Lincoln City Council members signaled no early opposition to new Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird's proposed budget fixes.

Many described Gaylor Baird's three-pronged approach to closing a $6.79 million shortfall in the middle of a two-year budget as appropriate. They also complimented communication from the new administration about the plans.

Budget cuts, a windfall of property tax dollars and money from the city's cash reserve would be used to balance the budget in her proposal, which will be formally introduced Monday.

Veteran Councilman Roy Christensen called the adjustments routine, and newly appointed Councilwoman Sändra Washington called it a conservative approach.

None of the five council members interviewed expressed concern about the 12-day window they have to consider the changes before a public hearing and vote on the adjusted budget Aug. 26.

That's a credit, council members said, to the briefings they received ahead of the mayor's announcement on the budget changes Thursday.

Councilman Bennie Shobe said he believes Gaylor Baird's time going through the budget process as a City Council member informed her approach. 

"We involved them early and often," Gaylor Baird said of the seven council members. "I feel like we have a solution that was built, not by one mayor, but by the city team, and that includes the City Council."

While many council members are looking forward to reviewing the fine details of the budget adjustments, they praised the mayor's plan for protecting city services and not raising the city's property tax rate.

Still, members of the council expressed some uneasiness about the repeat use of the cash reserve when it's supposed to be a "rainy day fund."

The mayor proposes using $1.9 million from the cash reserve to help plug the gap this year in a $214 million tax-funded budget. Christensen noted it marks the second time in two years the city would draw on the reserve.

“If we’re constantly dipping into the rainy day fund, that means we’re not doing our job with the budget,” Christensen said.

Last year, then-Councilwoman Gaylor Baird proposed the city infuse the budget with nearly $5 million from the cash reserve to pay for new fire trucks, fire engines and police cruisers.

And the council adopted it.

Christensen, a Republican, is concerned city government may be making a habit of this practice, and Shobe, a Democrat, expressed similar worry. 

"We can’t make it one of our regular budget-balancing tools," Shobe said.

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Shobe and Washington said they believed this was an appropriate use of the cash reserve,  because it's correcting a revenue shortfall and the city's overall approach minimized the impact of the withdrawal.

But consistently relying on this money pot, which comprises about 35% of the city's general fund budget, means avoiding a hard look at city spending in the long term, they said.

Gaylor Baird said Thursday she believed her administration is planning to use the cash reserve appropriately given that it is set up for unforeseen circumstances — in this case, the sales tax revenue shortfall.

Another concern for Christensen is the appearance the city is spending less on street improvements arising from a plan during the previous administration to spend revenue surplus on roadwork. 

Mayor Chris Beutler built the budget last year to send a projected $1.9 million in expected sales tax revenue to the Lincoln Transportation and Utilities Department if the city met its revenue projections at midyear.

But with sales tax lagging projections, Gaylor Baird had to put that contingent money toward closing the budget gap, she said.

Christensen questioned whether money budgeted to be spent on the roundabout at 14th Street, Warlick Boulevard and Old Cheney Road should instead be put toward street repairs.

The city set aside $7.1 million for the roundabout in the 2018-2019 budget and plans to add $5 million in the upcoming fiscal year.

"Maybe that project could be delayed, and maybe that money could be used for repair street maintenance gaps," Christensen said, raising a proposal then-Councilwoman Cyndi Lamm pitched last year. "Now is not the time to be pulling back on street maintenance, street repairs."

But Transportation and Utilities Director Miki Esposito said the City Council signed off on the money for the roundabout last year, and the work has been put into motion, with the city "on the cusp" of acquiring right of way for project, an estimated $36 million, seven-intersection transformation.

"If the councilman sees value in the project, but he's only saying 'I want to delay it in some way,' all we're doing is adding more cost to that project," Esposito said, adding construction costs are rising 5% each year because of inflation.

Shobe believes, if anything, the budget shortfall's scuttling of plans to further increase street spending underscores a communication priority.

The City Council and mayor's administration can do a better job of explaining what street improvements are being made and which ones are forthcoming, he said.

Councilwoman Tammy Ward said she believes the mayor's strategy moves in the right direction, and she trusts the process laid out for addressing the city's street problem.

Washington thought the $3 million in cuts made sense because they preserved city services, she said.

"This is a correction on the biennium," she said. "This is not the larger conversation we're going to have about our budget."

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

On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.


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