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Public needs to get involved in city’s budget

By: Carol Feineman, editor
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Comments wanted: Please send us your ideas on how to balance the city’s budget, which has an estimated deficit of $800,000. City officials say that services in the police, fire, library and recreation/parks departments will be cut. The new budget must be in place by July 1. And attend Tuesday’s City Council meeting at 6 p.m. to hear the city’s budget presentation. I hear plenty from residents during the workday. For the last few months, several Lincoln Friends of Library committee members have warned me that more city services are being eliminated. That’s in addition to the 31 city-employee layoffs a year ago February, of which six were library positions and eight were police positions. The layoffs resulted in cut library hours and programs, reduced crime-prevention programs and increased 9-1-1 response times. But I didn’t realize how much trouble the city of Lincoln is currently in until I was forwarded an e-mail written the week before by City Manager Jim Estep, Fire Chief Dave Whitt and Financial Advisory Task Force chairman Richard Pearl. The e-mail, addressed to community leaders, didn’t mince words. Quickly grabbing my attention in the e-mail was the paragraph, “Although Lincoln has been very prudent in balancing the budget under these tough circumstances, the cost for essential services is still greater than existing revenues. Without additional revenue or further draconian cuts to basic city services such as police, fire and 9-1-1 services, the City will go broke.” I quickly got the picture. “This is going to be the most difficult budget in the history of the city,” Estep said last week in my office. “It’s going to be very difficult to balance the budget so that all services are maintained the way they are now.” Estep explained why a few days later. “Both sales tax and property taxes, the primary sources of the General Fund, are still declining,” he said. “The sales tax dropped 12 percent. Property-tax re-assessments went down nine percent and commercial-building assessments are dropping this year.” Although Estep didn’t know Friday how much the new fiscal year’s budget deficit would be, but estimating it at about $800,000 at my further prompting, Estep said the city will have to eliminate additional services to either or all of the police, fire, library and recreation/parks departments. These departments receive their income through the general fund. “We could cut more programs, recreational, potentially not open the pool this summer. Do we have to close the library or have it run by volunteers?” Estep asked rhetorically. “Do we, from a revenue point, try to get the community’s support for a utility-users tax?” Estep said the city has $4 million in reserves. A minimum 10-percent-reserve must be kept, according to City Council in November 2008. “If we need to use reserves to cover general funds,” Estep said, “we need to prioritize how much of reserves to use and prioritize what services are most important to keep.” Obviously, the city doesn’t know yet how to fix the budget crisis. So the city is now asking community leaders and residents to name which services they least want to lose. That explains the city manager’s Feb. 5 e-mails to community leaders and the city e-mail blasts about the online Community Feedback Survey, of which printed copies are available at City Hall, Twelve Bridges Library, police headquarters and the Parks & Recreation Department. “We really want the community input,” Estep said. “We want to cut those of lowest priorities to the city.” While commendable, I don’t understand why city staff is now sending out surveys and e-mails asking the public to 1) prioritize services and 2) consider adding a utility-users tax. This time last year, the difficult budget cuts and layoffs were already determined. Many other cities are making hard decisions during the nationally weak economy. However, those cities probably had plans in place several months – not four months – before the new fiscal year begins. I can’t help wondering why City Council a year ago, and every week since then, didn’t direct staff to immediately seek to increase revenues. That should be through attracting new business, i.e. working continually with representatives from the proposed Walgreens at the Stone Tower Plaza in Twelve Bridges and the once proposed Grocery Outlet at the defunct Rainbow Market, as well as helping already struggling Lincoln restaurants and stores try to stay open. There’s no more time for excuses, like in the city of Lincoln’s online “Frequently Asked Questions about Lincoln’s Fiscal Situation” document that whiningly describes the state’s economic woes. Instead, it’s time that city leaders become proactive in attracting and keeping already-established businesses. During next Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Estep will present a mid-year budget review of how the city is currently doing and what the projections are for the 2010-11 fiscal year that starts July 1. Since City Council and city staff haven’t solved the budget problem, the public should now direct City Council members. Please attend Tuesday’s City Council meeting because the budget affects everyone in Lincoln. Together, we can hopefully keep our services. Even if council and city staff haven’t done all they could have, so far.