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Lincoln City Council not likely to continue no-fare busing

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Lincoln City Council members proposed several changes to the mayor’s budget Friday but continuing free StarTran bus rides was not among them.

The StarTran Advisory Board – a mayor-appointed group that advises the city on rates, routes and other operations – took the unusual step of earlier rejecting the mayor’s proposal to reintroduce reduced rates.

Members of the advisory board and others appealed to the council during a public hearing Monday to continue no-fare busing for two more years as a pilot, to give the city more time to gather data to analyze its effectiveness, encourage and increase ridership and help low-income and refugee families.

Lincoln Transportation and Utilities Director Liz Elliott estimated the cost – despite the anticipated increase in ridership – would be $1.2 million a year.

StarTran had been offering fare-free busing during the pandemic, using federal stimulus money to pay for it and those funds will be gone soon.

Also, it appears a home visitation program for new moms and infants will remain in the budget.

In an earlier round of proposed changes, Councilman Richard Meginnis suggested not adding the eight additional public health nurses to run the program. His colleagues did not support the change during the first round of discussion.

Despite questions from some council members during the public hearing worried about the cost of sustaining such a program, Meginnis did not reintroduce that change on Friday.

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The first year, the program would be paid for with existing money. It would cost $153,633 the following year and $737,725 annually thereafter.

The council will discuss the latest round of proposed changes at 1 p.m. Monday and will vote on the final changes at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

Although the vote Wednesday indicates what changes council members want, it’s still possible for them to propose additional changes prior to the final vote on the budget Aug. 22.

Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird proposed a $243.5 million tax-funded budget for 2022-23, a 7.4% increase in spending — or nearly $16.7 million. The biennial budget would increase $9.8 million, or 4%, in the second year of the budget cycle.

The budget — bolstered by an anticipated 18% increase in sales tax revenue in 2022-23 and a smaller 1.2% increase the following year — adds 67 new city jobs.

The two primary sources of revenue are property and sales taxes, though various fees and an occupation tax comprise about a quarter of the city’s revenue.

Property valuations aren’t expected to increase as dramatically as they did last year. The mayor proposed lowering its tax rate by a half-cent, saving taxpayers $1.2 million.

Other budget changes proposed Friday include:

* Councilman Bennie Shobe reintroduced a proposal to transfer $250,000 from the reserves in both years to use as incentives for homeowners to replace heating and cooling systems with more efficient options. During the first round of discussions, council members didn’t support the addition, and Shobe reduced the amount by $50,000 each year.

* Meginnis recommended removing a proposed Health Department environmental health educator, and removing a vacant position to fund an additional city clerk employee. He'd use remaining funds from the vacant position for budget education and training for the City Council.

* Meginnis recommended freezing two proposed fee increases for child care programs and food handlers and reducing general fund reserves.

Two changes suggested earlier -- and approved by the council at an earlier meeting -- are back. They include adding $1 million to the little-used business incentive called the Fast Forward Fund and $100,000 to fund a study of the upper watershed of Salt Creek.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist

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Local government reporter

Margaret Reist is a recovering education reporter now writing about local and county government and the people who live in the city where she was born and raised.

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