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CAPITOL VIEW: Bill to remove TERC members clearly pointed at Wickersham PDF Print E-mail
Written by Wauneta Breeze   
Friday, 29 April 2011 16:24

When Bob Wickersham was a state senator from the hinterlands of upstream Nebraska, he was known as a thoroughly capable, intelligent, diligent and gentlemanly member of the Legislature.

Although he carried the stocky build you’d expect on a fellow from the ranch country which makes up the greater Harrison metropolitan area, Wickersham has the face of a kindly school teacher or college professor. The glasses. The understanding smile. Always well dressed, and with a dignified demeanor. We’re talking about a guy straight out of central casting.

Wickersham is also an attorney and a fellow who knows a great, great deal about Nebraska’s property tax system. He once chaired the Legislature’s Revenue Committee, having served in the Unicameral from Jan. 9, 1991 to April 30, 2002. A Democrat, he was appointed by then-Republican Gov. Mike Johanns as the first at-large member of the Tax Equalization and Review Commission. He was reappointed by Gov. Dave Heineman for a term ending January 1, 2014.

The TERC is where people can appeal rulings from county assessors and county boards. It’s more informal than a court.

Now, a bill is moving through the Legislature which – regardless of any denials from anyone – is solely intended to remove Wickersham from the board this October.

Why? Some say it is because he had a falling out with Heineman’s state property tax administrator, Ruth Sorensen. Wickersham was suspicious about how she reported ag land sales. An outside review concluded her methods were “misguided.” Sorensen stood her ground. Heineman stood by Sorensen – and wants to dump Wickersham. During uncounted numbers of Revenue Committee hearings in his legislative days, Wickersham was never heard to raise his voice. He did, however, have a real addiction to facts. And arithmetic. He was always annoying lobbyists or other parties with facts, and arithmetic. As in: ‘I did the arithmetic and the numbers you provided the committee … I won’t say they don’t add up, but they don’t add up to the conclusion you gave us. Can you help me with that?’

Wickersham was determined to create a clear record, so the what and how and why of what the committee did could be understood.

He’s been that way at the TERC. But his insistence on clear explanations and documentation – from assessors, county boards and taxpayers – has offended some of them.

In a recent interview, Wickersham said the commission’s record in a case needs to be clear and documented because it can be taken to the Nebraska Court of Appeals.

Heineman recently told a reporter “I don’t think the entire board was as customer-friendly as it needs to be. Taxpayers feel like they’re being grilled as if they’re in a courtroom ... that they’re guilty until proven innocent. It shouldn’t be that way.”

Perhaps that’s the way his property tax administrator felt when Wickersham questioned how she did business.

Heineman’s original bill simply called for removal of the at-large commission member. The revised version would remove all four members – then allow Heineman to reappoint three of them.

The view from here: The bill is likely to pass, and Wickerham will get the boot. However, the at-large seat was created because the three-member TERC was overwhelmed by its volume of cases. After Wickersham is gone for a spell, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the issue revisited and the at-large seat re-established.

ED HOWARD is the statehouse correspondent for the Nebraska Press Association.