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June 30, 2011

18

$9.3 million city budget gap — that’s gotta be a record

by Deena Winter

I don’t want to say “I told you so,” but I will anyway.
I’ve been saying for months that I expect the city’s budget deficit is in the range of $9 million to $10 million, and I figured if I were off the mark I’d hear about it from the mayor’s office.

Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler

They didn’t make a peep, and now today Mayor Chris Beutler announced that he is working on closing a $9.3 million budget gap. (Do I get some kind of prize?)

It’s no laughing matter though: Beutler tried to show reporters what it would be like if that deficit were tackled with cuts alone. (PR 101: soften them up before the blow.)

Here’s what would happen: Three branch libraries would close and all other libraries would close for one day. A fire station (in Air Park) would close and 12 firefighters would be laid off. Six police officers, four public service officers and three victim/witness advocates would be laid off.

All city parks would close except Antelope, Hazel Abel, Holmes, Pioneers and Union Plaza. All city pools would close except Star City Shores and Woods. The Pioneers Park Nature Center would close. Many recreation centers would face reductions. Street tree maintenance would be funded at one-third of this year’s budget.

StarTran Saturday hours and weekday mid-day hours would end.

Police would cut victim/witness services; protective custody of intoxicated persons (the drunk tank); response to non-emergency calls; and parking and abandoned vehicle enforcement.

Economic development funding would be cut $200,000, Aging Partners would cut legal services, in-home services, volunteer programs and social work and care management.
And the Health Department’s pre-natal care referral service would end.

Whew!

“I offer this today because without understanding where a ‘cuts only’ budget would take us, we cannot make informed judgments on alternatives to a one-dimensional budget solution,” Beutler said in a press release. “Some will accuse of us trying to scare the public. But we have a responsibility to realistically confront the choices available to us. To me, it is far more frightening to ignore the situation and place our hopes in unrealistic schemes with uncertain outcomes.”

Convinced we need to raise taxes yet?

It’d take a 6-cent increase in the city property tax rate to cover the entire gap with taxes: That would cost the owner of a $150,000 home about $7.50 a month in additional property taxes.

The mayor said despite four years of budget cuts, the city’s “stubborn structural imbalance” remains, and this is the toughest budget he’s had to put together as mayor. Of course, he’s ignoring the fact that in his first four-year term, he could have gotten the budget back in shape if he’d had the guts – but he didn’t.

So here we are again.

Beutler rightly points out that personnel costs account for about 70 percent of the budget, and there are still “state controls” that require wage increases.

But Beutler said to make all the cuts on the list would be a repudiation of those who worked and sacrificed in previous generations.

“I will not be the mayor that allows Lincoln to stand still or fall behind because I lacked the political will and courage to lead,” Beutler said. “Yes, we will have to make cuts and sacrifices. But I refuse to let those cuts and sacrifices become so deep that our essential character is changed.”

So, to summarize the press conference today: The city has a huge budget shortfall – probably the biggest in the city’s history. Beutler has been mayor for the past four years and has not been able to fix the structurally imbalanced budget. So now, he’s going to ask Lincolnites to stomach a property tax increase, but not big enough to cover the whole gap. He’ll make cuts to cover the rest of the deficit.

With Democrats sitting in five of the seven seats on the City Council, he should have no problem doing whatever he wants with the budget this year.

We’ll find out what his solution looks like when he releases his proposed budget on July 11.

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18 Comments Post a comment
  1. Publius
    Jun 30 2011

    This one statement is priceless: “Some will accuse of us trying to scare the public. But we have a responsibility to realistically confront the choices available to us. To me, it is far more frightening to ignore the situation and place our hopes in unrealistic schemes with uncertain outcomes.” Can anyone say “arena”?

    Reply
  2. paul mike grieger
    Jun 30 2011

    Please put me in the “I told you So !” camp.
    Please tell me with the crime rate up, we lay off policepersons and build a castle for the new director of public safety. Yes, Tom… I am refering to you .

