Friday, July 1, 2011

Reality bites

Mayor Beutler held a news conference yesterday to break the bad news to the citizens of Lincoln: you are going to face some tough choices this year pertaining to the City budget.  Lincoln is facing a $9.3 million shortfall between the revenue coming in, and the cost of providing exactly the same services next year as we are providing today.  That's the reality, even if it bites.

We are far better off than most cities, but several years of plugging the budget gaps with one-time only funding sources has finally come home to roost.  Now, we are facing the gut-check: cut $9.3 million in services or find some additional revenue.  With a few small exceptions, the cuts from here on out will hurt.

Lincoln prioritizes its government programs into tiers, and all those programs and tiers are listed on the City's website.  In order to get $9.3 million, most all of the tier 3 programs and a good chunk of tier 2 would be gone: 60 neighborhood parks closed, all but one of the City swimming pools closed, a fire station closed and 12 firefighters laid off, 13 police officers and civilian support staff gone, public transportation slashed in half, three libraries shuttered, and so forth.  It would be brutal, but would leave intact the higher priority programs.

I've been around the block before, and I can predict what some of the reaction will be.  Some will accuse the Mayor of being alarmist, and accuse the City of laying out potential cuts of popular or high-profile services just to soften the public up for a tax increase.  If you think that's the case, visit the list yourself, and find the cuts you would propose that add up to $9.3 million.  Do not, however, try to pretend that you can fill this kind of gap by slashing the bookmobile and a smoking prevention program.

Someone told me today that we pay extra for red ambulances.  If it's more than a couple hundred bucks, I'd be the first to say "let's buy white." But we only buy six every ten years, so unless we're paying about $15 million each for that paint job, I don't think that's going to make a dent. Truth be told, the low-hanging fruit was plucked a long time ago.  While there may be an occasional expense that could be reduced in City government, these little bits and pieces will not add up to a hill of beans compared to the mound we are facing.

Anyone who thinks the City is crying wolf should Google "firefighter layoffs", "police officer layoffs", "park closings", "library closings", and you'll see that there are many cities around the United States doing just that to cope with their budget problems.  If citizens can live with the cuts, we will continue to deliver the best services we can with the resources we have. If they can't live with them, now is the time to say so.  

23 comments:

Steve said...

How much is the arena costing us? You can sugar coat it any way you want, but it still comes down to the people in Lincoln footing the bill with money that could have gone to keep some of these other services going.

Anonymous said...

Regardless of how you feel about the arena (I have my doubts about it's financial viability), the fact is that the funding mechanism (a surcharge on restaurant and bar tabs) isn't really competing with the City budget.

If it works, and really generates more out-of-town visitors, shoppers, restaurant customers, and so forth, it should be a net gain in City sales tax revenue eventually. My worry is that the users will primarily be Lincoln residents, so you are really just redistributing the same customers and the same spending to different businesses.

I was in Omaha last week at the CWS. Shoulder-to-shoulder in the Old Market, and Westroads was jammed with Gators and Gamecocks. I can imagine what that does for the local economy, but will Lincoln's arena bring in out-of-towners in sufficient volume to make a difference in the tax coffers that justifies the expense long term?

morose said...

I know it's easier on paper to cross out a line item and add that money to the bottom line, but my first instinct isn't to cut whole services. It might come to that, but I would first examine the existing services for inefficiencies. Especially the higher dollar ones like response to calls, civil litigation, or fire response and extinguishment. Now, since this seems obvious to me, maybe all the higher dollar services have already been trimmed as much as is reasonable. I hope we have good folks (like you) in the right positions to make those calls.

JIM J said...

Most Lincoln people have had the same "hill of beans" put on the dinner plate and they will not be shocked to find it is the same old same old.
Too many city leaders have held the "will work for food" sign. And it is very old and spent.
Many Lincoln residents, some of them very wealthy, will not care about these cuts. Residents who are very low income will be the "no beans on the plate" residents.
"We are low and out of cash" Is a chant that also has grown mold. Who has trickle up poverty as the main dish? Well try a burger, go to the Spend Happy Burger Joint, run by the elected at the federal level, they are happy to print the federal dollars that are handed out as fast as can be printed. This is indeed a national problem. When all is boiled out of the pot, Tom nails it every time.
My point is this: CUT! People are tired of too much. People will be steamed to perfection when the arena, in this money tight era, fails.

