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Average price for not scooping the walk in Omaha last winter: $950. City is considering changes

Omaha property owners who failed to clear their sidewalks of snow and ice last winter are digging out from big bills from the city.

The city sent 184 property owners bills totaling a combined $174,117 for removing snow from sidewalks, according to Public Works Department records.

Most homeowners were charged between $300 and $700 for snow removal provided by a city contractor. The owners of commercial and industrial properties paid more, with many receiving bills of more than $3,000.

For a number of years, the city has hired a private contractor to clear sidewalks when property owners fail to do it themselves.

But the cost of that contract has quadrupled since 2013, and Public Works and the City Council are considering changes to reduce the amounts property owners are charged.

Last fall, only two contractors submitted a bid for the sidewalk work. The lowest bidder, DPS, secured the contract, despite charging fees of $6 to $10 a foot, depending on the snow’s depth. The other bidder, Bayshore Contractors, bid $15 to $25 a foot.

The average bill for sidewalk snow removal this past winter was $950.

With bills that large, it would have been cheaper for people to hire a snow removal company, or the neighbor kid.

The bid was approved by the City Council in November after some discussion.

Public Works officials say the contractor must deal with snow that hasn’t been cleared for several days, leaving it hardened and ice-packed.

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Examples of this winter’s bills:

• A west Omaha homeowner near Grace Abbott Elementary School received a $1,021.44 bill for the contractor to scoop the sidewalk on March 5.

  • A teacher who lives in northeast Omaha’s Minne Lusa neighborhood was sent a $1,048.32 bill for clearing a sidewalk on Jan. 25.
  • An Iowa investment firm that owns commercial property near 50th and L Streets received a $7,129.92 bill for clearing sidewalks around the property on Dec. 11.
  • MOBECO Industries, which owns a building at 18th and Leavenworth Streets, received a $5,214.72 sidewalk bill. It was later reduced to $3,441.72.

MOBECO has sued the city in Douglas County District Court, arguing that the city violated its due process rights by not giving the property owners notice and time to clear the sidewalk.

As a matter of practice, Public Works officials try to notify property owners before sending out a crew, but it’s not required under city ordinances.

Company President Bernard Morello said Monday that he pays a private company to clear snow from his property, at a cost of about $135 per job, but that the city’s plows often cover the sidewalk again.

Michaela Bland, a single mom with three kids who lives in northeast Omaha, said she got behind clearing snow this winter and faced an angry landlord after a $1,209.60 bill arrived for the home she rents on a corner lot.

At a recent City Council hearing, she said that she didn’t object to paying but that the price felt “a little high.”

“I tried to keep it clear,” she said, using what she had, a broom and a piece of a shovel.

A city ordinance gives property owners 24 hours after the major streets are plowed to clear sidewalks. The city says it sends out a contractor only when it receives a complaint.

Public Works received an avalanche of complaints about uncleared sidewalks this winter, 2,899. Over the past six years, the next-highest number of complaints came in 2017-18, when the city received 400, based on data requested by The World-Herald.

Many of the snow removal bills ended up before the City Council’s Board of Equalization, either because property owners fought the bill or didn’t pay. About $133,000 of the total reached the board.

The board held hearings this summer to decide whether to assess liens against the properties for the amounts owed.

Some property owners told of dealing with health troubles and hospital stays and returning home to “astronomical” bills.

But people who received the bills will have to pay them if they want to sell their properties, officials said.

Councilwoman Aimee Melton, who attended the hearings, has proposed a new ordinance that she describes as a better, fairer way forward.

A public hearing on the measure will be held during the City Council’s regular 2 p.m. meeting on Tuesday in the City-County Building at 1819 Farnam St.

Melton’s proposed ordinance would require Public Works to each year determine the market rate for removing snow from sidewalks at various depths.

The city would still have to clear the sidewalks, using a contractor or Public Works employees, but property owners could be charged no more than the market rate set for the year.

To keep people shoveling their walks, the ordinance would add fines of up to $300 for repeat offenders.

Melton said her hope is that Public Works would not be able to accept a bid as high as last year’s without going over budget or using its own employees to clear sidewalks.

