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Council asked to approve whopping 6 percent raises for firefighters

Mayor Chris Beutler’s administration has agreed to whopping 6 percent raises for the firefighters in a deal that soon will go before the Lincoln City Council for approval.
The firefighters’ union has agreed to a sweet deal where firefighters would get a 3 percent raise that’s retroactive to Aug. 19, plus another 3 percent Feb. 17.
Although it’s true the firefighters got no cost-of-living raises last year, they did get a coveted minimum staffing provision in exchange, in what critics say is a nationwide firefighter move to secure their jobs and boost their numbers.
These are much better raises than all the other city employees received — their raises ranged from 1 to 2 percent in what was viewed as a sacrifice for the good of the cash-strapped city. (One union, however, hasn’t finished negotiations because it’s appealing to a state arbitration board over retirement benefits.)
Dave Engler, head of the firefighters union, said he doesn’t consider it a 6 percent raise, since they won’t get the second 3 percent until halfway through the fiscal year. That, combined with the fact that firefighters didn’t get a COLA raise last year, “equals 2.25 percent (raises) for the last two years.”
But in an era where many employees aren’t getting raises at all — at the Journal Star, employees have gone without raises for nearly three years — the 3+3 raise looks pretty good.
The proposed labor agreement also changes the longevity bonus from a fixed amount to a percentage of salary, which is another plum for firefighters. For example, right now an employee with 25 years of service gets a flat $2,069 bonus for longevity, but under the new deal, they would get 7 percent of their salary. That could amount to a much bigger bonus for sticking around so long.
There are also changes to the section on minimum staffing (remember the controversy over that new provision about a year ago?) that appear to more clearly define which types of employees count toward the minimum number who must be on duty 24/7.
Another new section gives firefighters an automatic $3.29 per hour raise if they move into a 40-hour-a-week job in administration, training or maintenance.
I’m anxious to hear what the firefighters did to deserve such big raises — aside from contribute more money to Beutler and the Democrats on the council than any other entity in Lincoln. I’m also anxious to hear where the money to pay for this contract will come from, given that the municipal budget only penciled in about 2 percent raises across-the-board.


“Stupid, easy to push around, or both”

A recent Journal Star editorial lambasted a Virginia group for “pouring thousands of dollars into attack ads” in the November election and then refusing to report their campaign expenditures, claiming their campaign was “purely educational” since they didn’t urge a vote for or against a certain candidate.
This made me wonder where the editorial writers were earlier this year, when Vision 2015ers were pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into the University of Nebraska Foundation’s UNF Charitable Fund, which spent about $200,000 on radio and TV ads supporting passage of the arena project.
They, too, claimed it was an “educational campaign,” but if you saw those ads with Tom Osborne, I think it was pretty clear which way T.O. wanted you to pull the lever.
It was a circuitous way to get their message across, but it also enabled Vision 2015ers donate money to the pro-arena campaign in a way that made it impossible to know who donated how much. And the beauty of it all was that since the money was going into a “charitable fund,” all those donations were tax-deductible.
To quote from the Journal Star editorial, about the Virginia group: “That robs Nebraskans of the opportunity to find out what sort of people are trying to influence their vote.”
Several accountants contacted me questioning the legality of a nonprofit “charity” spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote a ballot question. Some complained to Attorney General Jon Bruning, who has authority over non-profits, but he certainly had a conflict of interest in the matter, since he was promoting the arena all over the airwaves. (Remember those heart-warming nonpartisan ads with Bruning and Beutler?)
When Bruning participated in a pro-arena press conference toward the end of the campaign, I asked him about what he’d done in response to those complaints about the UNF Charitable Fund. He said he’d never heard about them, but promised that if any violations were found, he’d do something about it regardless of his personal support for the arena.
“I call it like I see it,” he told me. “The law is the law.”
A few days later, he emailed me to say that it was more of an IRS issue.
But you didn’t read about any of that in the Journal Star. Why? The editor said it wasn’t important enough to write about before the election.
That’s one of those moments where a reporter does her best to fight for a story, and then bites her tongue til it bleeds. Because I was not stupid, or easy to push around. Or both.

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