After years of deadlock, officials are hoping a new mayoral administration will breathe life into a plan to create a regional crime lab for the Douglas County Sheriff's Office and the Omaha Police Department.
Talks between the city and the county are set to resume once budgets are determined, Douglas County Sheriff Tim Dunning said.
Many see cause for optimism in the appointment of Marty Bilek, Dunning's former chief deputy, as Mayor Jean Stothert's chief of staff.
“We've got a unique opportunity, historically, with Marty Bilek changing hats,” County Board member Clare Duda said. “With him going from the county to the city side, if this thing should happen, this would be our best opportunity.”
In addition to Stothert's election and Bilek's move to city hall, Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer was sworn in only last fall. That means it's now less a question of brokering a deal than having a “very easy, very fluent discussion with respect to the two crime labs,” Bilek said.
For years, the city and county have considered how and whether to combine services of the Omaha Police Department crime lab and the county lab near 156th Street and West Maple Road. The thought was that a merger would reduce duplication of services and save taxpayers money.
Talks ground to a halt amid disputes over financing and governing a merged lab, however, and it has been months since the two sides sat down together.
County Attorney Don Kleine, who has helped broker the negotiations, agreed that the situation looks promising.
“I was impressed with the discussions of both the chief and the sheriff,” Kleine said. “I think we're making some headway.”
Schmaderer was not available for comment, and Omaha police spokeswoman Darci Tierney said no one else at the department could speak about the issue.
It's still unclear what a merger would look like — whether the agencies would share personnel, equipment and supplies, or contract for shared lab work or do something else entirely.
Dunning is pressing for an interlocal agreement in which the city's police force would ship some or all of its evidence to the county lab for analysis.
“We don't necessarily have to call it a merger,” he said. “People kind of cringe when they hear that.”
Bilek said Stothert isn't committed to a proposal yet because she needs to review the issue in more detail with Schmaderer. But if it saves money, having Omaha police send evidence to the county lab is a probable first step, he said.
“I'm not saying that's all that happens,” he said.
Two years ago, the Sheriff's Office used $4 million of drug seizure money to build a new crime lab in the west wing of the former Thomas Fitzgerald Veterans Home. The Omaha Police Department, meanwhile, is expanding its own downtown lab as part of a broader renovation.
A major sticking point has been how a combined lab would be managed. Kleine said there's promise in creating a separate board run by both city and county officials, similar to how the county 911 center is managed.
City Council President Pete Festersen said the public safety committee, of which he is chairman, is interested in taking up the issue.
“If it makes financial sense and our police chief is supportive of what (a merger) could achieve in terms of public safety, then I think we could get behind it,” he said.