BUSY, BUSY, BUSY
Manager Jeanette Steider is up to her elbows in flowers as she carries finished arrangements to a holding area for delivery at Abloom in downtown Lincoln on Tuesday. Florists across the city are gearing up for Valentines Day — their busiest day of the year.
Employee turnover at Nebraska prisons is still high — 34 percent as of December, up from 18 percent in 2010.
Prison staff continue to work lots of overtime — both voluntary and mandatory — more than double the hours they worked collectively four years ago.
The number of vacant positions in the prisons has leveled off in the past year, but still is at slightly more than 300.
Department of Correctional Services Director Scott Frakes met with the Legislature's Appropriations Committee on Tuesday to talk about his agency's mid 2017-19 budget request.
He's asked for:
* 29 full-time corporal and sergeant positions for fiscal year 2019, with no request for added funding;
* 35 positions in health services using existing vacancies;
* and a 100-bed, $5.8 million minimum-custody dormitory at the Penitentiary to be paid for with savings from another building project.
Frakes also fielded questions about a bill (LB871) introduced by Lincoln Sen. Anna Wishart that would direct the department to implement a longevity pay program for staff.
Last fall, the department launched a pay-for-performance initiative at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution, but that hasn't been evaluated, Frakes said. The hiring bonus there has been met with some complaints from existing staff.
Any longevity pay would best be handled during salary negotiations with the union, he said, not through an appropriation.
Staff turnover is high, in part because of a tight labor market, competitive-pay issues and the negative image from incidents in the prisons over the past several years.
It costs the department $8,000 to train a new security worker.
Appropriations Committee Chairman John Stinner said he was concerned about the costs associated with that turnover, the pool of available quality workforce, Nebraska's low unemployment rate, and the population of areas where some of the prisons are located.
"I'm concerned that we're in a situation that's maybe not fixable," Stinner told Frakes. "But I'll leave that up to you."
The amount of overtime prison workers put in is an issue. They sometimes work multiple days in 16-hour shifts, with only eight hours between those long days.
Wishart asked Frakes if he was worried about the fatigue of those workers, managing inmates when they may have as little as four hours of sleep.
"Of course," Frakes said. "We try to take care of staff to the degree that it's possible. ... It is definitely a concern within the business of corrections or any business where you need to work people for long hours.
Frakes is in his 36th month as Corrections director. The average length of stay for people in that position across the country is 30 months, he mentioned to the committee.
But he "definitely has no departure plans," he said after the hearing.
He has come to peace with his job, its stresses and to-do lists.
"We've still got a lot of things to work on, things we're going to fix," he said. "I still acknowledge tomorrow could be an issue that happens, because those things happen in our business and there's nothing I can do about it."
Frakes knows the staff wants more from him and has expectations they don't think he's meeting, but, he said, "they haven't walked away from me."
He feels grounded, understands how to makes things move within the agency and feels supported by Gov. Pete Ricketts and his administration. He even looks forward to the interactions he has with senators at legislative hearings, and the multiple of questions they throw at him, he said.
The challenges of the department still weigh on him, but there's been progress, including with inmate-assessment tools, increases in programming and what Dr. Harbans Deol has done for health care in the year he's been there.
"I really feel like this year it's kind of like things have come together and I'm ready to face whatever comes my way," Frakes said.
The community garden across the street from First Presbyterian Church has helped feed 30 families for six years, yielding 2,000 pounds of fresh food with every harvest.
But the church is also trying to grow, in its landlocked Near South location a few blocks from the Capitol.
“We want to be a downtown church in the neighborhood, staying in the neighborhood, serving the neighborhood, doing our ministry in the neighborhood,” said Alicia Henderson, a member of First Presbyterian’s governing body.
Space is tight. The church already has three parking lots — two alongside its building, one across 17th Street — to serve its 325 members. When it hosts a bigger event, a funeral or wedding or concert, its guests are forced to search the streets for open spots, or park more than a block away at McPhee Elementary School, Henderson said.
So the church has come up with a plan to keep a garden growing and add 20 parking places closer to its front door.
First, it will demolish a pair of century-old houses, one of them the 4,000-square-foot former home of a state auditor. Then, at the end of this year’s growing season, it will move the garden from 18th and F streets to 17th and F, where the houses now stand, and pave its old location.
