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June 6, 2011


Before the dirt turns, arena project failing on transparency and accountability

by Deena Winter

Before a shovel of dirt has really been turned to begin construction of Lincoln’s $344 million arena project, the project has already failed to deliver on the mayor’s promise that it would done with the utmost of transparency and accountability.

For many reasons.

But let’s start with the most glaring: Lincoln taxpayers recently learned they will be paying Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad an extra $3.4 million to get out of the way of the project. BNSF told the city that due to delays in getting the project off the ground last fall, they are behind schedule, and it will take 3.4 million dollar bills to get them back on schedule, and the city will pay them up front, on a quarterly basis.

And… if the city doesn’t pay up, it can kiss its promised-to-UNL and promised-to-Lincoln September 2013 opening goodbye.

But that is not the worst of it. The worst of it is the fact that arena program administrator Dan Marvin has not felt compelled to even explain to the public, the guys footing the bill, exactly who is to blame for the project having gotten behind schedule. Journal Star reporter Nancy Hicks asked him who was responsible for the delay, and he responded, “I don’t think it is helpful to point fingers.”

So somebody – either the city or BNSF – held things up to the point where the project is behind schedule and now BNSF is exercising its right (as allowed by the railroad’s agreement with the city) to charge the city for any extra costs, and we the public don’t need to know who’s fault it is? I also asked Marvin who’s fault it was, and he did not respond.

Utmost transparency, huh? Transparency is not just putting your agendas and background materials on a website that few people know where to find or navigate. That is standard procedure at city hall. (Go ahead and try finding the JPA agenda once, I’ll time you. Gene found it fast, but he’s smarter than the average bear.)

Transparency is not just allowing the public into the room for your JPA meetings; that is the law.

And transparency is definitely NOT allowing the prime contractor to handle all of the bidding and bypassing the city’s purchasing system to advertise and take bids. Translation: You, the public, will never be able to actually see all of the bids. You will be allowed to see what companies bid, and how they were scored by the prime contractor, but you will not see the bids. Seeing the bids is a central tenet of accountable government – but Mayor Chris Beutler threw that out the window when he selected Mortenson Construction to do the job.

That is neither transparent, nor accountable. But this JPA allowed it. Not only that, but the contractor did not properly advertise a recent meeting for potential subcontractors, and had to basically re-do the meeting.

But refusing to tell the public who caused the delay that will cost taxpayers $3.4 million? That’s a new low. Even more incredibly, my sources are telling me BNSF is probably most to blame for the delay.

So let me get this straight: BNSF’s contract allows it to charge the city for every dime it incurs above and beyond the $46 million we’re already paying them to move, and even if they cause a delay, they can charge the city for it. And if the city won’t pay, they can say, “Sorry well then we can’t get this done by your opening date.”

It’s like legalized blackmail.

I was always quite surprised by local officials’ promises for the past five years that BNSF was a very cooperative landowner. BNSF’s reputation precedes it, and it is not one of bending over backwards for cities that need a favor. But always, we were told, the railroad was playing ball. What Lincoln officials didn’t seem to get is that BNSF is in a whole different league – their bosses do not particularly care if you put a local 2015 Vision big shot on a plane and send him down to Texas to tell the BN bosses how it’s gonna be. (That actually happened.) They do not care if your local bigwig development attorney tries to tell them how things are going to be done.

Things will be done the way BN wants them done. Clearly.

A local newspaper columnist – who normally covers the Rainbows and Butterflies beat – recently opined that just because BNSF is demanding another $3.4 million, that doesn’t mean the project is over budget. Well, no the whole project isn’t over budget, but some line items are higher than expected. And if you’ve promised the citizenry you will come in “on time and under budget,” you start whacking things out of the budget to make up for the overruns.

Which is why city is now putting aluminum wiring in the arena, not copper, and not doing floor-to-ceiling tile in the restrooms and is scrapping, for now, those electronic signs that were supposed to guide people to the arena.

Yes, those signs were advertised as part of the project, but to make budget, they’re out for now. That’s how it’s done.

So… by my count, we are not getting transparency, we are not getting accountability, and we are cutting corners all over the place to keep this baby in budget. I could go for some rainbows and butterflies right now.

