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The latest on Beutler retirement issue

Beutler held a press conference this morning to explain that his administration is proposing to reduce retirement benefits for future directors, aides and mayors, but not current ones.
Here’s a link to the LJS story.

The city contributes 12 percent of Beutler and his directors and aides’ salaries into their retirement fund, with no match required. That’s more generous than any city employees get — even though Beutler has worked for nearly two years to try to convince employee unions to take less generous benefits. He was only able to convince them to agree to less generous benefits for new hires only.

Beutler now says his law department says he can’t change the benefits for current staffers. But since the directors and aides work at the pleasure of Beutler, I would think they could change it — but hey, I’m not a lawyer working for Beutler. Do they have contracts? Not that I’m aware of.

Today, I called on Beutler and his staffers to take a less generous retirement benefit, to set an example for other employees — heck, he could give the difference to charity.

Meanwhile, his Republican opponent for mayor, Tammy Buffington, has finally spoken up on the issue, issuing a press release saying Beutler has been dodging the issue since it came up last week, telling a radio talk show host he didn’t know whether he could change the benefits immediately.

“Now it looks like even the union members are getting the short end of the stick by this mayor,” Buffington said in her release. “ How many workers in Lincoln get money contributed to their pensions without having to put a cent of their own money into the fund? “

“Even union members aren’t getting what the mayor gives himself and his buddies,” she said. “I don’t know of any private business in Lincoln that can afford that kind of generosity and still stay in business.”

She said she thought Beutler called a press conference Monday morning to “show leadership.”

“This announcement just shows he’s keeping our dollars and leaving us with change,” she said.


Beutler administration suddenly ready to change directors, aides’ retirement benefit — but the devil is in the details

What a wild week it’s been at city hall.

Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler

For me, this all began on Valentine’s Day. I’d long heard that the mayor and his staff were still getting the kind of retirement benefits he has long decried as overly generous for city employees. Basically, the city contributes $2 for every $1 the employee puts in. Mayor Chris Beutler began lobbying hard in July 2009 to get the unions to agree to a lower city match than that. He couldn’t get traction on changing the benefit for existing employees, but he was able to convince all but one city union to lower the match for new hires only.

But nobody ever asked the mayor whether he would be willing to take a cut in his own retirement benefit, which is actually even more generous than what the city employees were getting. The city gives the mayor and his dozen directors and several aides 12 percent of their salary toward retirement, whether they put up a match or not.

I’d heard that, but wanted to make sure it was accurate information, so I asked the city controller how much the city contributes to the mayor’s retirement fund. This is a question that should easily be answered in about five minutes, by looking up his payroll data. I didn’t get an answer for eight days. On Feb. 22, I received an email confirming that the mayor gets about 12 percent of his $75,000 salary — with no match required.

Coincidentally — or maybe it wasn’t a coincidence at all? — on that very same day, the mayor held a press conference to announce that he and his cabinet and aides had decided to take a .5 percent pay cut in the coming year (assuming he gets re-elected in May). I suspect this was some political operative’s idea of a great way to blunt the effect of any story I might write about the retirement match issue. I wrote about Beutler’s pay cut deal, but added the information about the nice retirement benefit the same crew get.

Two days later, Beutler is on “Jack & John” talking about the pay cut issue when Jack (or was it John?) asks him about the retirement issue I wrote about. The mayor says he always intended to “eventually” also cut his and his cabinet’s retirement benefit, he just hasn’t really gotten around to it and isn’t sure whether it can be done unilaterally.

The following day, Coby Mach is talking about the whole pay cut-retirement benefit controversy on “Drive Time Live” — and expressing incredulity at the whole thing, when during a break he gets a call from the mayor’s chief of staff, Rick Hoppe, who tells him the City Council has on its agenda Monday (first reading, no public hearing until the following week) an ordinance that would change the retirement benefit for directors and aides from the 12 percent no-match-required deal to a 9 percent city match with a required 7 percent employee contribution.

But the really incredible part is that Hoppe tells Coby they’ve been talking about this since November. As Coby pointed out, the mayor had just said the previous day that he didn’t know whether it was possible to make such a change. You would think that in the time between July 2009 and February 2011, his staff would have had time to figure out whether they could make the same sacrifice he’s been asking other city employees to make. Then again, would you be able to find time to figure out whether to cut your own retirement benefits?

