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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.

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