What makes a town?


December 23rd, 2011

Lincoln, NE – In Nebraska, there are three incorporated towns with fewer than 10 people – and several unincorporated communities with thousands. Why the discrepancy? And what does it all mean? In part two of the NET News series on small town life in Nebraska, Hilary Stohs-Krause traveled to the community of Chalco to find out.

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Looking down the main street in the non-subdivision part of Chalco, located in the center of the community. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)

Sarpy County Administrator Mark Wayne pores over topographical maps in his Papillion office. He’s explaining the boundaries and makeup of Chalco, a community without official borders, or an unincorporated community. It’s located on the south side of Omaha.

“They don’t have a mayor, they don’t have any other elected officials, so they really don’t have authority to do anything,” he says.

There are 50 unincorporated communities in Nebraska, ranging from 10 people to more than 10,000. In a nut shell, incorporation authorizes a town to form a government. But more on that later.

Chalco is a sort of mixed-up, every which way community. The northern and southern ends are parceled into neat, well-dressed subdivisions with names like Willow Creek and Birchfield. A narrow stretch across the middle is undeveloped fields, harvested for hay. A central portion is a mix of commercial businesses, including construction, auto repair and junkyards, as well as residential homes in various states of charm or disrepair.

The middle portion of Chalco is undeveloped, harvested for hay. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)

What really makes Chalco stand out, however, is its size: the 2010 Census lists its population as just shy of 11,000 people. The next largest CDP is Offutt Air Force Base; third is Woodland Park, located just outside of Norfolk with about 1,800 people.

Amanda Chavez and Elise Devaux, both in their mid-twenties, work for an apartment complex in Chalco. Chavez lives in unincorporated Sarpy County while Devaux has lived in Chalco for more than a decade without realizing it isn’t incorporated.

Chavez said she’s noticed the inefficient handling of waste, a service that isn’t provided in her area.

“Everyone uses different companies,” she said with a laugh, adding she sees trucks from four or five providers.

“That’s how it is in our neighborhood, too,” Devaux said.

The two aren’t alone, however; Wayne said many people probably don’t realize they live in Chalco.

“Most people probably don’t even know what Chalco is,” he said. “And (they) probably feel aligned with the metro area, with Omaha, because in this case they border the county line.”

A junkyard located in Chalco, Neb. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)

But what does it really mean to be unincorporated? And how does a town become incorporated in the first place?

“The law provides that if an area has at least 100 population, they can petition the county to become incorporated,” said Gary Krumland, assistant director and legal counsel for the Nebraska League of Municipalities. “Now, there are certain processes, but basically, you need 100 population to do so.”

Benefits of incorporation include self-government.

“You can have your own government, you have your own law enforcement. You provide your own services, water, sewer, police, fire,” he said. “An incorporated municipality does have the authority to impose taxes.”

There’s also a good deal of paperwork that goes along with being incorporated – so incorporation can add a lot of responsibilities. At this point, Chalco itself can’t incorporate, because it’s too close to existing cities.

But it’s also unlikely to be annexed any time soon. Wayne said though Omaha shares a border with Chalco, they lie in different counties. As for La Vista, it’ll be a while yet before the city spreads far enough west to even consider annexation. Even then, the increased taxes might not be enough to cover city services.

“Really strictly, the city would decide whether they have the ability to provide city services to this area,” he said. “They have to provide street maintenance, sewer maintenance, fire protection, police protection, all those services.”

Those are pretty basic functions of a community. If a town government isn’t supplying them, where do they come from?

In Chalco’s case, law enforcement is provided by the county sheriff, and a nearby Millard Rural Fire Department station is contracted to handle any fires. School districts aren’t bound by city limits, so incorporation doesn’t matter to them.

But what about water? Power?

That’s where the subdivisions come in. They’re also called Sanitary Improvement Districts, and they levy a fee on residents to provide needed services like sewage and street upkeep. While Sarpy County has more than 200 SIDs, they’re pretty uncommon in most of the country.

“It’s somewhat unique to Nebraska,” Wayne said. “A lot of other states don’t allow that at all. In fact, Lincoln has hardly any SIDS, because the city of Lincoln wants to control where the growth is. So they only extend their sewer and water in certain areas, and that’s where the developers have to go.”

There are some downsides to being unincorporated: no public libraries, for example. If Chalco residents want to use the Omaha or La Vista public libraries, they have to pay a fee. Lack of a cohesive city plan can also lead to sloppy development, Wayne said – as with the middle section of Chalco. This makes it difficult for the county to guide growth. It’s also part of the reason why most states don’t allow SIDs.

It’s hard to say whether the fees collected by SIDs or the taxes levied by a city are higher. Neither Chavez nor Devaux knew offhand the amount their SIDs charge for services. In the end, Wayne said, it mostly balances out financially. When it comes to government, Devaux said she doesn’t really vote anyway, but Chavez said she would appreciate being able to elect community representatives.

Check out part one of the NET News small town series here.

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