Just minutes before approving a $146 million municipal budget that requires a nearly 10 percent increase in city property taxes to fund it, the Lincoln City Council gave their team of city managers more than 100 percent increases in a what’s called longevity pay.
Longevity pay — as in, a bonus for having worked for the city for so long. A bonus that the county is considering dropping for employees not represented by a union. Meanwhile, many city employees still get an annual bonus for every decade they’ve worked for the city.
A huge increase in the bonus was approved Monday as part of the labor agreement with the union that represents about 100 managers and professionals, the Lincoln M Class Employees Association. The new contract doesn’t have regular pay raises but instead sets in motion a joint study of those employees’ compensation.
But the contract does include big bump to those longevity bonuses, about a 100 percent increase. In raw dollars, if you work for the city for 10 years, your longevity bonus will rise from $850 to $1,639. For those who’ve worked for the city 30 years, the bonus goes from $2,050 to $3,952.
Only Councilman Jon Camp asked a single question about the labor contract and specifically, the longevity bonuses. While the city’s personnel director skimmed over that part of the contract, saying it would only increase the city’s costs 1 percent, Camp pressed him to acknowledge that the raises actually amount to about a 100 percent increase.
Only Camp and the other Republican on the council, Adam Hornung, voted against the labor contract.
The employees also are entitled to merit raises of up to 4 percent — if they haven’t already topped out in their pay ranges.
Americans for Prosperity really, really wants to know where U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson has been “hiding out” in Nebraska during the August recess.
So much so that the conservative group has scheduled three “Where’s Ben Nelson?” rallies this week — in Omaha, Lincoln and North Platte — to highlight the fact that while the other Congressmen have been holding public appearances all month, Nelson has been skulking around without giving the public advance notice. The better to evade potentially nasty public exchanges?
Americans for Prosperity thinks so.
“Senator Ben Nelson continues to hide from the people of Nebraska. While he has been traveling the state this month, citizens from Scottsbluff to Omaha read and hear about his visits only after he leaves town,” said AFP-Nebraska State Director Mike Friend. “It’s time for Senator Nelson to start practicing the principles of transparency and openness shared by his colleagues and the citizens of our great state.”
Here are the rallies:
What: Where’s Ben Nelson?
Where: Antelope Park, Lincoln, NE
When: August 23rd, 2011 from 12:00-1:00pm
What: Where’s Ben Nelson?
Where: Walnut Grove Park, Omaha, NE
When: August 23rd, 2011 from 4:30-5:30pm
North Platte Rally
What: Where’s Ben Nelson?
Where: Centennial Park, North Platte, NE
When: August 26th, 2011 from 12:00-1:00pm
JoAnn Murphy taught for 43 years in Waverly and Lincoln schools and her husband, Buzz, worked with emotionally ill people in an adult day center before they both retired.
In all that time, they never got involved in politics – until Lincoln began debating whether to embark upon a $340 million arena project in a railyard west of downtown Lincoln.
They started attending meetings of the No2Arena group – which raised many questions about the arena project’s cost, location and environmental issues. After Lincoln voters approved the project — despite their concerns – the No2Arena group did not dissolve, it evolved — into a new group called the Watchdogs of Lincoln Government.
Murphy facilitates meetings and her husband is an active member. We asked JoAnn a few questions about the Watchdogs – whose members are increasingly involved in local politics, from writing letters to the editor to inviting public officials to address topics at their meetings, to attending public meetings wearing their Watchdog T-shirts.
How did the Watchdog group get started? Is it an offshoot of the No2Arena group? Watchdogs is an offshoot group mostly of the No2Arena members.. However, there are some folks who have joined who were not part of that group. No2Arena was never opposed to an arena, just the location and funding. The group has some professional people, blue-collar workers, retired folks, Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. We are all concerned citizens who want to influence city decisions for the good of all, not just a few.
