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After weeks of whispered concerns and a threatened lawsuit, the real fight over Mayor Jean Stothert's budget for next year is only beginning. Stothert delivered the first spending proposal of her mayoral term to City Council members on Tuesday, touting the fact it was balanced without a property tax increase. Hours later, the Omaha fire union announced that it had sued Stothert, Fire Chief Mike McDonnell and the City of Omaha, asserting that Stothert's proposed Fire Department budget and an executive order she issued last week violate the labor contract. Though city libraries received an increase in funding — enough to preserve branch locations and hours — Library Director Gary Wasdin warned employees that cuts to some programs and materials purchases would still be necessary. City Council President Pete Festersen said he was pleased that next year's budget proposal included no tax increases or library closures but said his “main concern is public safety.”
The Police Department would not be able to place additional officers on city streets essentially until 2015, Festersen said, and pulling Fire Department trucks, engines or medic units from service could affect public safety.
“Those are things we want to drill down on, now that we have the opportunity,” Festersen said. “Hopefully that's something we can avoid.”
McDonnell appeared in the council's chambers to observe Stothert's budget presentation but left without comment.
Reaction to Stothert's budget proposal wasn't all negative or skeptical.
Police Chief Todd Schmaderer's department is in line for a $124 million general fund budget — a nearly $2.9 million increase over the current year. He praised Stothert's stance on public safety.
“As far as the Police Department's been concerned, it's been a very easy transition with the Mayor's Office,” Schmaderer said.
He added, “I look forward to working with her down the road to work within a budget and advance public safety within the community.”
Councilman Franklin Thompson said Stothert's budget proposal could see some “tweaking” from council members before its approval in August.
“But I think the tweaking is going to be a lot less than you've seen in the last few cycles,” he said.
He called Stothert's proposal “a smart budget.”
“There's a time for everything,” Thompson said. “There's a time for raising taxes. But it's a different season now, and the season now is to try to do more with less. We've been talking about it for the last couple of cycles but now we're actually going to do it.”
After winning office with pledges of fiscal restraint, Stothert has proposed a budget that doesn't touch property tax rates — but deals with the climbing cost of basic city operations.
Although Stothert campaigned on goals of cutting property taxes and repealing the restaurant tax, the new mayor said such large-scale changes must wait. Her goals haven't changed, she said, but finding a way to replace the $27.7 million in estimated restaurant tax revenue was too big a task for just a short time in office.
The mayor's $340.5 million general fund budget, which covers day-to-day operations, would be almost $19 million bigger than this year's, partly to pay for more expensive health care and higher wages. Collectively, Omaha's public safety agencies make up the bulk of increased spending in next year's operational budget.
Stothert includes some $11 million in additional spending for police and fire — the two departments with the largest general fund budgets.
Stothert's plans for the Fire Department budget won't pass easily.
She is sticking to her plan to give $90.6 million of the general fund budget to the Fire Department — and no more.
The mayor's fire budget proposal, as promised, would require pulling rigs from service, laying off staff and demoting firefighters if other savings aren't found. Despite the fire union's criticism that Stothert will harm public safety, her budget still would deliver $8.2 million in additional funding compared with this year's budget.
The Fire Department currently has 657 sworn staff members, though city finance officials say the number of sworn fire personnel will be capped at 638 next year. As firefighters retire or leave the job, some downsizing through attrition is possible.
Stothert said she will move for the department to use outside contractors to operate a paramedic training program that might save several hundred thousand dollars.
But the union said the mayor's budget and an executive order she signed Friday violate the labor contract the union has with the city.
Union President Steve LeClair, who filed the suit Tuesday in Douglas County District Court, alleged that Stothert tried to circumvent the labor contract with her executive order.
LeClair and a union attorney argued that the contract and a 2011 order from then-Mayor Jim Suttle require the city to adhere to safety standards from the National Fire Protection Association.
Stothert's executive order on Omaha's adherence to those standards says they are a “goal” that the city “will attempt to comply with.”
LeClair said the Fire Department has not met those standards since at least 2011. In the lawsuit, the union acknowledges that the department falls short of response time standards in most of the city. Cuts that remove rigs or firefighters would worsen the situation, the union said.
The union's concessions on pension contributions and health care expenses were made with the understanding that the city would adhere to those national standards, union officials said.
The impasse may not be resolved by the time the city budget is scheduled for approval.
Stothert said she is standing firm.
“I have been advised by the City Law Department that my proposed budget does not violate labor contracts and my proposals are sound,” Stothert said in a Tuesday evening statement.
“I look forward to being vindicated by the courts.”