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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.

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