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March 4, 2011


City needs to get real about budget shortfall

by Deena Winter

After recently filing an open records request, I learned the city of Lincoln has a projected $6.3 million budget shortfall, not counting the cost of raises that will undoubtedly have to be approved for many city employees, the loss of $1.8 million in state aid and the possible loss of about $1.2 million in telecom tax revenue forced by state lawmakers.

And the city budget officer projects the city’s budget gap will widen to a whopping $19 million in five years, unless the city takes action to fix its structurally imbalanced budget.

“The City Council and mayors have not had the political will to fix this structurally imbalanced budget,” I said during a press conference today. “Instead, they have chosen to balance the budget by finding and then raiding pots of money and relying on one-time budget gimmicks to make it through another year, always hoping next year will be better. Clearly it’s not getting better. It’s getting worse.”

If the projections are accurate, the city will have to find about $8 million worth of cuts or new revenue in order to balance the budget, as is required by law.
“The city’s infrastructure is deteriorating and the backlog of street and sidewalk work continues to grow, while city leaders’ continue to use a ‘death by a thousand cuts’ approach to budgeting every year,” I said.

If I were on the council, I would not have approved spending such as the $6 million purchase of the Experian building, which will incur $10 million in moving costs; the $2 million remodeling of city hall – including the construction of a new mayoral suite of offices and double-digit raises for some firefighters.
“It’s like a family who can’t afford to fix the roof going out and buying a swimming pool and a new car,” I said. “The city can’t afford to keep pouring money into downtown projects while the infrastructure in the rest of Lincoln slowly breaks down.”

As an example, I pointed to Penny Bridge — which spans the Rock Island Trail on Sheridan Boulevard. Last year, volunteers erected a chain-link structure over the trail to protect bikers and joggers after a bridge inspection showed problems. The parks director called it “another example of deferred maintenance” and the need for city funds to fix the bridge.

I support reform to the current system of setting public employees’ salaries, which does not allow flexibility during budget crises or recessions and said if elected, I will bring real, substantive ideas to the table during budgeting, such as:

• Looking into the legality and possibility of lifting the RTSD levy temporarily or permanently and instead shifting that tax into the city levy, so more money can go toward city needs. The RTSD was created in 1971 to deal with an alarming number of car/train accidents in the 1950s and 1960s by improving railroad safety. Originally, RTSDs were authorized until 1996, and then indefinitely. The RTSD is authorized to tax up to $4.7 million annually and last I checked, had $11 million in cash and investments.

• Exploring the possibility of creating an employee savings incentive program that rewards employees who come up with ways to save money with a portion of the savings.

• Exploring whether some of the Community Health Endowment Fund (which was created with $37 million from the controversial sale of the city-owned Lincoln General Hospital to Bryan Memorial in 1997) could be used to help fund health department programs currently funded by city dollars. Nearly two years ago, an accounting firm said the CHE fund was bigger than it needed to be and should dole out more money annually.

• Tapping into the Library Special Trust Fund to pay for one-time expenses in the library system, freeing up more city dollars. The same accounting firm said the trust fund was equal to three years of operating expenses, and could be more freely expended.

17 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jeffrey Poley
    Mar 4 2011


    I think another area that could stand tough examination is the City’s frequent use of TIF to subsidize development especially in the Downtown area. City officials behave as if TIF was dished out at no cost to the taxpayer and that is grossly incorrect. The process of approving TIF is analogous to earmarking (pork) tax revenue by Congress for special interest projects. Property tax revenue that would normally be allocated to the City’s general fund is diverted to a specific project, thus providing stealth funding to favored development. It would be interesting to know how much additional revenue would be available for the general fund account if there were no TIF. I’m not against the city subsidizing development that’s beneficial to all of us but I think the City should at least have the courage to admit that the City is subsidizing private developers.


  2. carol
    Mar 4 2011

    ” Exploring the possibility of creating an employee savings incentive program that rewards employees who come up with ways to save money with a portion of the savings. ”
    I like this idea…I’ve thought about this myself….giving the employee 1% of the savings idea or something like that….

    keep on keeping on Deena!

  3. Roberta
    Mar 4 2011

    You got my vote. Now open up 27th Street for the good of the comunity as a whole.

  4. Roger Yant
    Mar 4 2011

    Way to go Deena, the Journal will net investigate any of this. Four years ago when Beutler took office the city was $1 million in debt, look what he has accomplished in just four short years $6.3 million in debt, just imagine what he can do in four more. The city is just putting things off in hopes they will be out of office when the sky falls in, and leave it up to someone like Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker to come in and do the tough things they neglected. PS: Roberta, if you lived on South 27th you would not want this done, I guarantee you. It does not need to be, there is a solution, I brought it up over the years but it seems no one in Lincoln wants a simple solution. Deena I pray you get in there along with Tammy. We can’t take four more years of this.

  5. Daniel
    Mar 4 2011

    I like the savings program. The military has a Fraud, Waste, and Abuse hotline. If a service member saves the military due to any of these they get a percentage of the savings. The military has saved millions from this.