Public Works Director Bob Stubbe has said he will aggressively seek bids to do the sidewalk work for the coming winter.

The city is reaching out to small contractors and businesses that have done business with the city and encouraging them to bid.

Jason Armstrong, who owns DPS, the city’s current sidewalk snow removal contractor, said finding cheaper contractors might be tough.

Packed snow from this winter’s snows destroyed at least a dozen of his company’s snowblowers, and he had to keep ice melt in a warehouse for fear of running out. The city used to provide the ice melt but no longer does.

The city also requires the contractor to secure a bond but doesn’t guarantee any pay, Armstrong said. In three of the past six years, the contractor that was selected didn’t do any jobs for the city and wasn’t paid.

DPS was paid $155,462 for this past winter.

But Melton said she wants the ordinance because homeowners and businesses can’t afford unplanned expenses of thousands of dollars.

That could “kill” a business or family budget, she said.

World-Herald researcher Sheritha Jones contributed to this report.

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Nebraska prison watchdog calls for 'definite action' on staffing; Lathrop says start with better pay

LINCOLN — Lingering problems at Nebraska’s state prisons won’t be solved until facilities are fully staffed, a leading state senator on corrections issues said Monday.

And that means better pay for corrections workers, said State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha.

“It’s going to be a vicious cycle until we fix the staffing,” he said. “You can’t fix the culture, you can’t fix the low morale, until you have more people working at the prisons.”

The comments came after a prison watchdog reported Monday that state prison workers are working record-high overtime hours to cover vacant posts. Nebraska’s prisons — the second-most overcrowded in the nation — are as overcrowded as ever, according to the annual report by the Legislature’s inspector general for corrections.

The state spent more than $15 million on overtime for security staff in 2018, which is about three times as much as a decade earlier and 23% more than the previous year, the report says.

That was due, in part, to the fact that the number of unfilled security staff positions rose from 252 to 379 over the past year. One in four posts at the state’s largest prison, the Nebraska State Penitentiary, were vacant as of June, the report says, and almost one in three protective services positions were unfilled at the Tecumseh State Prison.

The overtime and job vacancy problems have persisted despite efforts by the state to bolster recruitment and retention of corrections officers and corporals, including offering $3,000 bonuses to new hires this spring and signing a new union contract that included merit increases for some workers.

Inspector General Doug Koebernick said the Department of Correctional Services waited too long to address its staffing shortages. He cast doubt on whether the state, given its current salaries, could hire staff to fill posts at two new prison additions now under construction.

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“Francis Bacon once said, ‘Hope is a good breakfast, but it is a bad supper,’ ” Koebernick wrote. “Nebraska can hope that the staffing situation will resolve itself in the next year or two, but definite action needs to be taken to make it so, or else these new units will be short-handed from the first day of operation.”

The report calls for the formation of a “comprehensive task force” to quickly provide new approaches to hiring and retaining staff that the governor and Legislature can consider soon. It also recommended a look at higher starting salaries and implementation of wage hikes for experienced workers.

A spokesman for the Corrections Department deferred comment to Gov. Pete Ricketts, whose office declined to comment, other than to say it was reviewing the report.

Prison staff, primarily the corrections officers and corporals who guard inmates, have complained for years about low starting pay and the elimination, several years ago, of salary increases for longevity. In recent years, excessive overtime — often two to three 16-hour shifts a week — has been the target of objections. State workers say better pay and working conditions at county jails lure away state prison workers.

The increase in overtime, the report says, contributed to a weary workforce, concerns about worker safety and low morale.

To fill vacant posts, the agency began offering $3,000 hiring bonuses this spring, as well as bonuses for staff who recruit new workers. The department has also been busing about 70 corrections officers a day from Omaha to fill vacancies at the Tecumseh State Prison, a rural facility that has struggled to attract and retain workers in recent years.

To address concerns about low pay, the department signed a new union contract in April that allows for “merit raises” of 2.5% for one, three, five, seven and 10 years on the job. The contract also granted raises of up to 12.5% for some veteran workers, based on their years of service.

