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Legislature
A new favorite emerges for Omaha’s trash contract, with 8 to 12 weeks of unlimited yard waste pickup

Omaha residents would combine trash and yard waste into a single 96-gallon cart for most of the year under a proposed trash-hauling contract that is emerging as the City Council’s favorite.

The plan would let residents fill one cart a week with a mix of grass clippings and trash to be taken to the landfill. But for eight to 12 weeks in the spring and fall, the city would pick up unlimited amounts of bagged yard waste and turn it into OmaGro compost. There also would be a cart for recycling.

In all, Omaha taxpayers would pay $24.2 million a year if the City Council accepts the plan by FCC Environmental of Spain.

The council expects to vote on the contract this month.

The FCC plan is drawing more support on the council than the second-most-popular bid, one from West Central Sanitation of Minnesota. West Central proposes year-round collection of yard waste to be turned into compost, although the city would pay only for picking up the yard waste that fits in a single 96-gallon cart. Residents would get a second separate cart for trash and a third for recycling. That bid costs $22.2 million a year.

The council’s options narrowed in recent days, after the city received bids for Mayor Jean Stothert’s idea for supplemental yard-waste collection. Two bids the city opened last week clarified the costs of adding the extra yard-waste service to the same FCC contract the City Council rejected in June.

FCC bid up to 12 weeks of additional yard-waste pickup at $1.5 million. West Central bid the same supplemental plan at $12.7 million, though it says it can provide unlimited yard-waste service for about $8.5 million.

The gap between the FCC and West Central supplemental bids shook up a council majority that previously favored West Central. West Central’s two-cart bid, without the supplemental plan, cost about $7 million less than FCC’s two-cart bid without the extra yard waste.

Many of the council’s West Central supporters, including Brinker Harding and Aimee Melton, said they are now reconsidering FCC.

“I may have been leaning one way,” Harding said. “But I’ve always said I wanted to have all the information in hand before I make a final decision.”

The biggest differences between the yard-waste bids appear to be how many trucks, routes and people each company said it would need to do the job.

Public Works says West Central’s new yard-waste bid would add 30 trucks to the company’s original trash pickup plan, boosting it to 70 from 40. Each of those trucks would need people to operate them. West Central wants to hire full-time employees, instead of temporary workers.

FCC’s bid says it plans to rent 17 trucks, limit employee vacations during the spring and fall pickup periods, bring in drivers from elsewhere and subcontract if needed.

Stothert and Public Works have said for months that West Central’s bid included too few trucks and routes. An independent study was inconclusive. Stothert said the use of new trucks from the yard-waste bid in the company’s wider trash plan shows that West Central needed more.

“They recognized what they put in that original bid that they would be unsuccessful in Omaha,” she said Wednesday.

West Central owner Don Williamson said his company added the new trucks after talking to the current contractor, Waste Management, and researching what’s needed to handle unlimited yard waste in Omaha.

Public Works and Stothert both recommended the FCC supplemental yard-waste bid on Tuesday. They’ve long backed FCC.

Council members say they are waiting on answers soon from Public Works to questions on the supplemental yard-waste plan. The list includes questions about financial penalties for nonperformance and how much flexibility the city has in deciding which eight to 12 weeks would receive the extra yard-waste service.

Several, including Councilman Vinny Palermo, echoed council President Chris Jerram’s previous concerns about the risk of a garbage hauler failing.

“Everybody likes the little guy,” said Palermo, who still backs FCC. “I like Rocky. But our obligation at the end of the day is to provide this service to the citizens of Omaha.”

Melton said she wonders whether FCC low-balled the yard-waste bid to help secure the trash contract and whether West Central low-balled its trash bid.

Both companies said they didn’t. FCC said it expects to turn a profit on its extra yard-waste bid, and West Central said it stands by its trash bid.

Council members have said they want to avoid having a waste hauler come back and say they can’t afford to do what the contract requires.

They point to Waste Management’s decision to combine trash and yard waste in Omaha, pay the contract penalty and take both materials to the landfill.

Stothert and Public Works have said for months that FCC’s bid leaves more wiggle room for the unknown, including hailstorms and snow.

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FCC’s director of collection services, Dan Brazil, said his company’s new bid shows its trash bid planned enough people and trucks to do the job.

“We’re not trying to supplement our main collection,” Brazil said.

West Central’s Williamson said having more help for regular pickups is being responsible with the yard-waste bid, not padding the company’s trash bid.

He said Omaha knows the risk of depending on temporary labor for yard-waste collection: delayed collections. Hiring year-round help for seasonal yard-waste pickup is more reliable in a tight labor market, he said.

“West Central ... has proposed the most robust, stable and well-resourced yard-waste collection system for the City of Omaha,” Williamson said.

Councilman Rich Pahls, one of West Central’s staunchest supporters, said he needed more answers before commenting.

