Mayor Chris Beutler told county commissioners today that their decision last week to “steal” a portion of a special railroad safety tax to bridge their budget gap was “most unfortunate” and asked them to reconsider their action.
Beutler made the comments at a regular meeting today of city and county officials. First, he noted the city and county’s good working relationship and asked county commissioners not to take his comments the wrong way, saying he was trying to be “very candid.”
Last week, the Lancaster County Board voted to reduce the Railroad Transportation Safety District’s tax rate by 1.6 cents, which would allow the county to increase its rate by the same amount to bridge a budget gap. The county certifies the RTSD budget. The RTSD currently charges a 2.6-cent levy and has about $18.2 million banked for future projects.
In deciding to raid the RTSD levy, county officials expressed concern about a city-backed proposal to use railroad safety funds for a $77 million project that they say exceeds the RTSD mission. The project would close two railroad intersections and move two Cornhusker Highway intersections – and involves the construction of a double roundabout.
Some City Council officials have also questioned whether railroad safety funds – which come from a special property tax levy – should be used to help pay for road improvements that benefit Lincoln, since the RTSD levy is a countywide tax.
Beutler said the RTSD was conceived as an independent political subdivision – with the county certifying its budget — when it was created in 1971. Its board of directors is comprised of three City Council members and three County Board members. But in 1996, state lawmakers put several mill levies under the counties’ umbrella while capping the levies, Beutler said, and that changed the equation from a partnership to a situation where “one side has a second bite of the apple” and could overturn the RTSD board’s actions.
“That levy never was a county levy,” Beutler said. “The spirit of the thing created has been violated by your recent action.”
While he acknowledged the county’s action was legal, Beutler implied the county was stealing “somebody else’s levy” to avoid raising property taxes. He asked county officials to consider supporting state legislation that would restore the RTSD to its original partnership model and improve road funding.
The head of the RTSD, Roger Figard (who is also the city engineer), said the primary purpose of the project is railroad safety. He said the two intersections have the highest car-train exposure rate in the state, likely qualifying the project for state funding.
As for the allegation that the project strays from railroad safety, Figard pointed to other RTSD projects that went far afield, such as Rosa Parks Way, the 10th Street viaduct and Third and A street viaduct.
“There’s history and precedent for this,” Figard said.
Lancaster County is one of just a couple of counties in Nebraska that has exercised its authority to have an RTSD to pay for railroad safety projects. And even though the district has been beefing up safety around railroad crossings for 40 years, Figard said there are still 140 at-grade crossings in the county. And if coal trains should start running on Highway 2, the RTSD funds would be sorely needed, he said.
County Commissioner Jane Raybould suggested RTSD spending be prioritized based on the most accident-prone crossings and said she’d rather see the money spent to build a new highway south of Lincoln called the South Beltway.
Councilman Jon Camp said even if the feds or state help pay for the project, it’s all tax dollars and “that’s a substantial amount of money.” He has suggested it may be time to reduce or retire the RTSD levy and other similar political subdivisions with taxing authority. Councilman Adam Hornung also said the RTSD should do something it can afford, not a “gigantic double roundabout.” He said the project would cost the average family of four nearly $1,000.
“I want a simple roundabout,” he said.
County Commissioner Larry Hudkins told the mayor not to take the county’s action personally, adding that the county has reduced the RTSD levy before for budget relief. He said the lawmakers made the 1996 change to add more oversight of smaller taxing entities.
“This is what we had to do this year,” he said. “It was not meant to be punitive to the city of Lincoln.”
Reported by Deena Winter, firstname.lastname@example.org