Omaha World-Herald. April 4, 2021.
Editorial: Top-level public pensions are out of line; Omaha must rein them in
Omaha has made progress in recent years in remedying some of the most egregious flaws in its contracts for police and fire pensions. Spiking - boosting one’s final-year salary and pension by the last-minute cashing in of unused vacation, sick leave and comp time - is no more, for example, and good riddance. The pension system isn’t projected to reach the needed solvency level until the 2040s, and progress is needed in other areas, too, but the movement has been in the right direction.
The city’s recent announcement that Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer intends to retire within the next five years highlights a problem the city must address in future negotiations on executive-level pensions: Sensible limits are needed on those payments to put them more in line with the reality for private-sector workers.
Schmaderer will receive nearly $15,000 a month in pension benefits - for life. That means an annual payment exceeding $177,000. His current age: 49.
The chief will receive a higher retirement than longtime members of Congress, who max out at $139,000 a year.
No question, Schmaderer is a highly competent, dynamic leader. We’re not questioning the positive difference he has made as police chief since 2012. But this issue is far larger than any one individual, no matter how respected.
Omaha city government must get a handle on such high-dollar pensions if it’s to retain public confidence.
Decades ago, public employees made the case for generous pensions by citing the private sector’s widespread use of defined-benefit pension plans for employees. But it’s not the 1950s anymore. Few U.S. workers in the private sector now have such generous benefits. Yet in city after city, the general template providing defined-benefit pensions for public employees remains. And for top-level leaders, the pension windfalls are often tremendous.
Schmaderer’s $177,000 annual pension stands in contrast to individual median income in Omaha of $32,000. Justifying such generous lifetime public-sector pensions is unreasonable and concerning when so many Omaha taxpayers must make do on far less.
That’s especially the case when these public employees have the option to retire in middle age and get another public-sector job, for a second pension possibility.
Omaha Public Schools made adjustments in its contract negotiations, for example, after being stung years ago when then-Superintendent John Mackiel received an unexpected, but legal, $1 million payment before beginning to receive his annual pension of $200,000.
Without question, police officers - the same as Fire Department personnel - deserve respect for putting themselves in danger as part of their job. The point here isn’t to dismiss the service of public safety workers. These officers deserve a comfortable retirement.
The issue, though, is how much society can realistically afford. The pension issue continues to be a drag on Omaha’s bond rating, for example, although rating firms rightly acknowledge the city has made improvements over the past decade. This is hardly a matter unique to Omaha. In states such as California, Illinois and New York, complaint is regularly raised over the issue. “Is it fair for the average guy making $50,000 a year to pay for someone else’s $100,000 retirement benefit who starts a second career?” a financial expert in New York asked several years ago.
Residents in Seattle expressed surprise last year to learn that their retiring police chief would be getting an annual pension of about $134,000. In Dallas, the police pension system’s insolvency problem has been a high-profile issue for years. The Texas Supreme Court ruled in the city’s favor in 2019 when it took extraordinary measures to rein in immediate pension obligations.
In the next contract negotiation for executive-level positions, the Omaha city government must explore a range of options for reasonable constraints. Top-level pensions needn’t be pegged so strongly to the salary only in the final stage of the individual’s career, for example.
Such an approach would still show appropriate respect to the retiree - but needed respect, also, to Omaha taxpayers.
Lincoln Journal Star. April 2, 2021.
Editorial: Airport upgrade will ensure bright future
In 1983, Jack Nicholson and Shirley MacLaine walked along the street in front of the Lincoln Municipal Airport, their characters saying farewell in a scene from the Oscar-winning “Terms of Endearment.”
Twenty-five years later, the airport had another cameo in the Jim Carrey comedy “Yes Man.”
A drive past the terminal finds that, even after the alterations at airports following 9/11, it looks almost exactly the same as it did four decades ago. That appearance, however will dramatically change over the next year.