Residents can weigh in on the contract at 2 p.m. Tuesday at the City-County Building during the council’s public hearing .

Council members say they hope to hear which type of composting Omaha residents want, if any, and how much people are willing to pay.

The status quo is not an option. No waste company bid to extend the city’s $15 million contract with Waste Management, which runs through 2020.

Check out nearly 100 stunning photos of Nebraska

Articles
Push grows for 'red flag' laws; Nebraska, Iowa don't have them
GUN VIOLENCE

WASHINGTON — Despite frequent mass shootings, Congress has not passed substantial gun violence legislation.

But a bipartisan proposal by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., is gaining momentum after weekend mass shootings in Texas and Ohio that left 31 people dead. The emerging plan would create a federal grant program to encourage states to adopt "red flag" laws to take guns away from people believed to be dangers to themselves or others.

Red flag laws have been adopted by 17 states, including New York, where a law is set to take effect Aug. 24.

Nebraska and Iowa do not have red flag laws, although Nebraska State Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln introduced a bill to create extreme risk protection orders. The bill is stuck in committee.

The GOP-controlled U.S. Senate considered a bill similar to the new plan last year, but it never came up for a vote. Yet both parties express hope that this year will be different. President Donald Trump has signaled support for the plan.

"We must make sure that those judged to pose a grave risk to public safety do not have access to firearms and that if they do, those firearms can be taken through rapid due process," Trump said this week.

Many mass shootings "involved individuals who showed signs of violent behavior that are either ignored or not followed up on," said Graham, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "State red flag laws will provide the tools for law enforcement to do something about many of these situations before it's too late."

In an interview Tuesday, Blumenthal said there's "a growing wave of support on both sides of the aisle" for the red flag plan — more momentum in fact "than any other gun violence plan" being debated in Congress, including a proposal Blumenthal supports to require universal background checks for gun purchases.

In a letter Thursday to Congress, more than 200 mayors— including those of El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, where last weekend's mass shootings occurred — urged senators to return to the Capitol to vote on two House-passed bills expanding background checks for gun sales. Trump had threatened to veto the two bills but this week has expressed a new openness to considering expanding background checks.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Wednesday that Democratic senators would demand a vote on background checks if Republicans want to vote on red flag laws.

Most of the state red flag laws are recent, having been approved since the February 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

HOW DOES A RED FLAG LAW WORK?

In general, red flag or "extreme risk protection order" laws allow courts to issue temporary orders barring someone from possessing guns based on some showing of imminent danger or a risk of misuse.

State laws vary, but most stipulate that only specific people — usually family or household members — may petition a court for an extreme risk protection order against a person. In some cases, a preliminary order may be granted without the person being notified.

Such an order is typically short-lasting, ranging from a few days to about three weeks. Once the person who is alleged to pose a risk has been given an opportunity to respond, a more permanent order may be granted, typically for up to a year. Before an order can be entered, some factual showing must be made that the subject poses a risk of using a firearm to harm themselves or others.

WHAT IS THE FEDERAL PROPOSAL?

Graham and Blumenthal are still developing the plan. The similar bill proposed last year by Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson would essentially pay states to implement red flag laws.

Blumenthal said the new proposal would set a national standard that states must meet to be eligible for federal grants. He compared it to federal highway laws that make grants dependent on states setting speed limits or drunken-driving standards.

HOW MUCH WOULD IT COST?

Costs are still being worked out, but whatever the amount, "it's a small fraction of the losses — both monetary and in the loss of life — as a result of gun violence," Blumenthal said.

WHO SUPPORTS THE PLAN?

Almost all Senate Democrats support red flag laws, along with a growing number of Republicans, including Pennsylvania's Pat Toomey, Indiana's Mike Braun and Iowa's Chuck Grassley. South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the second-highest-ranking Senate Republican, told the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls that he's "confident Congress will be able to find common ground on the so-called 'red flag' issue."

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said Tuesday that he is open to the proposal, noting that the alleged shooter in Dayton kept a "hit list" of people he wanted to target in high school. "Clearly people knew something was wrong with this guy, and yet nobody went to the proper authorities or the proper authorities didn't respond," he said.

A red flag law may "bridge this issue of the guns and the mental health issue, where you identify somebody who has a mental health history that might not be formally diagnosed but that people know about," he said.

WHAT ABOUT SENATE MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL?

The Kentucky Republican said Thursday that he wants Congress to consider legislation to expand federal background checks and other gun violence measures when lawmakers return in the fall.

"Background checks and red flags will probably lead the discussion," he said.

Congress passed amodest measure last year to shore up the federal background check system and approved a grant program to prevent school violence — signs that action on gun violence is possible, McConnell said.

WHAT ABOUT THE NRA?

A National Rifle Association spokeswoman declined to comment on red flag laws.

