Correct city’s water issues and move onBy: Larry Whitaker
Since moving to Lincoln in 2003, my wife and I have served on many committees and nonprofit organizations in Lincoln. This has required me to interface with almost every City Council member and city manager since 2005.
I have had multiple opportunities to experience working with the officials of the city of Lincoln because the many committees and nonprofit organizations with whom I worked. Also, before retirement, I was the president of a corporation that had a budget approximately the size of Lincoln.
I think I have a good understanding of what it takes to run an organization and the personnel that can do the job.
Lately, there has been some who have questioned the integrity of the City Council and especially the city manager. Let me state clearly, this does not include the Whitakers!
One of the committees that I served on was the fiscal sustainability committee for the city of Lincoln. Then, the city’s General Fund was almost broke, which meant that the city faced bankruptcy.
It was clear that the city had to make some very hard decisions like reduce the size of the police force from over 40 to under 20 but still provide good police service.
The same went for the Fire Department, Parks & Recreation, the library and city staff.
Over the last six years, I observed the city administration making hard decisions and correcting the city’s financial problems.
“The only person that does not make mistakes is a person that does not make decisions.
The city has made some mistakes with respect to the billing for water; that is clear.
We can always look at what they did not do correctly (water billing) and overlook what they did correctly (the city did not go bankrupt).
There are two issues with water billing:
1. Tiered water billing: The City Council approved, with my understanding, assurances from consultants and the then city attorney, a tiered billing rate for water was legal. A tiered rate means the more water you use, the higher the unit price. I am a reformed “water hog.” I was not paying attention to how much water I was putting on my grass.
When our water bill climbed to over $400 month, my grass had to live with limited water!
It turns out Prop 218 forbids this billing practice.
It was sued by a citizen’s group and lost. This problem is now being corrected. I see no underlining bad motives by either the City Council or city manager. It appears that they accepted bad advice and then made bad decisions.
The city will be forced to refund money back to the water users and redo the billing policy. This is now in process. For non-water hogs (water users in the lower tiers), as near as I can tell, the refund will be somewhere around the cost of a dinner out for a family of three so long as they do not indulge in alcoholic beverages.
2. Free city water: the city has not been paying for its water usage, which means the water rate payers had to pay more. This has been going on for years (long before Matt Brower was hired as city manager). This means when the Fire Department turns on the hose to put out a fire, or someone in City Hall flushes the toilet, the city does not pay for that water.
The water rate payers (residents and businesses) pay the bill with higher than necessary water rates. OK, I get it. This turns out to be a few dollars per month for the average rate payer.
My understanding is that the city has already changed this policy. I will point out, the city money will not come from heaven. Instead of the water users paying the bill, the city tax payers will now pay for the water or we could just not put out the fire or flush toilets in City Hall.
Remember when you say “the city,” that usually means the General Fund, which has four major departments: Police, Fire,
Parks & Recreation and the Twelve Bridges Library.
To put this in perspective, the city could close the library and still not have near enough money to make up the difference.
It would take laying off around three public safety personnel to make up the difference.
The city is hiring an outside law firm to go over these two issues. I may be proven completely wrong by their findings but unless I see some new substantial data, my judgment is that the city of Lincoln made some mistakes but is still well served by both the current City Council (all five of them) and City Manager (Brower).
My advice to all concerned: correct the water issues and get back to running this great little city!
Larry Whitaker is a Lincoln resident.