The agency has also turned to hiring most entry-level employees as corporals, who start out at $18.44 an hour, instead of as corrections officers, who have starting salaries of $16.74 to $17 an hour.

But by comparison, an officer at the Lancaster County Jail would make $21.43 an hour after working there a year and would continue to get raises based on experience every few years; starting pay is also higher at the Douglas and Sarpy County Jails.

Lathrop, who led legislative investigations into problems at prisons as well as at the Beatrice State Developmental Center, said many of the problems at the Beatrice center were rooted in a staff shortage, which led to excessive overtime requirements, which led to high turnover and poor outcomes.

Conditions at Beatrice turned around when staffing problems were resolved, he said. Corrections is at a point where its starting pay is not competitive and staffers are being ordered to work overtime, Lathrop said.

“Workers are deciding, ‘It’s not worth it to me; I’m going to work at Walmart and have a family life,’ ” he said.

Despite the rise in overtime, staff turnover at state prisons, overall, dropped slightly, to about 28% in 2019. But that’s still about double what’s considered ideal. And hiring of new security staff dipped slightly during the past year, to 533 new recruits in 2018-19 from a high of 661 in 2017-18.

Koebernick, in his report, recommended that experienced staff be assigned to mentor new hires to help deter them from quitting and that more be done to recruit new workers. He pointed out that only 33% of the new hires given $2,500 bonuses in 2017 to work at the Tecumseh prison are still on the job.

The report did include some good news: Vacancies among mental health workers are down, violence reduction programs increased and more minorities (about 15% of total staff) are working for the agency.

But the overall tone of the 271-page report was grim. State prisons hold 5,472 inmates, about 1,900 more inmates than they were designed to hold, despite efforts to reform criminal sentencing and speed up release of inmates on parole. Nebraska has been sued in federal court over its prison overcrowding, which, if eased, would make state prisons safer and easier to manage, Koebernick’s report said.

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UNL plans new $85 million engineering building to help tackle Nebraska's workforce shortage

LINCOLN — Construction of a privately funded, $85 million engineering building will help the state dig its way out of a workforce hole, university and business leaders said Monday.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Engineering announced its plan to erect the new building, called Kiewit Hall, at 17th and Vine Streets.

The facility, boosted by a $20 million donation from Omaha construction giant Peter Kiewit Sons’ Inc., is one of several elements in the College of Engineering’s plan to supply more highly skilled technical workers to the state.

“Kiewit Hall will attract the best students to the University of Nebraska,” UNL Engineering Dean Lance Pérez said at a press conference and celebration concerning the announcement.

State and industry leaders have cited a shortage of technical workers as a cloud hanging over Nebraska’s future. They say an existing “brain drain” of talented workers will hinder Nebraska’s ability to thrive.

Interim NU President Susan Fritz said at a press conference that strengthening the engineering college and workforce are the NU system’s No. 1 focus. Engineering, Fritz said “is at the top of the list.”

Pérez said he wants to increase his college’s enrollment from about 3,100 to 5,000 within a decade. UNL said that by 2026, the state will need about 15,000 new workers in engineering and computer science.

An effort started by the business and education communities more than a year ago, Blueprint Nebraska, seeks to address the loss of talented workers to other states. Blueprint Nebraska has called for more startup companies, venture capital, high-quality jobs, graduates in science and technology, and research and development.


Lance Pérez

More than a year ago, the NU Board of Regents agreed that the Scott Engineering Center should be renovated, Nebraska Hall would undergo building code and handicapped-accessible upgrades, and The Link would be taken down and rebuilt. Nebraska Hall and The Link are within the university’s engineering complex.

Those improvements, costing $75 million, will largely be funded by the state, with $5 million coming from private sources.

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The project announced Monday will be in addition to those improvements.

Bruce Grewcock, chief executive officer of Kiewit, said his company needs 1,000 additional engineers annually in the U.S. and Canada for growth and to replace those who leave. Grewcock said Kiewit also uses about 900 interns a year.

“And we’ve got a little bit of catch-up to do” in Nebraska, Grewcock said.

