shut down the tariffs, and he said again and again that he doesn't expect them to go into effect with negotiations ongoing between Mexico and the United States.

"I expect those negotiations to be successful because I think Mexico knows that their economy and our economy's tied together," Grassley said.

Trump is scheduled to visit Iowa next week, including a stop in Council Bluffs. Asked what Iowans will want to hear from Trump on tariffs, Grassley said it will be a nonissue by that point.

"I think that you're going to find more Iowans interested in what he says about ethanol and our economy generally," Grassley said.

GOP Rep. Adrian Smith represents Nebraska's largely agricultural 3rd District and serves on the House Ways and Means Committee, which has oversight of trade issues.

Smith said that he's no fan of tariffs and that the ones being levied on Mexico are particularly avoidable. But he said that it's the president's prerogative to impose tariffs and that pushing for cooperation on the border is important. He characterized talk of congressional action as premature.

"They buy a lot of corn," Smith said of Mexico. "I think there's an appreciation for that, and I think the president is aware of that as well."

Without a deal, the first tariffs- 5% taxes on imports from Mexico, eventually increasing to 25% - are to go into effect Monday, and Trump has said that is "more likely" than not to occur despite the opposition.

Most of the migrants trying to enter the U.S. are from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, countries wracked by gangs, violence and poverty. Many of the travelers are expected to eventually request asylum.

Administration officials have said Mexico can prevent the tariffs by securing its southern border with Guatemala, cracking down on criminal smuggling organizations and entering into a "safe third country agreement" that would make it difficult for those who enter Mexico from other countries to claim asylum in the U.S.

Mexico has taken steps to stem the migrant caravans. On Wednesday, some 200 Mexican military police, immigration agents and federal police blocked the advance of about 1,000 Central American migrants who were walking north along a southern Mexico highway.

The U.S., however, has not proposed any concrete benchmarks to assess whether the U.S. ally is sufficiently stemming the migrant flow. And it is unclear whether even those steps would be enough to satisfy Trump on illegal immigration, an issue he sees as crucial to his 2020 reelection campaign.

Heading into the meeting, which Mexico requested, White House officials had downplayed expectations, saying the U.S. delegation was willing to listen to Mexico's ideas for meeting Trump's demands but did not expect a deal to emerge Wednesday.

And it remained unclear what kind of deal could be struck with Trump out of the country.

Offering optimism, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro said on CNN that there were commitments Mexico could make to avoid the tariffs, which he said "may not have to go into effect precisely because we have the Mexicans' attention."

And Grassley said before the White House meeting that the Mexicans had "a long list of things they're going to offer to us, and it will preclude tariffs going into effect."

World-Herald staff writer Joseph Morton contributed to this report.

Omaha-area cadets fly to Normandy for commemorative D-Day events near Omaha Beach

On this landmark D-Day anniversary, Omaha meets Omaha Beach.

Nearly 70 junior ROTC cadets and chaperones from Omaha-area high schools traveled to France this week to take part in ceremonies observing the 75th anniversary of Operation Neptune, the epic landing by U.S. and Canadian and British forces on June 6, 1944, that turned the tide against Germany in World War II.

Over three days, the students will mingle with D-Day veterans, place flags on the graves of area soldiers buried at Normandy, join in wreath-laying ceremonies, and hold down a privileged spot in a parade through Sainte-Mère-Église, the first town liberated by the Allies.

“It was a really big honor,” said Erick Garcia, 16, who will be a senior this fall at Omaha South. “We’ll literally be marching in the footsteps of the soldiers we’re representing.”

The students come from 10 high schools in Council Bluffs, Bellevue, Millard and OPS. They left together from Eppley Airfield on Tuesday and arrived in Paris early Wednesday. They are staying in La Mézière, a small town about two hours’ drive from Omaha Beach.

The trip cost $3,400 per person. Nearly half was covered by donations from American Legion and VFW posts and the Sherwood Foundation, but the students had to raise $1,900 themselves, said Mike DeBolt, director of Army instruction for the Omaha Public Schools and the trip’s coordinator. The students have held pancake feeds and other fundraisers for the past year and a half.

The students won’t be the only Nebraskans at the D-Day ceremonies. Sen. Deb Fischer, Rep. Don Bacon and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry will be part of a bipartisan congressional delegation attending an official commemoration at Colleville-sur-Mer.

