Lincoln officials face a literal $1 million question.
The city’s voter-approved, quarter-cent sales tax increase for public safety — which expires Oct. 1 — is expected to produce a minimum of $1 million, if not more, in excess revenue. Funds generated by the local-option sales tax are paying for a new emergency radio system and new facilities.
But given that the city will rake in extra dollars, it must decide the proper course to spend them. Two issues are at play: How should the money be used, and how much input should the public have?
To that first question, the proposal to help purchase new firetrucks and fire engines makes sense to address a glaring shortcoming while squeezing through the admittedly expansive definition approved by voters in 2015. Before doing that, though, the city should also heed the advice of Dick Campbell, a member of the oversight committee, and hold a public hearing before the City Council.
Transparency is always the best policy, as we’ve frequently written in this space. And, with inevitable accusations that city officials are again using taxpayers as their personal piggy banks being, putting everything on display will help alleviate concerns over what could be a controversial topic.
What’s been overlooked so far in this debate is that Lincoln residents will have to pay for new firetrucks one way or another. If it’s not through leftover money from the sales tax bump, as Public Safety Director Tom Casady has proposed, it will inevitably come through property taxes — which would no doubt stoke significant ire among taxpayers.
Councilman Jon Camp, who’s opposed this suggestion, is correct that organizers of the sales tax effort originally pledged to put any excess money toward new radios. However, the very broad language of the approved measure — for which those who wrote it deserve a bit of admonishment — seems to allow for the purchase of new firetrucks and engines.
Half of Lincoln’s 18 fire vehicles are in flunking condition, according to a national vehicle replacement guide, and rusted-out and worn-down engines increase both the price of maintenance and likelihood of failure during an emergency. Lincolnites mustn’t stand for the costly problems stemming from either of these situations.
Yet a high-profile 2006 debacle involving the purchase of defective fire vehicles is still raw in many residents’ memories.
More than four months will pass before the city knows exactly how many extra dollars it’ll have from the expiring tax. Fortunately for Lincoln residents, these funds line up with, and are authorized to fix, an area of need. However, that process must be as transparent as possible.