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.
What would you say if I told you you were about to see your property taxes go up 10 percent, the tax for having cars go up $20 (more for big cars), the price of a parking ticket double to $20, your LES rates go up 2.5 percent and your water and sewer rates rise 5 percent each?
Oh, and the fees for many city services — like park programs — will go up too.
That’s what’s on the table today at the Lincoln City Council, where the public finally gets its chance to weigh in on Mayor Chris Beutler’s $144 million budget proposal. The budget isn’t finalized until the public has its say and then the City Council can make changes to the spending blueprint.
So if you have a problem with all those tax and fee increases, head on down to city hall (555 S. 10th St.) for the budget hearing which begins at 2:30 p.m. and goes until they run out of people who want to testify. Then the City Council makes its final budget decisions on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m.
I expect to see people lobbying to keep the buses running for 10 hours on Saturdays (StarTran cuts always bring out bus riders in force), keep the Airpark fire station open and leave library hours alone.
You might see people lobbying against cutting 10 firefighter positions and eliminating the city forester position — but it will be interesting to see if any people show up to say, “Please don’t raise my taxes and fees by this much.”
Although people write a lot of letters to the paper and complain on radio talk shows, not many actually go down to the City Council to talk about taxes at this budget hearing — where they are specifically invited to state their case for or against anything in the budget.
If you testify against the tax and fee increases, be prepared to say where you’d like to see the budget cut, because that’s the alternative. I think that’s an unfair question to ask of a citizen who does not have the budget at her fingertips and frankly, that’s not their job. That’s the council’s job. But some council members have been known to throw that in a citizen’s face anyway.
Here are a few potential places to look for savings:
• Rather than spend $1.2 million on a new computer software system for the Development Services Center, do what city employees wanted to do and let them design the software. The city plans to buy the software through its new favorite financing plan: a rent-to-own type of setup. Next year, the city will begin making $300,000 annual payments on the software. Why the city is stuck on buying this software — come hell or high water — is beyond me. Employees wanted to do it themselves, but the administrators insisted on this particular system.
• Don’t tuck $230,000 into the parks’ capital budget for a bike shop in the Antelope Valley Project park, Union Plaza. Right now, the so-called CIP has $50,000 in keno funds and $180,000 in “other funds” slated to be spent on the bike shop in 2012-2013. The city solicited bids for a private operator to put a bike shop in the building which will also be the new home for the Community Health Endowment of Lincoln. Nobody responded. So why should the city spend $200,000 to provide a service that the private sector won’t even touch?
• Speaking of the CHE, does it really make sense for that entity to “invest” $600,000 in office condos in Antelope Valley for a new headquarters for the CHS’s handful of employees when they’re currently in a rent-free building? The endowment, you’ll remember, was created with $37 million from the controversial sale of Lincoln General Hospital in 1997. Whether they knew it or not, Lincoln voters gave endowments like the CHE the authority to invest in real estate last year. My sources tell me this new building at the new bike trail hub at 21st and R streets was little more than a way to get some development going in Antelope Valley. The City Council should have stepped in before it was too late, but didn’t. And now the city is considering setting aside another $200,000 for a bike shop in the same building.
• Reduce or eliminate the tax now being collected strictly for railroad safety projects, and instead make those project compete for city dollars.
While city hall is trying to figure out how to come up with nearly $10 million to bridge a budget gap, the city’s libraries have not been able to collect an estimated $29,000 in library fines since early May due to a computer snafu.
A Lincoln woman told me twice this summer she tried to pay her late fees, and twice was told the library couldn’t take her payment due to computer problems.
“Here I am willing to pay late charges for a service that I have used… and a city service who has been crying for years that it doesn’t have enough funding is not even using the systems set in place to legitimately generate revenue,” the woman said in an email. “I wonder how much work it is to fix the ‘computer problem’ and what revenue could be gained if the simple system of library overdue charges was being managed properly.”
