Task force finalizes budget report

By: Brandon Darnell, News Messenger Reporter
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A utility-users tax may be in Lincoln’s future, if the recommendations of the Citizens’ Advisory FInancial Task Force are adopted Tuesday by City Council. The nine-member task force was created in late March to allow Lincoln residents to be better represented as the budget is adopted, as well as allow direct, long-term influence from residents. The task force was created following a comment City Councilman Paul Joiner made at a City Council meeting in January to prevent the city’s having to make layoffs in the future. City Manager Jim Estep said this week that the task force was asked to be a “fresh set of eyes” on the city’s budget and come up with some creative solutions as hard economic times continue to take its toll. “The city is in a financial predicament,” said task force Chair Richard Pearl. “Council asked us to look at out-of-the-box thoughts, and we’ve done that.” Flagging tax revenues were the major culprit in a $1-million shortfall in the city’s general fund last year, prompting the laying off of 31 city employees in February. Estep said he was pleased with the nine-member task force’s work. “They’ve done an amazing job, actually,” Estep said. “It’s the most extraordinary task force I’ve ever worked with. They ask intelligent and insightful questions, and they met every week. They’re very dedicated.” That dedication resulted in a complete overview of the city budget, with special emphasis on the general fund. The exact amount of savings is not known at this time, according to the report, but will be available when the city posts the Council agenda online at this week. The task force’s report to City Council is only nine pages but task force member Dan Karleskint said each of those pages probably represents 100 man-hours of work. According to Estep, many of the recommendations have already been considered by the city but there are some new recommendations. The specific recommendation Estep pointed to is the privatization of the city’s solid waste operations. Privatization would entail hiring outside businesses to take care of the city’s refuse. According to a draft of the report, the city currently collects solid waste from residential and commercial users, tacking the charge onto the monthly utility bill. If that division were privatized, a fee would be enacted and an additional $250,000 to $400,000 would be kept in the general fund. The downside of that change would be for the 11 employees in the solid waste division, who would either be reassigned – if spots were available – or laid off. Before that could be enacted, however, independent legal counsel would need to be consulted, according to the report. Other recommendations include regionalizing the police and fire departments or partnering with other local agencies, encouraging city departments to take more measures to draw in revenue, possibly through new fees, and the initiation of a utility users tax – a flat tax rate applied to utilities. Those suggestions, along with the others in the report, will be presented to the City Council Tuesday, when the city’s budget is expected to be approved. If the 2009/2010 budget is approved Tuesday, it will not immediately incorporate the recommendations of the task force. “A budget is a spending plan,” said task force Vice Chair Paul Apfel. “Spending plans change.” Only one member of the public attended Tuesday night’s task-force meeting. Lincoln resident Tony Manos said he attended to learn what he could about the budget. “I think the members are very well-rounded,” Manos said. But did those members complete their task? “Absolutely,” Manos said. When the task force presents its findings to the council Tuesday, it will be aided by a PowerPoint presentation. “It will probably be directed so Joe Public can understand,” said task-force member Susan Cope. Task force members said they hope the public will attend the City Council meeting. Some recommendations of the task force include: Privatize solid waste operations Move the storm water division from the general fund to an assessment district Regionalize fire and police departments Increase fees for library, parks and recreation and public safety services Move McBean Park and Foskett Regional Park operations from the general fund to another district Realign gas taxes Review city employee benefits Streamline grant applications Institute a utility users tax Increase land parcel taxes Institute a business license tax Increase sales tax Brandon Darnell can be reached by e-mail at