World-Herald staff writer Martha Stoddard contributed to this report.

IN MIDLANDS

Sen. Ben Sasse says he could support a 'red flag' law, depending on the details.


Metro
$42 million in repairs and upgrades to Offutt levee to offer more protection against flooding

At last.

After years of delays and the cruel irony of historic flooding hitting weeks before improvements were set to begin, repair and upgrades of levees at Offutt Air Force Base start this month.

The roughly $42 million in work promises to better protect Omaha’s primary sewer treatment plant, roads and other infrastructure north of the confluence of the Platte and Missouri Rivers.

The start of construction is possible because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers this week awarded a $10.3 million contract to repair two Offutt area levees severely damaged by this spring’s flooding. Raising the levees couldn’t begin before damage to the levees was addressed.

In March, historic flooding caused at least $420 million in damage at Offutt; that sum is based on a preliminary, partial estimate. Omaha’s nearby Papillion Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant sustained $35 million in damage.

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Upgrading the Offutt levee had been under review for about six years, and work was poised to start this past spring when the flood hit. The March flooding and an accompanying blizzard in western Nebraska have been described as the costliest disaster in state history.

This came after catastrophic flooding in 1993 and 2011 that underscored a need for enhanced levees along the Missouri. Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, also highlighted a national problem with levees.

Various agencies are collaborating so that the two Offutt area projects — repairing and upgrading — can be done in tandem.

“We’re ecstatic,” said John Winkler, general manager for the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District, which is overseeing upgrades to the levee. Winkler said the NRD’s work will be simultaneous to the work by the corps.

“It’s a big enough project that we can be working in areas where they don’t need to be,” Winkler said. “This will make it more efficient — it will save us both money.”

Repairs to the levees are being funded by the federal government. The raising of the levees is being funded by the NRD, the State of Nebraska, the Cities of Omaha and Bellevue and Sarpy County.

Floods devastate Nebraska, Iowa in March 2019

Each project is crucial to reducing the flood threat to Offutt and nearby infrastructure, Winkler and others have said. Repairs led by the corps will return the levees to their pre-flood condition, meaning they will be ready for next spring’s flood season. A Washington state firm, IE-Weston Federal Service JVB LLC, will be doing repairs and has been given 90 days to complete the work.

The raising and widening of levees — and accompanying improvements — is projected to cost between $32 million and $35 million, according to the NRD. When the upgrades are complete, the levees will be 1 to 3 feet higher and 2 to 4 feet wider. That work, awarded to a Canadian firm, Graham Construction, is expected to take two years.

The NRD says those improvements should largely protect Offutt and the sewage treatment plant against the level of flooding that occurred this spring. The improvements also should eliminate the need for the Herculean effort required in 2011 to save the sewer plant and Offutt from that flood.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is using an expedited contracting procedure on repairs to make it easier for the NRD to work hand in hand with the corps, corps official Bret Budd said.

Budd, chief of the corps’ Omaha District Systems Restoration Team, said the corps designed the repair contract around a cost-reimbursement process.

It’s not a contracting process that’s being widely used along the river this summer, said Matthew Krajewski, readiness branch chief for the Omaha district of the corps. The process has been used to close breaches to L550, a levee in northwest Missouri where ongoing flooding is a potential threat to Interstate 29.

The Offutt levees, known as R616-613, run about 19 miles.

Photos: Signs of flood damage still everywhere at Offutt Air Force Base

Military
Nearly eight decades later, family will bury Lincoln twins killed in Pearl Harbor attack

LINCOLN — Identical twins who perished in the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, are finally coming home.

Family members will gather Saturday morning in Lincoln to bury Leo and Rudolph Blitz, who were killed after Japanese torpedoes struck their ship, the USS Oklahoma, in the early moments of the raid. The battleship quickly rolled over and sank, taking 429 sailors with her.

The remains of the two 20-year-olds were recently identified at an Omaha-based military lab tasked with identifying remains of missing and unidentified soldiers and sailors. The lab had sifted through the comingled remains of dozens of sailors buried as “unidentified” in several graves in Hawaii, using modern DNA tests to discern their identity.

How the Blitz brothers went from a Hawaiian cemetery informally known as “the Punchbowl” to burial plots among relatives in Lincoln is being labeled as a near miracle by family members.

“This is not something I’d ever imagine would happen. I didn’t think it was an option,” said Kris Shelledy, a niece of the brothers. “It’s a fantastic story.”

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Among the mourners will be the twins’ only surviving sibling, 93-year-old Betty Pitsch of Lincoln, as well as family members from as far away as Alabama, California and New England.

Pitsch, whose DNA helped identify her brothers, said they were always good to her, and she remembers them “with tears in my eyes.”

The burial service, with full military honors, will offer some closure for the family of the Blitz brothers. Many family members knew the twins only through stories told by parents, now long deceased.

