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Utility user's tax discussed during budget workshop

By: Stephanie Dumm, News Messenger Reporter
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Instituting a utility tax to supplement public safety in the coming years was the message during Tuesday night’s final public city-budget workshop. Three previous budget workshops have been held on topics including library, parks and recreation and the police departments. The workshops are a way “to get the public’s perspective on the budget” as far as their service needs go, City Manager Jim Estep recently said. Estep said the budget workshop is the first part of the budget process, and after revenue projections are available, a preliminary budget will be put together. The budget must be in place by July 1 for the new fiscal year. The feedback given by the public will play a role in the development of the final budget, according to Estep. The proposed budgets for the fire department and capital improvement projects were presented during Tuesday’s meeting, which was attended by about 50 community members. Residents and City Council members alike alluded to implementing a utility users’ tax to get the city through its current budget situation since there is a $2 million deficit in the General Fund. The General Fund provides funding for the police, fire, library and parks and recreation departments. “Citizens need to realize that if we want services, we’ll have to step up and make sacrifices,” said Stan Nader, a Lincoln resident, about a utility users’ tax. “If we have certain expectations of what we want, as a community we’ll have to pay for it.” Ray Henson, a Lincoln resident and former fire captain for the Oakland Fire Department, commended the fire department for “doing a good job with the man-power they have.” “If you cut any more in the fire department, people will die,” Henson said. “I would support a little tax, something for two or three years, just for police and fire.” Councilwoman Linda Stackpoole echoed his sentiment, and said, “people will die” if a utility users’ tax isn’t supported. To increase staffing for the fire department, Stackpoole pointed out a few ways to do so, such as increasing revenue and reducing expenses. “We are reducing expenses. Unfortunately, the next thing we need to do is increase revenue,” Stackpoole said. “If you paid $1,000 less in (property) taxes, I ask you to support a utility users’ tax at $20 a month and you’ll still have savings.” Lincoln’s Fire Chief Dave Whitt presented next year’s proposed Fire Department budget. He said the fire department has been “prudent and judicious with expenses.” “The fire department has focused primarily on services to the public and not looking to uptake any programs that would impact the General Fund,” Whitt said. Those programs include training and maintenance. An example Whitt gave was developing a company officer-training program. The department is also looking to “fortify regional and local partnerships with local agencies” for activities such as training, according to Whitt. The fire department has “tentatively agreed to salary and benefit concessions for next year,” according to Estep. These concessions include no cost-of-living adjustments, no merit increases, and similar to the police department, employees will have to pay their share of Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) benefits. The employee’s share of PERS, which is 9 percent, would be a 10- percent decrease in benefits for the fire department. The city’s budget problems have affected fire safety and 911 services, according to Estep. That’s because there are three unfilled fire captain positions, and closure of one of the city’s three fire stations, according to Estep, who said 911 response times are 63 percent higher than recommended. The fire station, located at the corner of Twelve Bridges Drive and Joiner Parkway, was closed due to problems with mold, and has not been reopened due to lack of staffing, according to Estep. The capital-improvement program was also discussed during Tuesday’s workshop. Proposed projects include work on restrooms at Foskett Ranch Regional Park, well rehabilitation, the Fifth Street lighting project and work on Creekside Village, which will provide public housing, according to city engineer Bruce Burnworth. Projects in the capital improvement program relate to work on parks, streets, public facilities, water and wastewater. No General Fund money will be used to fund the proposed capital improvement projects, according to Estep.