Notes: If you are a property owner in Lincoln, it’s important to take notice of the Mayor’s Budget and the "Taking Charge" project, which is stated as an effort to obtain residents' input. It's important to pay attention to the budgeting process overall and the Mayor's project in particular as it appears higher property taxes are in the offing.
The "Taking Charge" project included a May 16 public budget discussion. Two members of Grassroots in Nebraska participated and one of them, Linda Rohman, submitted an analysis of that meeting to be shared. In addition, she provided comprehensive contact information so you can express your opinion about the budget.
As most of you probably know, Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler held a citizens' meeting on Saturday, May 16th, at the East Campus Union. The meeting was billed as an opportunity for Lincoln residents to have input concerning the city budget for 2009-2010. Attendees were selected from among those who voluntarily completed an online survey about budget issues. Pat Carlson and I from our Grassroots group were invited to attend. This is our report back to the group on our experiences and observations.
First, the discussion was not open-ended. Six budget items were presented for our consideration. These included the following:
(1) Snow Removal: It requires far less expense to clear arterial streets, intersections, and bus routes for public safety and traffic flow than to clear neighborhood streets. Currently, the City plows whenever there is four inches or more of snowfall. Public safety would not be compromised by not plowing neighborhood streets unless there is more than eight inches of snowfall. The City could save $250,000 to $500,000 per year by focusing on snow removal for arterials, intersections, and bus routes rather than neighborhood streets.
We were asked a) Would you prefer for the city to plow only arterials, intersections, and bus routes but not neighborhood streets when snowfall exceeds four inches?; b) Would snow removal performance for 90 percent of arterials be satisfactory if completed in 8 hours (time presently required), 24 hours, or some other time period?; and c) When snowfall exceeds 8 inches, should 90 percent of the neighborhood plowing be completed within one day, two days, or some other period?
Many, if not most people, seemed to prefer continued plowing of neighborhood streets, although many indicated a willingness to "compromise" and let the City raise the snow level triggering plowing to six inches.
(2) Police investigation and reports re non-injury accidents: The police department currently writes automobile accident reports even in situations where no one is injured. If officers continued to respond to such accidents when called, but did not conduct a formal investigation as to fault and did not complete a formal report, the police chief opined that the department could cut three officers from its budget. Police Chief Cassady expressed a strong conviction that current practice of making such reports was for public convenience only, and that the practice had essentially no public safety/law enforcement value.
We were asked if the practice should continue. If it continues, would we want the City to respond within 30 minutes and increase taxes $1.56 per household per year OR would we want response within 15 minutes at a cost of $3.00 per household per year OR some other option?
Surprisingly (at least, to me) people seemed to want the police to continue making these reports even though Chief Cassady described them as for public convenience only. Many seemed to think insurance rates would increase by at least as much as the amount of the tax increases predicted if the practice is continued. I, personally, do not see this as a legitimate government function. For that reason, if I am to pay for the service, I'm content to pay insurance premium increases should they be necessitated by discontinuance of the practice.
(3) Indoor air quality inspections currently conducted by the Health Department:
The City Health Department currently responds to complaints about poor indoor air quality in residential properties. They investigate the complaints and let the property owner and/or the occupant know the cause of any problem found. They get approximately 2000 calls per year, but investigate only about 220 of these. About half of the 220 are rental properties and the other half are owner occupied.
We were asked whether we would favor a 2.5 cents per month per average household tax increase to continue the program OR whether taxes not be increased but the cost necessary to continue the program be passed to the property owner OR whether there should be no increase and the program eliminated.
There seemed to be a consensus here that the program should be paid for by the property owners.
(4) Public libraries: $781,000 in budget reductions to the library system have been proposed, $511,000 of which would come from closing three neighborhood libraries (i.e., South, Bethany, and Arnold).
We were asked if we would be willing to pay increased property taxes in the amount of 43 cents per month per average household to maintain all the libraries at the current level OR not increase taxes and close the three neighborhood libraries OR not increase taxes or close but curtail hours at all city libraries OR some other unspecified option.
Most people wanted to keep all libraries open but seemed rather evenly split between paying more taxes to maintain the status quo and curtailing hours at all the libraries to cut the necessary costs.
(5) Recreation Centers versus Middle School Resource Officers: It is thought that City Recreation Centers limit youth crimes and that School Resource Officers keep kids safer. The City government consensus is that Recreation Centers are a higher priority.
We were asked, if safety and security budget cuts are needed, which program would we choose to fund, Recreation Centers or School Resource Officers. According to Police Chief Cassady, there are only four middle school resource officers who split time between 10 middle schools. In his opinion, their time and our money could be better utilized because time is lost traveling from one school to another during the day and because the officers do not establish a presence in any one of the schools because they are not there enough. He thought, for the program to be more effective with the four existing officers, they should be assigned to the four most needy schools where problems are more frequently encountered. LPS is unwilling to allow the police department to assign the officers to four particular schools and leave the other six without.
