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OHA board has had no resident or racial minority member for months, but law requires both

State law requires the Omaha Housing Authority to have a resident representative on its board, but that position has gone unfilled for eight months and counting, since the previous representative resigned in February.

The agency also has had no person from a racial minority on its board since late May. Nebraska law also requires the OHA board to have at least one such representative.

The seats are sitting unfilled as the agency plans major redevelopments, directly affecting more than 1,500 people who live in family public housing apartment complexes in north and South Omaha.

The OHA board is supposed to have seven members. It currently has only five, all of whom are white, including former interim OHA CEO Christine Johnson of Valley. Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert appointed Johnson in August to fill a vacancy on the board, ahead of appointing a resident representative or racial minority member.

State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, who sponsored a 2017 bill that tweaked OHA board membership and appointment requirements in response to a federal audit of the agency, said Wednesday that he was shocked to learn from a reporter of the languishing vacancy in the resident representative’s seat.

“This needs to be immediately addressed as federal funding could potentially be affected,” Wayne said. “The fact that they still haven’t appointed someone (to the resident vacancy) is a huge concern.”

If it’s not filled soon, Wayne said, the Legislature should consider new legislation to require that the resident representative be appointed within a certain time frame, possibly six months.

The mayor appoints OHA board members, with City Council approval. OHA and Mayor’s Office officials said they are working to fill the vacancies.

“We are certainly aware of the obligations and we are actively working on them,” OHA board Chair David Levy said.

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The other members are Assistant Omaha City Attorney Jennifer Taylor; Todd Engle, owner of Kuehl Capital, which provides financial consulting services to sanitary and improvement districts; and Joel Dougherty, chief operating officer of OneWorld Community Health Centers Inc. The OHA board positions are unpaid.

Levy, a partner in the Baird Holm law firm, said that in addition to meeting the statutory requirements, having minority and resident representation on the board is important to OHA leaders.

“It absolutely is something we want,” Levy said.

The Housing Authority, following a process set out by state law, solicited applications for the resident board slot from residents of its developments and people who receive federal rent subsidies through the agency. The Housing Authority then hand-delivered about 25 applications from residents to the Mayor’s Office in June, according to information obtained by The World-Herald through a public records request.

The mayor is supposed to choose someone from that list to appoint.

It is unclear what has happened since then. According to public records, a mayoral staffer, Brandi Preston, emailed an OHA attorney in August with a question about the agency’s top three choices. Preston, who is Stothert’s community services manager, emailed the attorney, Brian Hansen, again on Oct. 1 and told him, “We’re going through these applications.”

Joanie Poore, CEO of the Housing Authority, said in an interview that the agency had contacted the Mayor’s Office in August about the resident commissioner position after an official with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development asked a question about the vacancy.

Levy said it was his understanding that the Mayor’s Office has been vetting the resident applicants and could appoint someone soon.

Stothert’s deputy chief of staff for communications, Carrie Murphy, said she had been told that some of the resident applicants were not qualified to hold the position.

She said only the mayor could answer further questions about the Mayor’s Office’s handling of the resident representative appointment. Murphy said Stothert, who was visiting Omaha’s new sister city in France, could not be reached for comment until after she returns this week.

As for the minority position, Stothert said through Murphy, before the mayor left for France, that the Mayor’s Office had “not received any applications for the vacant member (minority) position, or recommendations from current Board for that vacancy and the board has not expressed any concern about the search to her.”

Levy confirmed that the housing authority had not suggested any racial minority candidates.

“The mayor gives us the ability to suggest potential applicants to the board,” he said. “I and my colleagues have been working to identify somebody who is not only qualified, but willing and has the time to serve on the board. If it’s somebody’s fault, it’s not the mayor’s, it’s mine.”

As for the resident representative, Levy said the Housing Authority had done its part by notifying residents and forwarding their applications.

State law requires that the Housing Authority notify residents within 30 days of a vacancy occurring that it exists and that they can apply for it.

Steven Abraham resigned from the OHA board as the resident representative in February. He did so for a good reason: He improved his financial situation enough that he no longer qualified for a Section 8 rental subsidy, so he was no longer qualified to be on the board.

