The minutes of NCORPE board meetings don’t have to go into great detail, attorney Don Blankeneau told the board of directors Thursday, Oct. 3, in reference to the altered minutes of the September meeting that removed a conversation about collecting government crop payments.
Blankeneau told Benji Loomis, who acts as the NCORPE board’s secretary, that minutes should inform the public of basic information, and if someone in the public wants to know more about something, they could contact NCORPE Manage Kyle Shepherd or a board member for more information.
Loomis asked if the content of the minutes is a matter of board discretion. Blankeau said yes, but he added that it is always better to include too much in the minutes than too little.
Loomis agreed with the latter statement.
During the discussion, Shepherd said about a dozen things were changed from the first draft of the minutes.
The minutes of the Sept. 4 meeting came under extraordinary scrutiny because they contained a controversial proposal that NCORPE collect federal farm payments on land leased to ag producers, including land that no longer produces crops.
NCORPE project leader Jasper Fanning recommended trying to collect farm payments from the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, although a government agency such as NCORPE cannot legally receive federal farm payments.
Fanning indicated leases could be written in such a way that the lessee collects the payment, then sends a share of it to the landowner.
Later, that entire discussion was removed from the minutes.
Here is that section of the original minutes:
“Jasper Fanning asked about capturing the government payments to be added the leases. Jasper continued that their current tenants on Rock Creek collects those funds and their leases stipulates that they are to get 75% of the said funds. Fanning said that they receive about half a million dollars and feels that NCORPE could receive about two to there million dollars. Fanning said that is money that just left on the table. Terry Martin suggested that it be added to the agenda for the next meeting.”
Fanning is the manager of the Upper Republican NRD and a driving force in the NCORPE project. NCORPE is based on a smaller but similar project in southwest Nebraska on the Rock Creek in Dundy County, which is in Fanning’s district.
NCORPE, which stands for Nebraska Cooperative Republican Platte Enhancement, has idled about 16,000 acres of cropland in southern Lincoln County. Instead of irrigating the land, NCORPE pumps water from below ground to increase the amount of water in the Republican and Platte rivers when needed.
Fanning made the suggestion on Sept. 4 as the NCORPE board of directors discussed land leases that are coming up for renewal or renegotiation.
Both the “before” and “after” sets of minutes were reprinted in full in the Bulletin’s Sept. 18 print edition, paid by a landowner’s group that would like to see NCORPE sell some of its land back to private owners.
The suggestion that a tax-supported agency, NCORPE, should conspire to collect federal money at the expense of taxpayers raised the eyebrows at the meeting, including two members of the group, Landowners for a Common Purpose.
The landowners would like NCORPE land to generate more economic activity and share more of Lincoln County’s property tax burdens.
At the Oct. 3 meeting, Shepherd said there wasn’t much new to report about the FSA payments. However, he said he’d had a recommendation that any such farmland leases be reviewed by the state FSA director in advance. The board agreed that would a good procedure.
There are four voting members of the NCORPE board– one each from the natural resource districts of the upper, middle and lower Republican rivers, and one from the Twin Platte (rivers) NRD. Managers and assistants of each NRD also attend the meetings, as does the top employees of NCORPE.
The board approved the revised minutes of the Sept. 4 meeting without further discussion, 4-0.
NCORPE meetings are announced on their website HERE.
The board also took some steps to boost their image, agreeing to sign a letter to the editor of the newspapers, listing the positive aspects of the project, in view of the many questions voiced by board members of other natural resource districts in the state.
Fanning and his assistant Nate Jenkins said a recent news article made it sound like NCORPE does not pay any property taxes, but they do pay “in lieu of taxes” on grassland. Jenkins, a former newspaper reporter, said he’d talked to the North Platte Telegraph about it.
The board also agreed that Kyle Shepherd should attend upcoming conferences of the Nebraska Cattlemen and Nebraska Farm Bureau to talk about NCORPE, in view of the questions that are expected to be asked.
Jay Schilling of the Middle Republican NRD said the letter / guest opinion should be “totally above board” and make it clear that taxes are paid at the lower rate for grassland instead of cropland.
The letter should also note that groundwater levels are 10 feet higher now then when pumping began, because no water has been pumped since 2017 due to wet weather, the board said.
In other business, the board heard from bond agent Bruce Leffler of Piper Jaffray, a multi-national investment bank and financial services company based in Minneapolis, Minn.
Leffler, who handled the NCORPE bonds for his former company Ameritus, said the project’s $100 million in bonds could be refinanced at lower interest rates to save money, although it would not be a simple process.
Leffler said taxable bonds could be written and used to pay off the existing tax-exempt bonds. Unless that step is taken, any refinancing would have to wait until later next year, when the first set of tax free bonds ($13.8 million) could be “called” and refinanced. The second set of bonds ($86 million) is not subject to call until 2022, he said.
Leffler said refinancing could save about $185,000 a year, or more than $3 million over the life of the bonds, at current rates.
He said converting to taxable bonds could also provide more flexibility in how the property is managed, removing some of the legal question about whether it can be sold.
Jack Russell, the manager of the Middle Republican NRD, said that refinancing deal has already worked in the Papio NRD in northeastern Nebraska.
The board took no action on refinancing, but agreed to keep an eye on the situation and authorized Shepherd to work with Leffler.
In other business, the board:
- Learned that a 180-foot tower would be erected about 1.5 miles from the NCORPE office to help the Wallace Volunteer Fire Department communicate. Without the tower, Wallace cannot communicate with North Platte by radio.
- Went into executive session to discuss employees, pending litigation and contractual negotiations.After the executive session, the board acted on three items:• Authorized Shepherd to sign a purchase agreement for a parcel of land adjacent to NCORPE. Shepherd said that agreement had not yet been signed as of Oct. 8.• Approved an NCORPE counteroffer of $70,000 to sell seven grain bins on the east side of the property along Somerset Road.
• Approved a 2% cost of living raise for Shepherd, who salary before the raise is $73,000.