LINCOLN, Neb. -- During a press conference Thursday, Mayor Chris Beutler said the City cannot afford to wait on proposed public safety improvements and outlined a plan of action to move forward on the issue.
“Our emergency communications radio system is 25 years old, no longer receives vendor support and is at risk for failure,” Beutler said. “Emergency response times are unacceptably high for over 9,000 families in Lincoln. That number will only grow as the community grows. The right thing to do, the responsible thing to do, is to solve the problem. Now.”
Mayor Beutler had originally proposed a $29.5 million bond issue to fund modernization of the City's 911 radio system and to build two new replacement fire stations.
He said he decided to introduce the bond issue after consulting with all seven council members and receiving support from six. At its meeting Monday, the City Council voted in favor of a proposal by council member Leirion Gaylor Baird to expand the bond issue to $34.5 million to build two new additional fire stations. But the proposal did not receive the four votes necessary to put the bond issue on the November ballot.
Mayor Beutler also expressed that he was disappointed in the lack of support City Council has had in putting the issue on the November ballot.
The Mayor says that in his conversations with City Council, he felt they truly were supportive of his proposal. He says he doesn't understand why they voted against putting the safety bond on the ballot.
But some City Council members say they weren't given enough time to make this decision and they want the full picture of how the bond will affect the city's budget.
Beutler's staff says they've been working on finding a way to fund these projects for a significant amount of time. After they realized the council would not accept a tax increase, they decided the bond would be a better proposal.
Beutler said, "This should not be controversial...public safety has been on the agenda for several years."
Council members who voted against putting it on the ballot say the Mayor waited too long to present his proposal, limiting the time they had for research.and they won't be pushed into making a decision on something this big without a second thought.
Council Member John Camp said in the City Council hearing on Monday that, "Public safety is number one period as far as city services. What concerns me is we've been talking about everything but I didn't hear about this until a week ago...last Friday."
Council member Trent Fellers echoed that thought as well on Monday. "With this being a short fuse. A short time frame, I can tell you, I want to slow the process down and see if there's any other ideas."
That other idea according to Mayor Beutler will be a commission to look into the bond.
Beutler said,"Lincoln cannot afford unreasonable delays...we will continue to put forward our best options for the people so they can consider this."
Beutler hopes they can find a financial solution that council members will want to put on the April ballot.
Tom Casady also reiterated that the new fire stations and the radio system are essentials for Lincoln, which is why the politics of how to get them here is a bigger problem.
Casady said,"I hope we can take some political heat out of the equation so we can make some decisions."
The Mayor will appoint a committee headed by Public Safety Director Tom Casady to confirm the financing options and make a recommendation by Thanksgiving.
The group will include council members, financial experts, community members and other public safety professionals.
A Pre-Council meeting will be scheduled for Casady to present the latest information to council members. The city will also continue its Taking Charge public engagement process so residents can weigh in on their preferences.
Beutler said urgency must be the guiding factor in moving forward. Once a new radio system is funded, it will take two years for it to become operational. Long emergency response times in some parts of the city will continue to jeopardize the public’s health and safety. A one-percent increase in the interest rate could add as much as $4.2 million to the project. The Mayor also said he will not accept a solution which decimates other important city services.
“My administration has cut more jobs than any administration in Lincoln’s history,” he said. “We have made the tough choices to right size the budget and preserve high priority services. I do not regret making the choices that have helped keep our financial ship afloat. But further closings and neglect of swimming pools, parks and libraries and reductions in bus service have a negative public safety impact as well.”
The Mayor said the community must be realistic about the alternatives. “This is a $35 million investment,” he said. “We cannot fund it from the change in the couch cushions at City Hall. Those who advocate for such a large amount of City funds need to acknowledge that new revenues will have to be part of the solution. To do otherwise would be disingenuous.”
Beutler said City Council members have unanimously agreed that the aging radio system and increasing emergency response times need to be addressed. “Now, the question is how we develop the consensus to move forward as one,” he said. “I am confident that my plan will address the council concerns and that we can maintain Lincoln as a safe and complete community.”