Mayor urges supporters to write letters supporting his budget
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.
Beutler’s true colors coming through
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?
Dems’ robocaller not too effective
Got a call last night from what my caller ID said was “Beutler Citizens for…” .
When I answered, an automated call kept saying something like, “This is Laura… ” over and over. I was patient, because I was hoping it was a survey, so I waited her out.
Finally, Robo-Laura got her bearings and went on. She said she was calling to let me know that the Nebraska Democratic Party would be sending me a form Friday to request an absentee ballot for the upcoming city elections.
But then she stumbled and started repeating herself again. Might want to reprogram Robo-Laura, Dems. She’s kind of annoying.
City projects $6.3 million deficit this year — not counting loss of state aid, raises
It’s going to be a rough budget year — again — in Lincoln. And there appears to be no end in sight to Lincoln’s budget problems.
The city has a projected $6.3 million budget shortfall right now, and that’s not taking into account the cost of employee pay raises, the loss of state aid and the potential loss of tax revenue thanks to changes being considered by state lawmakers. The city projects that gap will widen to $19 million in five years, if things don’t change.
I filed an open records request last week, seeking to see budget projections the city generates every year. Before Mayor Chris Beutler took office, the projections were released to the press in December. But Beutler ended the practice, saying it caused undue consternation.
As a candidate for the City Council, I wanted to see the figures so I’d know what this city is facing. Before giving the data to me, the mayor’s chief of staff, Rick Hoppe, gave the budget projections to City Council members after their meeting last night because they don’t appreciate learning such things in the press. Hoppe said one council member immediately told a Journal Star reporter, who then asked for the projections, too, which is why you see the story in the paper today.
The data indicates Lincoln will be facing a budget shortfall of up to $10 million — perhaps the largest ever in the city’s history — when other factors are taken into consideration. City Budget Officer Steve Hubka projects a $6.3 million budget gap will have to be closed this year — and that’s not even taking into account raises for most city employees. He included annual raises for just two unions, since they have contracts for 2011-2012. He did include step raises, which employees get if they’re not at the top of their pay range.
That should add a few million dollars to the bill. In addition, the projection didn’t assume the state would cut state aid by $1.8 million — as is being considered. Lawmakers are also considering taking away Lincoln’s right to levy telecommunications occupation taxes — another big hit if it passes.
Hubka’s projections assume city sales tax revenue will grow at 2 percent per year and property tax value will grow .75 percent for three years and then 1 percent.
Hoppe characterized the situation in LJS as “a little bit worse” than past deficits. But he acknowledged the effect of the city using $4 million in one-time funds last year to bridge the gap. He also mentioned the existence of one discretionary fund, an economic development fund called the Fast Forward Fund, which has more than $6 million in it. So get ready to see that fund disappear.
Lincoln has had to close budget shortfalls every year for at least six years — and this year will be no different. Beutler was elected on a promise to fix the city’s structural budget problems, but this data indicates the problem has only gotten worse, not better.
The latest on Beutler retirement issue
Beutler held a press conference this morning to explain that his administration is proposing to reduce retirement benefits for future directors, aides and mayors, but not current ones.
Here’s a link to the LJS story.
The city contributes 12 percent of Beutler and his directors and aides’ salaries into their retirement fund, with no match required. That’s more generous than any city employees get — even though Beutler has worked for nearly two years to try to convince employee unions to take less generous benefits. He was only able to convince them to agree to less generous benefits for new hires only.
Beutler now says his law department says he can’t change the benefits for current staffers. But since the directors and aides work at the pleasure of Beutler, I would think they could change it — but hey, I’m not a lawyer working for Beutler. Do they have contracts? Not that I’m aware of.
Today, I called on Beutler and his staffers to take a less generous retirement benefit, to set an example for other employees — heck, he could give the difference to charity.
Meanwhile, his Republican opponent for mayor, Tammy Buffington, has finally spoken up on the issue, issuing a press release saying Beutler has been dodging the issue since it came up last week, telling a radio talk show host he didn’t know whether he could change the benefits immediately.
“Now it looks like even the union members are getting the short end of the stick by this mayor,” Buffington said in her release. “ How many workers in Lincoln get money contributed to their pensions without having to put a cent of their own money into the fund? “
“Even union members aren’t getting what the mayor gives himself and his buddies,” she said. “I don’t know of any private business in Lincoln that can afford that kind of generosity and still stay in business.”