The idea started taking shape late last year, when the homes at 919 S. 17th and 1637 F St. went on the market.
“They’re in very poor shape. We thought this would be a place where we could have the community gardens and not lose beautiful houses,” Henderson said. “Because they’re not beautiful.”
The homes have leaky roofs, water damage, peeling paint and falling plaster. The bigger of the two — once home to Thomas Benton, Nebraska’s auditor in the early 1890s — was divided into apartments.
Neither is in a national or local historic district, so they’re not subject to review or protection. They’ve been altered so much they probably wouldn’t qualify for historic designation, said Ed Zimmer, the city’s historic preservation planner.
They’ve also been the source of 18 police calls in the past five years, with officers investigating disturbances, larceny, littering and child abuse.
Still, the church, which paid $112,500 for the properties earlier this month, is sensitive to its surroundings. The Near South Neighborhood Association was formed in the 1970s to protect its old and historic homes, which were being razed and replaced by apartment buildings.
Henderson and Ben McShane-Jewell, executive director of Community Crops, presented the plan to the neighborhood association’s board Monday night.
The association is familiar with the homes, and familiar with First Presbyterian’s longtime role in the neighborhood, said Vish Reddi, the association’s president.
The group doesn’t have any official jurisdiction, so it didn’t take any formal action. But it generally supports the plan, Reddi said.
“There’s no other alternative at this point but to take them down. We are comfortable with what First Presbyterian presented to us.”
Board member Marcie Young is generally in favor of the idea, but she knows some association members don’t want houses to disappear. That’s part of the trade-off of living in a densely populated neighborhood in the center of the city, she said.
“We want green space, we want parking, we want affordable housing. You can’t have all of those things, because there’s no land. We have to work in the confines of what we’ve got.”
That’s how the garden started. First Presbyterian originally bought the land for parking, but never developed it. In 2011, it partnered with Community Crops and Jacob’s Well, a faith-based nonprofit that serves those in need in the neighborhood.
“There’s a lot of demand in that neighborhood for this program,” McShane-Jewell said. “A lot of apartment-dwellers, people with limited access to fresh produce.”
The neighborhood association helps sponsor the garden, and it pledged another $500 Monday, Young said.
She’s grateful the church is spending so much to save a piece of green space. The homes and their demolition will cost about $200,000.
It could have just paved over the garden, or bought the homes for even more parking.
“They could have said, ‘Sorry, guys; we need this parking. Too bad, so sad.’ But they didn’t. They’re being good neighbors.”
Under its 1869 charter, the University of Nebraska described itself as a place for Nebraskans to gain “a rough knowledge of the various branches of literature, science and the arts,” which according to the founding document included departments of geography and “the history of the arts.”
Those two programs, which have been taught at NU since the very beginning, are in jeopardy as the university approaches the 150th anniversary of its founding.
Chancellor Ronnie Green on Monday said UNL might be forced to eliminate geography and art history programs as part of $3.5 million in cuts as lawmakers weigh competing interests within a shrinking state budget.
In all, a total of 115 students majoring in those two programs would be directly affected, a university spokeswoman said.
The warning from Green about the potential end of UNL’s geography department was “like a punch to the gut,” said Jared Stubbendeck, a nontraditional student from Waverly who said he has found a home among the “bright, talented” students in his geography courses.
“It would be a great disservice to Nebraska if the university doesn’t have this program,” said Stubbendeck, 32, a member of the Nebraska Air National Guard, where he serves as an aircraft mechanic crew chief.
Geography isn’t an “old, crusty, dead subject,” Stubbendeck added, but a vehicle for students to learn how to apply multiple disciplines to define a place, including its flora and fauna, shifting political forces, and how cultural values take hold.
“I haven’t had a bad geography course,” he said. “They are substantial and valuable, and in today’s world, reflective.”
Part of the chancellor’s framework for identifying which programs to offer up as sacrifices during what was described as a “serious” round of budget cuts included enrollment, credit hours taken, and degrees awarded.
According to UNL Institutional Research and Planning, only 49 geography majors have graduated since 2011-12.
