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Who’s running against Beutler?

Since Tuesday’s election is going to be such a snoozer locally, is it too early to begin speculating as to who might run against Mayor Chris Beutler in the spring municipal election? Not at all.
As one political consultant told me about a month ago, any viable candidates should have their ducks in a row NOW.
So… based on some of the names I’ve heard thrown around as prospective candidates, what do you think? Let’s vote:

By the way, Mach told me a long time ago (the first time I heard his name bandied about) that he’s not running; Camp and Spatz won’t say if they’re running, and Foley has said he’s not interested. I’ve also heard people talk about Tony Fulton, but another reporter asked him about it some time ago and he said no.
And since the “other” nominations don’t show up when you look at the results, I’ll tell you who they are so far: Patte Newman, Deena Winter and Shawn Traudt. If Patte decides to run I’ll be her lieutenant… but I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t run for mayor for a million dollars!


Rec centers keep kids busy during fall break

My son, possibly the most frequent user of the Irving rec center.

I am not shy about pointing about areas where the city is deficient, and often have to explain why we don’t write stories when the buses run on time. But there are many things the city does right, and its rec centers are a good example.
Take this week. It’s fall break for Lincoln Public Schools. The weather is gorgeous. The kids are roaming the streets. And the city opens up its rec centers to all of those out-of-work middle schoolers who want to shoot hoops, shoot pool, watch TV or just hang out with friends.
From 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. every day this week, the rec centers are open to kids.
And it’s all free. To the kids, that is. The city has to pay to keep these rec centers open, and in an era of constant budget-cutting, it’s a wonder these programs have made it through alive. Every Saturday in the fall and winter, me and my son spend a few hours playing basketball at the neighborhood rec center (I do pay a fee to rent a half court, but his playing time is free).
I think this is one of the most valuable services the city offers. It keeps those kids moving and exercising in a safe place, supervised by adults. Once in awhile, a supervisor will get a half-court shooting contest going or something, and the kids love it.
The rec centers are also open after school, and certainly we have to assume they help keep kids out of trouble during the after-school window Chief Tom Casady says kids are most likely to get into trouble.
So here’s to the city doing something very well — and to the taxpayers who pay for it.


City Council dutifully follows Beutler again

Lincoln City Council

Well, here we go again. The mayor comes up with a bright idea. One or two Republicans on the council point out the flaws in his plan. The four Democrats on the City Council dutifully fall in line with the mayor, and the plan passes.
I’m just wondering when some of the Dems on the council are going to start representing voters, rather than Beutler. The two newest council members — Jayne Snyder and Gene Carroll — are most vigilant about doing whatever the mayor says. No matter the issue, you can count on them to stand up and sing the praises of Beutler’s ideas.
The latest example is the council’s approval yesterday of a $6.4 million purchase of a building now owned by credit information giant Experian. The vote was 5-1, with all four Dems voting “yes” (of course), one Republican voting yes, one R voting no, and one R absent (the most adamant opponent, Jon Camp, who is in China).
(Note to Camp: Come on, man, you gotta be here for votes like this. Especially after you’ve put up such a fight.)
I knew the council would pass it. There is little mystery about what the council will do anymore: They’ll do whatever the mayor wants them to.
(Note to Mayor Beutler: Take advantage of that and do everything you want to do before you’re up for re-election next year.)
The Experian purchase shows just how easily swayed the council is. Councilwoman Snyder said the building is “special” and “you could eat your lunch off the garage floor.” If the cleanliness of a building is a key factor in deciding whether to buy it, I’ve got a few more buildings to show the council.
She claimed the Experian building is “the pearl or gem of commercial property” in Lincoln. However, the building sat on the market for years without any nibbles, so I’m not sure it’s that great a gem.
The main thing council members should have been concerned about — rather than the cleanliness of the garage floor — is where the $10 million cost of moving will come from.
Also questionable is the fact that deal came up after the city put out a request for 23,000 square feet of space and Experian offered this whopper of a building, at 355,000 square feet. The city refused to give in to business groups’ demands that it put solicit new bids to be sure there were no other suitable locations for the city’s planned public works campus.
If you’re so sure there’s nothing else out there, why not give it a try?
But I think the biggest concern should have been the fact that the city is buying a much bigger building than it needs when the city is so broke that it has closed swimming pools, cut library hours, cut school resource officers and cut hundreds of jobs during Beutler’s tenure.
The city budget is so imbalanced that the mayor and council have to find millions of dollars in cuts and one-time money (chiefly, a $10 million fund that Beutler has steadily raided since finding it a few years ago) to balance the budget every year.
Meanwhile, the city’s infrastructure is crumbling and the cost to fix it is so overwhelming it’s best not to keep track. So buying oversized buildings that you can’t even buy outright — you do it through a lease-purchase deal which is like buying a rent-to-own couch — feels like buying a new car when you can’t afford to fix the roof. Doesn’t really matter how great a deal it is, if you can’t afford it.
(I guess that would make building a $340 million arena like building a swimming pool, or a summer home, even though you’re barely making the mortgage as it is.)
By the way, how much interest is the city paying on this lease-purchase deal? What’s the cost of borrowing the money? Why didn’t the city buy the building outright? Oh, yeah, because it doesn’t have the money.
Well, that $10 million pot of gold will soon be gone, and the city will have no choice next year but to raise taxes. Of course, by then Beutler will likely be re-elected, and if he still enough friends on the council, he’ll probably be able to get them to do that, too.


