Since the beginning, Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle and City Councilwoman Jean Stothert have been at odds.
At the heart of most of their disagreements? Money.
Just two days after Suttle was sworn into office, Stothert introduced a resolution saying his costly vehicle lease was against the city charter. She's attacked most of his budgets, branding the mayor as too willing to increase taxes to solve budget crises.
She criticized his police contract, calling it an “eat-your-young” deal. She criticized his fire contract, leading the charge to strip Suttle of negotiating power.
Suttle has shot back at Stothert, too. After Stothert brought forth a deal with the city's fire union, Suttle accused her of causing a nearly $6 million shortfall.
Now the last four years of disagreements on taxes and spending are front-and-center in the mayor's race.
While Suttle says he was trying to address serious financial problems, he says Stothert was the staunch “voice of no.” He's accused her of playing politics, declining to name budget cuts unless he led the way.
“It was always 'Give us your ideas first, Suttle, and then we'll go from there,” he said.
Stothert says Suttle hasn't looked hard enough for budget cuts.
“It seems like every financial challenge that has happened in the past three and a half years has been answered with a new tax or a new fee, ” Stothert said.
Over the last four years of fiscal fights, the two were never on equal footing — the mayor introduced complete budgets while the council could only amend his proposals, and the power to negotiate contracts changed from the mayor to the council in the past year.
To cut through the rhetoric, The World-Herald looked at the most contentious taxing and spending issues.
Four years of budget battles
2009 BUDGET SHORTFALL
SUTTLE: Shortly after being sworn into office, he grapples with a $5 million shortfall for the remainder of the year. He lays off 130 civilian employees, grounds city helicopters and negotiates wage freezes with city employees.
STOTHERT: Asks her colleagues to delay construction of an aquatic center at Lake Zorinsky to help deal with the shortfall. The council votes against the delay after hearing that it could cost an extra $100,000 to $200,000.
SUTTLE: Recommends a 2.4-cent increase in the city property tax rate and a 2 percent entertainment tax to deal with a projected $11 million shortfall. Proposes cutting the street resurfacing budget and closing Westwood Golf Course. Suggests cutting keno funding to some nonprofits and using the money to pay for police cruisers and library materials. He also calls for eliminating seven city positions. He calls for increased spending in some areas. He wants to fund a 42-member police recruit class and 44 police cruisers, and spend $500,000 for tourism promotion. (The city's 2009 tourism contribution was cut to address a budget shortfall.) He also asks to restore the police auditor position.
STOTHERT: Along with other council members, suggests two alternative plans. One calls for two-week furlough for all city employees, as well as cuts to the Fire Department and a civilian wage freeze. Would restore some $300,000 in funding for nonprofits. Second plan focuses more on public safety cuts. It would furlough police and fire employees and eliminate $1 million earmarked for police cruisers. Slashes the public safety auditor and cuts half the Sun Dawgs program.
OUTCOME: Both council plans hit the skids when the police and fire unions reject the furlough plan and a plan to charge for satellite dish inspections fails to pass the council. In the end, the council passes an amended budget that increases the city tax rate by 10 percent. Stothert did not support the final budget plan, saying the council should instead examine city departments for more spending cuts. “I'm not there yet,” she said.
POLICE CONTRACT 2010-2013
SUTTLE: In November 2009, he introduces a five-year police contract that would end spiking, increase city contributions to the pension fund by 13.5 percent and require police to put an extra .8 percent toward pensions each year of the deal. It would allow current and future officers to factor career overtime averages into pension payments and increase the retirement age and years of service.
The council rejects the contract in April 2010 because of concerns about the length of the contract and the police pension contributions. The mayor negotiates a second deal that increases city pension contributions to 12.5 percent at first, and 13.5 percent by the end of the deal. Officers would contribute an extra 1.8 percent of their pay. The second contract would not allow new officers to factor overtime toward pension payments. It would raise the retirement age for new and midcareer officers to 50 from 45.
