Here's hoping the new year will be good for Lincoln

By: Carol Feineman, Editor
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How can we be three days away from a new year? It seems like we welcomed in Jan. 1, 2011 the other month. On the other hand, last January’s heated discussion over the General Fund’s $3 million misallocation or reallocation (depending on who was talking) seems light years behind us. And it’s hard to believe that interim police chief Joel Neves’ left 21 days into 2011. It seems like his successor, former Police Lt. Paul Shelgren, has been our chief for many more months than just the last 11 months. This year has definitely not been quiet. Front-page topics included a recall effort against the incumbent City Councilmen, a propane fire that could have destroyed downtown Lincoln if it progressed, a public-services strike and a fiscal sustainability committee comprised of residents wanting to improve the city’s financial picture. If 2010 was challenging in how the city chose which services to keep due to a General Fund deficit, that was in retrospect just a practice session in handling difficult budgetary decisions. That’s because this year’s City Council had tough calls to give in determining which services to drastically cut. Whether General Fund cuts were made to police, fire, library or recreation departments, residents would be disappointed with the needed cuts. This year, city representatives and officials also talked about the potential for bankruptcy. Ingrid Sheipline, a certified public accountant with auditor Richardson and Company, led a 20-minute presentation on the city’s audited financial statements for the 2010 fiscal year at the April 5 City Council budget meeting. “We concluded that the city could continue to operate for the next 12 months. We need to revisit that during the next audit,” Sheipline said April 5. “We discussed (at a recent finance committee meeting) having to really take a hard look at it as of June 30, 2011 because of the negative cash situation.” And Councilman Spencer Short mentioned bankruptcy in comments about the proposed budget and proposed amendments made by other councilmen at the June 14 City Council meeting. “In the audit report, they (Richardson and Company) said to address budget issues and bring the budget under control or else,” said Short, now mayor. “The letter says the city is likely to be bankrupt after 18 months,” Short said. City Council approved this year’s $46.2 million operating budget on June 28, which includes an $11 million General Fund budget. Councilmen had the unenviable task of eliminating city services and laying off several city employees to arrive at a balanced budget. Library services took a major hit this year. The Carnegie Library was closed July 1 and no date has been set for its reopening. The Twelve Bridges Library is currently open 23 hours per week, down from 27 hours in 2010. And the library director’s full-time position became part-time. Staffing reductions in the development services department means “shorter counter hours for the public,” said Assistant City Manager/Chief Financial Officer Anna Jatczak in June. According to the budget document, those reductions include an office assistant in the development services department. Police positions cut in June for the fiscal year that began in July include seven sworn officers, the final three layoffs taking effect Jan. 1; and the community services officer. That will bring the Police Department sworn police officer level down to 20, according to Lincoln Police Chief Paul Shelgren in July. The balanced budget also includes laying off two firefighters and one fire captain on Jan. 1. Lincoln Fire Chief Dave Whitt previously said that fire staffing will decrease from 24 to 21. The police and fire chiefs said on several occasions this year that public-safety staffing is not at the level required for a city our size. As dreary as the above sounds, the new year shows promising developments. Some public-safety employees losing their jobs Jan. 1 may be able to stay, after all. City Manager Jim Estep told The News Messenger (see page A1 story) last week that the remaining police and firefighter cuts are on hold at least a few weeks. City staff will discuss with City Council at a mid-year budget review “what to do with savings from public-safety employees leaving the city.” The city will realize an, as of now, unknown amount of savings from five police officers who already resigned and Whitt, who resigned a month ago. Whitt’s last workday is today. 2011 has been a year of contrasts. Residents were fragmented by a recall effort aimed at the City Council incumbents. And residents were unexpectedly brought together as public-safety officials and city officials battled the potentially destructive propane tanker fire in August. Hopefully, we’ve learned from the past year. Let’s hope that 2012 is a safe and financially sustainable year for Lincoln. Happy New Year.