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City budget

Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird announces the city budget plan for 2018-2020 on Thursday at the County-City Building.

Concerns over the city's ability to ensure quality paratransit service dominated a Lincoln City Council hearing Monday on the proposed budget adjustments to balance a two-year budget. 

Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird proposed the expansion of StarTran's Handi-Van program by ending its contract with Transport Plus, a company that helps get people with disabilities around town when they've got no other options.

Several riders expressed skepticism that the city would save the $147,000 it projects while getting people around town on time. 

But following a two-hour hearing on the mayor's proposed adjustments, council members voted unanimously to adopt the budget as proposed. 

Councilwoman Sändra Washington and Councilman Roy Christensen said they would watch to ensure paratransit service quality doesn't decline. 

"But I feel like this is futile," Christensen said, since contracting the service is entirely at the mayor's discretion.

The change in the Handi-Van program marked the most visible of the $1 million in cuts adopted to help balance the budget. 

No city jobs were eliminated or city services cut. But because the budget fell short of its projected revenue, money that city officials hoped to spend on street repairs instead was put into stopping further cuts.

Sales taxes, the city's primary tax-funded revenue stream, lagged behind projections last year, fueling a $6.79 million budget gap at the midpoint in the 2018-2020 budget.  

Earlier this month, Gaylor Baird proposed closing that gap by using a combination of budget cuts, cash reserves and a windfall of property tax dollars. 

Her proposal didn't include any new changes to the city's property tax levy, which will increase by one-third cent because of the stormwater bond issue voters approved in May.

Only 16 cents of every property tax dollar paid by Lincoln property owners goes to the city. That rate equates to about $570 in property taxes for the owner of a $180,000 home. The council will formally set its tax rate next month. 

Dustin Antonello of the Lincoln Independent Business Association criticized the repeat use of the city's cash reserve in this budget.  

Last year, the council infused the budget with nearly $5 million from the cash reserve to pay for new fire trucks, fire engines and police cruisers.

"The decision to take from the cash reserves last year was sold to the public as an isolated occurrence, but it is starting to look more and more like an irresponsible precedent," Antonello said.

LIBA believes the city should have considered cutting other planned spending, such as the $500,000 acquisition of a fire apparatus in the upcoming year, he said. 

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Doing so would have allowed the city to consider programming more money for street repairs or offering property tax relief, Antonello said, also taking issue with the city's plan to take all of the property tax windfall.

Champaign Gallagher said she didn't believe StarTran was ready to take over Transport Plus' portion of the paratransit service. 

She doesn't think the city's savings are attainable because the expansion of service adds employees and vehicles. 

On a recent StarTran Handi-Van trip, she was picked up first and dropped off last, spending an hour and five minutes on the bus. 

Transport Plus owner Dave Brauer said his company has stuck to its standard of keeping riders in vans no longer than 45 minutes. He said the end of the contract in January will mark the end of his company, which received 95% of its revenue from the agreement with the city.

"There’s no reason to change anything that’s working," Gallagher said. 

But Lincoln Transportation and Utilities Director Miki Esposito said the city could meet the demand and see cost savings because it would hire seven new drivers and leverage federal transit grant dollars to pay for new vehicles. 

Taking over all of the transports eliminates a nearly $1 million annual contract, she said. 

Keeping the contract raised the possibility of cuts to other programs, Esposito said. 

This change, Esposito said, isn't about quality of service.

"This is about affordability of a service," she said.

Also Monday, every council member but Christensen voted to give the city the ability to increase its spending authority an additional 1%.  

City Finance Director Brandon Kauffman said that gives government the ability to match growth of the city and demand on its services by giving the city future financial flexibility to increase the growth of its restricted funds. 

Council Chair Jane Raybould said the vote was an important one routinely adopted by other municipalities in the state, including the Lancaster County Board. 

"It doesn’t mean we’re going to spend it," Raybould said. 

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Reach the writer at 402-473-2657 or rjohnson@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.

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