August 28, 2002
I don't know about the other city council members, but I am quite sure that the Journal StarAugust 16th editorial "Mayor Wields the Sharpest Budget Knife" was not referring to the city budget process I went through.
Anyone involved in the 2002-2003 Lincoln City Budget process, anyone monitoring the process, or anyone reading the newspaper's own news coverage of the process, will find the editor's characterizations amazing.
The Mayor is cited for his "considerable courage" in asking the unions for concessions in light of the cities tight budget. Who do you think got the city, and city employees into this mess in the first place?
It was Mayor Wesley who projected a "blue sky" 6.5% increase in sales tax revenue for the year. Final net revenue was 2.0%.
It was also Mayor Wesley who two years ago, negotiated contracts with an annual 4% base increase, 4% merit increases and longevity bonuses. For those who qualify, about half of the employees, increases of nearly 10% a year are probable. The other half of the employees, who are at the top of their pay range, get "only" the 4% increase and longevity bonuses. Taken all together, the annual average pay increases for Lincoln city employees the last few years have been triple what workers at Goodyear, Burlington, Square D and others have been getting.
Anyone who was at the Mayor's "budget retreat" last November will tell you that I am the "prudent manager" who raised the issue of employment costs which are 70% of the city operating budget. Most well run service companies in the private sector operate with employment costs 5%-10% less. I also pointed out that with property tax lids and ordinary sales tax increases, our city employment costs and increases were impossible to maintain. Mathematically, you could get to a point where personnel costs were such a dominant portion of the budget, that we wouldn't be able to afford offices, equipment and materials for them. Remember, the 5-year budget projections we have seen over the past 18 months which have predicted as much as a $60 million deficit. I rest my case.
And, even though I concur you can't solve serious budget concerns without considering employment costs, I disagreed with the Mayor's approach. The rest of the council felt the same.
We set out to restore personnel, resource and program cuts that provide direct service to Lincoln citizens and neighborhoods. We all agreed up front to achieve a balanced budget with no tax rate increase. We did so by re-allocating funds. For every Mayor's cut that we restored, we cut a like amount from a different category. In order to restore the concessions which the firefighters had offered, we had to tap our city reserves for about $400,000. That compared to the Mayor's $2.5 million use of reserves, out of $27.0 million total reserves.
As for the tiny 0.2 percent property tax rate reduction proposed by the Mayor, it was ludicrous. Here we are, asking unions to renege on their contracts, give us hundreds of thousands of dollars in concessions, cut jobs, reduce services and tap our reserves to cover a $6.5 million budget deficit, and the Mayor proposes an infinitesimal rate reduction for property tax that amounted to about $50,000...TOTAL. The only fathomable conclusion I could come to was that this silly gesture was going to become a bullet point on Mayor Wesley's re-election brochure. Being the wild-spending, conservative business entrepreneur that I am, I felt more police officers, longer pool hours, bus routes, libraries and senior centers were a greater priority.
Judging from the citizen feedback to me and the other council members, most Lincoln citizens agree.