Voters in Sarpy County sent a loud and clear message last week.
They don't want their elected leaders to become rubber stamps for county administrators.
They want leaders willing to halt escalating salaries and benefits packages that remain fixtures for the county's elected officials, their chief deputies and managers.
They are tired of hearing how Sarpy County has kept the property tax rate flat over the past decade. They want leaders who will cut spending and lower the tax rate, which remains higher than neighboring Douglas and Lancaster Counties.
In Tuesday's Republican primary, angry voters sent the County Board's top two leaders packing.
Board Chairman Rusty Hike of Bellevue lost to Don Kelly, a retired Air Force colonel who lives outside Papillion. Vice Chairman Jim Nekuda of Bellevue lost to Brenda Carlisle, a five-term La Vista City Council member.
Kelly and Carlisle have no opposition in November because no Democrats filed. Hike and Nekuda, who will remain in office through the end of the year, could not be reached for comment.
And it remains to be seen whether a third board member up for re-election will prevail.
Tom Richards, the board's lone Democrat, will face Bellevue attorney Hugh Abrahamson, a Republican, in the November general election.
“I would not call it an anti-incumbent initiative,” Kelly said. “The voters are just not happy with the way decisions are being made and with the money being spent at the county.”
Voters did not limit their frustration to Sarpy County government.
A scandal at Gretna City Hall cost the mayor her job.
Mayor Sally McGuire finished last in Tuesday's primary. The election was held less than three weeks after State Auditor Mike Foley raised questions about a lack of oversight of city funds and questionable expenses involving City Administrator Colleen Lawry, who was subsequently fired.
And in La Vista, voters handily rejected an $8.5 million bond issue to build a multimillion-dollar water park.
Jake Warner, a rural Sarpy County resident, called the defeats of Hike and Nekuda “a wake-up call” for officeholders. Most county officials, including the assessor, sheriff and county attorney, will be up for re-election in 2014.
“The citizens are trying to say the size of county government and responsibilities are bigger than what we need,” Warner said.
“Too many people in these government positions have a sense of entitlement to the taxpayers' dollars for different projects, and also the type of benefits they put in place for themselves. That has gotten out of control in Sarpy County government.”
Both Hike and Nekuda voted last December to extend the controversial free family health insurance perk for themselves as part-time board members, all elected officials and county managers through 2014.
In November, the board approved two years of guaranteed pay increases totaling 4.5 percent for managers and nonunion staff, while also enhancing their benefits as part of their total compensation packages.
And just last week, the board voted 4-1 to increase salaries for long-time County Administrator Mark Wayne and Fiscal Administrator Brian Hanson. The two officials previously had base salaries of $119,350 and $105,780, respectively.
Their raises were not tied to any performance benchmarks or goals outlined in their contracts, which had expired 10½ months ago.
“The people have been kind of fed up,” Kelly said. “People cannot believe we give guaranteed pay raises to our top managers with no linkage to performance.”
Carlisle said voters told her that “everyone is in a tight budget,” that they had lost their jobs or had their wages frozen the past several years or had taken pay cuts.
“People are saying they can't afford their house payments or their taxes to go up any more,'' she said.
“The voters are actually looking for accountability. They are looking at these benefits packages, and these are a big concern the voters had. I would think that (county officials) hopefully got the message.”
County Board member Jim Warren, who took office last year, has repeatedly questioned compensation and benefits packages, calling them out of line with his constituency.
In September, Warren proposed requiring all county officials, including board members, to start paying for a portion of their health insurance premiums starting this January, but his resolution met stiff resistance from the rest of the board and other county officials.
Lacking any additional support, Warren ultimately withdrew the proposal.
Last week, Warren was the lone vote against resolutions providing raises this July and again in July 2013 for Wayne and Hanson.
“It's lonely having the only no button up there,” he said.
Kelly and Carlisle pledged to work to lower Sarpy's property tax rate of 30 cents per $100 of assessed valuation and find ways to trim spending across county government.
They also promised to work with Warren to scale back some of the compensation and benefits packages, starting with free health insurance for the board itself.
“These free benefits must go,” Kelly said. “It needs to be a shared sacrifice. We cannot afford it, and we cannot have a system where people are treated differently. That's horrible for morale.''
“Change is coming,” he added.
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