A 2015-16 regents analysis found that the College of Engineering buildings were “among the worst in the entire University of Nebraska system.” That would include NU’s campuses in Omaha, Lincoln, Kearney and Curtis.

Pérez said a year ago that research funding at UNL’s College of Engineering was at the bottom of the engineering schools in the Big Ten.

Brad Strittmatter, chief executive of the Olsson public infrastructure firm, which started in Lincoln, said in an interview Monday that about a third of his 350 engineers came from the UNL College of Engineering.

“So it’s a big deal when we can grow the student base here,” Strittmatter said.

And Todd Foje, chairman of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce’s board, said workers with technical skills are in demand all over the country. “So it is challenging, finding and retaining that kind of talent,” he said.

Donors to the engineering improvements besides Kiewit include Nebraska individuals and companies Hausmann Construction; Dan and Angie Muhleisen; Olsson; the Union Pacific Foundation; Don Voelte and Nancy Keegan; and Jim and Mary Abel. Others include Robert and Joell Brightfelt of Chicago and Rick and Carol McNeel of Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Delaney Bachman, a senior engineering major from North Dakota, told the audience that the UNL College of Engineering produces quality right now.

“The students already compete among the best in the nation,” Bachman said.

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Councilman Vinny Palermo says he's not resigning after guilty plea in tax-filing case

In his first comment after pleading guilty to failing to file federal income tax returns, Omaha City Councilman Vinny Palermo on Tuesday described it as "an administrative matter" and said he won't resign from office.

Palermo, 46, entered guilty pleas Monday for willful failure to file income tax returns for 2012, 2013 and 2014, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Omaha announced.

He admitted in court that he failed to file the returns within the time required, which is a misdemeanor under federal law.

"Absolutely, I will not resign," Palermo said Tuesday before declining to answer further questions.

On Monday, he referred questions to his lawyer,  James Martin Davis, who said Palermo has fixed the mistakes and paid what he owed. He noted that Palermo filed the income tax returns more than two years ago.

Court documents show that Palermo owed taxes on income from his tree-trimming business, Vinny’s Tree Service. Prosecutors say he willfully failed to file tax returns after receiving gross income of $145,434 in 2012, $220,400 in 2013 and $129,612 in 2014, according to court documents.

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Palermo agreed to pay restitution for $21,209 in taxes owed and take responsibility for the mistake, according to the plea agreement.

“I failed to file my tax returns several years ago in a timely manner,” Palermo wrote in his petition for a plea agreement. “They have now been filed.”

Davis said it’s not uncommon for new business owners to have trouble with how to handle tax withholding and quarterly tax payments.

As part of Palermo’s plea agreement, federal prosecutors agreed not to seek additional charges based on whether Palermo filed returns for 2015 and 2016. Davis said he had no indication that those returns were late.

Palermo could spend up to a year in federal prison on each of the three counts, along with fines of up to $100,000, as well as a year of supervised release. Davis said he doesn’t expect Palermo to receive prison time.

“Mr. Palermo should have been more aware of his own financial obligations,” said Karl Stiften, the special agent in charge of the IRS investigation. “This wasn’t an oversight or mistake.”

City Attorney Paul Kratz declined to comment on whether the charges might affect Palermo’s ability to serve on the City Council. Davis said they would not.

Mayor Jean Stothert, reached through a spokeswoman, and Council President Chris Jerram declined to comment on the case.

Palermo, who was elected to the council in 2017, previously served on the Omaha Public Schools board.

He won a three-way primary for his South Omaha council seat, beating Jim Rogers by 45 votes. He is a Democrat on the officially nonpartisan council. The Douglas County Republican Party on Monday called on Palermo to resign.

In his council role, Palermo has sided often with organized labor and city employees and butted heads with Public Works, where he once worked.

He has also sometimes backed Stothert, including on the recent vote to award the city’s next trash contract to FCC Environmental.

Palermo’s sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 9.

World-Herald staff writers Christopher Burbach and Todd Cooper contributed to this report.

Photos: Our best shots of 2019 (so far)