Tim Hegarty said...

Director,
How did you go about determining the costs for police services?

Anonymous said...

Volunteer!!

I know that won’t cut all of it but it is crazy that Lincoln Fire and Rescue does not have volunteers. Kearney is run totally by volunteers.

Same goes for the parks. Have people volunteer to mow, and clean them up. I remember we had to once a month (on a rotation with another family) go mow a local cemetery. I know the city attorneys would be all worried about liability, but have them sign something, there is a way.

ISoft Data said...

Raise my taxes PLEASE!!!! I've said it to the mayor's office, my councilman and the at-large council members. I choose to live in Lincoln because of the quality of life provided by our shared public institutions.

Eric said...

Right on target once again, Director! We've already cut down all the way to the bone and there isn't any more cutting to be had. I'm glad that there are still some decent leaders here locally who are able lead on this issue!

Anonymous said...

How about this idea for a real cut? After the LPD AC promotion pass on the Captain and Sergeant promotion. Day-shift Captains could cover the day-shift duty, Traning and Planning Captains could be combined, or there are numerous other ways to cover for the Captain position you would lose. As for the loss of the Sergeants position, just eliminate the extra Sergeant spot recently gave to the NE Team. I am guessing that a Captain and Sergeants salary and benefit package would equate to several-hundred-thousand dollars. Thats significant money that adds up to a lot more then some red ambulance paint.

Anonymous said...

Lincoln has had a structural imbalance in funding the city budget for a long time. When sales tax revenues were up in the 1990's the city coffers were flush with cash so the property tax portion was lowered. Now that sales tax revenue is lower (as it has been for several years) they are up against the wall as all of the one time band-aids have been used. Property taxes will be raised some amount by the Mayor and it's about time. My hat's off to him for having the political will to do so. I'm sure the special interest groups in the city will cry foul again but the majority of citizens will support the Mayor.

Tom Casady said...

Tim:

Here's an example:

For the cost of non-injury traffic crash investigation, we took the total number of non-injury crashes in 2010 then multiplied that by 45 minutes--our best estimate of the amount of time involved in the investigative aspects of the response: interviewing drivers, issuing citations, taking measurements and (sometimes) photos, completing the investigator's report, and creating the diagram. That amounted to 5,193 hours. Using a person-work-year of 2,080 hours (40 hrs x 52 weeks), this is equal to 2.496 "officers" in person hours.

We did the same thing for other services. For instance, we counted up the number of child/abuse neglect cases, and gave them our best estimate of the average time spent on each.

While these are estimates, I think they are very educated ones, and not just pulled out of thin air.

Anonymous said...

some say the drug war should end, how much are we spending fighting it here in lincoln?

Brian said...

This isn't just a Lincoln problem, it's a US problem. The state of Minnesota is looking a shutting down today (if they haven't already). Those in power in DC have pushed a lot of things off to the states, and the states off to the cities. At the same time in DC they continued to fund programs at WAY above the income levels of the federal government which caused them to bankrupt themselves, which our geniuses leaders "fixed" by printing more money, which causes inflation which means that we get LESS for every dollar we give them because things cost more. It just repeats itself over and over again. What to cut to fix it, isn't going to be an easy thing at any level. It's going to really hurt. Only thing is the longer we play this game the more it's going to hurt. We as citizens need to pony up and say NOTHING is a "sacred cow" and cut as well as raising taxes. This is the ONLY way we can work ourselves out of this. The only other option is for the US government to default on it's credit and then if you think Lincoln has money problems now, you'd better hang on. It's time for everyone to wake up and realize the load of crap we're in and tell our government at all levels it's time to do something about it!!!!

Anonymous said...

I am glad you are living high off the hog ISoftData. You must be one of those RICH folks Obama wants to raise the tax rates on. Why wait, just send a check now.

Gun Nut

Anonymous said...

Keep the low-income housing that the LHA has for low-income elderly and the severely-disabled. Sell the rest of it, and get it back on the tax rolls.

Anonymous said...