So the upshot is that on the City Council’s Monday agenda, suddenly there appears an ordinance to change the deal for directors and aides — however, TWIST! — the way I read it, the legislation would ONLY APPLY TO EMPLOYEES HIRED ON OR AFTER APRIL 1, 2011. So basically, they’re doing the same thing the unions did by saying, “We won’t cut our retirement benefits, but we’ll cut the new employees’ benefits.”

Go figure.


The most important story in the paper today

… is on page B3, in my opinion.

Gov. Dave Heineman

Talk about burying the lede: The story about Gov. Dave Heineman’s thoughts on the Wisconsin situation vs. the Nebraska CIR situation says in paragraph 10 that if the Legislature doesn’t pass “meaningful reform” of Nebraska’s system for setting public pay this session (which there won’t be), there will be an effort to repeal it (not sure what “it” is) and “it” (not sure what, again) will be put on a statewide ballot for Nebraskans to decide.

I just wish I knew exactly what “it” is that he’s talking about. Abolishing collective bargaining? Kind of an important detail.

I’d just heard this same thing on Tuesday — that nobody expects anything substantive to come out of Sen. Steve Lathrop’s committee, and so there is a movement afoot to put the CIR issue on the ballot. I hadn’t even gotten around to checking out the rumor and now Heineman is confirming it.

I would have put the story on the front page (bump the Miss Nebraska story) and put that news in the lede. There are many unanswered questions though: Who’s involved in this movement? What do they intend to accomplish? Will there be protests here next? (I’m already hearing talk of a rally this weekend.) How far is Heineman planning to go?

This is big news people: Even if it is on page B3.


Beutler says “eventually” he and his cabinet will cut their own retirement benefit

During a radio show this morning, Mayor Chris Beutler acknowledged that he and his cabinet and aides still get a very generous retirement benefit but said “eventually” those will be adjusted.

Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler

Eventually? Beutler first went public with his plan to reduce city employees’ retirement benefits in July 2009. Last year he got all but one city union to agree to reduce the match for new hires (from a 2-to-1 match to a 1.3-to-1 match). All the while, he and his cabinet have continued to take an even more generous deal.

According to data from the city, Beutler and his aides and department heads get about 12 percent of their salary in retirement compensation annually. And I’ve recently learned they get the city contribution whether they contribute a match or not. So that’s a better deal than any city employee gets. They get about 12 percent of their salary (most of the directors’ have six-figure salaries) and don’t have to match it to get it.

But now that Winterized has publicized the fact that Beutler never reduced his own retirement match, even while lobbying city employees to do so, he’s acting as though he’d always intended to change it.

“We need to follow through and adjust all of the pension ratios eventually,” he said on Jack & John today. “We haven’t gotten to some narrow categories but that process will come down to everybody in the end. We’ve been working with the broad categories, the big things… .”

So we are to believe that even though he has had since July 2009 to adjust the benefit for himself and his cabinet and aides, he just hasn’t gotten around to it? Wouldn’t a better approach have been to announce that he wanted to reduce retirement matches for city employees, and he would be the one to go first?

The radio host asked Beutler whether he couldn’t have just unilaterally made that change, and Beutler said he didn’t know.

“But we will get there,” he said. “It’s coming.”

Don’t believe me? Hear it here.


Bruning’s first video salvo

Compliments of Street Sweeper over at Leavenworth Street, comes news of Attorney General Jon Bruning’s first web video taking a shot at Ben Nelson and the Cornhusker Kickback (of course). What do you think?


Politico says Stenberg to enter Senate race

Politico is reporting that State Treasurer Don Stenberg plans to enter the U.S. Senate race next month. He would be joining Attorney General Jon Bruning in trying to win the seat now held by Ben Nelson.


Beutler’s .5 percent pay cut is a start — but what about that 12 percent retirement match?

Mayor Chris Beutler announced yesterday that he and his cabinet and aides will take a one-half percent pay cut in the next budget, to “send the right message” to their fellow employees and the community.

Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler

That’s a great start. But Beutler could go farther. For the past several years, he has railed against the city’s overly generous retirement program for civilian employees — where the city kicks in about $2 for every $1 the employee contributes toward retirement, up to 12 percent of their salary. The generous match caused controversy during the recession, when many private companies reduced or eliminated such matches.