STOTHERT: Backs three amendments to alter Suttle's original deal. They would increase the retirement age, decrease pension payouts and cap retirement benefits at 85 percent of final base pay. Those amendments fail, and she votes against both versions of the contract.
OUTCOME: The second version of the contract passes, 4-3.
SUTTLE: Facing a $33.5 million shortfall, his budget calls for a 4 percent restaurant tax, a 4.4-cent property tax increase and a $23 increase to the wheel tax. The budget represents a $32.6 million increase in general fund spending over the previous year; $13 million goes to shore up the police and fire pension fund. Other increases are for tourism, Building Bright Futures and police and fire wages. The Fire Department is asked to cut $5.5 million, and some civilian positions are eliminated.
STOTHERT: Proposes eliminating the wheel tax increase. Said she had planned to propose a “no-tax-increase” budget, but that became pointless after her colleagues approved the police contract.
OUTCOME: Two other council members spearhead a plan to cut $13.5 million from the budget and pass smaller versions of Suttle's proposed taxes. Stothert votes for that proposal, which passes, before voting against the overall budget.
SUTTLE: With the restaurant tax outperforming projections, he introduces a budget with no tax increases, though health care and salaries contribute to an overall budget increase. The budget reduces the authorized staff of both fire and police by eliminating unfilled positions. It gives the Parks Department $177,000 to create a parks security division and adds three full-time library staff, in addition to giving more funding for street maintenance.
STOTHERT: Approves the budget with some amendments proposed by other council members that call for a 15-member police recruit class, an extra housing inspector and a contract compliance position.
OUTCOME: Amended budget passes unopposed.
SUTTLE: Calls for increased spending on building demolition and street resurfacing. More money goes to pay down the police and fire pension liability and tackle the sewer separation project. Cuts 59 unfilled city positions and centralizes parking management, resulting in decreased spending by public works. The budget also includes raises for four department directors.
STOTHERT: The council doesn't have power to undo Suttle's raises, but Stothert helps craft a proposal to reduce department budgets by the amount of the raises. In cooperation with other council members, she introduces several resolutions. They increase revenue estimates to pay for extra street maintenance, reduce expected police overtime to pay for a city prosecutor, and eliminate funding for a lobbyist. Stothert votes for her resolutions, but against the amended budget.
FIRE CONTRACT, 2010-2013
SUTTLE: Negotiates a contract that: » Calls for firefighters to increase monthly premiums to 4 percent for individuals and 6 percent for families. » Ends spiking. » Increases firefighter pension contributions to 16.15 percent. » Current firefighters with 20 years of experience have to work 25 years to get a 75 percent payout. Current firefighters with less than 20 years have to work 30 years to earn the same benefit, or can take a benefit at 70 percent after 25 years. New hires can qualify for a 75 percent pension if they are at least 55 years old with 30 years of service. » Offers layoff protection to current firefighters.
STOTHERT: Rejects Suttle's contract, then votes to remove negotiating power from the mayor. The council president makes her chairwoman of the council's new labor negotiations committee, which oversees the negotiation of a contract signed in December 2012 that: » Increases all premiums to 7 percent and requires all firefighters to pay the same amount as civilian employees for deductibles, out-of-pocket maximum payments, co-insurance maximums, out-of-network care and premiums. » Ends spiking. » Increases firefighter pension contributions to about 17 percent. » Allows current firefighters with 15 or more years of service to retire after 25 years on the job and earn pension benefits equal to 75 percent of their maximum pay. Current firefighters with less than 15 years on the job can earn the same benefits after working 30 years. New firefighters have to work 30 years to earn a maximum benefit of 65 percent of pay. » Offers layoff protection to current firefighters and commits to the current ranking structure. Firetrucks must be staffed by a captain, a fire apparatus engineer and two firefighters, and the city must have seven battalion chiefs per shift and three paramedic shift supervisors. It requires the city to have 37 positions in the department's central offices and creates a position of “lead” paramedic to lead each ambulance. » Ensures that about 120 firefighters would be trained as paramedics.
OUTCOME: The council's contract passes without changes. Suttle signs off on the deal, though he says it will increase short-term costs dramatically.