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The $1 million question: What to do with leftover quarter-cent sales tax revenue?

The city of Lincoln will likely have at least $1 million, maybe more, left over from the quarter-cent sales tax that is paying for public safety projects.

And there's disagreement over the best use for that money.

Public Safety Director Tom Casady believes money should be used to buy a couple new fire engines or a fire truck.

But some members of an oversight committee for the public safety project say any extra tax revenue should be saved for future radio system needs.

The city needs fire apparatus immediately, Casady told the committee this week.

“We are suffering mightily for fire apparatus, because the city did not replace equipment for years and years.”

Nine of the city's fleet of 18 fire vehicles rate F, as in flunking. The nine — eight engines and one truck — are at least 12 years old and have mileage ranging from almost 100,000 to 171,000 miles.

The city has apparatus so bad the frame rails are rusting out, said Fire Chief Micheal Despain. They could break in half in an accident, he said.

The grading system uses a national vehicle replacement guide and is based on a number of factors, including age, mileage, type of service and body condition. 

The city purchased two fire trucks and three fire engines last year, using $2.8 million in bonds called certificates of participation.

New fire engines cost between $450,000 and $500,000. A fire truck, a larger vehicle with aerial ladders, costs about $1 million, Despain said.

The city has also agreed to set aside $500,000 a year to replace the 18 vehicles as they age. But it isn’t quite enough to start an annual replacement schedule, Casady said.

There is no legal issue with using the money for trucks and engines, according to City Attorney Jeff Kirkpatrick. The ballot language used to describe the project when voters approved the quarter-cent, three-year sales tax hike is broad enough to cover fire trucks and engines.

The language, which allows the money to be used for equipment, was intended to be broad enough to provide the city with flexibility, Kirkpatrick said in an email response.

But there are also political considerations, Casady said.

Some committee members said the language referencing equipment on the ballot meant equipment for fire stations, such as desks, chairs, weight-room equipment, not fire engines.

“The word 'equipment' is being massaged. I don’t think that was the intent of the voters,” said Councilman Jon Camp, who is a member of the oversight group.

Camp said he would not agree to use the money for vehicles. “I couldn’t support it,” he said, based on the way the city sold the sales tax hike to the voters. Using money for fire engines or trucks would broaden the definition too far, he said.

Other oversight committee members said they believed using the additional money for fire vehicles was the best option, even if that idea wasn’t specifically discussed during the 2015 election.

Some suggested the City Council hold a public hearing on plans for the leftover money before making a final decision. That hearing could be used to educate the public on why using the extra money for vehicles is a good idea while also allowing the council to hear public opinions, said Dick Campbell, a member of the oversight committee.

Casady said he would bring the committee’s comments to Mayor Chris Beutler.

The quarter-cent sales tax, which will end Oct. 1, is expected to bring in at least $37.5 million to pay for a new emergency radio system, three new fire stations and a new joint fire and police station. 

Casady said he expects to have at least $1 million remaining and perhaps as much as $1.5 million to more than $2 million, when the project is finished.

At one point, Casady had hoped the sales tax could end three months early, but rising construction costs for the three fire stations and the combined police/fire station made that impossible.

The sales tax can be started and ended only at four specific times during the year, the beginning of fiscal quarters for the state. So the city would have to end the tax on July 1, skipping three months of revenue.

editor's pick
Parking shortage at state Capitol getting attention

Ever tried to find a parking place at the Capitol? Not an easy task. 

Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks knows that. The Capitol is in her district.

"The acute shortage of parking around the Capitol is one felt by visitors, state employees and neighborhood residents alike," Pansing Brooks said. 

Her constituents who live in the area don't have parking or appropriate access to their homes, she said. And those who want to visit the Capitol or a senator, or attend a hearing, struggle to find short-term, on-street parking.

Neighborhood groups have been dealing with the parking problems for years.

Even without the Capitol, the neighborhood would have a parking problem because it is such a dense area, said Shawn Ryba, executive director of the South of Downtown Community Development Organization.  

The inability of the state to find adequate parking for its employees is causing even greater strain on the neighborhood, he said. 

The people who own property and who are renting can barely park at their own places, Ryba said.

"This is a neighborhood; it’s not a parking lot," Ryba said. "We'd like to see something done."

It looks like this spring and summer would be an ideal time for all the interested parties to look at this issue, he said. 

The city is considering putting two parking garages in the downtown area, one in southeast downtown, he pointed out. 

