I hate to say I told you so, but you heard it here first:Today Mayor Chris Beutler announced he asked for the resignations of three top administrators at city hall.
Beutler asked Public Works Director Greg MacLean to resign, as well as Building & Safety interim director Chuck Zimmerman, and an administrator below Zimmerman, Ron Peery, who heads up building inspection and enforcement. The mayor said the B&S department is being reorganized, eliminating those two positions.
I had been told these three were being let go Friday, but did not report their names because I could not confirm them. Zimmerman became head of B&S when Fred Hoke was promoted to head up the newly created Development Services Center — which is an umbrella for three development-related departments. Hoke will take over as director of Building & Safety now (a post he previously held before moving up to the DSC. Talk about musical chairs.)
MacLean is the second public works director to be shown the door by Beutler: Just a few months after taking office as mayor in 2007, Beutler asked for Karl Fredrickson’s resignation and brought in MacLean.
Beutler appointed Miki Esposito interim director of the public works department. She is currently the compliance administrator for the public works department. The mayor said she will assess the department’s needs and determine the process for appointing a permanent director. (Who wants to bet she’ll be the new director?)
“I have asked Miki to focus on making Public Works a more responsive, less contentious organization, one that blends in more smoothly the concerns of elected officials and the general public,” Beutler said. “I have great faith that the Public Works management team will unite behind Miki and help lead the department into an even brighter future.”
Since being elected in 2007, Beutler has dismissed an interim fire chief (but then reinstated him to the post recently), an Urban Development director and now, these two department heads. When he campaigned in 2007, he made it clear he intended to do some housecleaning at city hall.
To be honest, I was surprised when Mayor Beutler ever chose to promote Zimmerman to head up a department that has been the subject of so many complaints about its impotency when it comes to dealing with dilapidated housing. Seems to me if you’re serous about bringing change to city hall, sometimes you’ve got to bring in new blood.
But Beutler indicated Zimmerman was the man for the job two years ago when he announced his decision.
Zimmerman has worked in Building & Safety since 1992, and prior to that worked for the State Fire Marshal’s office for 14 years.
Beutler said the changes in the two departments are “part of our continuing efforts to respond to the changing dynamics of our community’s job creation and development needs.” You can bet there’s more to the story than that, however.
I’m getting reports that the mayor is shaking up city hall — specifically, he’s shaking up two departments that could involve the departures of a couple of department heads and an administrator.
My sources are telling me two department heads and an administrator were notified today they will be let go. I spoke to one of the people in question, and he would not confirm or deny that, but said an announcement will be made on Tuesday.
“There’s some changes coming,” he said.
He said rumors might be taking on a life of their own, but also said, “Things happen for a reason.”
I’m wondering if this isn’t related to some comments Mayor Chris Beutler made at Thursday’s arena Joint Public Agency meeting. The arena board was pressed by a constituent about what kind of protections against shoddy workmanship the city will have on the $340 million arena project – given some problems that have occurred on the $260 million Antelope Valley Project. Jane Kinsey of the Lincoln Watchdogs noted the public still hasn’t been told who’s to blame for problems with the Antelope Valley bridges.
“There will be an announcement about that shortly,” Beutler said. “They’ll know soon. We’re trying to learn some lessons.”
As I get more information, I’ll publish it. If you have information about what’s going on, drop me an email at email@example.com.
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.
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.
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.
If you take a peek at the proposed comprehensive plan — good ol’ LP Plan 2040, they call it at city hall — you will see nothing about widening one of Lincoln’s most famous (or was it infamous?) thoroughfares.
Really? Our city planners — in their infinite wisdom — do not believe there will be a need to widen 27th Street (particularly from South Street to Highway 2) in the NEXT 30 YEARS?
Just to make sure I wasn’t cornfused, I asked one of the chief architects behind the plan about this. David Cary of the planning department responded with this email:
When we began the process of updating the Comprehensive Plan, we used the existing approved 2030 Comprehensive Plan and Transportation Plan as the starting point acknowledging that there is a wealth of useful material from that plan that should be carried forward to the new plan. With that step taken, we started with the list of street projects from the 2030 Plan and immediately paired that down to bring the list more in-line with our financial means as this new plan must be financially constrained for Federal review requirements.