But the geography department — which includes the first doctoral program of its kind west of the Mississippi — generates an estimated 6,500 credit hours per year, a large portion of which include students seeking general-education requirements.
“It’s a really important subject in a globalizing world,” said David Wishart, a 43-year professor of geography at UNL, and the author of several books about the Great Plains and its people. “Where does Nebraska stand in the world? That’s what geography teaches.”
Wishart said the geography department was ready to begin rebuilding within the UNL College of Arts and Sciences, and last Friday had narrowed a list of potential new directors.
By Friday afternoon, the department learned it would be on another short list — one of the programs targeted for potential cuts — leaving the small department “downhearted,” according to Wishart.
“We met with Chancellor Green and Executive Vice Chancellor Donde Plowman on Monday afternoon, but they were not able to identify any persuasive criteria for eliminating us,” he said. “We can defend ourselves on our record.”
In addition to publishing four books in four years, including the “Atlas of Nebraska” last year — which according to Wishart, NU President Hank Bounds purchased 100 copies to scatter across the administration’s Memorial Stadium skyboxes — the geography department boasts wide profit margins.
Running the geography department costs roughly $575,000, according to UNL’s institutional research, while tuition revenue from students who take geography classes tops $1.4 million.
Stubbendick and Wishart both said dismantling the geography department would change how students and scholars see UNL, both here in Lincoln and around the country.
“There’s been a lot of talk in the last 18 hours about the future of the program,” Stubbendick said.
To Maggie Smith, the thought that UNL’s art history program could be terminated was equally distressing.
Smith, 23, graduated from Nebraska Wesleyan University with a degree in directing and traveled to New York City, where she spent a year working backstage in an off-Broadway production.
She returned to Lincoln last fall to begin studying for a degree in art history, with the goal of eventually becoming a museum curator.
This semester, she’s enrolled in two surveys exploring the history of art from cave paintings to Andy Warhol and what they say about the human condition.
As many as 4,000 credit hours are generated every year in similar classes by UNL students to complete general-education requirements.
“Art is what represents a people at any given point in time,” Smith said. “I think it’s important to look at that and learn from past cultures to see how it’s influenced us today.”
Smith said she learned about the program’s status on the fiscal chopping block from her academic adviser, while the department sent notice to its students Tuesday.
“It felt like a death in the family,” she said. “I’ve worked really hard and this is what I want to be doing, I had a plan and it’s falling apart because of things I don’t agree with.”
Other programs targeted for cuts at the university’s flagship campus include the closing of the Haskell Ag Laboratory in Concord, deep reductions to the Rural Futures Institute that connects UNL students with rural communities for service projects, the electronics engineering bachelor’s degree, and teachers' endorsement programs in French, Latin and Russian languages, as well as business, marketing and information technology.
NU President Hank Bounds said Tuesday the proposed cuts were prepared at the request of Sen. John Stinner of Gering, who asked NU "to be prepared to discuss the consequences of the cuts."
"This is in part trying to respond to that request, but also to show what happens if the Legislature chooses to go down this pathway," Bounds said. "We don't have a choice but to move forward with a sense of urgency."
Lawmakers probably won’t send a budget bill to the desk of Gov. Pete Ricketts for signing until late March or early April.
Green would then invoke the budget reduction process at UNL and offer more-concrete recommendations to the Academic Planning Committee, which would review the proposals, hold public hearings, and consider data tied to the chancellor’s plan.
That process has not been started at this time, said Ken Bloom, a professor of physics and the chair of the Academic Planning Committee.
“The programs that have been named publicly are excellent examples of the opportunities that could be lost to the UNL students should they be eliminated,” Bloom said in an email. “But from the point of view of the APC process, these should only be considered as potential targets for budget reduction in the future.”
If a new budget reduction process is invoked, Bloom said the committee will work with Green “to help provide the best possible outcomes for the University in this difficult situation."
In addition to illustrating the consequences of the potential budget cuts, which could top $69 million based on Ricketts' plan to strip $11.4 million in state funding this year and $23.2 million next year, Bounds said NU will chart a different course.
Instead of the $557 million in state funds NU would begin the next biennium with, Bounds will ask the Legislature to restore the university's funding to $580 million in 2018-19.