    Reply
  3. Jeff Poley
    Jun 30 2011

    Deena:

    It looks like we’re going to find out what it’s like to occupy the basement of a high-rise out house. In order for the Feds to make their budget look better, they shove off costs to the state governments (ie., medicaid). Then, in order absorb those costs and deal with its own budget shortfall, the state shoves off costs to local governments (ie., no more property tax relief). The city doesn’t have anybody upon whom to shove costs. In all fairness to this mayor, he’s just been kicking the can down the road like all of his predecessors except now we’ve run out of road.

    Jeff…

    Reply
  4. Matthew Platte
    Jun 30 2011

    @pmg You say “with the crime rate up” as though that were an established fact. The police department’s annual report shows variation in raw numbers of crimes – some have increased, others have decreased and some have done both over the last year/decade. For the really scary crimes such as murder, rape, robbery, etc., only the last two (rape & robbery) have gone up in the past decade; the rest have all decreased. In absolute numbers.

    While all this crime has been changing, and significant to the phrase “with the crime rate up” the population of Lincoln has been on the increase, making the denominator of your “rate” a larger number, thus lowering the rate no matter what the change in the numerator.

    Given the interesting history of the fire department over this same time period, one might wish the capable Chief Casady had been in charge all along.

    Finally, all this grief over ninety bucks a year? How much did you pay for your last set of tires? What’s your annual budget for work clothes? Et cetera. If the benefits of living in Lincoln are of so little value, why aren’t you living in Princeton, Syracuse, Red Cloud or Steele City?

    Reply
  5. Ivy Marie Harper
    Jun 30 2011

    @ Mayor Beutler – Here’s a solution:

    Given that Lincoln is NU and NU is Lincoln, Now is the Time for All Good Men (in Suits) at the University of Nebraska Foundation to pony up $9.3 million from their two billion dollar baby (sorry to mix metaphors).

    No doubt 2011 will go down as one of the worst years in American economic history so how is it that an uber-flush private City Foundation – because let’s face it, that’s precisely what the NU Foundation really is – can fiddle with flights to the Rose Bowl for cigar-chomping, champagne-guzzling Cornhusker millionaires while Lincoln burns.

    Come on, Mr. Mayor, aren’t you tight with the leaders of the NU Foundation? What’s ten million bucks among Husker friends, anyway. We’re in the Big Ten now!

    Don’t a couple of top Democratic leaders golf with one of Lincoln’s largest “education services” company CEO’s; one who “underwrote” the 2010 Nebraska Democratic Party’s Convention in Columbus?

    Let’s get creative, here.

    Reply
    • Gene
      Jul 1 2011

      I doubt that anyone who gave to NU Foundation to have their funds used for a specific research or academic purpose would be okay with the funds going to the city’s budget deficit.

      Reply
    • Roger C
      Jul 1 2011

      What would you do without ‘cut and paste’?

      Reply
  6. fedwayup
    Jun 30 2011

    We need to make more cuts in services, and then maybe the mayor could hire a few more aides with full benefits to figure out a way to close the deficit. Is there any more buildings for sale, like the experian building? If we could get a couple more jewels like that, imagine the savings. I thought we gave up the star city parade, the 4th of July, where did all the savings go? Wheres the transparency mayor? Oh, that was last campaign! Sorry. Well, hopefully tourism will help cut the deficit, due to our worst roads in the United States. Surely, people will want to say, “I dove those streets”. Maybe the city could sell t-shirts saying,”I survived the streets of Lincoln”. Just an idea.” Transparency and infrastructure”, who said that?

    Reply
  7. Buzz Murphy
    Jun 30 2011

    It doesn’t surprise me: new jail, new office for the mayor and his staff, new highly paid position for Tom Cassidy, new basketball arena for the University (and wait until you see what happens to your taxes as they complete the arena), and on, and on and on !!!

