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LPS evaluating all programs

One day my daughter came home from school and said her teacher told students that if they cared about Lincoln Public Schools’ focus programs, they should let the school district know because the LPS is analyzing the program’s merits.

I know LPS recently held a public meeting where just seven students showed up to show their support for the district’s focus programs. The paper said the public meetings are just one of 17 methods LPS is employing to come up with ways to improve the school district.

I asked Superintendent Steve Joel whether the district was thinking about getting rid of the focus schools, and here is his response, via e-mail:

The focus programs are currently being analyzed by the our student learning committee. Rather than focus on any specific area of LPS, I think it might be fairer to say that ALL programs are under review.


Arena board gets OK to use eminent domain to take two properties if needed

The board overseeing financing and construction of Lincoln’s $340 million arena project approved the use of condemnation — or eminent domain — to buy two pieces of property for the project.

After an executive session — a portion of the meeting that is closed to the public to talk about real estate negotiations — the Joint Public Agency unanimously voted to authorize the use of condemnation to “take” property owned by Alter Trading Co. (which owns Alter Metal Recycling, a scrap yard south of the Harris Overpass) and the Watson-Brickson Lumber yard owned by Jaylynn, a limited liability corporation if necessary.

Assistant City Attorney Rick Peo said the city and two property owners have been negotiating for months on what will be a “fairly complex” relocation. He said alternative sites for the scrap yard and lumber yard are difficult to find, and negotiations are “coming to impasse.” Railroad track work must begin this year, and the JPA needs to either acquire the properties or terminate rail services by May 8 to stay on schedule, Peo said. That’s why he said the “possibility of condemnation” is needed to get legal title to the land by then.

“This is a timing issue,” said Dan Marvin, who coordinates arena work for the JPA.

JPA member Tim Clare — a University of Nebraska regent — said he did “due diligence” and talked to the “players” involved in negotiations, and he said the property owners’ representatives were “very complimentary” and understand the situation. He said condemnation would only be used if necessary.

Peo said a condemnation hearing date would be scheduled to award damages, but negotiations would continue in the meantime.

“It buys you time,” he said of condemnation authority.


Four businesses demolished on downtown block to make way for parking garage, condos


Have you been downtown lately? The old brick building that once housed Chipotle, Cold Stone Creamery, Valentino’s and Quizno’s has been demolished, as construction continues on a $27 million redevelopment project called Urban 38. The city is building a parking garage on the bottom and developers WRK of Lincoln and Woodbury Corp. of Utah are building condos above. Retail is supposed to return to the ground floor eventually.

Meanwhile, Chipotle has reopened in a new location two doors north of Noodles, on 14th Street.


Beutler and Buffington debate — Beutler wins round 1

Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler

Mayor Chris Beutler and Republican mayoral candidate Tammy Buffington debated each other today during the Lincoln Independent Business Association’s noon luncheon.

Tammy Buffington

I thought Beutler clearly won the debate. A few nuggets of interest:

• Beutler said “arguably the most important issue” in Lincoln right now is street needs. This surprised me, since during his four years he has not really offered a solution. He did kick in some city dollars to complement federal stimulus dollars for roads. But he has not acted since getting authority from the Legislature to implement urban growth districts on the city edge — where projected sales tax revenue would be used to obtain bonds to fund infrastructure, similar to tax increment financing districts. He did say he’s working on a financing plan that will likely include a series of small bond issues. That’s news.

• Beutler seemed to get rattled when Buffington criticized his $2 million creation of a Development Services Center in city hall and $6 million purchase of the Experian building. Beutler said all the money spent on leases for city offices will be enough to make payments on the Experian building — although he didn’t mention the estimated $10 million cost of moving, for which the city doesn’t have a plan. “It was a steal,” he said of the Experian building. “The only problem is filling it.”

• Beutler said of the arena project: “It’s happening with the utmost transparency.” That was an overstatement, given the recent approval of a pre-construction contract that won’t allow the actual bids to be made public, only scorecards of each company that bids.

• I was surprised Beutler got so irritated when Buffington suggested the city might not want to take state or federal funds — with all their strings attached — to build the south or east beltways and instead should look for efficiencies in city government to do the projects. “My opponent is not in the realm of the real,” he said. He’s right, the city could never pay for those projects itself, but no need to attack her for making a rookie mistake. She shot back that perhaps the city could have built the south beltway instead of the arena project.

• Beutler seemed to try to take credit for building momentum to reform the Commission of Industrial Relations (which settles wage disputes between cities and unions and enforces the law requiring public employees’ to keep up with their peers’ in other cities) when he said, “we have built up an armada of opposition.” I don’t think he can take credit for that — while he has complained about the CIR since taking office, Republicans on the City Council and up in Omaha have made a lot more noise than he. Nevertheless, he also predicted, “You will see change this year.”

• Most unexpected question asked by a panel of local journalists: How big a problem is illegal immigration in Lincoln? Beutler said it’s not a problem here.

• Beutler claimed crime has dropped 21 percent since he took office — which I’ve never heard before.

Click here to see some video from the debate.


Another candidate for airport authority jumps in — via Facebook

Travis Moore, a 24-year-old legislative administrative assistant, announced today he is running for the Lincoln Airport Authority.

That makes him the second airport authority to announce via Facebook, a hugely popular social networking website. Michael James also launched his campaign via Facebook earlier this month. Moore is a Republican from Riverdale who says he’s running “because the airport is essential to the economic vitality of Lincoln and enhances the city’s ability to stay competitive in job and tourism markets.”

He cited a study last year that said the Lincoln airport is losing about 900,000 potential passengers a year, mostly to Omaha’s Eppley Airfield, due to scarce flights and high fares.