She said she thought Beutler called a press conference Monday morning to “show leadership.”
“This announcement just shows he’s keeping our dollars and leaving us with change,” she said.
Beutler’s .5 percent pay cut is a start — but what about that 12 percent retirement match?
Mayor Chris Beutler announced yesterday that he and his cabinet and aides will take a one-half percent pay cut in the next budget, to “send the right message” to their fellow employees and the community.
That’s a great start. But Beutler could go farther. For the past several years, he has railed against the city’s overly generous retirement program for civilian employees — where the city kicks in about $2 for every $1 the employee contributes toward retirement, up to 12 percent of their salary. The generous match caused controversy during the recession, when many private companies reduced or eliminated such matches.
“That generosity is inhibiting Lincolnites’ willingness to invest in our future,” Beutler said at a press conference in 2009. “They’re asking why our tax dollars are financing retirements that they themselves can’t.”
In the end, he was unable to get the unions to go along with reducing the match for existing employees, but most unions agreed to reduce the match for new hires to a more palatable 1.3-to-1.
Beutler even chastised the one holdout union for essentially being so selfish in fighting to keep the 2-to-1 match. However, I recently learned that Beutler and his cabinet still get the “overly generous” 2-to-1 match. Beutler gets about $8,712 per year in retirement compensation — that’s more than Gov. Dave Heineman gets, even though he earns about $30,000 more per year than Beutler.
I think that sends the wrong message to Beutler’s fellow city employees and the public, and if he really wants to set an example for them, he should donate the excess retirement to charity. Just a thought.
Buffington says Beutler favors “backroom deals” to arena transparency
Republican mayoral candidate Tammy Buffington today questioned why Mayor Chris Beutler has not kept his promises about complete transparency and accountability on the city’s $340 million arena project.
“What is he trying to hide?” she asked, referring to the recent exception granted to contractor Mortenson Construction, allowing them to avoid the city’s usual open bidding process for pre-construction services, which will account for much of the work.
“Chris Beutler has completely rejected transparency again in favor of deals done behind closed doors,” Buffington said in a press release. “He promised an open and competitive bidding process on the arena but he has clearly gone back on his word and is leaving taxpayers in the dark. Not only will the subcontractors be selected with no public view but the bids themselves will never be exposed to the light of day under the current contract. The public never gets to see the bids, including prices, even after the backroom deals are done.”
Buffington said the mayor’s decision runs contrary to the city’s established bidding process, under the city charter. Federal wage requirements — required since the city is using federal Build America Bonds to finance part of the project — now will also potentially mean a much higher price tag on the arena, she said, but the public will not get to see the actual bids.
“This is more of the same from Chris Beutler — negotiating special deals for special people, then handing us the bill,” Buffington said. “The mayor’s actions here have violated the trust of our taxpayers, our local contractors and the voters who supported the arena on his promise of transparency.”
Lincoln is now king of the hill — toppling my second hometown, Bismarck
Bismarck, North Dakota, is kind of like my second hometown. I went to college there, my parents and brother live there, my sister lives there, my favorite friend lives there, I started my journalism career there and held several positions in the newsroom there.
So when Bismarck is in the news, I notice. And Bismarck has been in the news a lot over the past few years, most often for having the lowest unemployment rate in the nation. My home state of North Dakota, in fact, made the news often during the Great Recession, because it seemed immune to the economic travails being experienced nearly everywhere else. According to the New York Times, it is the only state that didn’t have a budget shortfall in the past four years.
In fact, the state is expected to end the fiscal year with a $1 billion surplus. Lawmakers aren’t arguing over what to cut, they’re arguing over what to spend the money on.
Whenever I read about North Dakota’s huge cushion of cash, it brings back memories of sitting at a press conference in the state capitol about 10 years ago, listening to the Republicans warn that the state was headed for a huge budget deficit if it didn’t start cutting the budget and blah, blah, blah. They didn’t know then that the oil patch in western North Dakota was going to spring back to life in the already energy-rich state thanks to a lovely thing called the Bakken Formation — which stretches from Canada to my in-laws homeland in the Williston Basin to Montana and Wyoming. They’re saying this oil patch has 11 billion barrels of oil, which would make North Dakota the second-most prolific oil producing state.
Some believe there’s more oil in that thar shale than in Saudi Arabia.
