So much city news to talk about, so little time. A few things that have caught my eye lately:
• In the Journal Star’s Sunday front page story about the fight looming over Nebraska public unions, I noticed the graphic says Lincoln firefighters got 4.5 percent raises for 2010-2011. Again, I can’t believe the Journal Star is letting Mayor Chris Beutler’s administration get away with selling the raises as 4.5 percent. Here’s the deal firefighters got: They got a 3 percent raise immediately and another 3 percent this month. In what world does 3+3=4.5 percent? In Beutler’s world, but not mine. And that doesn’t even count the new calculation for their longevity bonuses, which pushes some firefighters up beyond 10 percent raises this year. In fact, I doubt the other union raises in the graphic included other raises employees can get, such as merit raises. If it’s money in your pocket, it counts.
• Did you see where Mayor Beutler held a press conference last week to warn that if the state Legislature adopts several proposed bills, Lincoln might have to raise property taxes 20 percent? The story was buried in LJS on page B2 — perhaps because they figure the Legislature won’t do all the things Beutler is railing about. But when the mayor threatens a 20 percent increase in property taxes, people ought to take notice. One bill would erase the city’s telecom tax — a whopping $7.8 million hit to the city — and another would end state aid to cities — a $1.8 million hit. State aid is intended to reduce pressure on local property taxes — so ending it would shift the burden from the state to cities. Lincoln had better hope the lawmakers don’t eliminate occupation taxes — or they won’t be building a new arena, half of which is being paid for with four new occupation taxes.
• Beutler also mentioned during that presser that the CIR needs reform, but said he won’t support eliminating collective bargaining (did you think he would?). I wonder how much Beutler will lobby for CIR reform — will he just write letters or really lobby hard?
• Steel prices just keep going up, up, up. Steel prices have gone up six times — or a total 30 percent — since November. I asked around city hall to see what impact that might have on arena construction prices, but nobody seems too worried about it. Yet.
• Finally, a council member thought of something for the city’s audit board to do! Councilman Adam Hornung and the mayor jointly announced a proposal to study the city’s bus system, StarTran. This was kind of a surprise, given that the city just went through an exhaustive, thorough route study four years ago, spending $150,000 to adjust bus routes and try to make StarTran more efficient. But perhaps this will be worth the $251,000 they plan to spend.
One city employee union — the second largest in the city — is still hanging out there working without a contract since last fall while resisting the mayor’s insistence that they agree to a less generous retirement match for new hires.
Public pressure led Mayor Chris Beutler’s administration to convince all but one union to agree to a 1-to-1 retirement match for new employees, while existing employees will keep their 2-to-1 match that irritated some during the Great Recession.
But this union — mostly comprised of blue collar and technical workers – is the only one that refused to bow to Beutler’s demand, and yesterday they went before the state Commission of Industrial Relations to settle three issues. Surprisingly, the retirement benefit wasn’t one of them.
The union’s attorney, Gary Young, said that’s because city officials realized long ago they couldn’t force the union to agree to the lower retirement benefit via the CIR. Young said Beutler would not bend on that retirement issue – and all the other city unions eventually gave in to the demand, except the Public Association of Government Employees, or PAGE, which represents about 500 city employees.
“If you’re the 800-pound gorilla and you can force people to do things because a union doesn’t want to go to the CIR, then you can bully your way into doing things that you’re not entitled to. PAGE wasn’t going to allow the mayor to bully them,” Young said of the Beutler administration. “There’s nothing they (the other unions) can do about it now.”
Beutler was responding to public outcry over the fact the city contributes up to 12 percent of employees’ salaries (matching 6 percent by the employee) toward their retirement – however, the city can’t change that benefit for existing employees unless the unions agree.
So even after the CIR rules on the three issues that were before it on Tuesday (over dental benefits, who decides when overtime begins in the pay cycle and whether the city should have to offer a defined benefit pension since it’s prevalent in other comparable cities), the retirement issue remains unresolved.
“If they’re going to do it, they’re going to have to do it at the negotiation table,” Young said.
Wonder if any of the other unions are wishing they’d taken a firmer stance on the issue?