    Reply
  8. L. W.
    Jul 1 2011

    It’s pretty clear to me that after several years of “TIF” ing away our future tax base, our future has arrived with the current budget dilemmas upon us. 7 to 10 million dollars worth! [ For simple explanation on TIF- tax increment financing, see the short entry in Wikipedia .] Tax money currently devoted to past “Blighted-area” [sic] projects using TIF [even used in areas where its debatable the particular area is really blighted], is money that could have went to current and future budgetary needs. And of course we wont mention buying the Experian bldg., the Antelope Valley project, the Arena and other misc. “socialism for the rich” developers projects -quite often argued for in the name of “JOBS”, or flood-control, or, or – which by the way returns a handsome profit to the big banks and investors. Also perhaps we need an investigation of the so-called “2015 Vision Group” [bet there aren't many hard-working, tax paying low or middle-income folks in it!], who all sits on its board, how much they personally profited from all their pet projects [TIF ed or Bonded], that we are faced with paying for with a reduced tax-base -thanks to a recession, along with reduced city services and a decaying infra-structure. So, now we can debate which parks, libraries, swim pools and fire stations to close, how many policemen or firemen to layoff, etc.. Vitally needed things. Or, for the limited -income, financially strapped home-owner a rise in his/her property taxes. [And the recession has no end in sight, and could get much worse.} A good deal of it because of Corporate Welfare disguised as a TIF job-creation project or blight clearance [used to call that one "urban renewal"], or mis-directed priorities using bonds. To be intellectually honest here, both Republican and Democratic administrations have been guilty of these mis-directed priorities and tax monies, this is not a partisan thing to be sure. Besides, too often the only differences between. any two partisan candidates is their stand on some “emotional hot-button ” social issue like smoking or strip clubs or the latest liquor license application and then turn around and join join hands in endorsing these “future budget-busting” Corporatist endeavors. I voted against the Arena bond. But, at the time if the bond were going to fund vital city services during a recession, and timed to be paid off in a few years and not decades, using THE “occupation tax”, I could live with those priorities. I would surmise most Lincolnites would. TIF needs to be got rid of. Larry H. Wikoff

    Reply
  9. Gene
    Jul 1 2011

    I think we need a tax on the use of exclamation points and capital letters in the LJS comments section. Budget problem = fixed.

    Reply
  10. Fletch
    Jul 1 2011

    Here’s my only problem with the idea of a slight tax increase to cover the gap – it doesn’t teach the powers that be to do anything more wise about budgets, spending, and some self-control. If they can simply rely on raising the taxes, there’s nothing left to really truly keep them in check. I’m not opposed to a small increase, but the root problems must also be addressed.

    Reply
  11. Temp 6 Over 2
    Jul 1 2011

    TEMPORARY 6 cents Over 2 Years ( Sunsetted 2013 and revisit 2013 )
    TEMP 6 Over 2
    TEMP 6 Over 2
    TEMP 6 Over 2

    Reply
  12. Brad
    Jul 1 2011

    “it is far more frightening to ignore the situation and place our hopes in unrealistic schemes with uncertain outcomes.”

    Isn’t it interesting that he makes this statement now about the city’s poor economic health. He made a similar statement when he postponed the arena election, but he still believes we can afford the Haymarket redevelopement project. And for the record, HE was at the helm for 4 years while running the city into the ground, even though he campaigned that he would straighten things out. And now he’s saying he won’t be known as the leader who allowed Lincoln to degrade. HA!

    Reply
  13. Roger Yant
    Jul 1 2011

    We got what the majority voted for now didn’t we. Raising taxes is not the answer. I’ll bet the budget could be cut but PROFESSIONAL politicians only know tax and spend. Seems like it was just a few months ago we had a chance to change the mayor, we failed and got good old life time government worker Chris at the helm spending our city into the grave. I say STOP the arena now, build it when we have the money.

    Reply
    • Gene
      Jul 2 2011

      If we had elected the other person, we’d be facing a $720M deficit right now.

      Reply
  14. fedwayup
    Jul 2 2011

    Just think of the money the city could make over this holiday weekend with a dunking booth! I think people would pay good money to dunk some of our city officials. I say, place several dunking booths around oak lake this weekend and watch the cash flow! It’s time to take one for the team boy’s, instead of taking from the team.

    Reply
  15. Jimbo
    Jul 2 2011

    The properity tax rate has dropped 44 percent since the early 1990s. Just 6 percent would resolve this budget issue.

    Read those numbers again. And again. And again. And again.

    And then let all the rich Republicans tell you it’s time shut down the city so they can hold on to a sliver of their wealth.

    Reply

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