My own hometown of Bowman, N.D., experienced an oil boom in the 1970s, and then an oil bust. But the oil rigs are back, and they’re drilling, baby. Unfortunately, I don’t own any land or mineral rights there.
The oil, and the fact that North Dakota — like Nebraska — never had a housing bubble, is the reason the recession seems to have skipped over the state.
So the news today that Lincoln’s jobless rate squeaked even lower than good ol’ Bismarck’s is incredibly good news indeed. One of my more critical readers asked why I didn’t write about that, and give Mayor Chris Beutler his due. I’m not sure Beutler has as much to do with the unemployment rate as the fact that Lincoln also has a stable housing market (no bubbles here) and is home to the state capitol and a major university, but, hey, who’s keeping track? Yay Lincoln!
Mayoral candidate’s campaign manager leaves
The campaign manager for the Republican candidate for mayor has left the campaign, just over a week after Tammy Buffington announced her campaign.
Buffington said Mick has agreed to consult for her as needed. She is the only candidate so far who has emerged to challenge Democratic Mayor Chris Beutler.
Arena bid process will stay secretive
Sometimes I have to wonder if our elected officials have any idea what they’re doing.
Like yesterday, when the Joint Public Agency (the board overseeing the arena project) met to talk about a pre-construction agreement with their general contractor, Mortenson Construction.
Although the city had advertised for a contractor that would use the city’s open, transparent bid process to choose subcontractors, the pre-construction agreement approved by the JPA just obliterated that promise. It will allow Mortenson to choose subcontractors to do mechanical electrical and plumbing, structural steel, precast concrete, concrete, exterior walls and vertical transportation.
I wrote a story Tuesday about how the agreement makes a mockery of the promises Mayor Chris Beutler has been making about how the project will be done with complete transparency and accountability. The Journal Star wrote about it the next day. Then the JPA met to consider the agreement – and was completely snowed.
Even LIBA couldn’t convince them to slow down, take a week to mull it over, reconsider whether bids should be opened privately. Nope – they plowed forward, driving blindly.
Understand, the JPA is comprised of Beutler (whose staff wrote up this deal), Councilwoman Jayne Snyder (who rarely deviates from Beutler’s agenda) and University of Nebraska Regent Tim Clare (our only hope to ask the right questions).
Clare opened the discussion by saying they’ve come up with an amendment that should address concerns about transparency. Which would be great – if only it were true.
The only relevant change seemed to be that a JPA member or designee would be able to observe the discussions and interviews with bidders. How is that going to work? Will a JPA representative be hanging out with Mortenson from here on out? Listening in on their conversations and negotiations? Impossible.
Also, bid scorecards would be made public. The way I understood it, the scorecards were already going to be made public. Seeing scorecards is not the same as seeing what the bids were.
Something is pushing the city to go along with Mortenson’s more private way of doing things – even though Mortenson got sued for this very type of keep-everything-a-secret process in Kentucky. And even though Beutler has repeatedly said this will be the most transparent, open process the city has ever seen. Within a week, he was retreating from that position. Now he’s completely forgotten it.
Who is holding this guy’s feet to the fire? Clare tried, but failed. And he’s the one guy whose vote could stop everything, according to their bylaws.
John Wood, senior vice president of Mortenson Construction, attended the JPA meeting, and buttered ’em up good. Even though it appears Mortenson is abandoning the promise it made when it put in its proposal to use the city’s open, transparent bidding process, he basically said they have to alter that to get the project on time and on budget.
He said Mortenson will use “tried and tested methodology” used on big, complex projects like this and they will be open and transparent “to the greatest extent possible.”
To his credit, Clare asked some good questions, like whether Mortenson would just hire their non-local “friends” to do work.
To his credit, Wood acknowledged many regional and national firms are interested in getting a piece of arena work – including firms they’ve worked with before. Wood said those firms have been advised to hook up with Lincoln businesses.
Wood said Mortenson is willing to use the city’s eBid procurement system, but did not elaborate. It still appears the eBid will only be used to “receive” bids, which will be opened privately.
Mayor Beutler commented that he thinks some citizens don’t understand the city is using the construction manager at risk method to build the arena – which is different from the usual design-bid-build method the city uses to build streets and bridges. Which was irrelevant – that method doesn’t require bids to be so secretive.
The upshot is that Wood made everything sound peachy, the JPA board bought it, and nothing substantially changed.