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$9.3 million city budget gap — that’s gotta be a record

I don’t want to say “I told you so,” but I will anyway.
I’ve been saying for months that I expect the city’s budget deficit is in the range of $9 million to $10 million, and I figured if I were off the mark I’d hear about it from the mayor’s office.

Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler

They didn’t make a peep, and now today Mayor Chris Beutler announced that he is working on closing a $9.3 million budget gap. (Do I get some kind of prize?)

It’s no laughing matter though: Beutler tried to show reporters what it would be like if that deficit were tackled with cuts alone. (PR 101: soften them up before the blow.)

Here’s what would happen: Three branch libraries would close and all other libraries would close for one day. A fire station (in Air Park) would close and 12 firefighters would be laid off. Six police officers, four public service officers and three victim/witness advocates would be laid off.

All city parks would close except Antelope, Hazel Abel, Holmes, Pioneers and Union Plaza. All city pools would close except Star City Shores and Woods. The Pioneers Park Nature Center would close. Many recreation centers would face reductions. Street tree maintenance would be funded at one-third of this year’s budget.

StarTran Saturday hours and weekday mid-day hours would end.

Police would cut victim/witness services; protective custody of intoxicated persons (the drunk tank); response to non-emergency calls; and parking and abandoned vehicle enforcement.

Economic development funding would be cut $200,000, Aging Partners would cut legal services, in-home services, volunteer programs and social work and care management.
And the Health Department’s pre-natal care referral service would end.


“I offer this today because without understanding where a ‘cuts only’ budget would take us, we cannot make informed judgments on alternatives to a one-dimensional budget solution,” Beutler said in a press release. “Some will accuse of us trying to scare the public. But we have a responsibility to realistically confront the choices available to us. To me, it is far more frightening to ignore the situation and place our hopes in unrealistic schemes with uncertain outcomes.”

Convinced we need to raise taxes yet?

It’d take a 6-cent increase in the city property tax rate to cover the entire gap with taxes: That would cost the owner of a $150,000 home about $7.50 a month in additional property taxes.

The mayor said despite four years of budget cuts, the city’s “stubborn structural imbalance” remains, and this is the toughest budget he’s had to put together as mayor. Of course, he’s ignoring the fact that in his first four-year term, he could have gotten the budget back in shape if he’d had the guts – but he didn’t.

So here we are again.

Beutler rightly points out that personnel costs account for about 70 percent of the budget, and there are still “state controls” that require wage increases.

But Beutler said to make all the cuts on the list would be a repudiation of those who worked and sacrificed in previous generations.

“I will not be the mayor that allows Lincoln to stand still or fall behind because I lacked the political will and courage to lead,” Beutler said. “Yes, we will have to make cuts and sacrifices. But I refuse to let those cuts and sacrifices become so deep that our essential character is changed.”

So, to summarize the press conference today: The city has a huge budget shortfall – probably the biggest in the city’s history. Beutler has been mayor for the past four years and has not been able to fix the structurally imbalanced budget. So now, he’s going to ask Lincolnites to stomach a property tax increase, but not big enough to cover the whole gap. He’ll make cuts to cover the rest of the deficit.

With Democrats sitting in five of the seven seats on the City Council, he should have no problem doing whatever he wants with the budget this year.

We’ll find out what his solution looks like when he releases his proposed budget on July 11.


Fischer makes it official


Surrounded by her three sons, daughter-in-law, mother and a former governor, Deb Fischer made it official on a sunny Tuesday morning in front of her childhood home in Lincoln.

In case you’ve been living in a cave, she’s running for the U.S. Senate, seeking the seat now held by Ben Nelson. Fischer said her primary goals will be to strengthen the economy, balance the federal budget and revitalize communities.

She said she wants to help America regain its financial strength, and expressed concern about the national debt approaching $15 trillion. She said she will work to repeal President Obama’s health care program and is “not going to play politics with our security” but will instead give troops the tools they need to do their jobs.

“I believe in a limited and an effective government,” she said.

