This was supposed to be a tranquil budget season, the middle of a two-year budget cycle, a quiet time when Mayor Chris Beutler tinkered a bit.
Instead two council members brought their own ideas, creating so much consternation, so many questions, that the City Council delayed all budget decisions for another week.
Councilwoman Leirion Gaylor Baird proposed moving some money around, providing more money for street repair and for the fire/police pension fund and making sure that city keno profits earmarked for the Parks and Recreation Department are used for park maintenance.
But it is Councilman Roy Christensen’s plan to cut spending by about $2 million and reduce the city property tax by 1 cent per $100 valuation that created the hailstorm.
Several council members pointed out that these kinds of decisions should be made at the beginning of a two-year budget cycle, not the middle.
Christensen said there are some people who never think it is the right time to make spending cuts.
But for him, this year is the right time.
“I can count to four,” he said, referring to the fact that Republicans have a majority on the seven-member council for the first time in several years. Gaylor Baird is a Democrat.
Even if he were to wait until next summer, during the two-year budget discussion, to make these suggestions, “I would get just as much of a negative reaction” but with different rationale, he said.
Council members who are Democrats pointed out Christensen made the budget cut recommendations without talking to the department heads they will affect.
For example, Judy Halstead, director of the Health Department, had trouble finding a company that was qualified to do the work needed to put nitrous oxide into a second dental room. Christensen’s plan cut the $11,000 she was carrying over to next year for that work, now that she has a company.
The week delay gives time to sort these things out, said Christensen. “I am more than happy to look at that $11,000,” he said.
Christensen said he made about $200,000 more in cuts than is needed for the 1 cent property tax reduction, so changes can be made.
Christensen cut money department heads had saved or hadn't spent from the 2014-15 fiscal year and had reallocated it to the 2015-16 budget.
Some of the cuts are specific, like removing money for the Downtown Lincoln Association snow removal equipment and for planting trees downtown. But others are more general, like cutting the broad $7.9 million general fund reappropriation by more than 10 percent.
For example, the police department has about $3 million in unspent funds that will carry over, Christensen said.
Christensen’s plan did not remove the money Beutler has earmarked to buy six new fire trucks and engines to replace equipment that is 20 years old and expensive to maintain.
Christensen, a Republican, said he expects there will be much discussion in the coming week. He fully expects the mayor, a Democrat, will have a statement to make and "people will say things that are not complimentary."
But he said he plans to “choose not to be offended.”
This year's budget process gave council members little time to propose changes, said Christensen. They were “force-fed the budget through a fire hose,” he said.
Christensen said he hears from people all over Lincoln that the property tax burden is too high.
The high property tax, the condition of streets and the high wheel tax are the three major issues with citizens, he said.
All of the budget discussion took place during a stormy pre-council meeting, where Republican Councilman Jon Camp brought up the expensive renovations in a downtown alley and the $3 million downtown bikeway.
Beutler's chief of staff Rick Hoppe accused Camp of being disingenuous because none of that money can be moved to general operations. “And you know better,” Hoppe said.
Those projects are funded with tax increment financing funds, earmarked for a specific area of town.
"Something this important deserves more time and attention," said Councilman Carl Eskridge, a Democrat.
Four years ago when he first was elected was a tough budget year. In previous years the city had spent down reserves and when the recession arrived, the city had to make major cuts, Eskridge said
“I fear this will put us back in that position,” he said.