In spite of the Chief's recommendations, many people argued the program should be continued and that the four officers should be assigned to four of the schools. This was in spite of LPS's refusal to cooperate.
(6) Child bike safety: The City currently conducts a safety education program which it claims has decreased child injuries by 40%. The program costs $41,000 per year, and its continuance would require a four cent per month per average household property tax increase.
We were asked whether we would prefer to increase property taxes to continue the program that has helped reduce injuries by 40% OR not increase taxes and eliminate the program allowing injuries to return to previous levels OR some other option.
The wording of this question was very offensive and clearly designed to lead respondents to a commitment to increased property taxes. I asked the health department head advocating the program how he could claim reductions in accidents were attributable to the program. He told me the program had been in existence more than eight years. I pointed out that the City has invested in a trails system during that time that has led to a decrease in children riding on streets and sidewalks, which formerly exposed them to the risk of being hit by a car. That could explain the decrease in such accidents over time instead of the City's program. He indicated the relation between the program and the statistical evidence of a decrease in accidents was a correlation only, not cause-and-effect. In spite of that fact, he implied a certain callousness on the part of any taxpayer who didn't want to continue the program, saying something to the effect that, "We could discontinue the program and see if more kids got hurt, but that wouldn't be right."
Most people seemed to favor continuance of this program because of the small amount of the cost and because it involved children.
In summary, Pat and I would make the following general observations: First, Lincoln citizens are willing to suffer an increase in property taxes to retain a surprising number of services of even questionable merit or value. Many of the services in question go beyond those envisioned by the founders to be within the proper purview of government to begin with. There is a decided contentment to let government do for the people in many instances what the people, properly motivated, could do for themselves.
Second, the proceedings seemed designed to elicit a consensus in favor of increased property taxes. The issues we were asked to discuss largely involved services provided by the City to children and low-income families, which are groups most likely to appeal to the sympathies and, consequently, be most difficult to "deprive." Most of the costs associated with the programs which were supposedly candidates for elimination were quoted as pennies per month per average household rather than in aggregate figures. As a result, in most instances, we had no real idea of the actual cost of the program as a whole during our deliberations. Clearly, it is more difficult to say no to spending pennies than it is to spending thousands of dollars. There were both pre- and post-questionnaires to detect any change in participants' opinions during the discussions. Why do both a pre- and a post-assessment unless the material presented during the interim was intended more to persuade us rather than to inform them?
Finally, fiscal conservatives seemed to be scarce among the 150 or so attendees. We need to let City officials know that we favor cuts over property tax increases. If you agree, please contact one or more of the officials listed below to share your opinion in this regard.
Office of the Mayor -- 441-7511 -- email@example.com
Lincoln Area Agency on Aging -- 441-7022
June Pederson, Director -- 441-6132
Deb Peck, Community Activities and Services Administrator -- 441-6158
Building and Safety -- 441-7521
Fred Hoke, Director -- 441-7049
Lana Tolbert, Administrative Officer -- 441-7831
Citizen Information Center -- 441-7375
Diane Gonzolas, Manager -- 441-7831
Commission on Human Rights -- 441-7624
Larry Williams, Director -- 441-8691
Finance -- 4417411
Don Herz, Director -- 441-7412
Law -- 441-7281
John Hendry, City Attorney -- 441-7290
Library -- 441-8500
Pat Leach, Director -- 441-8510
Lincoln Fire & Rescue -- 441-7363
Chief Niles Ford -- 44108350
Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department -- 441-8000
Bruce Dart, Director -- 441-8001
Steve Beal, Assistant Director -- 441-8042
Judy Halstead, Resource & Program Development Coordinator -- 441-4603
Lincoln-Lancaster County Personnel Department -- 441-7597
Mark Koller, Director -- 441-7888
Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Department -- 441-7491
Marvin Krout, Director -- 441-6366
Parks and Recreation -- 441-7847
Lynn Johnson, Director -- 441-8265
Police (non-emergency service desk) -- 441-7204
Chief Tom Casady -- 441-7237
Public Works and Utilities -- 441-7548
Greg MacLean, Director -- 441-7566
Urban Development -- 441-7606
Dave Landis, Director -- 441-7126
City Council -- 441-7515 -- firstname.lastname@example.org
You might also be interested to know that the Lincoln Independent Business Association has concluded that the Mayor's budget poll, which concerned the topics discussed by the participants in Saturday's meeting, was unscientific and, therefore, inherently unreliable. LIBA recommends the City not place any reliance on the results of that poll in formulating the budget.
Linda submitted a letter to the Editor Saturday, which will posted here tomorrow. I will provide an update on whether or not it appears in the paper.
Meanwhile, anyone so inclined to do the same is encouraged to use the link below.