WASHINGTON — Omaha's Jim Suttle joined fellow mayors from across the country this week in the nation's capital as they discussed issues ranging from gun violence to immigration.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors' winter gathering also included a closed session with mayors and officials from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Suttle used the opportunity to continue pleading with the EPA that Omaha needs a break on the cost of its ongoing sewer overhaul.
Omaha is in the midst of a $1.7 billion effort to bring its sewers into compliance with federal Clean Water Act requirements. Currently, a solid downpour can overwhelm the system and flush raw sewage into area waterways.
“We've got to find a way to get major blocks of the capital cost out of the plan because we can't afford to do it ... the price tag's way too high,” Suttle told The World-Herald after the meeting.
Suttle said he pitched the idea that Omaha's overhaul should be split into several categories — steps that must be done, should be done and would be nice to do.
That last category could then be removed from the plans. But EPA officials weren't embracing the approach.
“I got blank stares,” Suttle said.
The EPA offered to work on further analysis of just what the Omaha area can afford, but Suttle said he thinks the solution ultimately lies in Congress.
“I'm convinced we have to go to the Hill and we have to have some major surgery in the language of the Clean Water Act,” he said.
He said he'll return to Washington later in the spring to do more lobbying of lawmakers on that front.
Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie also attended the meeting, though the costs his city faces for clean water changes are much lower than Omaha's.
He suggested cities are bearing too much of the burden for clean water and that rural agricultural communities need to pitch in as well.
“I've got one of the dirtiest rivers in the United States of America in the Raccoon, that I'm pulling my drinking water out of, and there's effluent coming off of feedlots, there's all kinds of chemicals, herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, nitrates that are dirtying the water, and none of those are coming from cities,” he said.
After the EPA meeting, the mayors heard from Vice President Joe Biden about the administration's proposals for tackling gun violence.
Suttle said both sides of the gun debate should come together to work on mental health issues.
He said he wants to look more closely at the Obama administration's proposed limits on assault weapons and high-capacity ammo clips but understands where they're coming from.
“Common sense says 'Why do you need those clips if you're going hunting? What are you going to bring home? You going to bring home a deer or are you going to bring home a flake of the deer?'” Suttle said.
He also took a dim view of National Rifle Association proposals to have armed police officers in schools throughout the country.
“It makes no sense to say we're going to spend all this money to put armed people inside schools when we can't even afford counselors and health care treatment and other things in the schools that are needed,” Suttle said.
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