You could greatly help your own department budget by allowing your officers to run traffic along the portion of I-80 that runs through Lincoln City Limits. The chances of intercepting drug loads, and the return trips of MONEY loads that lead to seizures can total millions of free dollars for the department each year. Seems silly not to enforce the traffic laws on the i'80 drug corridor between Denver and Chicago- lots of drugs and $$$$ rolling through Lincoln each day untouched.

Anonymous said...

Times are tough, our family's budget has taken a hit and we have to do with less. Why is the City of Lincoln any differant. Don't raise my taxes, Nebraska is already a heavily taxed state! Cut what you have to and how about the Mayors office leading by example? This Mayor has more assistants and aids than any previous Mayor. Cut his staff by half, so he can show that he can do with less as well? I agree with the guy in Lazlo's, if things are so bad, why do we need another level of City Management between the Mayor and the Chiefs. Have not needed that for forty years, why now?

Anonymous said...

What ever happened to the estimate on the questionaire that the Mayor was responsible for? I told him then ... This is a joke. It indicated that all of these services could be saved for under $30.00 per tax paying household. GITTER DONE! If I can afford to own a house, I can afford another $30 per year in taxes to save all of these services. What is the real issue? Is the Mayor simply wanting recognition? Fine. Here's your $30. Quit the games and just get the job done.

Mark said...

That's pretty good if your folks can punch out a complete crash report in under an hour !!

Anonymous said...

What city offices really need to have to many employees working on the weekends? I can name one dept!

Anonymous said...

People need to LOOK at their tax statement and see the BIGGEST share of your taxes go to LPS, not the city.

Anonymous said...

I realize that the City is suffering financially and needs to take a close look at where it can decrease cost and maintain a high level of protection to the tax payers in the city. I find it amazing that the City can financially pay our firefighters not only to advance their education expenses but to give them time off to do so. Many jobs require advancement in education levels, bachelors, masters etc., but it is not totally paid by the employer. This includes air transportation, tuition, and time off work, someone to replace them while gone. It also is quite surprising to see “white shirts” out in public eating with their families, visiting family and friends in the hospital, transporting employees to see families in the hospital, does the City have a chaplain to do some of this or should they do this on their own time and gas and at family functions while on duty. It makes me and others I know ask just how important and busy are these people? I read in the paper this morning about the new proposed budget and the giving up of $409.00 uniform allowance. There are many other professions who require a uniform that get no allowance. This expense is however tax deductable expenses. Than they still are getting a $250.00 credit on line for uniforms. There are t-shirts from the fire department seen on many individuals other than firefighters. To make them responsible for purchasing these there may be fewer out in public worn by family and friends. How does this compare to the police department? Is the tax payer’s money being used to further their education too? Many places have “education days” that may total 2 a year. Would this help in the budget. There are also meetings held in Omaha and all stay over night. Is this something that could be held in Lincoln to cut down on expenses? How many other city employees, or any other employee, have gotten a 6% raise? How many people get 4-24 hour days off for funeral leave this combined with the 24 hours they have off for a total of 8 days off this is if it is on a work week and not their week off they have every month.

Tom Casady said...

10:42,

I don't know where you're getting your information, but I can clear up at least a few misconceptions.

First of all, tuition reimbursement is a maximum of $770 per year in the LFR contract, and is only paid for tuition to degree-granting or certification programs, approved in advance by the chief, upon evidence of a passing grade. Expenses such as airfare are not included, and to the best of my knowledge, no one gets on duty time to pursue their degree. Training is important, though, and there may be occasions when the department sends people to training sessions at its initiative and indeed must backfill a position during the attendees absence.

Firefighters' funeral leave for the death of a spouse or immediate family member is two days.

I am unaware of anyone of the Omaha hotel stay you refer to, but I think that would be inappropriate, unless the employee wished to do so, and bore the room expense personally. If you have details, I'll look into it.

Personal errands are generally unacceptable, and if you have the specifics on someone loading up their family for a personal visit to a hospital, I'm all ears. I'm not quite so concerned with an on-duty visit to a hospitalized colleague, as long as the radio is carried.

LPD officers' contract provides tuition reimbursement of up to $600 per year, with the same restrictions. All LPD uniforms are provided by the City, save for shoes, socks, and underwear.

By the way, I can buy an FBI t-shirt from any one of a few dozen vendors in Downtown DC--I'm not so sure the fact that someone's wearing a LFR T-shirt is necessarily evidence that it was purloined from the City supply.