What this step also meant was that since there was no 27th Street project on the list of projects in the 2030 Plan, we did not start with a 27th Street project on the project list to consider. Also, our committee did not propose including this specific project during our process for consideration. What was discussed and is still included in the new draft plan is the 2+1 interior street widening program, of which South 27th Street was a part of when it was widened to 3 lanes in the past. This program to widen interior streets to 3 lanes has been identified as a priority program in the new 2040 Plan and will continue to be built out through the year 2025. This focus on the 2+1 program will complete the road segments, like 27th Street, that have been identified for a long time now as needing the turn lane installed, but as a project that has minimal impact on existing neighborhoods.
I believe that’s a long way of saying, “It wasn’t in the last comp plan update, so it’s not going to be in this one, either.”
Apparently, Councilman Jonathan Cook’s legacy of keeping 27th Street’s girth in check is safe. I’m pretty sure if the city ever tries to widen 27th through the Country Club, you’ll find Cook lying across the street in protest. This, despite our city Traffic Engineer Randy Hoskins having said five years ago that 27th should be widened. For that, the council tried to fire him. Instead, another guy got laid off and Hoskins got a new title.
Back then, Hoskins told me, “If you look at the growth and to have basically very few arterials to move traffic through the middle of town, that’s not realistic for a community of this size.”
And so the silliness continues. For at least 30 more years, it appears.
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?
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.
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.
It is on.
A battle has broken out between the local newspaper and a prominent local radio talk show host.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.
Now that Mayor Chris Beutler is safely ensconced in his (newly built, at taxpayer expense, I might add) office for four more years, he wasted no time before testing the water to see how a tax increase will play in Lincoln. Right on the primer page, the introduction bemoans the state of the budget (funny we never heard any of this during the campaign) before saying,
This leads to an important question affecting the current fiscal situation: Would Lincolnites be willing to support another increase in taxes to address the city’s budget shortfall? This remains an open yet critical question.
Then you go on to take the survey and learn that if we don’t raise taxes, libraries, swimming pools and even fire stations could close unless the city raises taxes enough to come up with $2.8 million — just to keep funding at current levels.
Beutler has done this survey several years in a row now, and I always find it to be most useful for giving insight into what he’s thinking about doing with his next budget — which will be released this summer. He’s testing the water, and he’s proven to be the type of mayor who will back down if there’s enough controversy. So which of the mayor’s potential budget cuts are likely to stir up controversy?
• Closing the fire station that gets the least calls — which I believe would be in the Airpark area. This surprises me, considering the city is also looking at asking voters to approve a bond issue to build a new fire station.
• Closing the Pioneers Park Nature Center.
• Discontinuing funding for the Bethany, South, and Williams neighborhood branch libraries — although this threat is often wielded, it is seldom delivered. (Can’t tell you how many times Councilman Jonathan Cook has saved the South Library from closure.)
• Cutting the forestry budget by a half million dollars — again. Recall the brouhaha last year when the city forester’s job was effectively bagged.
• Ending funding for Airpark, Ballard, Belmont, Eden and Irvingdale neighborhood pools.
• Cutting $200,000 in programs for seniors, the Retired Volunteer Services Program, Foster Grandparent Program and Senior Companion Program.
• Eliminating the No. 54-Veteran’s Hospital bus route.
Radio talk show host Coby Mach was in a dither yesterday over some of the weird statements in the survey that people were asked to rate your level of agreement with — such as this one:
In these troubled times laws have to be enforced without mercy, especially when dealing with the agitators and revolutionaries who are stirring things up.
and this one:
Atheists and others who have rebelled against the established religions are no doubt every bit as good and virtuous as those who attend church regularly.
And this one:
The self-righteous “forces of law and order” threaten freedom in our country a lot more than most of the groups they claim are “radical” and “godless”.
My personal favorite:
“Thinking is not my idea of fun.”
(You had to think to answer the question.)
However, those questions were part of research being done by the Nebraska Public Policy Center — which conducts the Taking Charge surveys for the city — on public engagement. Yes, your tax dollars paid for the whole survey, but those questions are not really part of it. Still, they were kinda weird, huh?
I think no matter how you slice it, a tax increase cometh to fund the next budget. The budget deficit is just too big ($6.3 million not counting most employee raises and lost state aid) and those pots of money are getting too small to raid (I believe there’s only like $4 million left in the economic development fund that would be about the only pot of money left). Last year, the mayor was able to avoid a tax increase because he really, really didn’t want people to think taxes were being raised as a result of the arena project. Now, that danger has passed (I guess) and he’s been safely re-elected.
I’m not saying it’s right or wrong to increase the tax levy, I’m just saying I told you this was coming…
(Illustration by jscreationzs)