The city is also working on a downtown master plan that will address parking issues. 

"And the state has finished a Capitol campus master plan, which no one has seen," he said.

It seems like it might be a good time to have a conversation with all these players and to come up with some solutions, he said.

About 900 employees work in the Capitol, although that number will shrink to about 750 during the time the heating, ventilation and air conditioning project takes place, beginning this summer. Several offices will move from the Capitol to offices nearby or downtown. 

The Capitol receives about 100,000 visitors each year, and 25,000 students, most of whom come in school buses, according to the State Patrol Capitol Security division. That doesn't take into account the number of people who come to testify on bills or observe hearings during the session.

A 2009 study by the Department of Administrative Services showed the state-owned garages and surface lots in Lincoln supported 1,989 off-street parking spaces. The waiting list for those permits was 300 people at that time, and nearly double that today, even though an additional lot has brought the total number of stalls to 2,256. 

So Pansing Brooks and Sen. Dan Watermeier of Syracuse introduced an interim study to find a solution. 

And former senators offered assistance. 

Bob Wickersham, with the Nebraska Association of Former State Senators, said he and others in the group would like to help with the problem. 

The citizens of Nebraska serve as a second house and should have easy access to the Capitol without unduly burdening those residents who live nearby, Pansing Brooks said. 

"It is imperative that we work to remove all barriers to participation in our unique legislative process, as well as being good neighbors," she said. 

The interim study will examine the extent of the parking shortage, and provide potential solutions, which could result in savings for the state, the senators said. 

More businesses mellowing out over pot

WASHINGTON — FPI Management, a property company in California, wants to hire dozens of people. Factories from New Hampshire to Michigan need workers. Hotels in Las Vegas are desperate to fill jobs.

Those employers and many others are quietly taking what once would have been a radical step: They're dropping marijuana from the drug tests they require of prospective employees. Marijuana testing — a fixture at large American employers for at least 30 years — excludes too many potential workers, experts say, at a time when filling jobs is more challenging than it's been in nearly two decades.

"It has come out of nowhere," said Michael Clarkson, head of the drug-testing practice at Ogletree Deakins, a law firm. "I have heard from lots of clients things like, 'I can't staff the third shift and test for marijuana.'"

Though still in its early stages, the shift from marijuana testing appears likely to accelerate. More states are legalizing cannabis for recreational use; in November, Michigan could become the 10th state to do so. Missouri appears on track to become the 30th state to allow medical pot use.

And medical marijuana users in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island have won lawsuits in the past year against companies that rescinded job offers or fired workers because of positive tests for cannabis. Before last year, courts had always ruled in favor of employers.

The Trump administration also may be softening its resistance to legal marijuana. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta suggested at a congressional hearing last month that employers should take a "step back" on drug testing.

"We have all these Americans that are looking to work," Acosta said. "Are we aligning our ... drug-testing policies with what's right for the workforce?"

There is no definitive data on how many companies conduct drug tests, though the Society of Human Resources Management found in a survey that 57 percent do so. Nor is there any recent data on how many have dropped marijuana from mandatory drug testing.

But interviews with hiring executives, employment lawyers and agencies that help employers fill jobs indicate that dropping marijuana testing is among the steps more companies are taking to expand their pool of applicants to fill a near-record level of openings.

Businesses are hiring more people without high school diplomas, for example, to the point where the unemployment rate for non-high school graduates has sunk more than a full percentage point in the past year to 5.5 percent. That's the steepest such drop for any educational group over that time. Friday, the government is expected to report another robust jobs report for April.

Excluding marijuana from testing marks the first major shift in workplace drug policies since employers began regularly screening applicants in the late 1980s. They did so after a federal law required that government contractors maintain drug-free workplaces. Many private businesses adopted their own mandatory drug testing of applicants.

Most businesses that have dropped marijuana tests continue to screen for cocaine, opiates, heroin and other drugs. But James Reidy, an employment lawyer in New Hampshire, says companies are thinking harder about the types of jobs that should realistically require marijuana tests. If a manufacturing worker, for instance, isn't driving a forklift or operating industrial machinery, employers may deem a marijuana test unnecessary.

"Employers are saying, 'We have a thin labor pool,'" Reidy said. "'So are we going to test and exclude a whole group of people? Or can we assume some risks, as long as they're not impaired at work?'"

Yet many companies are reluctant to acknowledge publicly that they've dropped marijuana testing.

"This is going to become the new don't ask, don't tell," Reidy said. 