    Also, I’m with Roberta, I commute 27th everyday, their should be NO reason it is not 4 or 5 lanes from I80 to Pine Lake.

  6. Mark
    Mar 5 2011

    Pretty good ideas worth considering. I am often hesitant to support “robbing Peter to pay Paul” ideas. I think the first step should be to look at “Paul”. Maybe its Paul that doesn’t need the funding in the first place. Just because a department has “health” in the name doesn’t mean everything it does is worthy and not wasteful. You should ask some tough questions of Paul…why do nurses at “Paul” make 60-70K + per year, to give immunizations and and draw blood. When you go to your family doc or a specialist, the nurses in that “private practice” aren’t making that kind of money. Also, why is it that “Paul” is nearly double the size of Douglas County health department? Seems that perhaps local non-profits or private entities might be able to do some of what “Paul” is doing in a less expensive manner…maybe exploring downsizing “Paul” is the first step?

  7. Jason Choate
    Mar 5 2011

    Deena, since you are so committed to “openness” and “transparency” will you tell us all whether you’re going to vote for Chris Beutler or Tammy Buffington?

  8. in the real
    Mar 5 2011

    I would just like to say this for the common rank and file employee. I for one think their retirement is fair. It is still cheaper than defined benefits package. We all know the schools get most of the money on property taxes- A LOT more. I think that should be adjusted, as well as the way we spend our money and what on. I’m talking about if someone wants to build something downtown, they should get a loan and go for it and not rely on the city to buy the ground and give it to them for next to nothing or get a gift from the city-oh, I mean tif. There is just too many businesses that want the city to subsidize their business. The city also needs a good cleaning out, starting from the TOP.

  9. Jason Choate
    Mar 5 2011

    Deena, I’ve been thinking more and more about your commitment to “openness” and “transparency.” It occured to me, why do all of your comments on here need to be approved? The top Republican blog and the top Democrat blog both let people post on there without it having to be approved. I understand if you deleted comments that were vulgar or grossly inaccurate, but

    Can anyone really trust Deena Winter’s pledge to openness and transparency when she won’t say how she’ll be voting in the Mayor’s race and she has to ‘approve’ all of your comments?

    • Mar 6 2011

      I don’t approve them all, Jason. All new commenters are screened at first, and there are a few people who like to put nasty comments on, and I screen them. But you should have noticed I didn’t screen the comment you just posted.

  10. in the real
    Mar 6 2011

    One thing is for real you only get one side with L.J.S. The side they want to put out.

  11. steath woman
    Mar 6 2011

    I thought you plan for unexpected things to happen, like down turns in the market. Higher fuel prices increased the cost of asphalt and concrete. Cuts in funding and not rely on earmarks. I sure hope one of those great big water pumps don’t go bad between here and Ashland or a water line breaks and floods City Hall, or we’ll be like California. You know the mayor gave away the farm and is leaving us holding the note. Gee, THANKS MAYOR.

  12. Jason Choate
    Mar 7 2011

    Thank you Deena. I really do feel though that if you’re going to run on a campaign of “openness” and “transparency” you need to tell everyone who you will support between Beutler and Buffington. It’s only fair. It’s not trivial, they offer two very different directions for our city and you need to tell voters which vision you are embracing.

  13. Andrew B
    Mar 7 2011

    intelligent and fluid budgeting is a must if the city is to stay solvent. thanks to the mortgage industry-wall street debacle, people are now able to see that you just can’t increase payments and expect money to always be there. Hence, the need to not be on the hook for huge benefits is now finally clear, in a way that it wasn’t before. however, we should not punish public employees for the blindness and errors of the politicians. (see Wisconsin and similar) However as Deena suggests, a fluid level to deal with recessions and other unpredictable market forces would be valuable. Just like workers in the private sector get different kinds of bonuses when their company has a good year or bad year. For example, if all goes well, the Innovation Campus and the Arena will bring in monies, the key is not to expect them to always bring in the same amount each year. Think like a farmer without fed subsidies. Some years good. Some years bad. Fix the tools you have first.

  14. Jason Choate
    Mar 7 2011

    Deena, my real name is not of consequece. I am not running for office or claiming to be able to help manage this entire city. That is you, that’s why it’s incumbent upon you to state clearly which leader you would like to serve with. I am certain that Jonathan Cook and Travis Nelson wouldn’t have problems doing this, and I’m certain Mayor Beutler will endorse Jonathan Cook (if he hasn’t already, haven’t been paying too close of attention.) Camp has endorsed Buffington. You are the only candidate who will has not done this and you need to in order to fulfill your pledge to “openness” and “transparency.”

  15. Roger Yant
    Mar 8 2011

    Why should any canidate have to say who they are voting for. That is a private matter.

  16. J.Brown
    Mar 12 2011

    Jason, WHO are you voting for? Good god let me guess, and it starts with a B.


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