“I would like to explore the possibilities of increasing the cities that the Lincoln airport provides service to,” he said on his Facebook page. “We should also open dialogue with other airline providers to create a more competitive market.For Lincoln to entice businesses to our city, we must offer access to nationwide transportation that’s fast and affordable.”


New LJS columnist would rather “say it plain”

Another good column today from the Journal Star’s new statehouse reporter, Kevin O’Hanlon. He wrote about how the governor’s office didn’t like it when he wrote about the state’s nearly $1 billion “budget gap.”

Now, there’s nothing odd about him describing the chasm between spending and revenue as a “gap.” But apparently, the governor’s office doesn’t like the sound of the word. He got an email from Gov. Dave Heineman’s “communications director” (spokeswoman, PR person) saying they prefer to call it a “projected budget shortfall based off of the Legislature’s fiscal projection.”

O’Hanlon went on to eviscerate their argument. Clearly, this is a typical attempt by a politician’s spin doctor to get the reporter to use meaningless phrases that do nothing but confuse readers. Their preferred phrase kind of implies the Legislature is to blame for this thing.

Would you be more likely to understand what O’Hanlon means by “budget gap” or “projected budget shortfall based off of the Legislature’s fiscal projection”? Yeah, that’s what I thought. I think even “budget gap” can be confusing, but reporters nationwide use that and other words like shortfall and deficit to describe a situation where the government isn’t taking in enough as much money as it needs to pay for current spending.

Looks like the LJS hired a columnist who isn’t afraid to cut through that kind of “excrement emanating from the male of a bovine animal” — and say it plain.


Life on the other side of the microphone

So I had my first-ever press conference yesterday. I mean the first press conference in which I’m the one behind the microphone.
During my career as a journalist, I went to more press conferences than I could count. But this time, I didn’t get to stand there and take notes and then think of the right questions to ask.

So, it was weird.

I was very nervous in the days leading up to it, and by Thursday morning my shoulders were in knots from the stress. I’m used to being read, not heard, and do not consider myself a public speaker. My husband, coincidentally, is. He’s an awesome teacher who gets asked to teach young journalists from Texas to South Carolina.

But me? Not so much.

However, I think I did OK. I had the press conference at Rudge Park — which is a park in my neighborhood that has a big pond with no water. It used to be a fishing hole in the summer and ice skating rink in the winter. When I first learned that, I got excited and wanted to spearhead a drive to fill it with water again because I love the idea of kids and families gathering there again. But then the city tore down the old warming house — I guess it was becoming a target for vandals — and when I brought up the idea to my councilman, Jonathan Cook, and the parks director, neither seemed too interested.

Parks Director Lynn Johnson said the city stopped filling the pond with water every year because it cost about $1,000 and some winters it didn’t get cold enough to freeze. He said the city worked with the Irvingdale neighborhood to come up with a plan to take out the stone curbing around the pond and convert the big hole into a big lawn area — but also doesn’t have the money to do that yet.

That frustrates me, and now that I’m no longer a reporter, I have the freedom to do something about it. If the neighborhood wants a big green space, that’s fine, but to me the big empty pond is a sad symbol of the budget problems facing Lincoln.

I don’t understand how the city can afford to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on projects like Antelope Valley and the arena, but can’t afford to put water in a neighborhood pond or keep water flowing in the city’s water fountains on Centennial Mall and near Sunken Gardens.

That empty pond is part of the reason I decided to get involved on a new level, and run for the City Council. It’s great to be bold and embark on ambitious projects like the arena — if we’re willing to pay for them with new taxes — but we’ve also got to figure out how to get back to basics — by properly maintaining streets, fixing bridges and sidewalks and mowing parks. And yes, filling ponds and water fountains with water.


It’s official: I’m running for the City Council

Click here to get the scoop.


Buffington says Beutler favors “backroom deals” to arena transparency

Republican mayoral candidate Tammy Buffington today questioned why Mayor Chris Beutler has not kept his promises about complete transparency and accountability on the city’s $340 million arena project.

Tammy Buffington

“What is he trying to hide?” she asked, referring to the recent exception granted to contractor Mortenson Construction, allowing them to avoid the city’s usual open bidding process for pre-construction services, which will account for much of the work.

“Chris Beutler has completely rejected transparency again in favor of deals done behind closed doors,” Buffington said in a press release. “He promised an open and competitive bidding process on the arena but he has clearly gone back on his word and is leaving taxpayers in the dark. Not only will the subcontractors be selected with no public view but the bids themselves will never be exposed to the light of day under the current contract. The public never gets to see the bids, including prices, even after the backroom deals are done.”

Buffington said the mayor’s decision runs contrary to the city’s established bidding process, under the city charter. Federal wage requirements — required since the city is using federal Build America Bonds to finance part of the project — now will also potentially mean a much higher price tag on the arena, she said, but the public will not get to see the actual bids.

“This is more of the same from Chris Beutler — negotiating special deals for special people, then handing us the bill,” Buffington said. “The mayor’s actions here have violated the trust of our taxpayers, our local contractors and the voters who supported the arena on his promise of transparency.”


What’s this I hear about Deena having a press conference tomorrow?

For the first time in my life, I wrote a press release yesterday.
I’ve been on the receiving end of press releases for the better part of 20 years, during my journalism career.
The release just said I’m having a press conference on Thursday. And so began my life on the other side of the press release.
It was interesting because within minutes of hitting “send” on the e-mail, I got a call from Coby Mach, host of KLIN’s Drive Time Lincoln. He wanted to know what the press conference will be about. And he didn’t take my “no comment” for an answer; he pressed me further — like a good reporter should. Perhaps that explains why he was my best competition when I was a city government reporter for the Lincoln Journal Star.
So, yes, I’m having a “presser” tomorrow. And you, dear readers, will be the first to know why. On the record.

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