City needs to get real about budget shortfall
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.