Nancy Hicks reports on Lincoln city government, but she’s been following the leaders of local and state government for more than 40 years.

Police used a drone for the first time to help investigate the natural gas explosion in southeast Lincoln last week.

Police can only use a drone in an investigation with the permission of the mayor.

Mayor Chris Beutler gave permission after an explosion leveled one home, scattered debris, caused damage to homes over several blocks and critically injured two people on Aug. 14.

Police already had a search warrant for the home and got verbal permission from neighboring homeowners for the drone investigation, which took place on Thursday and Friday, according to a statement from Police Chief Jeff Bliemeister.

The assistance of drone technology expedited the search and made it safer for police processing a challenging scene, Bliemeister said.

The police will use drones only with written orders, appropriate training and consideration of Fourth Amendment privacy concerns (unreasonable searches), the chief said in the statement. 

Worth noting: The drone photos of the explosion and the neighborhood you see on Facebook are from private citizens, not police. Police are not sharing their images.  

City forestry beefing up

Several City Council members have questioned increasing city staff to deal with the emerald ash borer disease, rather than hiring private companies to cut down trees.

City number-crunching indicates privatization is more expensive, said Lynn Johnson, director of the Parks and Recreation Department.

It costs taxpayers $22.62 for city crews to remove a tree, and $88.30 for a private contractor to remove a tree.

That comparison cost is based on a current city contract with a private company, the wages and benefits of a city crew plus estimated overhead and the estimated cost of using city equipment (based on rental rates).

And tree removal costs with private companies will undoubtedly rise when the ash trees begin dying in great numbers.

City staff will cut trees and grind out the stump, but the department expects to use private companies to treat larger trees the city wants to save and to plant new trees.

The city will add forestry staff and equipment in anticipation of the emerald ash borer disease over the next three years.

When the disease cycle is over the city hopes to maintain most of that staff for ongoing pruning needs, Johnson told the council.

The city is pruning on a more than 20-year cycle, basically responding when there is a complaint or request, he said.

Ideally the city should be pruning city trees on a 10- to 12-year cycle, Johnson told council members this week.

Fireworks unhealthy to lungs, hearts

Once again Fourth of July fireworks put Lincoln’s air quality into the unhealthy zone.

Air particulate pollution in Lincoln shot up over the holiday, hitting the “very unhealthy” range late on the nights of July 3 and July 4.

Very unhealthy means everyone may experience more serious health effects. Thus, for several hours, the levels of particulate in the air caused by fireworks were high enough to significantly impact people’s health in Lincoln, according to a report from the local Department of Health.

The levels were quite similar to those on the July 4 holiday in 2016 and almost double levels in 2013 and 2014.

However, Lincoln levels were not as bad as in Omaha.

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For tax nerds only

The cozy budget relationship between the Lancaster County Board and the Railroad Transportation Safety District is ending.

This year the RTSD -- a city-county group that pays for making rail crossings safer and sometimes quieter -- got back the ability to use its entire 2.6 cent tax rate for railroad issues. 

For several years during the recession, the County Board siphoned off part of the RTSD levy.  

The County Board raised its tax rate, while at the same time reducing the tax rate for the RTSD, so that the total county rate between the two entities would remain unchanged. Thus, County Board members could keep up with rising costs and say they had not raised the county tax levy.

The County Board controls the RTSD, since three of the six RTSD board members are county commissioners. Decisions, however, require four votes.

Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler objected to the County Board hijacking a part of the RTSD tax rate because he wanted the RTSD to save up money to help pay for the South Beltway.

County commissioners no longer need the RTSD cushion because of a large increase in total property valuation, pushed up by rising home prices.

The RTSD will set a 2.2217 cent per $100 valuation tax rate, less than its 2.6 cent maximum, for next year.

The County Board has proposed a levy equaling 26.83 cents per $100 valuation. 

The two rates together will be lower: 29.05 cents per $100 valuation next year, compared to 29.45 cents per $100 valuation this year. 

Reach the writer at 402-473-7250 or nhicks@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSNancyHicks.

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