Candidates battle at the forums

By: Patty McAlpin Lincoln News Messenger Reporter Patty McAlpin Lincoln News Messenger Reporter Patty McAlpin Lincoln News Messenger Reporter
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Talk of the city’s finances dominated the Sept. 26 and 27 candidate forums hosted by Lincoln Crossing and the Lincoln Area Chamber of Commerce. Is the city of Lincoln bankrupt or not? Incumbents Mayor Spencer Short and Councilman Paul Joiner said the budget is balanced, the city has a small reserve, 100 jobs have been cut over the past four years and viable recommendations from the fiscal sustainability committee report are being researched and/or enacted. Non-incumbent candidates Allen Cuenca, David Kawas and Peter Gilbert said the city is on the verge of bankruptcy and the current leadership has failed. Cuenca said new leadership is needed to “right this sinking ship.” Candidates Cuenca, Gilbert, Kawas and Candi Schipper said the city has not acted on the recommendations of the fiscal sustainability committee and not enough has been accomplished by the current City Council toward the goal of fiscal solvency. “I own a small business and love Lincoln,” said Kawas, who moved with his family to Lincoln in 2003. “I see a lot of good things happening but there are troubling things happening at City Hall. The incumbents are out of touch with taxpayers. The city spent $21 million on a brand new City Hall. They spent $2 million to move the police department and then moved it back to its old location. And then they asked for more money with Measure K. They are over generous with health care and retirement packages. The fiscal sustainability committee report is an indictment. I want to bring some reality back to City Hall and new leadership.” Fiscal sustainability committee members came up with 115 recommendations at the direction of Councilman Stan Nader. The group reviewed the city’s financial practices and gave recommendations to the City Council in February. City representatives have said that many of those recommendations were already in place. Short said the city has learned form its mistakes and is moving forward. “I’ve been a member of this community for 35 years,” Short said. “Lincoln needs more experienced visionary leadership. Lincoln has gone from 8,000 to 43,000 people 12 years. Some things are great. But not everything is perfect. We’ve learned from past mistakes, made changes and laid a foundation for where we should be going. We have a 50-year General Plan designed to make this community livable. The bypass opens Oct. 8 and that’s good news. The bypass paves the way for development in west Lincoln and at the airport.” Cuenca said the city is still in trouble financially. “You don’t have to take my word,” Cuenca said. “Take theirs. Wages have increased in excess of inflation. If we don’t right the ship, the city will face bankruptcy. The incumbents have not done enough to right the ship.” The city needs to learn to live within its means, according to Schipper. “We can’t borrow and expect future residents to pay it back,” Schipper said. “We need to use parks funds for parks. We need to allocate funds to support police and fire.” Joiner said the city has reduced the budget by 40 percent and renegotiated contracts with unions that will result in a savings of $1.72 million. “We’ve reduced 100 positions,” Joiner said. “Economic development is the name of the game. The Lincoln Bypass provides direct airport access and that becomes a very attractive area. Beermann’s and Walmart have opened downtown. Businesses are putting up new facades. Mom and pops are opening. The bypass and Walmart helped spur the Gateway purchase.” The Lincoln Gateway Center was sold over the summer to Lincoln Gateway Ventures, LLC, a subsidiary of Vanir Group of Companies. A new gym is opening there, according to a previous News Messenger story. Gilbert said there is still a financial mountain the city must mount. “The city has borrowed $40 million and there is no plan to pay it back,” Gilbert said. “The city hired a CPA who said the city must have a plan in place.” Future development and the regional sewer project will help the city pay off inter-fund borrowing, according to Short. “The city is not going bankrupt,” Short said. “In the last four years, revenue has gone from $16 to $11 million.” Cuenca said “it would be good to look at the recommendations” of the fiscal sustainability committee report. Gilbert said one of his coffee buddies wrote a section of the report. “Immediate action is needed now,” Gilbert said. “We should immediately fast track privatization of the garbage department. There will be 30 some odd less employees. It will give the city $10 million up front and half a million for the next 20 years. That would take care of the city’s immediate cash flow problem.” Of the 115 recommendations from the fiscal sustainability committee, approximately 60 had already been completed or were underway before the report was released. About 30 recommendations were not related to finances, such as updating the city’s website. “Among the others were to outsource the garbage,” Short said. “The fiscal sustainability committee report indicated that garbage as a city enterprise is sustainable for the next 10 years without a major rate increase. The reason the fiscal sustainability committee suggested contracting was to generate a General Fund revenue stream from contracting out and selling the equipment to create a revenue stream.” That means this is really a back-door tax supported by the other candidates, Short said. There are 12 employees in the Solid Waste Department, Wes Heathcock, city Public Solid Waste Department supervisor, said Monday. The department’s operating budget is $3,226,076, which includes salaries, benefits and professional contract services. Of the total operating budget, the majority is spent on disposal fees at a cost of $1,555,000. Gilbert said the city “needs to personally court businesses” and he “would be happy to be the one to partner with the chamber of commerce to go after businesses.” Candidate Dan Cross said his 18 years working as a manager for Gladding, McBean and 10 years with the Lincoln Area Chamber of Commerce, two of which he served as board president, and time on the Planning Commission make him “an attractive candidate” for a City Council seat. “Follow the rooftops,” Cross said. “The city needs to work with the BIA (Building Industry Association) and Region Builders. One of the city’s best opportunities is a regional outlet mall. Candidate Christine Colvin said the city needs to make it easier for businesses wanting to locate in Lincoln to get permits. She said the city needs to streamline its development process. Councilman reacts to comments City Councilman Tom Cosgrove, who is not running for re-election, was present at both forums. Cosgrove took exception to the assertion by non-incumbent candidates Cuenca, Gilbert, Kawas and Schipper that the city is not acting on recommendations made in the fiscal sustainability committee report. “Were they not aware there was a six-hour workshop to examine the 115 items,” Cosgrove said. “Once priorities were identified, staff started working on issues. They are either completely unaware or dishonest. If you are running for City Council, you should be aware of the actions taken.” Cosgrove “questioned the wisdom” of some non-incumbents saying that the city is going bankrupt during a chamber of commerce candidate forum. “We are at a chamber forum and talking about what to do to improve the climate of business so businesses will come to Lincoln and grow,” Cosgrove said. “For the business community to hear we are going bankrupt when we are not creates a negative climate for business. It’s not true. How is this helping the city and the business community?” Forum attendance Candidate Colvin did not attend the Lincoln Crossing forum. Candidate Schipper did not attend the chamber forum. Candidate Scott Glaser did not attend either forum. Neither Lincoln Crossing moderator Jake Rosenberg nor Chamber moderator Mark Luster gave a reason for the absences before each forum began. In a letter to the newspaper, Glaser wrote about withdrawing from the race following a disagreement on the phone with candidate Dan Cross over signs. Specifically, Glaser wrote in an email Sept. 25, “After the call ended, Erica (his wife) walked down stairs and said that she was very unhappy about him calling us at home about this. She was actually on the phone upstairs listening to the entire conversation. It bothered her so much that I asked Pat (City Clerk Pat Avila) and Dia (Records Coordinator Dia Gix) today if I could withdraw myself from the election.” Cross said he called Glaser to take him to task about placing one of his small signs on a bigger sign he had posted and told Glaser if it happened again he would call code enforcement and the police department. When asked if he is still in the race, Glaser emailed, “I found out it is too late to drop out of the election.” City Clerk Pat Avila said she told Glaser it was too late to remove his name. Avila said sample ballots have already been mailed. She said Glaser had until Aug. 15 to notify her so she could take his name off the ballot.