About how many people come to your meetings? Organizational meetings are usually attended by eight to 12 people. Educational meetings anywhere from 15 to 25 folks. We try to schedule meetings at least once a month – sometimes more. We notify folks through e-mail, and we put notices in the newspaper’s calendar of events.
What is the purpose or mission of the group? The purpose of mission of the group is to educate Lincoln’s citizens about what is going on in city government – thus, increasing the transparency of Lincoln’s city government. Transparency is always the focus for our group. That transparency is achieved by informing the public. We hope that once the public is better informed, better decisions can be made about issues.
Your members sometimes go to public meetings like the arena board meetings wearing T-shirts that identify yourselves… what’s the thinking behind that? We wear our Watchdogs T-shirts to call attention to our group and its purpose – to be watchdogs (protectors) of our tax dollars.
Have you ever gotten any response from the mayor or other public officials to your presence? If so, how did they respond? We have never had any response from the mayor or public officials about our presence at meetings. However, we know that we are noticed by comments during the meetings because of some of the explanations are geared to the public audience – the Watchdogs.
Are you actively recruiting people and how large do you hope to become? We are actively recruiting people and would like to grow. We would very much like to have large attendance at our presentations. We have had Dave Landis come to speak about TIF funds, a presentation about lottery funds, a CPA come to explain the city budget. In the future we hope to have presentations about Innovation Park, the Comprehensive Plan, more on the city budget by the CPA, street department, water department, jobs in Lincoln, etc. We have had some discussion about Pershing Auditorium and the Breslow facility as well as other issues.
Do you intend to get politically active — endorsing candidates and so on — at some point? We do not intend to get politically active. We want to be a conduit of information and not endorse any particular candidate.
What are some issues that galvanized your members — inspired them to join the Watchdogs? Issues that have galvanized our members are expenses connected to the Haymarket Arena project and the continued spending of tax dollars by the city. It appears that it is easy for our city officials to spend other people’s money. Antelope Valley and the proposed LES lines to be buried using the water channel in Antelope Valley are of great concern as well. The increase in property taxes and the wheel tax increase is also a concern. Most who come to our meetings are amazed to find out facts they previously did not know.
Are there any obstacles that you’ve come across as you try to grow and have influence? Our greatest obstacles to growth are spreading the word about our group and encouraging folks to become active. We need lots of input to meet the needs of Lincoln citizens for information. Most recently, we have developed fliers that are handed out at events — county fair, Ribfest, etc. We intend to do more of this, perhaps distributing fliers through businesses or displays.
If you could tell the mayor one thing, what would it be? Increase the transparency in your administration – not after the fact, but before. Let the voters vote (Antelope Valley, the jail, moving the state fair). Present all of the facts, not half.
How can people find out more information about your group? Jane Kinsey is our spokeswoman and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Watchdogs also have a website under construction: http://www.watchdogslnkgov.com.
I knew when I was first tipped off to Attorney General Jon Bruning’s comment comparing raccoons scavenging for beetles to welfare recipients that it was a story.
A big story.
A story with legs, so to speak.
I guess I was right — it was picked up by local media, statewide media and now, one of the most influential political commentators of our time: Jon Stewart. Click below to watch Thursday’s segment of the Daily Show, which included Bruning (in his Husker polo shirt) making his now-infamous raccoon-beetle comment: (Wait for it, it’s about six minutes into the clip.)
Vodpod videos no longer available.
How cool is this?
A state investigation into problems with the new Antelope Valley Project bridges found poor workmanship and inspection of the bridges and called into question whether they would last 75 years, as intended.
Regarding the fact that pieces of concrete have broken away and even fallen from the bottom of the bridges, the authors of an state report into the problems wrote, “This shouldn’t have made it to the walk-through inspection, let alone through it and the work accepted under normal contract/construction procedures.”
The bridges are brand new; they just opened in the past few years as part of the city’s largest public works project to date.
