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Number of layoffs still undisclosed

By: Brandon Darnell, News Messenger Reporter
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The number of layoffs necessary to balance the city’s $1-million deficit was not confirmed following Thursday’s closed-session City Council meeting with the city manager. For the last two weeks, city officials have said that layoffs would be part of the cuts to balance the General Fund shortfall. While Mayor Spencer Short told the News Messenger on Tuesday that the number of layoffs would be released Friday, he said “things have changed” after Thursday’s closed-session meeting. “We were expecting a number,” Short said Thursday, “but there actually isn’t a solid number yet. We are planning to formalize our decision on Tuesday night.” Patrick Clark, business representative for the Local 39 union, which represents approximately 100 city employees, also expected that number. The classified division covers Public Works employees such as maintenance workers and drivers in the solid waste department. When asked by the News Messenger on Thursday, Clark said that he originally expected pink slips to go out Friday. City Manager Jim Estep met during the past two weeks with representatives from the six employee representative groups, including the Police and Fire Midmanagement/Supervisory Group, the City Midmanagement/Confidential Group, the Lincoln Police Officers Association, the Lincoln Fire Suppression Officers Association and the two represented by the Local 39 union – the Professional Administrative Group and the Classified Group. “Jim needed to know that employee groups would even be amenable to making concessions,” said Jill Thompson, the city of Lincoln spokeswoman on Thursday, about those talks. “Now he has information that allows him to go to the groups on Monday and say, ‘This is where we’re at.’” By Monday, according to Thompson, Estep will be able to start mapping out possibilities. Clark now expects pink slips to go out after Tuesday’s City Council meeting. “There’s no scenario under which there won’t be layoffs,” Clark said. City Council’s next regular meeting is at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the McBean Park Pavilion. “There are a number of things on the board, from reductions in salaries to furloughs,” said Short, immediately following the Thursday closed-session meeting. He added that closing City Hall some days is another possibility. “There’s an impact that’s going to be felt by the citizenry, wherever the cuts are,” Clark said. “Lincoln doesn’t have that many employees to begin with.” The number of city employees is 230. City employees have two years left on their contracts, according to Clark, and the possibility for taking a reduction in salaries, furloughs or giving up cost-of-living raises is not a decision he can make without putting it to a vote by union members. “If the workers refuse to take a cut,” Clark said, “the layoffs will be bad. If they accept partial cuts, the layoffs won’t be as bad.” He added that taking a one-day furlough per month is equivalent to taking a pay cut of about 5 percent. “The question is,” Clark said, “are 100 people going to accept that? I can’t accurately predict what the reaction of the other workers will be if they find out they won’t be laid off.” He said that some may be willing to take a cut to save their colleagues’ jobs while others simply may not be able to afford the cuts. “The worst-case scenario is that the unions say no to everything,” Clark said. Both lower-level employees and management will notice the crunch. “No one is immune from the cuts,” Short said. The reduction in services can’t come from one department, Clark said, and will, in all likelihood, come across the board. Short echoed the same sentiments Tuesday. “There are some departments that only have one or two employees,” Clark said. “If you lay off the recreation staff, then there is no more Little League and the citizens wonder why they’re paying taxes. The city only has one senior engineer. You can’t eliminate that or you’ll lose that capability and have to contract it out at $350 an hour or something.” During Thursday’s closed-session meeting, Short said, the council gave City Manager Jim Estep direction on where to cut. Short would not say where those cuts will be. Estep plans to speak with labor groups before Tuesday’s City Council meeting. Clark also told the News Messenger that the unions haven’t sat down with the city at the bargaining table yet. “It’s hard to get down to a meaningful conversation if we don’t know the size of the problem,” Clark said. “The biggest thing is we don’t know what it’s going to look like but we’ll have a much better picture Tuesday night.” Estep said that “the size and scope of the real problem has been made clear from day one,” when the initial action was taken by the City Council` to deal with the budget crisis. Thompson added that it’s impossible to sit at the bargaining table until the contracts are opened, which she and Estep hope will happen Monday. Concerned residents can address the council near the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting, Short said, prior to when the cuts will be made. “We will come to the meeting with an open mind and hear the public out,” Short said. The city’s goal, according to Short, is to maintain a high level of service but work within the financial means. The balancing is needed as a result of slacking revenue sources, most notably in tax revenues. Property and sales tax revenues are down approximately $673,000 from the expected amount, according to a Nov. 20 memorandum prepared by Steve Ambrose, the city of Lincoln’s administrative services director. “We were expecting some ramping down,” Short said Thursday, “but this is falling off a cliff.” Many city workers anxiously wonder where the cuts will occur. “I have seen the morale swing in the fire department,” said Jerry Stackpoole, a Lincoln firefighter. “Just the not knowing what’s going to happen is wearing on them.” Stackpoole, a volunteer, said he gave up his stipends, which amount to $4 per medical-aid call and $8 per fire, in an effort to help out. It isn’t much, he said, but it would add up to about $3,500 over the year. “They’re all a bunch of good guys, from the chief on down,” Stackpoole said. “They’ve already made cuts. They’re trying everything. I hate to see it.” Jeff Miller, the city’s senior water technician, said his job isn’t funded from the General Fund but he sees effects daily regarding the ongoing situation. “It is a concern with some of the younger guys,” Miller said. “You can see the fear. There are a lot of rumors going around.” Miller said many of the employees whose jobs are not paid out of the General Fund worry that they will be “bumped” out by someone more senior who is laid off out of a General-Funded position. Residents are closely following the situation. “They might be up against a wall,” said Lincoln resident Ed Atkinson. “You can’t go into debt because only the feds can print money.” Lincoln Resident Geri Cassero said she is concerned with where the cuts will fall. “Why are they going to cut the two most important things in a city (police and fire), which are security for your homes and safety and automobiles?” Cassero asked. Brandon Darnell can be reached by e-mail at brandond@goldcountrymedia.com