City employees to take substantial hit

By: Brandon Darnell, News Messenger Reporter
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Forty-three out of 230 employee positions in the city of Lincoln are at risk of being cut. The list of positions to be considered for elimination was circulated at Tuesday’s City Council meeting and includes potential hits across the board of General-Funded positions. Most residents who spoke up in the public-comment session expressed their concern over three areas – public safety, recreation and the library. From the Police Department, 11 positions are at risk, including eight sworn officers, two dispatchers and a community services officer. If all 11 positions were released from the police department, it would be brought back to 2006 staffing levels and have the entire traffic division eliminated, according to a report prepared by Steve Ambrose, director of administrative services. The fire department had three jobs on the list – two captains and one firefighter. Loss of the captains would result in the closure of one of Lincoln’s three fire stations. The library stands to lose three clerks and two assistants, which would result in a reduction in library hours from 72 per week to 40 per week, according to Ambrose’s report. The recreation department could lose two recreation coordinators and one seasonal office assistant. The elimination of both coordinators would effectively end youth sports programs, according to Ambrose’s presentation. In addition to those cuts, 14 public-works positions are at risk, with consequences ranging from longer meter-reading delays to longer intervals between maintenance rounds at parks. There are also two building inspector and one code enforcement officer positions at risk. The good news is that those positions aren’t necessarily gone yet, per the Council’s later decision after listening to 45 minutes of public comment, the majority asking that public-safety officers keep their jobs. The City Council voted 5-0 Tuesday to direct City Manager Jim Estep to eliminate the positions needed to balance the budget but also to go back to the bargaining table with employee groups to renegotiate and see how many jobs can be saved that way. Many concessions have already been made. “(The concessions are) beyond what a lot of cities have asked for,” Estep said, “and I realize that but we are in a severe situation.” The Lincoln Fire Department has accepted all of the city’s requests, which include giving up the future cost- of-living pay increases for the term of the contract, which ends in 2011, giving up of the potential 5-percent merit increases each employee was previously contractually entitled to and a 5-percent reduction in pay, according to Estep. Estep said that, in return for those concessions, which were announced after the list of potential lost jobs was compiled, the fire department stands less of a chance of losing the three positions. City department heads took the same cuts, according to Estep. The police department conceded to the loss of merit raises as well as cost of living raises but did not cede the requested pay decrease. “I am still hopeful that the Police Officers Association will step forward and help us save more officers,” Estep said. The police department was hit the hardest. The reason, city officials said, is that it takes 47 percent of the General Fund. “We feel that the police department is obviously taking the biggest cut,” said Motor Officer Dave Krause, president of the police association. “We still will be working with the city. We were the first to come forward with concessions, before it was all made public. We feel like that was forgotten.” The purpose of Tuesday night’s meeting, Estep said, was to discuss the “very serious budget issue” and to educate the public on the issue and the options available. One point Estep made clear was the differentiation between the General Fund and the rest of the city’s budget. The General Fund is the only area that is not legally bound to go to specific areas and is used to fund services such as the library, public safety, the City Council and much of the public works department. “We don’t just have one pot of money to draw from,” Estep said. In an effort to find every possible solution and get advice from “someone from the outside,” Estep said, Joe Aguilar, a partner with Vavrinek, Trine, Day and Co. consulted with the city. Aguilar did not paint a bright picture. “By making the proposed cuts, you still have a fundamental problem,” Aguilar said. “You still have a downward slide. It’s going to be a slow recovery.” Aguilar did point to some positives. “Currently, your expenditures compared to your revenues are on-target,” Aguilar said. Despite that, he added that the top-seven revenue sources are still not back to where they were three years ago. “He has really helped point us in the direction we need to go,” Estep said. The necessary direction, however, comes with a steep price tag. “Every position identified (for elimination) does have an impact on services,” Ambrose said. Estep acknowledged the extent of the losses but said they are unavoidable. “If you don’t have the funding,” Estep said, “you can’t provide the services…We really have no choice.” Patrick Clark, business representative for the Local 39 union, was one of the first to speak during the public comment session. “We are still negotiating with the city,” Clark said. Local 39 represents about 100 city workers, including many in the public works department. “We expect a decision next week.” Clark added that every scenario would leave his represented employees with lower staffing levels than in 2006. Lincoln Resident Ted Shaw was next at the podium. “You really need to rethink what you’re doing before you cut 11 (police) positions,” Shaw said to strong applause from the audience. Many echoed Shaw’s statements, including resident Henk Van Empel, who implored the Council to “Leave our police department alone.” Craig Stults also addressed the council on behalf of the police. “Safety is uppermost in the minds of people today,” Stults said. “We want to feel secure in our community and not have to look over our shoulders to ensure our safety.” Police Lt. Paul Shelgren acknowledged the problem and mentioned some of Lincoln’s past financial difficulties and asked the Council to act quickly. “The quicker we get back…,” Shelgren said, “the quicker the city gets back on track.” Krouse, in his address to the council, pointed out the benefits of the traffic division, which is currently threatened with elimination. “At times, the traffic unit is not popular with the citizens,” he said, but added “collisions have been reduced by 60 percent (since the division was formed).” The library had many supporters in the audience as well. “Please consider carefully any need to further cut (library) staff,” said Lincoln resident Adrienne Blackheart. Dave Gordon also focused on the library. “It’s important to follow the cultivation of the mind and soul. The libraries do this,” Gordon said. Dan Cross, a planning commissioner and sales marketing manager for Gladding, McBean, commended the Council for taking early action to prevent the city from having to declare bankruptcy. He added that he has worked with all the department heads and commended them on their “high integrity and good character.” Before their vote, council members addressed the public. “This process has been very difficult for me,” said Councilwoman Linda Stackpoole. “We are an organization that is not overstaffed. Any staffing reductions will be a reduction in service. I don’t want to go through this process again.” Stackpoole acknowledged the need to maintain public safety. She suggested that not this year, but in the future, when it is more economically viable, a tax for a public-benefit fund. Many audience members applauded. Councilman Tom Cosgrove stressed how important public safety is, but said, “We have to deal with what we have” in reference to the revenue limitations on the General Fund. “If we go back to 2006 staffing levels,” Cosgrove said, “our community will still be a good community.” Councilman Kent Nakata pointed out that the departments have already done everything they can to cut expenses and that they are now at the bare bones. “We are turning over every rock and trying to find every nickel and penny out there,” he said in response to a plea by Krouse. Paul Joiner, the newest member of the Council, elected in November, implored the police to take the proposed 5- percent pay cut. “To be blunt,” Joiner said, “we need to be given the tools to help us save those positions. I just don’t see another option at this point.” Mayor Spencer Short was last to speak. “We have always said layoffs will be the last absolute point of consideration…but we’re there,” Short said. “If we don’t make the cuts now, we jeopardize the entire city.” He ended on a hopeful note. “We are a family,” Short said. “We will rebuild and things will get better again.” The Council then voted 5-0 to give Estep the authority to make the cuts and negotiate again with the employee labor groups. Lincoln Resident Dave Frink said he accepted the outcome of the meeting, given the circumstances. “I think it’s positive because they are doing their best to get together and try to work out this severe problem and they’re sincere about it,” Frink said. Kari Hernandez reiterated the need for public safety. “(It’s) a high priority,” she said. “It’s vital to keep the youth community services officer. Kids he’s previously arrested are now coming to the Youth Center to change and work with him.” – Brandon Darnell can be reached by e-mail at