On Thursday the cadets are scheduled to join in a ceremony and memorial concert at the Brittany American Cemetery near St. James, where 4,000 American service members are buried.

D-Day: 'The boat that won the war' was designed by a Nebraskan

Friday they will participate in a similar event at the iconic Normandy American Cemetery, overlooking Omaha Beach. The cemetery is seen in the opening and closing sequences of “Saving Private Ryan,” one of the best-known Hollywood films about D-Day and the Normandy campaign.

At the cemeteries, the students will place flags on the graves of fallen service members from Nebraska and Iowa.

“They can walk the entire cemetery, see the English Channel,” said DeBolt, a retired Army lieutenant colonel. “They get to see the ages of the soldiers, who weren’t much older than they are.”

They will also walk Omaha Beach, the sector that saw the bloodiest action on D-Day.

Saturday, the Omaha students will visit Pointe du Hoc, a bluff summited on D-Day by 1st Infantry Division soldiers using hardware-store ladders while under intense German fire. Then they will take a bus to Utah Beach.

In the afternoon, they will join in the Performance Day Parade, marching just behind police and firefighters from New York City. Garcia, the unit’s drill commander, said the Omaha group was chosen because of a link between their hometown and Omaha Beach. Another JROTC drill team from Utah — signifying Utah Beach — also is scheduled to march.

D-Day: Was Omaha Beach named in honor of local man's war efforts?

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event,” Garcia said.

The students will spend Sunday and Monday touring Paris, then return to Nebraska June 11.

Chloe Aschenbrener, 16, a senior-to-be at Northwest High, said she’ll be thinking of her great-grandparents, Frank and Leona Aschenbrener, who both served in the military during World War II.

Her great-grandparents have died, but she said the part of the trip she is most looking forward to is talking with surviving D-Day vets.

“We get to hear their stories, and what they did that day,” said Aschenbrener, who plans to join the Army as a military police officer after graduating from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Chloe’s mother, Angela, is on the trip as a chaperone. She studied French in school but has never before visited France.

She said a visit to Normandy has long been on her bucket list.

“You grow up watching all those movies, and then you say, ‘I get to go there,’ ” Angela Aschenbrener said. “It’s really surreal.”

Garcia said he became interested in military service as a boy, reading stories about knights and crusaders. Watching the fighters in Star Wars movies clinched it.

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“I thought, ‘Look at those people, fighting and working together,’ ” he said.

Garcia loves history, and he has studied ancient wars as well as World War II. He, too, is looking forward to meeting the men who stormed the beaches at Normandy.

“We’re going to take advantage and hear their stories,” he said. “These great heroes are going away.”

World commemorates 75th anniversary of D-Day

Hansen: Climb to the top of Mount Everest started with a vow on an Omaha couch

Alex stood at the summit of Mount Everest and surveyed the world. He stood there and looked out and thought about himself at 14, sitting on his couch on a long-ago lazy summer day in Omaha, vowing for reasons mysterious even to him: “Someday, I will get off this couch. Someday, I will climb Everest.”

He prayed a little. He sobbed a little. He hugged his friend and Sherpa guide Tashi. Then he peered over the edge, to the Chinese-controlled side of the mountain, to see if there were any climbers ascending to the summit.

“No one was,” Alex Harz, a Central High graduate, told me while remembering his first Mount Everest summit, in May 2018, the one that came after decades of dreaming, 10 years of serious mountain climbing and a 52-day odyssey up the mountain. “So I looked back at Tashi in complete disbelief that he and I had the whole top of the world to ourselves.”

Harz’s 45 minutes alone atop Everest is a chunk of time that changed his life forever, he thinks. And that 45 minutes atop Everest is especially precious a year later, because the summit of the most famous mountain in the world has never been so crowded.

This year, Everest seemed the mountaineering equivalent of I-80 at rush hour. In May, it grew so overpopulated with people trying to reach the top that experts are blaming the overcrowding for at least some of the 11 deaths on Everest.

Those deaths have focused a mountain of negative attention on Everest. So have photos showing a single-file line of climbers waiting to reach the summit like they were standing at the world’s highest altitude DMV.


Alex Harz on the summit of Mount Everest.

Harz has a unique vantage point from which to view this overcrowding. He’s been up there, and he is friends with some of the climbers who stood in those lines. The Omaha flatland kid who became a globe-trotting mountain climber says both bad management and simple bad luck led to the much-publicized overcrowding.

