Department heads recommend huge cuts

City Manager to present plan at March council meeting
By: Stephanie Dumm News Messenger Reporter
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The message to close the General Fund’s structural deficit without the use of reserves was heard loud and clear by city staff during Wednesday night’s budget workshop. The three-and-a half hour long workshop was held at the request of the City Council during its Feb. 8 meeting to start discussing budget reductions that will need to be made for the next fiscal year. The projected revenue versus expenditure shortfall is $1.5 million for this fiscal year and $1.06 million for the 2011-2012 fiscal year, according to a report provided to the City Council from city staff. The library, recreation, fire and police departments provided potential cost savings for next fiscal year totaling $981,000. At the workshop’s beginning, Mayor Paul Joiner provided meeting goals and the process for suggestions and questions. “The item foremost on my mind is what we expect to get out of this meeting. We are going to attempt to make difficult decisions of matching expenditures to revenues,” Joiner said. “I’d really like to see this be productive and not the same individuals we have at council meetings making pointed statements. Let’s have some real solutions if you’ve got them.” Ten residents spoke during the workshop, with most offering some form of solutions and others commenting on the importance of the police, fire, library and recreation departments. Lincoln resident Terrie Robinson suggested that the city “might have to reimagine the entire city government.” “We are a full-service city, but part of the problem is we are a full-service city based on revenue projections based on a housing bubble,” Robinson said. “We might be more of a full-service city than we could afford to be. This could be our new normal. Maybe the bigger issue is we have to reinvision the entire city government with the new normal.” Karen Jarrel, Friends of the Lincoln Library president, gave some solutions the non-profit organization has talked about for the library, including going after grants and renting rooms to businesses for staff meetings and conferences. “I would also say that if 7,000 people in Lincoln gave $100, the problem would be saved. If every library patron, and there are 29,000, donated the cost of one new book, $15, that would give up to $435,000,” Jarrel said. “We will publish those kinds of facts and hope people will come forward.” For the city to attract future residents and business owners, Jean Ebenholtz said, “We must provide what purchasers perceive to be their needs.” “We do want these new residents and businesses because we need to revitalize Lincoln,” Ebenholtz said. Ebenholtz also suggested providing a gold pot for City Council meeting attendees to put a dollar in. “(We would) ask the mayor to buy some lottery tickets and maybe, at the next meeting, they could say we’ve found the pot of gold,” Ebenholtz said. Richard Pearl, former chair of the citizen’s financial advisory task force, said there is “no magic bullet” for solving the General Fund deficit. “There is very little that we can do from a cost-cutting standpoint. We can’t truly cut our way out of this,” Pearl said. City Manager Jim Estep and City Councilmembers listened to the residents suggestions and comments, answering questions when necessary, but did not indicate whether solutions given would be taken into consideration. Library director Darla Wegener identified $200,000 worth of cuts for the next fiscal year, with the library costing the General Fund $415,000 with those reductions. Potential budget cuts to the library include closing the Carnegie Library completely with the Twelve Bridges only open 10 to 12 hours per week, according to Wegener. “If we close the Carnegie, it is a draw to the downtown so it will affect residents and businesses,” Wegener said. If the hours are reduced at the Twelve Bridges library, Wegener compared the effect of that to a “traffic jam” for the library. Wegener did not factor donations to the library into the budget. “We don’t have any promises from any organizations or an amount so I can’t factor anything in,” Wegener said. Doug Brown, the city’s recreation supervisor, presented the recreation department’s possible budget reductions. The recreation department offered up $245,000 in budget reductions. That included eliminating the assistant director of recreation position, laying off one recreation coordinator, eliminating adult volleyball and no longer mailing the recreation guide to residents, according to Brown. “Additional staffing cuts will result in severe cuts to programs, service levels and negatively impact the quality of life,” Brown said. Brown said increases to revenue for the recreation department would be increased fees for pavilion, field and gym rentals and adding new aquatics programs. “Some of the things that are concerns to me are that the idea we would save quite a bit of money by not putting the recreation guide out is eliminating notification to the public that they exist, which would mean decreased revenue,” City Manager Jim Estep said. Lincoln Fire Chief Dave Whitt identified $336,000 in potential cost savings for the 2011-2012 fiscal year. Those potential reductions include eliminating the weed-abatement program, professional memberships, replacement of tools and equipment, and “reducing daily staffing due to vacancies due to vacation and sick leave by not back filling with off-duty personnel,” according to Whitt. Whitt said the impact of not backfilling those vacancies is an increase in response times and “reduced ability to provide mutual aid.” “I really wish that I had extra staffing. It would be a lot easier to make these cuts. We call ourselves a full service city, but by any stretch of the imagination the fire department in particular is so below a level we call full service,” Whitt said. “We have very good people that deliver a very good service in very trying times, with limited resources. To say that we are a full-service city is a misnomer.” Councilman Stan Nader suggested the city try for a special tax to fund police and fire. “They (residents) tell me they would support a special tax for police and fire. I think we should do that,” Nader said. Councilman Spencer Short and Joiner were not optimistic about the prospect of a tax after the November defeat of Measure K, a proposed utility users’ tax that would have provided revenue for the General Fund. “As we all know, a special tax requires a two-thirds vote, which is exactly what we did not get,” Short said. “The message was clear and it was to live within our means.” Interim Police Chief Paul Shelgren presented potential budget reductions for the police department, which totaled $200,000 and would mean the reduction of two positions. “I’m the only department who doesn’t have a recommendation other than staff reductions,” Shelgren said. “It comes down to people and staff and any reduction in people or staff will have an impact to the city.” Shelgren said the annual cost per sworn officer position is $100,000 to $135,000. “I know what it’s like to be a full-service police department. We were there in 2007,” Shelgren said. “If we lose a position, the community won’t notice it today; they’ll notice it tomorrow. The people in our department will notice it first because they will have to find a way to pick up the difference.” Estep asked the council for direction on how to proceed with next year’s budget. “I think we should begin the cuts or changes that were presented for the coming fiscal year as soon as possible,” Councilman Tom Cosgrove said. The cuts Cosgrove spoke of were the ones presented by each department head during Wednesday’s workshop. Nader said he would “like to see us use a combination of budget cuts and use of fund balance (reserves).” “I’m not prepared to reduce fire and police personnel. I think we are as low as we can go,” Nader said. Cosgrove, Short and Joiner said they would like to see budget cuts without the use of reserves. Councilman Gabriel Hydrick was late to the meeting so he “abstained” from giving direction. Estep said city staff will bring a plan for implementing the cuts discussed to a City Council meeting in March.