“In our opinion the structural integrity of the bridge is not impacted due to above mentioned findings, but the service life for the next 75 years is definitely impacted,” the report said.
While a team of inspectors determined the structural integrity of the bridges is not compromised by the problems, they said if the bridges aren’t repaired the life of the structures could be “significantly reduced.”
The bridges are part of a $246 million downtown project designed to control flooding, improve transportation near the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and revitalize core neighborhoods.
The report made it clear that problems plague more than the four Antelope Valley bridges previously cited by this blog; they also extend to the three additional Antelope Valley bridges, on Vine, Military and Y streets.
The city and Joint Antelope Valley Authority (a board overseeing the project) were told to respond to the inspectors’ findings within 60 days.
The most serious problem is pieces of the bridges that have broken off the underside: A piece of concrete about 18 inches in diameter fell off the bottom of the O Street bridge in January, prompting the city to close Antelope Valley trails from N to Q street due to safety concerns and setting in motion an investigation of the bridges by the state.
The Federal Highway Administration contacted the state to determine the “level of risk and exposure to both agencies” as a result of Mayor Chris Beutler’s decision to go public about the bridge problem. The city, state and feds then got together and decided the state Department of Roads would lead an independent investigation into the cause of the concrete breakup.
Portions under the bridges where the concrete was breaking away were removed so the trails could be reopened in late January. However, the DOR investigation was only beginning.
Among the problems detailed in the final Department of Roads report:
• “Contamination” on the underside of the bridges inspected – including nails, wire and other debris hanging or embedded in the bottom of the bridges.
• Marks on the bottom of the bridges from the teeth of heavy equipment used to move the bridges – some of which were built on the ground and then moved over the channel. One bridge had “significant breaking away of the concrete along the bottom edge for 15 to 20 feet.”
• Numerous areas where the concrete separated along the bottom edges of the decks on nearly all the bridges from N to Q streets. Inspectors said the rebar and conduit was exposed at nearly all of those areas and the coupling for the conduit was visible.
• Other delaminated areas away from the edge of the deck – the coarse aggregate fractured. Small to large areas of poor consolidation of the concrete.
• In some areas, exposed rebar was painted right over.
• On the bridge piers, white material has “oozed out of cracks beginning at the top of the piers” for two to four feet in some cases.
• On top of the bridges, there were grout stains “all over the place left on the sidewalk.”
• At least one or more expansion joints already failed on both sides of one bridge, the report said, and there was an obvious dip in the road by the concrete rail on the O Street bridge.
• No electrical conduit drainage was installed even though it was supposed to be.
• Abnormal amounts of water were found inside the electrical conduits, indicating water infiltrated during construction or seeped into the broken seal around the light fixture.
“The city of Lincoln needs to review all upcoming projects to ensure that these problems with the conduit are not repeated again,” the report said.
• In all the areas where the underside of bridges was breaking away, it was underneath the electrical conduit and near conduit couplings.
In one part of the report, the authors were so adamant they used an exclamation mark to say, “Normal practice is not to let the popcorn holes go! (poor workmanship and poor inspection).”
The report says a combination of poorly vibrated/consolidated concrete and placing the electrical conduit very near the edge of the bridge deck without proper drainage – combined with backhoe impact and the method of construction – contributed to the breaking off of the concrete. The authors recommended the bridge be tested for the next couple years with infrared thermography and impact echo testing.
The authors recommended that:
• The surface be finished according to specifications.
• Additional sounding of the underside of bridges be done to determine if there are additional areas where concrete should be removed and repaired.
• Patch, repair and re-stain the bridge deck where the concrete was stained over exposed rebar and contaminated concrete.
• Re-install material in the roadway expansion joints at approach slabs.
• Determine the magnitude of water ponding on the P Street bridge deck by the concrete railing and the impact on traffic, particularly when it’s icy, and determine whether it can be corrected cost-effectively.