Raybould mounts aggressive campaign

Jane Raybould is really going after Ray Stevens’ seat on the Lancaster County Board. I live in this hotly contested district, and Raybould is trying to unseat Stevens by highlighting the two most controversial things the County Board did in recent years.
And that’s saying something, because the County Board rarely makes headlines.
She’s sending out fliers saying the board sold a $10 million asset (Lancaster Manor) for $2.6 million.
“What have we done to our most vulnerable Lancaster County residents?”
And she’s blasting the board for building a new jail even though voters rejected a $65 million jail bond proposal in 2008. She neglects to mention that the board made it clear it was going to build a new jail either way, but, hey, it’s campaign season!
She’s even going after the board for not inviting the public to “Thursday executive meetings” — however, those meetings are open to the public unless the board is discussing an issue that is exempt from the open meetings law. For example, personnel issues or real estate purchases — which is the reason some of those Lancaster Manor meetings were closed.
So the flier is inaccurate.
The black cover of the flier is ominous, and says, “You didn’t get your say on the sale of Lancaster Manor. You didn’t get your say on the jail, even after you voted it down. You aren’t invited to the ‘Thursday Executive Meetings,’ where all major decisions are made behind closed doors. The Lancaster County Board has been operating behind closed doors for far too long.”
I don’t think the County Board really operates behind closed doors so much as local media just don’t pay much attention to them. But these are such hot button issues, and Raybould is hitting them hard, so it might be a race to watch.


SROs prevent bullying, but cut in Lincoln

TIME magazine reports that “one proven strategy” for school districts to prevent bullying is having school resource officers around.
However, such SROs were cut from the city of Lincoln budget this year. Not from high schools, but the four SROs who cover 10 middle schools were cut from the city budget this summer.
With all the attention on bullying right now — in the wake of four teen suicides in 19 days — I found it interesting that TIME says studies of schools with SROs have lower violence rates than schools that don’t have them.
However, the SROs in Lincoln’s middle schools — which seem to be a breeding ground for bullies — were lopped out of the city budget this summer.
Police Chief Tom Casady has said it’s not that middle school SROs aren’t valuable, it’s just that he needs police officers elsewhere in Lincoln, too, and when you have to cut your budget… . I thought maybe the school district would pick up the cost and keep the officers, but they didn’t, and the SROs will be gone from middle schools at the end of this semester. The school boad may want to rethink this decision, given the bullying epidemic.
The city has been talking about making this cut for years. Back in 2007, during the debate, Casady posted a chart to show people how often police are called to the city’s middle schools:


