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Omahans fight restaurant tax

Should be interesting to watch what happens with a lawsuit fighting Omaha’s new 2.5 percent restaurant occupation tax.

Lincoln is one of two Nebraska cities that have approved such a tax, (Grand Island is the other) but Lincolnites didn’t put up the kind of fight some Omaha restaurant owners are waging. They contend it is a sales tax masquerading as an occupation tax.

Omaha opponents were unable to get a judge to block the tax from taking effect Friday. But the lawsuit will continue.

Lincoln’s 2 percent occupation tax on bars and restaurants goes into effect in January. It will help pay for a $340 million arena project west of the Haymarket. Lincoln restaurant and bar owners expressed some concern about the taxes, but never put up much of a public fuss about it. Although this is an example of how the media’s handling of an issue can make a difference: the World-Herald has been pretty aggressive about covering business owners’ response to these tax proposals.


Antelope Creek getting green

The news about Antelope Creek being contaminated was interesting to me, since I’d just recently ridden bike through the Antelope Valley Project and was surprised at how green the creek is getting.
Algae is blooming in nooks and crannies, particularly around the future Union Plaza. Ed Kouma, who works in watershed management for the city, said a certain amount of green algae is normal but the city gets very concerned about areas where there is excessive algae.
Lincolnites can do their part to help keep the creek healthy by using no or no-phosphorus fertilizer, rain gardens and rain barrels to prevent too many nutrients from getting into streams.
I was also dismayed to see a lot of litter along the banks, particularly near the UNL campus. I thought we stopped using ditches as trash receptacles in the 70s…


Big donation coming — but from who?

I’ve been hearing for some time now that a big donation is going to be announced for the Sherman Field renovation.
Upwards of a half million dollars. That’s not terribly news-worthy, but what might be is the source of the donation: I’m hearing it’s one of the companies vying for the big arena contract — the construction manager.
I asked parks director Lynn Johnson to confirm the source of the donation, but he declined, saying, “We are in the process of finalizing commitments on a leadership gift” for Sherman Field and it would be announced in a few weeks.
I’m also hearing certain city officials have been hitting up the construction companies for campaign donations. Since the construction companies aren’t supposed to contact members of the selection team, let’s hope members of the selection team are playing by the same rules.


New bakery/deli coming

How are we supposed to resist a bakery/deli called “Mama’s Dream”?
An adorable little building between 18th and 19th, on Q Street, is advertising that “Mama’s Dream” will be opening soon there.


Police officers and firefighters working without a contract

It seems as though nobody has noticed that the firefighters and police officers still haven’t finished their labor agreements.
While the other city unions have theirs signed and sealed — except for the Public Association of Government Employees, which is taking their wage dispute to the state — the police and fire contracts are nowhere to be seen.
The 2010-2011 municipal budget was passed last month — and it plugs in about 2 percent raises for all employees. If the police and fire contracts — which account for the bulk of personnel — go any higher than that, the money will have to be found somewhere.
City officials can’t really comment on the status of negotiations, though.


How to win an $8 million arena contract and avoid the usual RFP process

Eight million dollars. That’s a big contract — the contract to finish arena designs — especially considering the city never truly put it out for all architects to bid on.
I doubt too many people remember how DLR got in on the ground floor and then ended up with the contract to do preliminary arena designs — but this story I wrote in June attempts to explain how it happened. In a nutshell, only companies that were part of teams that put in bids to finance all or part of the arena project ever had a shot at the architects’ contract. In the end, no companies offered to finance the arena for the city, but the Urban Development Department decided to only choose from those teams’ architects.
I’m surprised local architects didn’t scream, but they’re probably still hoping to get arena work so don’t want to put up a fuss. That’s the way it usually goes.
This is contrary to purchasing rules approved by the mayor himself. Shortly after he took office, Beutler signed an executive order saying consulting contracts worth more than $250,000 must be advertised and awarded to the most qualified bidder by a selection committee that includes the city purchasing agent.
But other firms were not invited to put in bids and the selection committee did not include the city’s purchasing agent.
DLR had the inside track from the beginning: DLR principal Stan Meradith was invited to help with arena planning in 2004 by a key arena player, attorney Kent Seacrest and worked with various arena committees pro bono for several years before winning the first contract.
So the upshot is that DLR is about to get an $8 million contract to design Lincoln’s new arena without ever having gone through the RFP customary process. But I doubt the arena joint public agency will have any heartburn about approving the contract.


