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Donations from angels

Life on the campaign trail

I got a phone call over the weekend from a man with a husky voice who wanted to know if he could stop by with a donation for my City Council campaign.

I didn’t recognize the voice. When he and his wife showed up on my doorstep a few days later, I didn’t recognize either of them. They’d read my stories in the paper and this blog, and for some reason, felt moved to give me $200.

They drove a big van — with room for their five adopted children. Yes, FIVE. Not only are they all adopted, they are also special needs children. One had shaken baby syndrome, one was a crack baby. Two are twins. Three are siblings. All are loved.

Dad is a city employee. Mom stays home with the kids. A hard-working, blue-collar couple. That $200 means more to me than a $10,000 donation from a corporation would (if I were accepting such donations).

Thank you to all of you people out there who are sending me $20, $25 or more… you are the heart and soul of this campaign.


Roundabouts aren’t foolproof


I just thought this scene yesterday was interesting considering all the debate lately over the pros and cons of roundabouts.

One of the clear benefits of roundabouts is that they’re nearly foolproof — in other words, it’s pretty hard to get into a crash in one of them, unless you don’t understand the rules of the game. As one traffic engineer once explained to me, there are two rules: Don’t go if someone’s already in the circle, and signal when you’re about to exit the circle.

But some people don’t play by the rules, and can find a way to bump into each other anyway, as was the case yesterday afternoon at this roundabout at 33rd and Sheridan Boulevard.


And the award for the worst pothole goes to…

Here at Winterized, we’re looking for some awesome, crater-like potholes and teeth-gnashing bumpy streets to photograph — and since we don’t drive every street in Lincoln every day, we need your help.

After all, we’d hate to snub any particularly troublesome spots.

Nominate your nemesis pothole or street by submitting a comment below, or by emailing Photos welcome.

Hey, if you can’t fill ’em, you might as well photograph ’em!


7.5 percent raises coming for 450 city employees

The Journal Star is reporting that the CIR rulling I wrote about earlier today will pave the way for a contract to be signed with a city employee union that will include 7.5 percent raises for that employee group.

The labor union is called the Public Association of Government Employees, or more commonly known as PAGE, and it represents more than 450 clerical, technical and blue-collar employees. So a nice raise is apparently on the way for those 450 employees, compliments of the state system of setting salaries — which requires the city to pay salaries that are commensurate with those employees’ peers in other comparable sized cities, regardless of the city’s financial health.

Now that the CIR has ruled on some issues PAGE had brought to them, I suppose the union and city can settle their labor agreement — and I believe Nancy HIcks is right, I’d heard that agreement called for like 8 percent raises (7.5 percent rounded up).

This is an example of the problem many people have with Nebraska’s salary-setting system: The city has a projected $6.3 million budget shortfall (plus $1.8 million we’re about to lose in state aid) and that’s not counting raises that will need to be given to most city employees — and yet the system doesn’t allow flexibility during hard times. Thus, the whole CIR debate in the Legislature.

Nancy’s story indicates the “compromise bill” that appears to be coming out of committee in the Legislature would require the CIR to also take into account retirement and health insurance benefits when deciding cases. I’m not sure that will solve this problem.


CIR rules in favor of city

The Nebraska Commission of Industrial Relations has ruled in the case a Lincoln city employee union brought over benefits.

The union is the Public Association of Government Employees, or PAGE, which represents about 500 city employees, most of them blue collar and technical workers. Although they originally went to the CIR over the mayor’s pressure on them to lower retirement benefits for new employees, ultimately that issue did not go before the CIR.

The union’s attorney, Gary Young, told me in January that city officials realized they couldn’t force the union to agree to the lower retirement benefit via the CIR.

“If you’re the 800-pound gorilla and you can force people to do things because a union doesn’t want to go to the CIR, then you can bully your way into doing things that you’re not entitled to. PAGE wasn’t going to allow the mayor to bully them,” Young said of the Beutler administration back in . “There’s nothing they (the other unions) can do about it now.”

The CIR took up three issues: dental benefits, who decides when overtime begins in the pay cycle and whether the city should offer employees a defined benefit pension plan, rather than just the defined contribution plan.

The CIR ruled in the city’s favor on all three counts:

• The CIR ruled that dental benefits should stay the same (meaning the city will continue to provide employer-paid dental insurance at its current rate of 50 percent for family and single coverage).