She said she will bring “real and genuine” change “rather than political posturing and sound bytes.” Nelson has been a “rubber stamp for the failed economic policies of the Obama administration,” she charged, and represents the Obama and D.C. agenda, not Nebraska.

“I’m not a career politician,” she said. “I’m a wife, mother, rancher, small business owner. It has not been my lifelong ambition to be a U.S. senator.”

While Fischer lived in Lincoln from age four until she got married, she has lived in the third district for the past 39 years. She and her husband and three grown sons all ranch together in Cherry County.

She began her public service career on the Valentine School Board before serving two terms in the Legislature — where this year her profile was raised when she proposed and successfully shepherded to passage a new roads funding bill that will devote a portion of state sales tax revenue to road construction projects.

She joins a field of four vying for the Republican nomination: Schuyler investment adviser Pat Flynn, Attorney General Jon Bruning, State Treasurer Don Stenberg and Omaha truck driver Spencer Zimmerman.

Former Gov. Kay Orr introduced Fischer at the press conference, saying she’s a “fine woman who has the leadership skills that will be good for Nebraska.” Fischer’s father served in Orr’s administration, and was chief engineer for the state Department of Roads.

“She’s a true conservative, she’s a woman of integrity, she’s a woman of intelligence,” Orr said. “I’ve made my choice.”

Asked about how she would overcome the name recognition Bruning and Stenberg have, Fischer said, “I realize I don’t have the name recognition” they do, but said she already is accustomed to putting 30,000 miles per year on her vehicle just representing her legislative district, and is willing to do the work it will take to win.

Standing outside the family home, Fischer’s mother, Florence, said she can see her daughter going to Washington, D.C.

“I knew she’d go somewhere” with her life, Florence said. “She’s always had a good mind.”


No more firefighter trips to grocery stores

In my six years covering city hall in Lincoln, one of the most common complaints I heard from readers was — I am not kidding — about firefighters doing grocery shopping while on the clock.

People would get so indignant about seeing a firetruck in the parking lot, or a firefighter in the grocery aisle, all decked out in their uniforms and clearly on the clock.

They did not think firefighters should shop for food while on duty — even though this is pretty standard nationwide (at least that’s what the union head told me) and if a call comes in, the firefighters drop everything and go.

Well, apparently that practice is about to end in Lincoln. Coby Mach of “Drive Time Lincoln” is reporting that the city’s former police chief and new public safety director, Tom Casady, intends to end the practice. But apparently not just to avoid the appearance of inactivity — to save money on gas.

What do you think? I have to say, I’ve never encountered a firefighter in a grocery store — although I’ve seen firetrucks parked outside many a store and restaurant where they appeared to be making a pit stop.

I don’t believe I’ve ever gone grocery shopping while on the clock — but then I got a lunch break and other “coffee breaks” every day. Still, I never could figure out why firefighters couldn’t just bring their food with them to the fire station, just as most workers bring their lunch to work.

Then again, if this is one of the biggest gripes we have about the fire department, life is pretty good in Lincoln, Neb.


Fischer to jump into U.S. Senate race tomorrow

Valentine Sen. Deb Fischer will announce her candidacy for the U.S. Senate during press conferences tomorrow in Omaha and at her childhood home in Lincoln.

Deb Fischer

Sen. Deb Fischer of Valentine

According to a press release, Fischer will make a “special announcement regarding Sen. Fischer’s plans for the future” during the press conference at 11 a.m. at her mother’s home in Lincoln, kicking off appearances at several other Nebraska cities.

That means five Republicans are vying for the GOP nomination to take on U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson next year — assuming the Democrat runs for re-election. She joins Schuyler investment adviser Pat Flynn, Omaha truck driver Spencer Zimmerman, Attorney General Jon Bruning and State Treasurer Don Stenberg.

Fischer, 60, has represented Valentine in the Legislature since 2005, and this year gained prominence by successfully shepherding a roads funding bill that will designate a portion of the state’s existing 5-cent sales tax revenue toward road construction projects, beginning in 2013.


Hicks: Mayor’s office didn’t feed me the LIBA story

Lincoln Journal Star reporter Nancy Hicks told me today that as far as she knows, the mayor’s office had nothing to do with the newspaper’s story last week about the LIBA head’s six-figure salary.