Camp says Experian purchase is “forcing a round peg in a square hole”

The Beutler administration’s proposal to buy the Experian building will be up for public debate on Monday, and I expect Councilman Jon Camp to put up a pretty good fight against this $8 million purchase.
Or should I say, lease-purchase — sort of like a rent-to-own deal.
So the Beutler administration wants to buy this behemoth of a 355,000-square-foot building in northwest Lincoln, which has been on the market for several years. City officials say the city would save some $500,000 in rent over 15 years and perhaps save some Experian jobs. About 140 people work there, down from a peak of 1,200 in Lincoln and Seward.
Camp says it’s a bad deal. Here’s why:
• There was no public request for proposals for building space (for sale) that is apparently needed by the city.
• The city would lose about $150,000 in annual property taxes being paid by Experian.
• Experian would lease its portion of the building for five years at $180,000 annually, so Camp says they sell the building and get out of maintenance costs for about $30,000 more per year than they were paying in property taxes.
• Camp thinks Experian will be less likely to keep the 142 jobs in Lincoln once it sells the building and only has a five-year lease.
• He also said it’s “rather presumptuous” for the Beutler administration to present the council with legislation to buy the building — complete with borrowing documents and architectural plans, as if it’s a done deal.
• He questions the cost of managing such a large building, when only 54,000 square feet will be used by the city to start.
Camp says the purchase should have been discussed more publicly rather than “behind closed doors.”
“Transparency was to be the hallmark of the Beutler administration,” he said via e-mail.
He says the city could have tried to get better lease arrangements on its existing space, a lower price for the Experian building, or other, cheaper space.
We’ll see if Camp can persuade any of his colleagues to buy into his arguments.


BNSF land deal details out

On Monday the Lincoln City Council will take a look at the details of the $44 million land deal between the city and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.
The city is buying the railyard for its $340 million arena project. BNSF is agreeing to move its tracks west.
The proposed purchase agreement is now online, if you really want to read it. I skimmed through it — a few highlights:
• All grading must be done in 2010.
• Prior to the first closing (there will be several), the city will make a $44 million payment to BNSF for the land and relocation costs.
• BNSF is not only indemnified from legal liability, but the city will waive its sovereign immunity and municipal immunity with respect to BNSF, in connection with environmental issues. That’s a big deal, in my book.
• Prior to the first closing, the city will close the at-grade railroad crossing at Second and J streets.
Read the details here: Master agreement with BNSF


Dan Marvin gets paid more than the mayor, too

Back during the heat of the arena campaign, the city’s arena coordinator, Dan Marvin, would sometimes mention that his contract would end after the May arena election.
The implication was that his job was not contingent upon a successful vote.
Turns out, his job didn’t end then. He has continued to work as an independent contractor for the city as the arena project manager and recently got a new contract. (Not to be confused with the arena project manager or program manager or any other manager associated with the arena project.)
His contract says he’ll work on property acquisition, financing and redevelopment agreement negotiations, and be the city’s primary contact with ISG (although presumably that won’t be necessary now that ISG did not win the bid to market the arena).
His one-year contract with the city says he’ll be paid $81,500 per year, with $10,000 allowed for expenses. The city also agreed to provide him with a city office, PC, phone, fax, etc.
I’ve always been surprised the city can provide a contractor with an office and all that, given that in my field that’s frowned upon, but city officials tell me it’s perfectly legal.
See the contract here: EO 83351


Speaking of J&J

They also mentioned that tomorrow they’re going to talk about some B-list local celebrity who went after them in a comment on my blog… I’m not sure who they’re talking about, but I think I have an idea. But the real question is, who are the A-list local celebrities? Because I didn’t know we had much of a list… other than maybe that Pelini guy, or T.O., maybe the mayor, the governor.

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