So I asked the head of the library system, Pat Leach, what was going on, and she said all of Lincoln’s libraries moved to a “new automated system” on May 4. However, the city wasn’t able to install the software that notifies people by phone that they owe late fees, and library officials didn’t feel it was fair to assess charges before notifying people first, so fines were not assessed for items returned late during that time — and apparently will never be collected, Leach said.
“The process of that installation took a remarkable number of twists and turns, but should be installed this week,” Leach said recently in an email. “We hadn’t expected this to take so long. In the meantime, we felt it unfair to charge our customers when we weren’t able to notify them of overdues. As soon as the system is installed, you can be sure that we will be charging again.”
On Thursday, Leach said she expected to have the phone notification system “up and running within a few days.”
I Tweeted a question earlier this week: “Does anybody else smell a letter-writing campaign?”
And one of my readers responded: Yes, indeed, he’d received an e-mail on July 11 from Lancaster County Democrats and the mayor himself, asking him to support Mayor Chris Beutler’s budget by writing a letter to the editor of the paper, or the mayor (waa?) and the City Council.
I figured a little campaign was underway when I saw a letter to the editor from the mayor’s own chief of staff (Rick Hoppe), and the Democratic Party’s No. 1 fan, Phil Montag (who did campaign work for the Dems and Beutler during the last campaign) and still other letters from people practically begging Beutler to raise their taxes.
One woman even brought a petition to the City Council from people saying, “Raise my taxes!”
Now there’s nothing like a good ol’ grassroots effort to sway city hall — but these organized letter-writing campaigns are a sham, and it’s too bad the Journal Star doesn’t always recognize when it’s being played.
Here’s what Beutler’s letter to his fellow Dems said, in part:
Show your support for a budget that reduces the size of City Hall while keeping our families safe and preserving libraries, parks, pools, and senior citizen services. Write a letter to the editor by clicking HERE, email my office at firstname.lastname@example.org and the City Council at email@example.com. Make your voice heard at the upcoming public hearing on the budget August 8th.
So the mayor basically asked people to swamp the newspaper and city hall with letters and people on public hearing day. That’s old-fashioned politicking and maybe shouldn’t surprise anyone. I just thought you should know that when you see letters to the editor, they’re not always random people who suddenly were inspired to write a letter in support of the mayor and his tax increases. Sometimes, it’s just politics.
That’s my question, upon hearing that Mayor Chris Beutler is proposing to increase the wheel tax by $20 for cars (more for trucks) over the next three years.
One thing I learned while I was following the money being spent on the Antelope Valley Project a few years ago is that the city began diverting lots of wheel tax revenue to the project.
As of 2008, more than $12 million in wheel tax dollars had been funneled into the project — which irritated those who could see infrastructure elsewhere being neglected.
New roads were built in Antelope Valley, but other roads that were promised were not. When the wheel tax was bumped up $15 in 1995, city officials said they would widen Old Cheney Road from 70th to 84th streets, 56th Street from Old Cheney Road to Pine Lake Road and Pine Lake from 56th to Nebraska 2.
That never happened.
And before the Antelope Valley Project began, the city engineer promised it wouldn’t raid money from other street projects. Of course, it did.
And the city’s infrastructure shortfall grew — in 2008 city officials themselves said they had a $56 million shortfall of street work waiting to be done within the city limits. From 2004 to 2008, only one stretch of arterial street was resurfaced. Of course, now we’re finally seeing road work around town, in large part thanks to Obama’s stimulus dollars for shovel-ready projects.
So I guess if I were on the City Council and considering whether to grant Beutler this wheel tax increase, the question I’d ask is: Will any of the money go to Antelope Valley? Should it?
The city has tried to move station No. 11 since at least 2002, when Lincoln voters rejected a bond issue that would have relocated the station, which is now housed in an airport operations building owned by the Lincoln Airport Authority.