But he also says that the nonclimbers of the world — people like yours truly — tend to miss the true story of Everest when we focus solely on one photo or one year of overcrowding.

There is some mismanagement of the mountain, but that mismanagement is at least somewhat understandable, Harz says. This year, the Nepalese government issued a record 381 permits to climb Everest. When you add in the Sherpa guide that by Nepalese law must accompany each climber — and then factor in that some climbers take two guides — that’s maybe 800 trying to make the harrowing trek to the top. And that doesn’t include the smaller number of climbers coming up on the Chinese-controlled side of the mountain.

But, Harz says, it’s important to remember that the Nepalese government isn’t issuing permits for no reason. Nepal is one of the poorest countries on Earth, a place where the average resident makes $2,500 a year — a place that can really use the roughly $300 million in annual gross domestic product that pours in from climbing and trekking on Everest.

“While you can’t for certain say what’s going to happen moving forward, Nepal is not gonna limit the number of permits,” he said. “Everest is the livelihood for a whole lot of people.”

And then bad luck piled atop mismanagement. This May, shaky weather shortened the usual two-week window when climbers can actually summit the mountain. When the weather cleared, it prompted that record number of climbers on the mountain to race for the top at the same time.

Harz understands that, too — he remembers taking step after step, fearful that the next could trigger an avalanche or send him tumbling off the mountain. Part of the fear is death. And part of the fear — a big part of it, actually — is working toward the Everest summit for months, for years, only to fall just short of the summit.

“You get that sense of insecurity, that fear of missing out, that sense of summit fever,” Harz says of the conditions that created the 2019 stampede to the top of Everest. “There is this big question mark the whole time: Can you climb this mountain and come back alive?”

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Everest loomed as a presence in Harz’s life long before he ever saw it in person. He decided that he was going to scale it one day when he was a freshman at Central. At the time, he was sitting indoors and watching TV inside a state where there are no mountains.

For years, this dream seemed abstract, weird and unreachable, even to him. Harz spent a year at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, then transferred to the University of Colorado, where he played on the soccer team and also walked on to the football team as a kicker.

And then one day a dozen years ago in Colorado, he remembered his long-ago Omaha vow. It’s time, he thought. That weekend, he went out in his snowboarding clothes and climbed his first “14er,” a mountain peak with an elevation of at least 14,000 feet.

From that day forward, Everest seemed real, something just outside his grasp. He took formal mountaineering training. He learned to rock and ice climb. He learned survival techniques.

He climbed Colorado “14ers” in winter. Then he went to Seattle and climbed Mount Rainier. Then he went to Alaska and climbed Denali, the tallest peak in North America. Then he flew to Argentina and began to climb Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America and owner of a catchy nickname: “Mountain of Death.”

He summited the Mountain of Death. Then he turned his sights to Everest. As he prepared, he realized something fascinating: Climbing Everest wasn’t enough.

“I decided I had to do something more than climb these mountains in a narcissistic approach, to stand at the summit for 15 minutes,” he told me.

So Alex Harz, one-time Omaha couch sitter, decided to be the first person ever to document the whole Everest journey using a virtual reality, or VR, camera.

The resulting footage, which he showed me clips of, will knock off your Birkenstocks. You will hopefully get to watch it soon — Alex and his agents are currently negotiating with TV and film distributors.

And Harz actually did more than capture amazing, 360-degree immersive views that can make you feel like you yourself are climbing Everest. He also interviewed Nepalese guides and cabdrivers, Buddhists and Hindus, about the life and culture of their home, and how everything ties back to the great mountain in their midst.

“We think Mother Nature is blue sky, or green grass,” Harz says. “To the Sherpa people and the Buddhists there, they have a very direct meaning when they say, “Mother Earth. They really believe that (Everest) is the mother of Earth.”

He climbed in three stages, a total of 52 days. He battled one of the worst cases of flu he has ever had. He thought about quitting. He thought about falling. He kept trudging upward.

And when he made it, Alex Harz had the entire summit to himself. For a precious few minutes, he and his Sherpa friend Tashi stood atop the world.

“It is romantic,” he says. “It is mystical. It is everything you can imagine and more.”

Everest changes people, Alex Harz thinks. It has changed him. It’s why more and more people want to climb it. And it’s why he hopes more and more people can get there without standing in line.


Alex Harz interviews a Buddhist monk in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Photos: Our best shots of 2019 (so far)