The Lincoln Airport Authority last week approved a massive expansion and renovation project that will modernize and upgrade the 49-year-old terminal, part of an effort to change the perception of flying out of Lincoln and increase passenger numbers.
The project will expand the north side of the terminal, where all of its airline gates will be consolidated, adding 35,000 square feet to the existing 58,000 square foot building. That will allow the airport to consolidate its two security checkpoints into one.
Another post-9/11 change will move food and beverage services to the secure side of the passenger area, as is the case at most airports.
The total cost of the project is estimated at about $54.8 million. That includes design and engineering costs, equipment the airport has to buy, such as new seating and new jet bridges, plus a contingency cushion to account for unforeseen costs.
To pay for the expansion, the Airport Authority plans to use its property tax authority for the first time since 1986, issuing $56 million in bonds and paying them off with the property tax receipts.
The board plans to use half its available levy, or 1.75 cents per $100 of assessed property valuation. At that rate, the owner of a home valued at $200,000 would pay $35 a year for about 15 years.
While no one likes property taxes, $35 a year is about half the cost of driving to and from Omaha and parking for a few days to fly out of Eppley Airfield.
And it is, in large part, competition with Omaha — and to a lesser extent Grand Island — for leisure travelers that is pushing the much-needed modernization of the airport, a first step toward getting people, in the Foo Fighters’ words, to “Learn to Fly” out of Lincoln, which, we hope will offer more flights at costs comparable with those from Omaha.
The expansion alone may not be a “Field of Dreams” situation: If you build it, they will come. But it is nearly certain that if you don’t build it, they — new airlines and passengers — won’t come.
That makes the project necessary and important for the future of Lincoln and well worth the investment of the tax dollars.
Grand Island Independent. April 1, 2021.
Editorial: Legislature actions seek to protect the vulnerable
With the Nebraska Legislature’s pace heating up as legislators push to get their priority bills passed, some good news is coming from the Capitol.
On Wednesday, Gov. Pete Ricketts signed LB297, The Nebraska Protection of Vulnerable Adults from Financial Exploitation Act.
This bill, sponsored by state Sen. Brett Lindstrom of Omaha, authorizes broker-dealers and investment advisers to place a hold on transactions in cases of suspected financial exploitation of vulnerable adults or senior adults. This bill, which was overwhelmingly approved by the Legislature, builds upon a bill passed last year giving the same authorization to banks and other financial institutions.
According to Jina Ragland, advocacy director for AARP Nebraska, 1 out of 5 older Americans are victims of financial exploitation. The average victim loses $120,000.
“Given the vast scope of the problem, financial professionals are often the first to recognize that a vulnerable or senior adult is being financially exploited. LB297 closes the gap by bringing financial institutions, broker dealers and financial advisers together to combat one of the most intolerable crimes,” Ragland said.
The Legislature also gave first-round approval Tuesday to a bill that would help the state move forward with setting up an emergency suicide and mental health hotline.
State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln introduced this measure after a new federal law was adopted that will create a 988 number for suicide prevention calls. The bill would create a task force to work to help the state prepare to get the hotline going.
In 2018 suicide was the second leading cause of death for Nebraska youths ages 10-24. Four times as many people die by suicide in our state annually as by homicide. Having an easy-to-reach hotline can make a big impact on suicide prevention in our state.
Another bill advanced by legislators this week, also introduced by Pansing Brooks, would require casinos that will be opening in the state to display human trafficking informational posters.
The posters are posted already in rest stops and strip clubs, places that advocates say are locations where human trafficking might take place. They are written in English and Spanish and include a toll-free number where trafficking victims or people who suspect trafficking may call for help.
Nebraska has been working to stop human trafficking activities in the state and with casinos opening soon after voters last November passed a measure legalizing them, casinos are another location where the battle can be waged.
With the legislative session continuing through April and May before it wraps up in early June, it is good to see the Legislature is moving forward with these bills to protect some of the most vulnerable Nebraskans.
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