“They were put almost on a pedestal in our family for the sacrifices they made,” said Kris’ sister, Susan Born-Blitz of Fort Lee, Virginia. “Now, we don’t have to think of them being in Hawaii. They’ve joined the rest of their family in Lincoln.”

The family had been so sure that there would never be a burial that two brothers of the twins had purchased a single funeral plot at Lincoln’s Memorial Park cemetery years ago, placing a joint headstone for Leo and Rudolph.

The burial will reunite the twins, who had been almost inseparable in life but were stationed in separate areas of the 583-foot-long battleship when the torpedoes struck.

Family members were told years after the attack that Rudolph Blitz, a fireman first class, was patrolling on deck when the Oklahoma was first attacked. Meanwhile, his brother Leo, a machinist’s mate second class, was below deck attending to the ship’s generator.

NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION 

The USS Oklahoma was sunk by several bombs and torpedoes during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. A total of 429 crew died when the ship capsized. The Oklahoma was righted and salvaged in 1943 and the remains of many crew members were recovered. 

Fires spread quickly and the ship was beginning to list, they were told, and Rudolph was told to abandon ship.

But he refused, according to fellow sailor Harry Hanson, who survived the attack. “He said, ‘I’m going down to get my brother,’ ” according to Hanson. Rudolph Blitz was never seen again.

Whether he ever reached his brother is unknown, according to his nieces. Susanne Pitsch of Lincoln, another niece, said that Rudolph’s body was found in waters near the ship, possibly a victim of enemy fire, while Leo, who was deep inside the Oklahoma, was initially listed as “missing.” Rudolph Blitz was mistakenly buried along with the other unidentified bodies, the family learned years later, where his brother Leo’s remains were also interred.

But on Saturday, they’ll be laid to rest side by side, in a cemetery where their Russian-born parents and a couple of their 10 siblings are buried.

Kris Shelledy, a former Omaha resident who now lives in Huntsville, Alabama, said her father, Robert, enlisted in the military after his twin brothers perished. He initially ran away from home at age 16 and tried to enlist, but was turned back. A year later, he successfully joined the Navy, starting a long career in the military that included service with the Air Force and reserves before retiring with his family in Lincoln.

Shelledy said she attended the same Lincoln schools as the Blitz brothers: Park Elementary, Everett Junior High and Lincoln High School. The boys attended a church in the Germans-from-Russia area of Lincoln, Zion Congregational Church, which stood just south of the downtown area.

KRIS SHELLEDY 

The identical twins went on to serve in the Navy together and sacrifice their lives at Pearl Harbor. Family considered them “our heroes.”

The twins did everything together, even enlisting in the Navy on the same day in 1938. They were known as pranksters. Born-Blitz said that one family story was that Leo and Rudolph shared a girlfriend while in training in San Diego, with each brother taking turns dating her when they had leave.

“Apparently, she didn’t know the difference,” she said.

The two nieces said that their father, who was seven years younger than the twins, didn’t talk a lot about his deceased brothers, except to say how much he admired them.

“They’re our heroes,” Shelledy said.

She expressed gratitude that the military never gave up in trying to identify the remains of those lost on the Oklahoma. “To think that after all of these years, they weren’t forgotten,” Shelledy said.

After World War II ended, the bodies of the unidentified Oklahoma victims were exhumed from two Hawaiian cemeteries. Back then, dental records were used to identify bodies. But that effort ended with none of the remains being identified. They were then reburied with other remains.

OMAHA WORLD-HERALD 

In this September 1942 photo, Nebraska Gov. Dwight Griswold presents certificates of appreciation to Marie and Henry Blitz of Lincoln in honor of their twin sons, Leo and Rudolph Blitz. Both sons died aboard the battleship USS Oklahoma in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941.

For years, the Navy resisted further efforts to identify the remains. Then, in 2015, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work allowed the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, headquartered at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, to disinter and identify the bones.

DNA samples were taken from the living relatives of the Blitz brothers. On May 21, the twins’ remains were positively identified by the lab.

“We must work as hard as we can to restore their names,” said Brig. Gen. Mark Spindler, the POW/MIA agency’s deputy director, in a statement to The World-Herald in 2015. “This is our sacred promise that we make to our sons and daughters when we put them in harm’s way.”

When Betty Pitsch learned the news, it brought back bittersweet memories, she said, along with concern about what her mother must have thought when she lost her twin boys.

Both Shelledy and Born-Blitz said their only regret is that their father, who so idolized the twins, couldn’t be at the service on Saturday. Robert Blitz died in 1992.

“The cousins have always heard about Leo and Rudolph. We’ll finally be able to say farewell,” Born-Blitz said.

Photos: Twins to be buried eight decades after being killed at Pearl Harbor