State of the city: In denial

Mayor Chris Beutler

Here’s another reason the re-election rate is so high for incumbents: They get to have numerous events which are unabashed boosterism but are covered by all the local press even though there is no actual news.
To wit: The mayor’s “state of the city” address on Thursday. I had the honor of covering the past five of these annual events in which the mayor gives a speech about how things are going down at city hall.
As you can imagine, things are always going great!
The press shows up and dutifully takes pictures, video and audio — and the mayor gets nothing but positive press all over TV, radio and the paper. I always hated covering these events because there was rarely any real news being made. Let’s face it: They’re glorified press conferences.
The president of the United States gets to do it (the state of the union), the governors get to do it (the state of the state), so of course mayors like to get in on the action. It’s a tradition.
Mayor Chris Beutler talked about how Lincoln is “back on top,” and listed all the various groups that have ranked the city high in those rankings you now see on every website imaginable. I happen to think these rankings are a cheap way for magazines and organizations (Next Generation Consulting? Expansion Management?) to generate free publicity in every hamlet they recognize. It works: Most media outlets in every city on their list will hungrily pick up the story, because it’s one of those “freebie” stories that don’t take much work.
For example, I was in Fort Collins, Colo., last week and their visitors’ guide touts a long list of accolades too: No less than 19 were listed, from the top 30 “fast cities” (I have no idea what that means) to “great places for entrepreneurs to retire” (what makes a great place for an entrepreneur to retire, I wonder?) to “Top 20 places to thrive” (by Best Boomer Towns, whatever that is).
If you’ve ever perused a magazine rack, you know magazines (and newspapers, to a lesser degree) LOVE to make Top 10 lists. Apparently, readers like them.
But when there are 4,585 lists out there, do they really mean anything anymore? At this point, I’d bet every city with at least 50,000 people is on several “best places” lists.
But I guess it makes us feel good about ourselves. And feeling good about ourselves is what “state of the city” addresses are all about, baby!
To provide some balance to all the rainbows and butterflies floating around city hall yesterday, I think it should be noted that the city has faced multi-million-dollar budget shortfalls every year since before Beutler took office, and he continues to have to scrounge around to plug the holes every year. Despite his much-ballyhooed move to “outcome-based budgeting,” the city budget is still structurally imbalanced, just as it was when he got elected, despite his campaign promises to fix everything.
The city has changed the process for putting together a budget, but the end result is the same every year: The mayor proposes cuts, the public protests, the mayor withdraws most of those proposals. And so even though Beutler used to chastise the City Council for using “one-time gimmicks” to balance the budget, he has done the same thing every year since arriving.
He has admitted that next year — when he will be up for re-election — the city will have yet another multi-million-dollar budget shortfall to deal with.
This is because Lincoln has not faced the fact that there simply is not enough money to pay for all the services the city provides. That leaves two options: raise taxes or cut services. Beutler has not had the intestinal fortitude to really make cuts, and so the parlor game continues.
Meanwhile, bridges are falling down, streets are pocked with potholes and the city’s infrastructure funding gap continues to widen into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Personnel costs continue to skyrocket, thanks to a state law that virtually guarantees they will, and city officials have not been able to convince lawmakers to fix that, either.
Lincoln is a good city — maybe even one of the top 10 places to locate a company or be a baby or retire. But it’s in a state of denial.


Headline of the week

In the Journal Star today:
“District 5 race attracts candidates with same birthday”

No, I am not kidding.


What’s 7 a.m. without Jack & John?

As you wish, I went on the show this morning to talk about some of the money that’s been spent on the arena project. Specifically, they were interested in the $23,000 website the city is hiring a PR firm to create. And specifically, the $1,500 included to set up a Facebook site for the arena project. I questioned that, since any pimple-faced teenager — nay, tween — could set up a Facebook account in about three minutes.
Hear it here.


Arena money flowing… here’s where

Took a look at some of the arena documents available online to the public, and here are a few nuggets I found interesting:
• Last month Gilmore & Bell, a public finance law firm, was paid $300,000 for its work on the arena bond issues. That’s the firm Lincoln’s bond counsel, Lauren Wismer, works for.
• Ameritas Investment Corp. was paid $150,000 last month. Ameritas contributed at least $12,700 to the pro-arena campaign before the May election, where voters approved the $340 million project.
• They’ve budgeted $15,500 for furniture, fixtures and data processing equipment for the city employees working on the arena project.
• The joint public agency will pay the Thought District $23,000 to set up a website and Facebook site to track development of the arena project. The Facebook portion alone will cost $1,500 (any teenager could set that up for nothing!) According to the Thought District’s project overview, “By providing an up-to-date, transparent view of the project, the website will inform the public, curb negative sentiment, and excite supporters of the arena.”


Sleeping giant awakened?

What are the odds of that?
One day after my post about how local preservationists seem to largely slumber, the front page of the LJS features a story about the Preservation Association of Lincoln’s top 11 list of endangered buildings. Normally, I think of endangered buildings as buildings still standing, but the list contained some that have already been torn down. To wit: the Bison Books warehouse has already been torn down, but there it is on the list. Endangered? No, gone.
The point is, the preservation association needs to get out in front of these demolition projects if it is to be effective. If you want to save Bison Books, you go down to city hall and testify before the City Council before they approve a TIF agreement that calls for its demolition (for example), not after the fact.
Publishing a top 11 list of endangered buildings — including some that are already gone — seems a bit late at this point. Wake up, preservationists!

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