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.
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.
During his closing comment at the LIBA mayoral debate Tuesday, Mayor Chris Beutler mentioned that Lincoln’s crime rate has dropped 21 percent since he took office.
That stat surprised me — I just hadn’t heard that before. So I contacted the police chief to get more specifics — was he talking overall crime, violent crime, property crime?
Chief Tom Casady said Beutler was referring to the FBI’s so-called “part one offenses” — the most commonly reported crime data nationwide: murder, forcible rape, aggravated assault, robbery, burglary, auto theft and larceny. Those are the ones I’d be most interested in.
You can see the specific data in the police department’s annual reports, right here.
And the FBI annual report of national crime statistics is available here.
Click here to see Casady’s chart of Crime Statistics.