The battle in Lincoln over a proposed tax increase on the November ballot is like tectonic plates colliding. The rumble stems from the foothill city's historic opposition to tax increases vs. concerns over public safety cuts.1) Kudos to Rich McKierty and Team Lincoln for forming an activist group because nothing is going to change until people hit the streets and make it happen.
Failure to pass Measure K, a temporary 3.75 percent utility user tax, could mean its thinly staffed fire and police departments will face layoffs.
The debate is reminiscent of a similar tax increase, adopted by council members in 1994 to help the budget that led to their recall.
Opponents suggest Measure K will be thrashed, but nobody has done public opinion polls, and the council has held numerous workshops.
The tax is intended to plug a $2 million budget shortfall, and is expected to generate $2.9 million in annual revenue. The tax would have a four-year life span.
If the measure passes with a simple majority of Lincoln voters, homes with utility bills totaling $500 would pay an additional $18.75 a month to the city general fund.
Not surprisingly, council candidates' views on the issue are central to their campaigns. Six candidates are running for two seats.
After the council on a 5-0 vote earlier this summer sent the proposal to voters, City Hall has been besieged by criticism of its spending. Measure K opponents have questioned the pay and benefits of the city manager and other high-ranking employees. They've criticized the city's use of contract labor, including a consultant hired to educate voters on the tax measure.
"These things are not consistent with 'We don't have any money,' "said Rich McKierty, a member of newly formed tax opposition group called TEAM Lincoln. "I don't think we are getting the straight scoop on things."
The city cut its spending from $16.4 million in 2008 to a projected $12.6 million for the upcoming year – a 23 percent decrease.
But McKierty suggests the city further tighten its belt. Only then would TEAM Lincoln consider an alternate tax plan, he said.
"We don't think the city management is doing what it can to bring down the cost of government," he said. "Let's clean up the city first."
Proponents say that with 80 percent of the city's $12.6 million budget going to the police and fire departments, none of the other department budgets is big enough to solve the deficit without cuts to public safety.
The city budget assumes no additional revenue will be available and three patrol officers and a police sergeant will be let go
Interim Police Chief Joel Neves isn't worried just about those four officers. He's worried about future budgets.
"If something does not change, more people will lose their jobs," said Neves, who was coaxed into service after retiring as Roseville's police chief.
"They could close the parks and close the libraries and that still doesn't cut it," he said. "There are going to have to be some savings out of police and fire."
Lincoln rates near the bottom on its ratio of police officers to city residents. On the other hand, the city's crime rate also is low.
Serving the city's 50,000 residents are 31 sworn officers – four with pink slips in their pocket. If additional revenue is on the way, city officials have said they'll find a way to keep them on.
The city benefits greatly from a robust volunteer program that has unpaid staff doing such jobs as directing traffic at crime scenes and tracking required training, Neves said.
While most of the talk has been about the police reductions, Fire Chief Dave Whitt worries that more cuts, this year or next, will eventually further whittle his 24-member operation.
2) Kudos to the city for making a tough 23 decrease in their budget from 2008 to 2009, but even more is needed.
3) Temporary? I don't think so. They need this tax to generate $2 million to cover a $2.9 million gap. Unless there's real improvement in the economy this is not temporary and shouldn't be billed that way.
4) The primary alternatives that make more sense to me are eliminating the fire department moving to a voluntary department. Since 80% of revenues are used for police and fire departments then cut the fire department. That could close the gap probably completely just on that move. And, it avoids my secondary choice of bankruptcy.
5) By turning the fire department voluntary they won't have to close parks or libraries.
We have to come to some realization in this country of what services we can afford to pay for and which we need to move to another agency or make voluntary. It's really this simple as we cannot pay for staffing to cover every potential problem in the world. Sometimes, self insurance is the way and that's what a voluntary fire department is all about. In my family's home town fire and emergency services are voluntary. So it can be done.
If unions are not going to play ball with roll backs in pay and benefits than bankruptcy and closing departments has to be the logical choice first, second and third, then maybe higher taxes.
Hope all is well.
J.D. Rosendahl, Rosey