The bridges were designed and inspected by Parsons Brinckerhoff, one of the world’s largest transportation engineering companies, based out of New York. The company was hired to manage both design and construction – an construction arrangement that has been criticized because it is easier to cover up design flaws.
After a piece of the O Street bridge fell, the city hired PB to inspect the undersides of the bridges, according to the DOR report.
Attorney General Jon Bruning took time out of his day today to donate 15 sleeping bags to Bold Nebraska — stepping up to Bold founder Jane Kleeb’s challenge that he do so in light of his “inartful” recent comment comparing welfare recipients to raccoons scavenging for beetles.
After Bruning stepped into a political minefield with his off-the-cuff remark, Kleeb also asked Bruning to step down from his day job as AG — no word on whether he’s going to take her up on that offer.
Bruning responded to Kleeb’s Tweet challenging him to pitch in to Bold Nebraska’s raccoon comment-inspired drive to collect 100 sleeping bags for homeless children. Bruning’s campaign spokesman, Trent Fellers, said Bruning stopped by his Lincoln campaign office late Tuesday afternoon and gave a staffer his personal credit card to buy 15 sleeping bags for Kleeb’s drive.
Then Fellers and Bruning dropped the bags off at Bold Nebraska’s Lincoln office at 11th and H streets.
“This was completely his idea,” Fellers said. “It’s not like a big political plan. … He’s a big supporter of kids’ charities.”
I was made aware of the donation by Kleeb, not Bruning.
Kleeb said she suggested Bruning donate sleeping bags because many children whose parents are on welfare often sleep on the floor of friends and family — “and a sleeping bag of their own is a welcome and needed item.”
Kleeb — a bold Democrat if there ever was one — took the opportunity to actually compliment Bruning, saying, “From my end, I am proud that Attorney General Bruning acknowledged our concerns about his comment and that he is backing up his apology with action. Nebraskans want our elected officials to be accountable, and I hope Bruning continues to be on the campaign trail over the next year.”
By the way, if you’d like to donate a sleeping bag and help Bold reach their goal of 100, you can drop them off at 1141 H Street, 3rd Floor, or Jane Kleeb’s Home, 1010 North Denver Ave., Hastings or Ryan Sherwood’s office at 3919 S 147th, Suite 120, Omaha (behind the 24-hour Fitness). You can also buy a bag online, where Bold Nebraska created a wish list.
Who says nothing good ever comes from political bickering?
Speaking of huge, devastating, unsolved fires, I noticed the other day that Romantix — the downtown adult store that was destroyed by fire earlier this year — has reopened in a new location on Highway 2, next door to Subway. This may only be relevant to some of you, and you know who you are.
The city fire inspector was unable to determine the cause of the fire — in part because the building was too unstable and winter too hostile to even enter the site for 111 days. Evidence was inconclusive, Bill Moody said.
It’s a weird new media world, and these days, when someone is arrested for a heinous or wacky crime, one of the first places reporters go to try to get some insight into their psyche is… Facebook.
And so with that in mind, what does Sharon Brewster’s Facebook page tell us about her? (Brewster, 44, was arrested today, charged with setting the fire that destroyed Lincoln Public School’s headquarters in May, causing $20 million in damage and innumerable headaches for school officials.)
• She likes to listen to R.E.M. and U2 (so do I).
• One of her favorite books is To Kill a Mockingbird (me, too).
• Her favorite movies include the Dead Poets Society, Young Frankenstein and the Sound of Music.
• She posted an inspirational video of a father who pushed, pulled and dragged his son through a triathlon, set to the Christian song, “My Redeemer Lives.”
• Among her favorite pages are First-Plymouth Church and shitmydadsays.com.
According to a statement put out by the city, fire inspectors determined that the fire originated on a desk top in a cubicle.
“Written statements provided early in the investigation led to Sharon Brewster as a suspect,” the statement said. “Sharon was employed with Lincoln Public Schools and had been in the building to drop off records just prior to the fire.”