Lincoln mayoral candidates Leirion Gaylor Baird and Cyndi Lamm clashed over the city’s budgeting process, fiscal policy and debt in a debate before members of Lincoln Independent Business Association on Monday.
The councilwomen drew contrast in their positions on the role of city government in the joint appearance, the first since voters last week advanced them to the May 7 general election.
Asked right off to assess the city’s financial health, private practice attorney Lamm took aim at the city’s $53 million in annual debt service, calling it a sign the city’s fiscal policies were amiss.
“I am the candidate of change,” she said. “I will change the fiscal policies at city hall."
Gaylor Baird, a Democrat, pushed back against that narrative, highlighting the city’s AAA credit rating and noting that much of that debt is voter-approved and has funding sources in place.
“Over $327 million in our city debt portfolio is due to the arena that has fueled growth of our city,” Gaylor Baird said.
On the bonds used to pay for Pinnacle Bank Arena, Lamm highlighted that debt service as unsustainable, while Gaylor Baird said the occupation tax is dedicated to make those payments.
The vast majority of the debt on the city’s books is dedicated to support massive infrastructure and development projects, she said.
Unless Lamm is going to point to problems with particular bonds, Gaylor Baird said, “I think it is a misleading argument to say we have too much debt.”
Lamm criticized what she called Mayor Chris Beutler’s tax-and-spend philosophy and decried how often she’d voted down tax increases proposed by the mayor in her four years on the council.
Asked what she thought Beutler did best, Lamm praised his focus on public-private partnerships that she believes she can strengthen.
Overall, though, she believes the term-limited Democrat didn’t involve the City Council enough in city budgeting.
She called the 2016 budget showdown that spawned a lawsuit and ended when a judge adopted Beutler’s budget, which raised the tax rate, a sign of breakdowns in the way budgets are handled.
“It’s necessary, as mayor, to open the budget process to the City Council earlier, and I don’t mean present the mayor’s budget earlier,” Lamm said. “I mean open the process and have the City Council involved in the actual formation of the city budget.”
Lamm said she would support a charter amendment requiring the mayor and City Council to draft the budget together, she said.
Gaylor Baird responded that historically, the budgeting process has worked as designed, and the year it didn’t, 2016, the City Council failed to do its job and vote on the budget as proposed.
“If everyone has to hold their nose and vote for it, you’ve probably done your job,” Gaylor Baird said. “I will continue to work toward bipartisan compromise.”
Gaylor Baird called Beutler’s work on the Pinnacle Bank Arena project a transformative change that literally created a new city sector from an old rail yard.
She said, though, she’d differ with Beutler in her urban renewal focus.
“We can look more broadly to try and revitalize more of the neighborhood commercial centers,” Gaylor Baird said.
During closing remarks, both candidates spoke about Coby Mach, LIBA president and longtime radio talk-show host, who died by suicide Friday.
Gaylor Baird said she didn’t know Mach like others in the room did, but she had fond memories of their interactions in his studio.
Mach elevated the debate in Lincoln, she said.
Lamm said she was blessed to call Mach a friend, and she was concerned over recent weeks about how he was dealing with a negative website attacking LIBA and pointed out that a similar, anonymous website attacked her positions on policies related to the LGBT community.
“It’s time for us to have a more civil discourse in this city,” she said.