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Most council candidates like levy

Three of four running support adding utility users’ tax
By: Stephanie Dumm, News Messenger Reporter
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A utility users’ tax seems to be the answer for getting Lincoln out of its current budget crisis. That’s according to three out of four candidates running for City Council in November. City Council will hold a budget hearing for the new fiscal year at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the McBean Park Pavilion. Also on the meeting’s agenda will be placing an utility users’ tax on the November ballot, according to City Manager Jim Estep. The city of Lincoln faces a $2 million deficit in its General Fund budget, which provides funding for police, fire, library, and parks and recreation services. The deficit was caused by a decline in revenue, including decreasing sales and property taxes in the city, according to previous News Messenger reports. The utility users’ tax would need to be approved by voters to be put in place. The News Messenger asked City Council candidates Stan Nader, Richard Pearl, Jeff Greenberg and Linda Stackpoole this week how they would solve the city’s budget deficit for the new fiscal year that begins July 1. Stackpoole is currently a council member. Pearl, Greenberg and Stackpoole all listed a utility user’s tax as a way of maintaining the city’s services at the level they’re at today. While Nader doesn’t agree with the other candidates, he said, "I don’t think we should take it off the table." "Before I would support a utility user’s tax, the city needs to do a better job of spending money because people are not willing to give up more money if they’re not using what they have wisely," Nader said. Greenberg pointed out that Lincoln "has to have a steady stream of income" and a utility user’s tax would be a way of doing that. "We can’t afford to lose services, we depend on services and I don’t think it’s elaborate. I think it fits our needs," Greenberg said. "If we’re not able to find room in the budget to pay for services, we will have to think of putting in a utility users tax." The tax would need a sunset provision, which puts a time limit on the tax, and would need to be funneled into very specific areas of the budget, Greenberg added. "The money can only go into the General Fund for police, fire, library, and parks and recreation only," Greenberg said. "We want to be able to pay for the services we need, and then when the economy recovers, we will have the sunset clause and the tax will go away." Stackpoole said she has seen the city, as both a city employee and a council member, go through similar budget issues three times. A revenue measure “is the way to go,” according to Stackpoole. "The fix is a revenue measure because nobody can take that money from the local economy and the state can’t come and get it," Stackpoole said. "There is a way of solving the budget without a utility user’s tax but we aren’t there yet." That’s because, Stackpoole said, Lincoln would need about 60,000 rooftops to generate "enough revenue where we wouldn’t have a structural deficit." "We’re not there yet, so until then, the General Fund will suffer and so will services," Stackpoole said. "The solution is a revenue measure and I’m going to be speaking about it often and frequently, because I think the public is entitled to make decisions on what kind of services they want and are able to pay for." Pearl supports a "Lincoln-only revenue source to keep our essential services." "It’s going to give us time to maintain our essential services at the level they are now until the economy improves and we get sales tax back in line," Pearl said. Pearl has served as chairman for the city’s Citizens Financial Task Force and is also on the finance committee for Sun City Lincoln Hills. If elected, Pearl said, he would scrutinize the budget and any new projects "to make sure it’s in keeping with my belief of living within our means" and "promote a vibrant downtown and business-friendly environment, which will lead to increased sales tax revenue for the General Fund." Nader had similar ideas to help solve the city’s budget crisis. "We certainly need to encourage businesses to locate in Lincoln to build a tax base and provide jobs for citizens," Nader said, also suggesting a customer satisfaction survey. "We need to understand how we are providing services to businesses because we need to retain the ones we have and attract new ones." City management "needs to be more open" about how the city is run with employees and customers, Nader said, adding he would make this expectation clear. "I would tell them I expect this being open out of them and, if they don’t, I’ll tell them we’ll find someone who is," Nader said.