You may remember when in 2006 I wrote about a scurrilous attempt by someone in Mayor Coleen Seng’s administration to pull a fast one and get a new station built by claiming — falsely — that the Airport Authority was kicking the fire station out. They weren’t; the council changed it’s mind and wasn’t too happy about being misled.
Now, the issue is back on the front burner. It’s true, the station doesn’t see much action — averaging one call per day (even less back in 2006) — so workers there do a lot of other things. But it would also cost at least a million bucks to build a new station. And you’ve got to assume population is only going to grow in northwest Lincoln, isn’t it?
A lot has already been written about Mayor Chris Beutler’s proposed budget, but I think what you most need to know is that Beutler wants to:
• Increase the city’s property tax levy by about 10 percent (that amounts to a $42 increase for a $150,000 home).
• Eliminate the Human Rights Division, including an equal opportunity officer, and transfer two civil rights investigators to the law department.
• Double the cost of a parking ticket to $20.
• Increase the wheel tax on cars by $10 — bringing the total to $64 for cars — and increase the wheel tax every year for the next three years, for a total increase of $20.
• Decrease his investment in economic development by $200,000.
• Close a fire station in Airpark that averages one call per day.
• Kick in an additional $1.2 million in funding of the police and fire pension fund.
• Cut library hours by 10 percent, cut five upper-level librarian positions and a library supervisor. Library hours would change to 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Fridays and 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays.
• Reduce StarTran service by four hours on Saturdays.
• Make LES pay for street light debt service and insurance — a $4 million hit that will surely impact LES rates.
• Create a “new Municipal Services Center” that will have a revolving fund — I believe this is putting money in an account to pay for the Experian building the city is buying for new city offices.
• Set up a half-million-dollar rainy day fund.
• Add two “community resource specialists” to the Urban Development Department’s staff, at a cost of more than $112,000.
• Cut the city forester position once and for all, ending a process he began last year.
• Cut a permit assistant (who is paid $46,600), chief plans examiner ($101,000) and plans examiner ($83,000) from the Building & Safety Department.
• Cut 10 firefighters, two firefighter paramedics, an EMS management support specialist and an assistant fire chief (formerly John Huff, who is now interim fire chief).
• Cut 12.4 positions from the Public Works department — including two StarTran bus drivers and the superintendent of water pollutions control facilities, who earns $139,000.
Beutler’s budget would reduce the city payroll by 35 positions — eight to 12 of those pure layoffs.
Beutler’s spending plan would be a 2.7 percent increase in spending over current levels.
It’s summertime in Lincoln so that can only mean one thing: It’s time to do the budget dance. Here’s how it goes: Mayor Chris Beutler knows Lincoln needs to raise property taxes to balance its budget. But he is a career politician and kind of wants to hold onto this gig as mayor, so he’s afraid to propose much more than a meager tax increase. So his PR machine gets tuned up and starts dribbling out stories about how the city is polling people to see what they’d cut to balance the budget, stories about how many police officers and firefighters would have to be laid off to balance the budget, stories (like the one today) about how if they cut the aging department any more, elderly people will go without valuable services.
By the way, that aging story is interesting in that it doesn’t even say whether the mayor plans to make the $330,000 cut that is the crux of the story. So who is the aging director arguing with? It’s a story about some phantom entity that might cut 300K out of her budget. What?
What’s really happening is we’re being spun by the mayor again. Who’s threatening to cut the money? The mayor. The aging director’s boss, in essence. So what’s the point of the story? The point is to soften you up and make you realize how important and crucial it is that the mayor bring in more revenue (ie: raise taxes) to pay for such crucial programs. And what better group to get on your side than seniors?
From my perspective, programs that help seniors keep living in their homes are worth the money when the alternative is to move into a nursing home and (often have the government) pay thousands of dollars per month. Why wouldn’t you invest a little money to help Grandma stay home, where she usually wants to be?