17 Comments Post a comment
  1. Gene
    Jun 6 2011
    • Gene
      Jun 6 2011

      Google timed my search at 0.36 seconds. 🙂

      • Jun 6 2011

        Gene… I just think it’s weird that the city web site no longer has JPA agendas — well, other than that one page in the accounting department site that nobody would ever find. If you go to the city home page and type in JPA, it takes you to the jail JPA page. So basically, they’re forcing people to go to the taxpayer-funded, cheerleading Haymarket NOW! website to find the agenda. But even there, it’s not that easy to find. Annoying.

      • Gene
        Jun 7 2011

        I used Google instead of searching around on the city’s website. I think there’s a statute somewhere that states all of city websites have to be horrible.

        I like this WordPress theme much better than your old one, by the way.

  2. NotMe
    Jun 6 2011

    Gee, why is this not surprising?

  3. J. Brown
    Jun 6 2011

    Gene, Things slow to day at work, or do you work? Dan and the JPA haven”t a clue what is going on. If this arena comes in on budget,I for one will be surprised. This project is being designed and built to a price, IE. cheaper wiring etc. What is this thing going to look like after all of the cost cutting measures? By the way, Give Deena a break, What the H have you have done to see all this transparency is available to the taxpayers? Give ME a break big shot!

  4. Jane H Kinsey
    Jun 6 2011

    We need to find a lawyer who will sue the liars.

  5. chanda leer
    Jun 6 2011

    Great reporting – too bad nobody is going to answer the questions.
    Maybe Lincoln citizens need to ask the legislature to repeal the JPA statute. We are being swindled by this process.

  6. paul mike grieger
    Jun 6 2011

    butter fly beat..thats the only new news…

    saline beetle is that her beat…I think i saw it mating !
    no, that was Dan mavin and uncle warren who owns the BnRR
    I thought Uncle Warren is a friend of the UNL group?

  7. fedwayup
    Jun 6 2011

    From what I’ve been reading, the city is having a hard time running its self and now its trying to run the production of a billion dollar arena? The old transparency phrase, the city of Lincoln is the most non-transparent entity that any of us will ever see! Saying that the city is transparent, would be the equivalent of saying, politicians are honest! Ya, right! I have an idea that might prepare us in the future, when ever the mayors office or any city official gives a statement, think the opposite! The city says we’re broke, i say lets ask Mike Foley! Let’s start getting to the bottom of all these issues! Pretty sad when the only good news out of city hall is, Casady gets a promotion! Cutting services, promoting buddies, sounds about par for the course!

  8. porcupine
    Jun 6 2011

    Don’t you see it? It’s right there- yes, right there- in the MIRROR. Just fan away the smoke. Isn’t the good deal that the city’s got on the Experion Building enough to make up for the 3.4 million dollars? Or how about the great deal on bonds?? So, Dan, you don’t want to point fingers. Maybe it’s that fired guy Rodger Helmick’s fault. The management there wants to blame him for everything else that’s wrong. Why don’t the people in charge MAN UP and put there name on it? Does anyone in city management have enough integrity to stop the bullying of the citizens of Lincoln? These people work for us, not the 2015 group or themselves. Someone needs to put some people in their place. . .that is, if they have a shred of integrity!!!

  9. troll
    Jun 6 2011

    I don’t know if its the mayors fault, or the people under him.

  10. Roger Yant
    Jun 7 2011

    How about the 2015 group come up with all the over-runs, they are the ones that were telling everyone how great this was going to be. They were putting up money in the beginning to get this off the ground so THEY and their companies and friends could profit from this tragedy. As tax payers we might as well get our check books out and start sending them money now sooner then later. Kind of like installment plans, but one that never stops.

  11. Jeff Poley
    Jun 7 2011


    All of this shouldn’t be a surprise. The city has been trying to beat a square peg into a round hole on this project from the beginning. The 2015 group pushed building the arena in the wrong place but that’s where the O-Street Gang wanted it built so that’s what we’re stuck with. There are some important lessons to be learned here, though. Lesson #1 is don’t send in a bunch of light-weights to negotiate with the big guys like BNSF.


  12. Roberta
    Jun 7 2011

    Gene must work for the City, can’t see the forest through the trees.

  13. porcupine
    Jun 7 2011

    I think, if someone has property in the hay-market area, they should pay an (ARENA LOCATION TAX). They’re the ones that will benefit from it if there is indeed a benefit.


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