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FSC workshop nets large crowd

By: Stephanie Dumm, News Messenger Reporter
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It was standing-room only at Lincoln City Hall last Thursday night during a much anticipated fiscal sustainability committee workshop. The workshop was held for the committee to present its fiscal sustainability plan to City Council and for the council to give feedback to the committee on the 100-plus recommendations in the plan. As of 6:15 p.m., 146 attendees were at the meeting, including the nine core committee members, all five City Councilmen, police officers, firefighters and other city employees. Although the meeting had a starting time of 6 p.m., it started 15 minutes late so more chairs could be added to the third-floor meeting room. At least four times during the workshop, on-duty firefighters present left to respond to calls for service and then returned to the meeting. Although Mayor Spencer Short said the meeting would go no later than 10 p.m., the meeting ended just before 10:30 p.m. Fiscal sustainability committee chairman Richard Pearl addressed the council first, giving the committee’s “major findings” as well as “major recommendations and implementation plan.” Pearl said the city’s General Fund has a “continuing structural deficit,” the “public facilities funds are unbalanced,” that “employee compensation is unsustainable” and “prior fiscal management” has been “inadequate.” “We’ve been working toward solutions and have not been in inertia,” Short said at the meeting’s end. “We understand the key issues here. We are going to take action on some, maybe all, of these recommendations but it depends on what we find out.” The committee had four major recommendations for the city, according to Pearl, which are franchise solid waste starting on June 1; reduce overall employee compensation levels starting with the 2012/13 budget; investigate contracting out police, fire and development services; and implement core principles with a suggested discussion start date of June 1 and implementation date of Sept. 1. The committee’s six subcommittees each gave a presentation to the City Council. Those subcommittees are General Fund, enterprise funds, compensation, special funds and redevelopment agency, central services and communications. Dan Karleskint, the enterprise fund subcommittee chairman, talked about the suggestion to franchise solid waste. Franchising solid waste services “is a method of generating revenue for the General Fund in both the short and long term,” according to Karleskint. “(People) always have concerns when talking about franchising something. The base of concern is a lack of control on rates, a want to protect employees currently working for the city somehow and a want to maintain service levels,” Karleskint said. “The model we are following shows franchising can mitigate those concerns as long as we develop the right talent and expertise going through negotiations.” Councilman Paul Joiner expressed a concern regarding franchising solid waste. “My major concern here is that, from my perspective and a lot of citizens, this is in respect a backdoor tax,” Joiner said. “It’s an upfront payment that should be used to reduce ratepayer’s funds, instead of going into the General Fund for other purposes. As long as citizens agree it’s the appropriate way to solve this problem, I agree with that.” Councilman Tom Cosgrove had similar comments. “We need to be absolutely upfront about how this money is coming to the city and what it’s used for,” Cosgrove said. Richard MacKirdy, the compensation subcommittee chairman, addressed the council, first thanking the city’s employees for their “cutback on various benefit and wage increases and that type of thing” since 2009. “The city does not have a revenue problem. The problem they have is a rapidly growing expense problem,” MacKirdy said. “The one way we can really reduce costs would be to contract out public safety and development services.” Two of Lincoln’s public-safety employees made comments regarding MacKirdy’s presentation, which discussed recommendations for reducing the amount city pays for employee wages, benefits, health insurance and pension. “I looked at the numbers. Is there a comprehensive works cited where I can find the information gathered,” said firefighter Aaron Bjorgum, who was not on duty that night. MacKirdy replied that the information he was presenting “came from data that I received from the city.” “There’s a lot of negatives on our compensations. Are there any positives?” Bjorgum asked. MacKirdy responded by saying, “Our employees are very well taken care of.” Lincoln Police Chief Paul Shelgren gave an impassioned response to the information presented by MacKirdy about education credits that police officers receive. MacKirdy reported that “86 percent of public-safety personnel receive multiple education payouts and 85 percent of classified employees receive certification pay.” “They are getting extra pay for things already in their job classification,” MacKirdy said. “My recommendation would be if they are not actually performing that duty, they shouldn’t get extra pay.” Shelgren said that “a lot of his (MacKirdy’s) thoughts are based on a lot of speculation on his part that he didn’t verify.” “When Mr. (Jim) Datzman came in with Larry Whitaker and did their report, they came to us and got factual information. That was not the case in this report,” Shelgren said. “I don’t understand how he came to his conclusions. I attended every FSC meeting and not one time did he ask me a question on certificated pay the officers are getting, if they’re doing those jobs and what they are doing them for.” Shelgren said officers can “get up to 25 percent in education incentives for post certificates not required in their job description.” “That was put into their memorandum of understanding several years ago because the base salary is extremely low,” Shelgren said. “It keeps us competitive and in the median of other agencies.” Shelgren also talked about the job his officers perform. “The job our officers do on the street is a little more critical than the guy who puts nails on shelves at Home Depot or Lowe’s,” Shelgren said. “Every week they make life-or-death decisions and need to be compensated well for what they are doing out there. We do get paid good wages but we do a damn good job for it.” As for contracting out police and fire services, General Fund subcommittee chairman Larry Whitaker said his committee’s recommendation was that the city “consider” contracting. “We have to do our due diligence, look at that and see what the numbers provide,” Joiner said. “Say the numbers don’t work. What’s plan b?” Whitaker said “plan b is not acceptable.” “You’re cutting police numbers now,” Whitaker said. Mike Miller, the compensation subcommittee chairman, said the city should “create a culture where core principles drive decision making” by “defining the mission, vision, values, purpose and priorities” of the city. “I have a concern about your statements. I’m curious about what decisions were wrong and not based on core principles,” said Short in response. “Every decision has been made with the best interest of the community in mind.”