Hicks wrote a story last week about how LIBA head Coby Mach was earning about $107,000 to $116,000 while lobbying local governmental entities to cut public employees’ salaries, benefits and jobs. The story whipped up a frenzy of controversy — with some questioning the point of the story and others gloating over a story that turns the tables on Mach. As of this moment, the story has generated 181 comments on the Journal Star website and it was the subject of several hours of talk radio shows last week.

On Friday, Mach talked on his show “Drive Time Live” about how I blogged that I wouldn’t be surprised if the story was peddled to Hicks by either a Democratic operative or the mayor’s office, given the fact that a mayoral aide had lobbied me (when I was doing the same job Hicks does now) to write unflattering stories about Mach.

Mach made a big deal out of that, saying in promos that the mayor’s office had been “implicated” in the LIBA story. That was a stretch — I don’t think anybody implicated anyone; somebody speculated.

So Hicks contacted me today to clarify that she did not get the information from mayoral aide Rick Hoppe.

“I did not get the information from Rick,” she said in an email. “And as far as I know the information did not in any way originate with Rick.”

The information about Mach’s salary is available to anyone who knows how to use the website Guidestar. The question is, who came up with the bright idea of finding Mach’s salary and then deciding it was a story to point out the inconsistency between that and his shrink-the-government mantra? Hicks did not want to go into that.

My goal here at Winterized is to not just write about what’s going on, but to also lift the curtain on how things go down behind the scenes. Often, these kinds of stories don’t just pop into a reporter’s brain (sometimes they do, but not often enough). Often, someone with an agenda “suggests” or “pitches” the story to the reporter. And the motivation of the person doing the pitching is important to consider when you’re the reporter deciding whether to grab on, or let it go.


Could it happen here? Oh, yeah

Three years ago, when Iowa was being swamped with water, I wondered just how bad it could get in Lincoln if Mother Nature converged on it like it is other cities up and down the Missouri River today.

So I asked city officials. Their words then are worth revisiting today — when cities like Minot, N.D., and Bismarck, N.D., are seeing rivers overwhelm levees and inundate areas they never thought possible. I learned that in Lincoln, 19 square miles of low-lying areas could be under water if the city were hit with a 100-year storm. (That’s about 5.5 inches of rain dumped within 24 hours, spread across about 100 square miles — Lincoln’s about 80.)

Portions of University Place, East Campus, the Russian Bottoms, Malone and Clinton neighborhoods would be under water. Other vulnerable areas: the area around Beal Slough — from 14th Street to 56th Street along Nebraska 2 — and the area north of the stream called Dead Man’s Run from North 33rd to 48th streets.

We don’t have a Missouri River or a Platte River running through town, but 11 creeks converge with Salt Creek in Lincoln, draining more than 1,000 square miles — all pointed like a gun at the heart of Lincoln. It’s easy to forget the city has battled more than 100 floods since 1900 — 17 of them major, two of them catastrophic.

That’s why 10 dams and levees were built in the Salt Creek watershed in the 1960s, but even now, Lincoln’s earthen berms can only handle up to a 50-year storm. That is a pretty low threshold.

Lincoln is protected by a 7-mile-long levee along Salt Creek that was designed to withstand 100-year storms, but detailed floodplain mapping in the late 1970s led the feds to conclude it wouldn’t stand up to a 100-year storm if all those streams peaked at the same time. The levee was built with dispersive clay, which is high in calcium and erodes and dissolves when it comes into contact with water. Which is why holes started showing up in the levee in the 1970s. Not exactly what you’re looking for in a levee.

The levee was decertified as a 100-year-flood protector due to the clay material and fact that it isn’t high enough.

And remember, scientists say climate change will produce more extreme weather — as we’re seeing now — and more precipitation in our area.

The great 1908 flood in Lincoln — which killed nine and left 1,000 homeless — is believed to have been a 100-year storm.

When it’s the middle of August and dry as a bone, it can be hard for city officials to get excited about updating flood plain maps, preserving flood storage and mitigating flood risks. City Council members sometimes act as if city officials are just trying to make work or put an onus on businesses. But you never know when Mother Nature is going to defy all expectations and swamp your city — and by then, it’s too late.