“That generosity is inhibiting Lincolnites’ willingness to invest in our future,” Beutler said at a press conference in 2009. “They’re asking why our tax dollars are financing retirements that they themselves can’t.”

In the end, he was unable to get the unions to go along with reducing the match for existing employees, but most unions agreed to reduce the match for new hires to a more palatable 1.3-to-1.

Beutler even chastised the one holdout union for essentially being so selfish in fighting to keep the 2-to-1 match. However, I recently learned that Beutler and his cabinet still get the “overly generous” 2-to-1 match. Beutler gets about $8,712 per year in retirement compensation — that’s more than Gov. Dave Heineman gets, even though he earns about $30,000 more per year than Beutler.

I think that sends the wrong message to Beutler’s fellow city employees and the public, and if he really wants to set an example for them, he should donate the excess retirement to charity. Just a thought.


Welcome to politics — and rot in hell?

Life on the campaign trail

Being in the journalism business for so long, I’m used to occasionally being called names, yelled at and abused by online commenters.

And I’m used to being disliked by some people.

I have a pretty thick epidermis, which I figured I’d need when I decided to run for the City Council. I was right.

Right out the chute, one person wrote on the Lincoln Journal Star comment section that I should “ROT IN HELL” for a story I wrote several years ago about the challenges facing a central Lincoln neighborhood. She lived in that neighborhood, and didn’t appreciate my interviewing a prostitute there, because she felt the stories put the neighborhood in a bad light.

Not long after my series came out, Mayor Chris Beutler started his “Stronger, Safer Neighborhoods” program and declared “There will be no slums on my watch!” and hired Jon Carlson to run the program. The city stepped up its work in the neighborhood, and hopefully they’ve seen an improvement. I know I see far fewer “for rent” and “for sale” signs now than I did back then. That’s good.

And then there was a commenter who claimed to have seen me at an arena meeting and heard me snap at someone who offered pro-arena comment, since I was only looking for arena opponents. Never happened. I probably should have ignored the comment, but couldn’t resist setting the record straight — which ignited another debate.

And then a particularly angry man commented on my campaign website, ending his diatribe by saying, “My advise (sic): Take a few dozen business and journalism classes and then lower your sites on city government service.” I’m not sure what that sentence means! Guess I need some more English courses, too.

I emailed the man to see what he was so mad about, and to my surprise an actual person responded (often, the meanest commenters don’t respond, most likely because they set up a fake email address for the sole purpose of posting nasty comments). A quick Internet search indicated he lives in Atlanta, Ga. I’m not sure why someone in Atlanta would be so angry at me, and when I asked for specific examples of stories he took issue with, he never responded. Hmmm….

If you pay attention to the tweeters and anonymous commenters and emailers, you can get down pretty quickly. Real people rarely have the guts to say such things in public — but it’s much easier to tap out on a typewriter — safely ensconced in anonymity.

However, I’ve found the perfect antidote: Rather than read rants online, talk to real people. Every time I go out and knock on doors (to gather signatures for my petition) I’m amazed at how very nice the real people are. They’re just plain nice. Nebraska nice.

My favorite comment on the campaign trail so far: “I’ll sign your petition, but I’m voting for Jonathan. I sing with his mom in the church choir.” Hey, I understand!

They remind me that most people are good people – they are not spending their spare time lighting up the Web with venom. Perhaps we would all do well to remember that.


Beutler: Crime down 21 percent since I took office

During his closing comment at the LIBA mayoral debate Tuesday, Mayor Chris Beutler mentioned that Lincoln’s crime rate has dropped 21 percent since he took office.

That stat surprised me — I just hadn’t heard that before. So I contacted the police chief to get more specifics — was he talking overall crime, violent crime, property crime?

Chief Tom Casady said Beutler was referring to the FBI’s so-called “part one offenses” — the most commonly reported crime data nationwide: murder, forcible rape, aggravated assault, robbery, burglary, auto theft and larceny. Those are the ones I’d be most interested in.

You can see the specific data in the police department’s annual reports, right here.

And the FBI annual report of national crime statistics is available here.

Click here to see Casady’s chart of Crime Statistics.


Cure for baldness coming?

I was intrigued by this well-written story (by a friend of a friend of mine) because I have two bald boys at my house: Click on me.

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