• The CIR ruled in the city’s favor on the defined benefit issue, saying the issue extends beyond the reach of the one-year period over which the CIR has jurisdiction, saying, “the Commission lacks jurisdiction to order structural changes to pension plans.”

• The CIR ruled that overtime is a “management prerogative” and said it lacks jurisdiction to change the city’s method of calculating when overtime begins during a work cycle.


Beutler amassing, spending lots of campaign cash

According to state campaign finance reports, Mayor Chris Beutler is amassing a tidy sum of money for the mayoral race — but he’s also spending quite a bit of it, even though he’s seen as a shoo-in for re-election.

Heading into 2011, Beutler had more than $100,000 in cash on hand, according to his report with the state Accountability & Disclosure Commission. By March 1, he’d spent more than $71,000 — including nearly $30,000 on polling to a Washington, D.C.,-based company in January and February. I keep hearing reports of people being polled about city races; I wonder if they’re polling every month?

Beutler also donated $11,000 to the Nebraska Democratic Party for a coordinated campaign (you know, like for those mailings that go out to registered Democrats reminding them to “vote for our Democratic team”). And he paid the Thought District $9,000 for this website. (I made my campaign website myself for $17. Maybe it shows, but I’ve never made a website before.)

By comparison, Republican mayoral challenger Tammy Buffington reported she had raised just $1,600 as of March 1. I’ve heard her say at campaign events that she probably won’t raise more than $15,000 — and that she hasn’t received any money from the Republican Party. It’s very clear to me that the Democrats are much more organized and aggressive on the local level than the Republicans.

So the question is, why is Beutler raising and spending money like a madman? Some speculate that he intends to run for governor in three years. Others say he wants to prevent the Democrats from losing control of the City Council, which would make it harder for him to accomplish his agenda.

Out on the campaign trail, people are telling me they’re getting hit up to volunteer and donate money like crazy by the Democrats. I was amused by the direct-mail flier that recently went out in Lincoln urging Democrats to “vote for your Democratic team” — with a photo of Beutler and all the local Democrats running for offices from airport authority to school board to city council.

Why was I amused? Because one of the last irritations I had as a reporter involved Beutler calling my boss and complaining that I had referred to council members as “Republican” or “Democrat.” I only ever did that when it appeared politics or political philosophy was at play in a debate or vote or bickering, but Beutler felt I was contributing to partisanship by even pointing out people’s party affiliation.

Now, just a few months later, he is sending out fliers urging Lincolnites to vote for an Airport Authority member based on whether they’re a Republican or Democrat. I find that amusing.

Other interesting tidbits about who has raised how much money for this campaign season:

• Councilman Jon Camp is also headed for re-election in southeast Lincoln, but he’s still raising and spending money like his seat is on the line. He’s got signs all over town (far outside of his district), oversized signs and I’ve seen one billboard (like he doesn’t have name recognition). According to his most recent campaign report, he had nearly $65,000 in cash on hand.

• By comparison, Councilman Jonathan Cook — who, like Camp, has served on the council for 12 years — reported more than $10,000 in cash on hand as of March 1. Unlike Camp, Cook doesn’t like to raise money. (Which is probably why he still owes his old campaigns $38,500.)

• Councilman Doug Emery (who is seeking his second four-year term) had nearly $15,000 in cash on hand as of March 1. What’s interesting about Emery, a Democrat, is that he said he won’t accept money from the firefighters’ union this year (there goes like $15,000).

• Democrat Carl Eskridge — who is running for the City Council in northwest Lincoln — reported nearly $12,000 in cash on hand as of March, almost all of it from individuals. The biggest contribution was $3,000 from John Hannah of Houston, Texas. Wish I had rich friends in Texas!

• Republican City Council candidates Chad Wright, Travis Nelson and Melissa Hilty, Democrat Bobbi Kosmicki and independent Deena Winter (me) don’t file campaign finance reports until they’ve raised $5,000, which apparently they have not since I can’t find reports for them. (I know I haven’t — I made that crazy promise not to take money from anyone but individuals, so I will raise much less money than most candidates. Most of my donations are $20 to $25, and I love that!)


Buffington bashes Beutler over Brashear hiring

Republican Mayoral candidate Tammy Buffington today put out a bombastic press release regarding Mayor Chris Beutler’s recent hiring of former Speaker Kermit Brashear to lobby for the city.