Fire at BNSF maintenance shed

A passerby got this shot of a fire in a Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad maintenance shed near the Harris Overpass Thursday night. This is in the area where the city is doing work in preparation for construction of a new arena. Chief Fire Inspector Bill Moody said the building was being demolished, was “half down” before the fire and only contained “old paint.” The cause has not been determined.

The view from the Harris Overpass as a fire burns Thursday night in a BNSF maintenance shed, which is in the area where the city is preparing to build an arena.


Coby Mach fights back, takes on Journal Star

It is on.

A battle has broken out between the local newspaper and a prominent local radio talk show host.

LIBA head and talk show host Coby Mach

While “Drive Time Lincoln” and LIBA head Coby Mach started out by saying he wasn’t trying to “pick a fight with a guy who buys ink by the barrel,” he didn’t hold back in responding to the Journal Star’s recent story taking him to task for pulling down a six-figure salary while lobbying government to shrink. Not surprisingly, Mach took to the airwaves to fight back, saying the story was a “hit piece” riddled with errors and the reporter refused to meet with LIBA officials to get more information before going to print.

The Journal Star wrote about how Mach earns $106,000 as head of the Lincoln Independent Business Association and got big raises during the recession – even while lobbying governmental entities to freeze salaries, cut benefits and cut positions.

Mach said in response to the story, LIBA board Chairman Tim Cox sent a letter their 1,075 members saying the story contained more fiction than fact, and that Mach got a bump in pay – to nearly $116,000 in 2009 — because LIBA was often operating with only two employees that year. Mach’s salary dropped back down to nearly $107,000 last year.

Cox said the LIBA board of directors set financial and performance benchmarks and Mach was “paid accordingly” for hitting them. He said the job has no pension or retirement benefits and a “bare-bones” insurance option.

Mach was particularly perturbed by the fact that the paper went to Democratic Party state chairman Vic Covalt for comments in the story. Covalt claimed Mach’s job was a part-time job and that LIBA “pays no taxes.”

LIBA says Covalt was wrong on both counts: LIBA does pay payroll taxes and pays rent on a building whose owner pays property taxes, and Mach is required to work at least 40 hours a week and typically works 50 to 60 hours weekly. Mach said the Journal Star reporter, Nancy Hicks, was shown documents proving that, but still printed Covalt’s allegation.

Mach said he puts in a lot of hours – losing “precious time with his wife and two daughters – often arriving in the office by 7 a.m. and returning at 6 p.m., after doing his “Drive Time Lincoln” radio show. He said he attends many night meetings and is “in the office prior to church on Sunday mornings.”

“It’s a great job, don’t get me wrong,” Mach said. “I love it.”

Mach said, “We all have the ability to work harder… (to) work two or three jobs to make ends meet.”

He said the story implied there was some kind of salary threshold at which people are not allowed to have a voice in local politics.

Mach said LIBA invited Hicks to come in and meet with the chairman of the LIBA board and LIBA accountants to explain issues in the story, but she declined, saying, “My bosses are concerned that you’ll break the story on Drive Time Lincoln.”

“Who cares about facts? Or getting the story right?” Mach said. “It’s all about scooping Drive Time Lincoln.”

Mach said he invited Hicks to join him on his radio show the day the story came out, but she declined. (That’s no surprise: The paper would never let me do the show either when I worked there.)

Mach repeatedly questioned why Hicks went to Covalt for comment – asking why the head of the Democratic Party would be asked to weigh in on his salary rather than the head of another business organization or city employees or even the mayor.
Mach said apparently, anyone who wants to have a voice at city hall must “start with an email to Nancy Hicks” first.

“I’ve done nothing wrong, nothing illegal… except become a very influential voice from a nonprofit organization,” he said.

Hicks said she could not comment on Mach’s rebuttal, and other editors were out of the office Friday and unavailable to comment.