In most states that have legalized marijuana, like Colorado, businesses can still, if they wish, fire workers who test positive. On the other hand, Maine, which also legalized the drug, became the first state to bar companies from firing or refusing to hire someone for using marijuana outside work.

Companies in labor-intensive industries — hoteliers and home health care providers and employers with many warehouse and assembly jobs — are most likely to drop marijuana testing. By contrast, businesses that contract with the government or that are in regulated industries, like air travel, or that have safety concerns involving machinery, are continuing marijuana tests, employment lawyers say. Federal regulations require the testing of pilots, train operators and other key transportation workers.

Dropping marijuana testing is more common among employers in the nine states, along with the District of Columbia, that have legalized pot for recreational use. An additional 20 states allow marijuana for medical use only. But historically low unemployment is driving change even where pot remains illegal.

After the Drug-Free Workplace Act was enacted in 1988, amid concerns about cocaine use, drug testing spread to most large companies. All Fortune 500 companies now engage in some form of drug testing, according to Barry Sample, a senior director at Quest Diagnostics, one of the largest testing firms.

In Denver, in a state with just 3 percent unemployment, 10 percent of employers that screen for drugs had dropped marijuana as of 2016, according to a survey by the Employers Council, which provides corporate legal and human resources services.

"It's because unemployment is virtually non-existent" in Colorado, said Curtis Graves, a lawyer at the council. "People cannot afford to take a hard line against off-duty marijuana usage if they want to hire."

That's particularly true in Colorado's resort areas, where hotels and ski lifts are heavily staffed with young workers, Graves said: "They can lose their jobs and walk across the street and get another one."


Former Nebraska quarterback Dennis Claridge.

juliekoch / Courtesy Photo 

Storm chaser photo. Courtesy Photo

editor's pick topical
Murante-Royal GOP match will determine state treasurer

One and done.

State Sen. John Murante of Gretna and 2017 Omaha mayoral candidate Taylor Royal go head-to-head in a May 15 Republican primary race that will select the next state treasurer.

Democrats are not fielding a candidate for that state office this year, so the November winner will effectively be chosen in May. 

The Murante-Royal contest pits a state senator who has the support of most of the Republican state establishment, including Gov. Pete Ricketts, against a young GOP newcomer who has been enthusiastically endorsed by Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, whose re-election he challenged a year ago.

The winner will succeed Don Stenberg, who will be term-limited out of office at the end of his second four-year term. 

Murante, 36, is also bumping up against a two-term limit in the Legislature, but he is only midway through his second four-year term. His election would trigger appointment of a successor by the governor.

In a primary election that lacks vigorously competitive contests for higher-profile statewide offices, the two-man GOP state treasurer battle has slid into a spotlight that usually bypasses so-called "down ballot" races that more often land in the shadows.

Murante has been a reliable conservative voice in the Legislature, and his position as chairman of the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee has given him a platform to champion Republican causes such as voter photo ID legislation and efforts to return Nebraska to a system of awarding all its presidential electoral votes to the statewide winner.

Nebraska's current electoral system doles out one vote to the winner in each of the three congressional districts while awarding two votes to the statewide victor.

Royal, 28, a financial adviser in Omaha, argues his skills fit the state treasurer's position since he has experience as "a qualified professional who knows the dynamics of money management and accounting principles."

"The position is not about writing laws," he argues.

"As state treasurer, I will make decisions for the Nebraska taxpayer based on data, performance, fees and principles of stewardship," Royal said.

Royal became a strong supporter of Stothert in her mayoral showdown with Heath Mello after being eliminated from the race in the 2017 primary election. Stothert, in turn, has given Royal an enthusiastic endorsement this year.

Murante said the treasurer "should focus on managing the state finances well and advancing conservative public policy (and) I will continue the tradition of highly effective conservative state treasurers, including Don Stenberg and Shane Osborn, who are supporting my campaign."

As the former president and CEO of Big Fred's Pizza in Omaha, Murante says he's managed all areas of a small business and his legislative service points to a "proven record of fiscal conservatism and respecting taxpayer dollars." 

Other supporters include Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Lt. Gov. Mike Foley and former Gov. Kay Orr, who also once was state treasurer. Murante was the campaign manager for Cruz in Nebraska when he sought the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

The state treasurer's office was a stop along the way to the governorship for both Orr and former Gov. Dave Heineman, although that may have been more happenstance than steppingstone.

Courtesy photo 


Courtesy photo