Tammy Buffington

I’m just going to give you the whole press release. Here it is:

I opened my paper yesterday to discover that our mayor is once again spending MORE of the taxpayer’s money. He has decided to hire a former State Senator, a successful Omaha attorney to help with the city’s labor negotiations. It will cost us $350/hour with a projected total of $50,000 for the four weeks of work. This is more than half of the mayor’s yearly salary. Is this how our mayor stays away from the important work of the city? Pay others to do his work? He told a group last evening that they are welcome to come to city hall because he has many assistants to help them. Are these the 19 aides that he has hired at an average salary of $114,000 plus benefits and an additional 12% yearly retirement with no match?

Our mayor is painting the success of Lincoln in such glowing terms and accepting all the credit for this success. Has he ever thought that the reason we have a low unemployment is that citizens of Lincoln are hard working. Faced with a struggling economy and loss of jobs, many are going out and finding whatever they can to make ends meet. Spouses are going back to work instead of staying home with their children. People are making sacrifices. They are cutting back on luxuries. They are paying their bills as best as they can. Wouldn’t it be better for this mayor to find ways to cut back and put money back into the hands of the taxpayers? Wouldn’t it be better if he was a leader of this community and settled the union issues himself? Would that mean that he might not be able to take money from the unions in this election? Would it mean that he would have to hold the line on raising our taxes if he is elected?

I guess the voters will decide in 5 weeks if they like his leadership or if they want to try someone new that will look for ways to cut the budget and return the money to the taxpayers.


Beutler hires Brashear again

My only comment on the mayor’s hiring of former colleague Kermit Brashear for $50,000 to help with labor negotiations is this: The last time Mayor Chris Beutler hired him, it didn’t work out exactly as planned.

Back in 2008, Beutler tapped the former speaker to lobby for the state fairgrounds to become a university research and development corridor (paid him $15,000), but not at the cost of losing the State Fair.

Ahem — well, he got half of that.


Council candidate apologizes for false endorsement claim

A direct-mail piece that recently landed in Lincoln mailboxes claimed that City Council candidat Travis Nelson was endorsed by the South Salt Creek Neighborhood Association. Only one problem: He wasn’t.

A member of the South Salt Creek association — Teri Pope-Gonzalez — said not only did the association NOT endorse Nelson, its bylaws prevent it from endorsing anyone.

Nelson rectified the situation with a little posting on his Facebook page, apologizing for any confusion. That ought to do it! Thousands of households with inaccurate information versus a Facebook page with a little apology.


How much TIF leftover money is there lying around Lincoln?

On Monday, the Lincoln City Council was asked to approve using $400,000 worth of “leftover TIF” funds from an old redevelopment project to do a streetscape project a few blocks to the south.

The redevelopment project was at the Lincoln Star back — back when it was called the Lincoln Star and not the Lincoln Journal Star. The redevelopment project dates to 1996, and the value of the property involved has increased from $800,000 then to more than $4 million now.

Anyway, this is an example of a TIF project where the bonds have been paid off, and extra TIF money is sitting in a bank account. So the Urban Development Department comes up with a plan to use the money, by expanding the border of the original TIF district to include a new area, therefore allowing them to spend the money over there. In this case, they’re expanding from the Journal Star area to M Street from Seventh to 17th streets.

Today, I called for a full accounting or report from the city on all of the TIF funds that have this kind of “leftover” money in them. How many are there? How much money is in them? Can it be used for infrastructure needs in the area of the TIF districts? Should it be returned to the original taxing entities instead of used by the city? These are my questions.

This is not the first time the city has used leftover TIF funds for a nearby pet project. The city also plans to use leftover money from a Lincoln Mall project for Centennial Mall.

Here’s how the city sometimes ends up with extra TIF dollars: The city buys the TIF bonds, which are usually 15-year bonds, and if the project generates more property tax revenue than projected (which is often the case, since the city used to be very conservative in their estimates), the bonds can be paid off earlier than that. But the money that would have otherwise been property taxes instead accumulates in the TIF account.

Back when I was a reporter, I asked some council members about these TIF pots of money, but they seemed clueless about them. And uninterested. Well, I’m interested. Perhaps the money could be used for street work — but I wouldn’t blame the school district, county and NRD (to name the big ones) for feeling like they’d like some of this leftover TIF money, too.

In the Lincoln Star case, if the city chose to give the extra money to the taxing entities that would normally receive it, the city would only get $56,000, whereas the school district would get about $240,000. So you can see why the city prefers to keep the excess money all to itself.

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