However, Mach skirted the central issue raised by the story: While he has lobbying government to keep salaries lean and cut benefits and jobs and urging the government to pay more like the private sector, he was earning a tidy six-figure salary leading that lobbying group.

I was surprised to read that Mach makes six figures, because a few years ago, when the City Council was debating whether to hire a researcher, Mach, a chamber representative and I were sitting in the back of the room and we all were kind of shocked when a councilman mentioned that the person should make about $80,000 a year. Mach jokingly said he would apply for the job if it paid that much.
I guess it really was a joke.

As to Mach’s questioning why Hicks went to Covalt – I think the answer is obvious. Over the half-dozen years I covered city hall, it was very clear that Mach and LIBA and Drive Time Lincoln were a thorn in the mayor’s side. More than once, a mayoral aide tried to get me to write a hit piece on Mach.

They felt it was a conflict of interest for Mach to head up LIBA and also host a radio show – plus occasionally act like a reporter by attending press conferences.

It is a weird dynamic: Coby lobbies for LIBA, but also sometimes puts on his journalist hat. It’d be like Rush Limbaugh also having a job as the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and attending White House press conferences, too.

That’s why I’d bet this story was fed to the paper by a Democratic operative (perhaps Covalt himself) or a member of the mayor’s office. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell the difference between the two.


Sheridan Boulevard coming up, brick by brick


Sheridan Boulevard is in the middle of a million-dollar-makeover — that’s why the historic street is blocked off with detour signs right now — and tons of bricks are coming up with the pavement from the days when Sheridan was paved with bricks.

As you can see in my photo, beneath the pavement is a layer of bricks. And although the city considered converting Sheridan back to a brick street again, ultimately they decided against that route. (Darn! Lincoln’s few remaining brick streets are one of my favorite things about this city.)

Some adjacent homeowners asked the contractor if they could have some of the historic red bricks, so the contractor, Dobson Construction, has been keeping a few piles for people to scavenge bricks. A worker told me today the bricks go fast.

But please, don’t go looking for bricks when they’re trying to build a road. You could end up with brick on your face.

The city is doing a mill and overlay, new curbs and gutters and some new sidewalks from South Street all the way to Calvert Street. The $1.2 million project is being paid for with city wheel tax dollars.


Kleeb and Fahleson duke it out on Twitter

Jane Kleeb

Bold Nebraska founder Jane Kleeb

Twitter adds a whole new dimension to partisan bickering: Today, the news came out that prominent Democrat Jane Kleeb paid a whopping $50 fine for mistakenly filling out campaign finance forms.

Mark Fahleson, chairman of the Nebraska Republican Party, was quick to pounce — probably even quicker than usual, given the Democrats’ going after Republican Jon Bruning for what they say are campaign violations.

GOP chairman Mark Fahleson

In her settlement agreement with the state Accountability & Disclosure Commission, Kleeb said the Hastings school board race was her “first political campaign” and that she had a “mistaken belief” as to what state campaign finance laws required. Fahleson wasn’t buying that; he noted Kleeb has held national partisan campaign positions since 2003 and her husband Scott Kleeb ran unsuccessfully for federal office in 2006 and 2008.

“Jane Kleeb either willfully ignored the law in this case or was recklessly uneducated about it, simply to achieve a political goal,” Fahleson said.

Republicans also noted that she didn’t just fail to report an expenditure correctly, she failed to properly register her committee, properly file required campaign statements and failed to properly report late campaign contributions.

“We can focus on the size of the fine, but at the end of the day she would not be nearly as dismissive if Heineman or Bruning were fined $50 by the FEC as a result of the bogus Bold Nebraska complaints that were recently dismissed,” said Jordan McGrain, executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party. “She would claim victory and condemn them for breaking the law. They did not, she did.”

But duking it out in the press wasn’t the end of it: Fahleson tweeted a message to Kleeb saying he was “Reading with interest a (sic) FEC dismissal of one of your frivolous complaints. Not a good day for u or Sen.BenNelson.”


Kleeb replied by saying it was a $50 fine and asking if Fahleson would be sending it out as a “top press release” for “bruning, Heineman or others?”

Kind of weird to see party leaders throwing punches on Twitter.

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