However, I’m tired of this song and dance where the media is manipulated by the mayor into writing story after story about how pools might close, libraries might close, fire stations might close, and elderly people might go without if we don’t do… something.
C’mon, Beutler. This is year five of this charade. We all know you’re not really going to close all those pools and libraries. You might threaten to do it — but as soon as people start protesting, you run away saying, “I didn’t mean it!” Last time Beutler proposed closing the South branch library, a bunch of neighborhood kids organized opposition and the mayor relented. He relented with quite the fanfare — by holding a press conference in the library with some of the kids and his Democratic colleague, Councilman Jonathan Cook — so then Beutler and Cook get to play the savior. And Cook got to say in his campaign materials that he “saved the library.” Hmmmm… seems a bit staged to me.
To be sure, the city does have a whopper of a budget deficit to close this year — $9.3 million, which is about 7 percent of the city’s operating budget. Maybe they really have run out of magic pots of gold to raid.
Just once, I’d like to see Beutler stop the spin machine, stand up and say, “Lincoln, here’s what we need to do, and I’m gonna do it because it’s the right thing to do.” Whether that means raising the levy or seriously cutting spending — choose your weapon — let’s just dispense with all the ridiculous charades that surround city budgeting every year.
And by the way, when is the Journal Star going to start paying this much attention to a budget that costs taxpayers FOUR TIMES as much as city services? The school district’s. And the county budget takes about the same amount of taxes out of your pocket as the city, but you don’t see nearly the number of stories about that budget (although this year has been bettter, since they have a big budget gap, too).
Every year, the city budget gets banner headlines, multiple stories, saturation coverage — while the LPS budget merits just a few, small stories. Hardly anybody even shows up for the school district budget meetings, while city hall is often bulging with protesters, largely because the paper has trumpeted those “possible” cuts.
It’s a vicious cycle. It’s a spin cycle. I say we get off.
With each passing day, it seems Mayor Chris Beutler’s true colors are shining through more than ever before in his time as Lincoln mayor.
The latest example: The draft 2040 Comprehensive Plan — which is like a 30-year master plan for transportation in Lincoln. As reported in the LJS, as it is now, the plan does not make mention of a south or east beltway. This is significant because those are huge pet projects of the Chamber of Commerce and LIBA — two groups that have been pretty darn supportive of Beutler.
Apparently, the feds have changed the rules so that Lincoln planners must be realistic about the amount of money they’ll be able to spend on transportation — and that means getting real about projects like the hugely expensive beltways.
How will LIBA and the chamber feel about the fact that this mayor doesn’t believe those beltways will get built in the next 30 years?
The draft comp plan also ratchets down spending on new road projects in favor of spending in the core of the city. This is a big issue at city hall: Neighborhood groups generally prefer to spend more on the existing city, while developers prefer to spend more on the fringes, to encourage more development. Beutler’s planning department is leaning toward the built environment with this draft.
What will developers think about that?
This comes on the heels of budget surveys that strongly indicate the mayor is looking at cutting funds for economic development — which of course are very important to the chamber and LIBA. The Lincoln Partnership for Economic Development — which is run by the chamber — gets about a half million dollars from the city annually, as it is now. That appears to be on the mayor’s chopping block.
What will the chamber and LIBA think about that?
And of course, what’s about to become the biggest issue in Lincoln is the property tax increase that I fully expect Mayor Beutler to propose next week, when his budget is unveiled. I don’t need to explain how the parties generally look at tax increases.
What’s interesting to me is that Beutler enjoys pretty good support from LIBA (they endorsed him for mayor), the chamber, and even some developers, and yet his policies would seem to fly in their face. Of course, the Republicans couldn’t find a strong opponent to take him on this year, so that certainly explains a lot. But it doesn’t explain how Beutler beat Republican Ken Svoboda four years prior to that.
Should be fun to watch how this all plays out in the next few years, huh?
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.
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.