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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.

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