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Recent editorials published in Nebraska newspapers

August 5, 2019

Omaha World Herald. August 2, 2019

New law makes local government in Nebraska more accountable to taxpayers

Taxpayers have long made an understandable complaint about local government in Nebraska: Even when the property tax rate stays the same, valuations go up, so citizens wind up paying more.

The Nebraska Legislature unanimously approved a bill this year to force change on how local taxing authorities handle the process. The governing bodies for entities such as counties, municipalities, school districts, community colleges and natural resources districts still have the authority to reap the revenue gain if they choose, but the state now requires them first to hold a public hearing on the matter.

The requirement is a responsible action to promote transparency and accountability in local government. The new process better informs citizens about the taxes they pay and provides an appropriate forum in which taxpayers can directly address elected officials on the issue.

The process also sends a needed message to local governing boards about how the upward climb in property valuations produces a steady increase in the tax burden on households even if the tax rate remains unchanged. Elected officials can still move ahead with the revenue boost if they like, but not without first informing taxpayers and giving them a chance to speak.

State senators made this change by passing Legislative Bill LB 103 by State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of the Elkhorn area.

The Omaha city government, for example, plans to collect about $11.3 million more in property taxes in 2020 than this year, given the 6.65% increase in total valuation within the city, estimated by the Douglas County assessor.

The city, no question, faces significant demands for services such as trash collection, street repairs and fire and police protection, but Omaha leaders have an obligation to make the case for their budget plans.

The new process under LB 103 is constructive, all around. It better informs taxpayers and gives them an opportunity to express their views. And it compels local government leaders to explain the budget situations they face and the choices they feel are necessary. It’s good to see state law promote this accountability to taxpayers.

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The Grand Island Independent. July 30, 2019

Council must be wary of adding staff

The Grand Island City Council went through a painful process two years ago when it voted to eliminate some city positions. The need for the positions wasn’t questioned, but the city was in a budget squeeze and needed to take action.

A lot of the budget crisis two years ago resulted from the city’s population going over the 50,000 mark. Some unionized city workers received sizable pay increases because their wages were now compared to those in larger cities. Then-mayor Jeremy Jensen warned of a future budget crisis if the council didn’t take action.

Not only were some positions cut, but the council also approved an increase in the property tax rate. In addition, firefighters agreed to a two-year wage freeze.

Fast forward two years and the Grand Island City Council is now considering requests to add back some positions. It should, however, be extremely wary about increasing the city’s payroll.

City Finance Director Patrick Brown cautioned the council that while some of the positions could be afforded this year, in the future the budget will be unsustainable and the city’s cash reserves would drop below recommended levels.

Projections show that in 2023 the budget goes “downhill,” Brown said.

Mayor Roger Steele said that the budget discussions are also facing some uncertainty because negotiations are underway on two union contracts.

The mayor urged the council to use restraint when it comes to adding positions to the city’s budget.

The council should heed what the mayor said. Steele recommended approving two of the requests that are actually reorganizations that make the departments more efficient while not adding costs.

These would be adding a deputy city clerk/media relations position while eliminating the public relations office. The second is adding three lieutenant positions to the Police Department while eliminating one captain and two sergeant positions.

These are good moves that will increase efficiency while saving costs.

The council should, though, be extremely cautious about adding any of the other new position requests. Adding positions now would likely mean that in a few years the council would again be faced with the difficult decision of cutting its workforce. Cuts were made two years ago because future budgets were unsustainable. That hasn’t changed.

The most significant request for adding positions came from the Fire Department. Fire Chief Cory Schmidt is seeking six new full-time positions to staff an additional advance life support ambulance. The city has seen an increase in ambulance calls over the years and needs an additional ambulance to bring down response times.

In addition, another ambulance would give the city the opportunity to do more long-distance transports that would bring in new revenue, possibly even enough to pay for the positions.

There is, though, uncertainty about the revenue that would be generated.

The mayor suggested that the city administration be given time to study the new ambulance proposal. That sounds like a wise move and if the study finds it feasible, it could be brought back for the 2020-2021 budget.

While the passage by voters last year of a half-cent city sales tax increase will help pay for some infrastructure projects and public safety equipment, the impact on the general fund is limited.

Restraint is the right word for what the council should show when it comes to adding new positions. If it doesn’t, it is setting the city up for another round of painful decisions in the future.

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Lincoln Journal Star. August 2, 2019

Railyard’s new management envisions right goals for site

Roughly six years into its existence, the Railyard area has yet to live up to its full potential.

Sure, the open-air entertainment district in the Haymarket tends to be packed for Nebraska football games and for concerts or basketball games across the street at Pinnacle Bank Arena. The outdoor ice rink, too, can draw plenty of skaters during the winter.

Despite this, the area is empty far more often than it’s full.

A representative of Hurrdat, the Lincoln-based company now running the Railyard, told the Journal Star that it hopes to make the facility “a community hub for everybody.” The editorial board couldn’t agree more, though converting that statement into reality will be more easily said than done.

New management can make a difference by expanding past the typical attractions — Husker sports and concerts aren’t moving anywhere anytime soon — and getting creative to draw people downtown.

Concerts, for instance, would be mostly unexplored territory for the Railyard. With a stage and screen on one end, food and drink options on the other and lots of space for guests in the middle, the setup lends itself nicely to small, intimate shows — a category in which Lincoln has long excelled.

Plus, a similar venue — the Power and Light District in Kansas City, Missouri — has made live music one of its calling cards. A variety of concert series aim to bring people to this outdoor, two-story nucleus of its lively downtown several nights a week.

Another form of entertainment that was also mentioned, movie nights, will be a pricey proposition. The rights to show a film without express permission from the powers that be run several thousand dollars a pop, so we’d encourage new management to tread carefully there.

One final suggestion: Turnover among the Railyard’s bars and restaurants has hindered its growth, with many of the departed businesses publicly citing high rents as the cause for their moves. Stability among food and drink options would be a welcome change of pace for guests.

With ample open space and a location in the heart of the Haymarket, the possibilities for the Railyard are limitless. And we’re eager to see the 90 to 110 events per year in this space its new operators are initially targeting, as this intriguing location hasn’t reached full bloom.

Festivals. Food. Family events. Community celebrations. The list goes on and on.

And, because guests can freely carry alcoholic drinks within its boundaries, the Railyard is unlike any other entertainment area in Lincoln.

Our hope is that it grows into all it can be under new management, which has the ambitious types of goals needed for this vital downtown site.

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