The City budget is our plan for implementing the community's vision of what we want Lincoln to be. Thousands of residents over the years have helped us set the agenda for Lincoln's future. Their guidance so far has resulted in amazing successes. The next City budget must keep us on that pathway forward.
The City Council has delivered its plan. The laws that govern the budget process provide that we must now decide between the Council's plan and the original budget plan offered by our Administration.
Both plans emphasize keeping our community safe. The Council accepted our recommendation to fund four new police officers and six new firefighter paramedics to enhance public safety.
Both plans commit, in differing degrees, to building the infrastructure that supports growth. The Council supported our recommendations to invest in streets, water, and wastewater to spur economic growth and job creation.
Fiscal responsibility is where the plans diverge. By avoiding the tough choices, the Council majority threatens the City's financial stability.
By focusing on the quick fix, the Council majority is ignoring long term issues that will create permanent structural deficits:
The first issue involves the City's telecommunications occupation tax. Rapid advances in technology have changed consumer habits and increased competition. As a result, the City lost $1.7 million for the 2016-17 budget and must be prepared for even larger reduced revenues in the future. The Council had two choices to solve this gap: make responsible cuts or increase revenues. They chose neither, ensuring future deficits.
Second, the police fire pension is consuming an ever greater portion of the general fund budget. We had to put nearly $8 million in this year's budget in order to meet our financial obligations. When I first took office that number was only $3.5 million. The cost to the City has been increasing about $500,000 per year over the last ten years. This trend is likely to continue. Again, the Council did not make sustainable cuts or provide a source of revenue to meet a challenge that continues to grow.
Third, the Emerald Ash Borer will kill nearly all of the City's 14,000 public ash trees over the next several years. This crisis is staring us squarely in the face. The price tag is an estimated $2 million per year over 15 years. The Council's budget does not adequately deal with the crisis. We know from other communities that any delay now will cost us more in the future.
Finally, the Council's plan removes $420,000 from the Administration's budget that pays debt service on new and replacement streets lights. The Council's cut doesn't eliminate these costs. Instead their choice increases taxpayer interest payments and adds to future budget deficits.
The Council's actions are the very definition of the old cliché, "kicking the can down the road."
Other Council actions reduce transparency, accountability, and efficiency. These include the Council's last-minute decision to cut almost one-third of the Citizen Information Center's budget as well as the elimination of the City's budget officer, and the removal of much needed modern management software.
Another troubling aspect of the Council's budget is its impact on the community most important priority: public safety.
My budget included not just six additional firefighter paramedics but also a 7th ambulance. Both are badly needed to provide faster emergency response to people in need and ensure better medical outcomes. By taking the needed ambulance out of the budget, the Council is delaying the right choice for our growing community.
I cannot in good conscience sign a budget I consider fiscally irresponsible. The Council majority's budget fails the community in four ways: it contributes to a long term structural deficit; delays today's obligations to tomorrow; reduces accountability, transparency and efficiency; and harms our emergency response.
That's why I am vetoing this budget.
Avoiding tough budget choices today only serves to make those challenges larger and more expensive tomorrow. This threatens our ability to continue the community investments that have made us a great City.
My record on this issue is clear: in crafting budgets, I have not relied on false solutions. I have made the hard choices to both increase revenues and initiate major cuts, including more than 100 jobs since I took office.
This balanced approach is one of the reasons Lincoln is touted by the 24/7 Wall Street website as one of the best managed cities in the country. We have a triple A bond rating, a statement of our commitment to fiscal responsibility held by only the most financially sound cities in the nation. Our reputation for financial responsibility provides numerous financial advantages to Lincoln taxpayers. I cannot and will not jeopardize that reputation.
As I said last week, my oath to the people of Lincoln is to do what's right for our future, even if it isn't politically popular. Failing to address problems and allowing them to get bigger and more expensive is not doing what's right for Lincoln's citizens.
Now, the road ahead is difficult. Four elected officials of the Council's majority support the Council's budget. And four elected officials, the Council minority and I, support the Administration's budget. We are deadlocked.
Fortunately, the law outlines what happens next in this case. When the Mayor exercises his authority to veto the budget, the Council has the opportunity break the deadlock with five votes to override the Mayor's veto. If they cannot, the Mayor's budget becomes adopted law.
I understand the City Council majority may be hesitant to vote for the property tax levy necessary to support the adopted budget after my veto.
But the law is clear. If the Council does not have the five votes necessary to pass their version of the budget, the Mayor's proposed budget is the City's adopted budget. The Charter states that the adopted budget shall become the basis for the property tax rates for the ensuing biennial period. That is how the law resolves the deadlock and allows us to move forward.
Some are questioning the legal opinion of the City Attorney's Office that supports this position. They suggest that the opinion is politically motivated. They say that other attorneys do not agree.
I would remind them that the opinion was authored by one of the most respected legal minds of our generation and a man whose integrity is beyond reproach. John Hendry was the Chief Justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court before he became City Attorney. Anyone who knows Judge Hendry knows that he would have resigned his position as City Attorney rather than author a legal opinion with which he did not agree.
I believe the current language provides a clear and fair process for our citizens. However, if Council members think the law should be changed for future budgets, they can take the steps to change it. That is the American way. But until the City Charter is changed, we all must follow the law. That is also the American way.
I am confident that the City Council majority will do their duty and follow the law. I am confident that the budget adopted will best serve the citizens of this community. And I am confident that after putting this budget issue behind us, the Council and I will work together to continue moving our community forward. That is the Lincoln way.