The Housing Authority didn’t make the early March deadline for notifying residents, Poore said. The agency had to send notices to more than 6,000 people, and its computer system crashed for 10 days in February. The notices went out in mid-March, Poore said.

She and the board want to have a resident representative on the board, she said, but she added that residents do have a voice at the agency through resident associations and their presidents.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Jalei Hobson, one of the people on OHA’s list of top resident representative applicants, said she was happy to hear she was on the list, although it surprised her because so much time had gone by since she applied.

Hobson is a University of Nebraska at Omaha senior in black studies and biology who works for the nonprofit Ollie Webb Center Inc. The phone call from a reporter interrupted her in her volunteer work, mentoring a youth in the TeamMates Mentoring program.

“They asked for forms to be turned in by April 1,” Hobson said. “I haven’t heard anything back from that. I assumed they must have picked someone else.”

Kimara Snipe, a neighborhood leader whose backyard fence abuts OHA’s Southside Terrace and who serves as an elected member of the Omaha school board, said Omaha boards historically have often lacked representatives from the people who are most affected by the agencies’ actions.

Snipe, president of the Highland South-Indian Hill Neighborhood Association, works on neighborhood issues with Southside resident leaders. Her neighborhood is a prospective part of a redevelopment that would include Southside, home to about 1,300 people.

Snipe wasn’t aware of the board vacancies. She questioned whether the mayor and OHA officials are making it a priority to fill them.

“To not have a resident member of the OHA board for this long makes me question the seriousness of their intent,” Snipe said.

The longer the vacancies go unfilled, “even if there is no ill intent, you run the risk of sending the message that you’re excluding people, saying that you don’t want them to be involved. I’m not saying they’re doing that, but they risk sending that message.”

As for finding a person of color to serve on the board, Snipe, who is African American, said there are plenty of qualified people in the city. She offered her help in finding potential members.

“There’s no reason the board can’t find a minority in Omaha to be on that board,” she said. “I have a pretty large network that’s quite capable of providing them the talent they need. ... It would be responsible for our mayor to make sure that it (filling the vacancies) happens.”

Abraham, the former resident representative, said the housing agency has shown a willingness to engage residents, including by seeking their input on redevelopment plans for Spencer Homes and Southside Terrace.

“They’ve beefed up their community relations,” Abraham said.

But he added, “It’s going to be very crucial that the residents stay involved in this process.”

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State_and_regional
Massive Costco chicken plant up and running despite concerns about the facility and suppliers

FREMONT — Costco’s rotisserie chickens are so popular that fans of the roasted fowl started their own Facebook page, a page that now has more than 17,000 followers.

The cooked birds, which cost $4.99 apiece, are such a draw for the warehouse retailer that it chose Nebraska to launch its first venture in growing and processing its own chickens for its stores.

A $450 million campus of buildings that opened recently in Fremont will eventually process 2 million chickens a week, or about 100 million a year, enough to supply a third of Costco’s demand for both roasted and fresh chicken. The complex will also eventually employ 800 workers, have a network of 520 chicken barns and require the equivalent of 2,000 acres of corn and 2,000 acres of soybeans every week to feed those hungry chickens.

But the plant, which celebrated its grand opening on Saturday, still draws mixed reviews.

On one side, advocates like Gov. Pete Ricketts say the Costco plant hits the sweet spot for economic growth by providing new opportunities for farmers to grow chickens, provide grain and keep their kids on the farm, while generating hundreds of jobs in “value-added” agriculture.

“This is really a great opportunity to grow an industry,” Ricketts said last week.

When asked about rumors that Costco might be eyeing Nebraska for a second chicken-processing plant, the governor said the state “would certainly love that.”

“What we’re focused on (now) is making sure their experience with this (Fremont) plant is a great one,” Ricketts said.

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But there are others who see Costco’s arrival as much less than great. One coalition has called for a moratorium on construction of new chicken barns until state and local zoning and environmental rules catch up with complexes that will host up to 760,000 birds at a time.

They question whether the contract growers who sign up to produce chickens for Costco will all benefit, and worry about the health risks and environmental impact created by the chicken barns, which the John Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future estimated would generate 3.9 million pounds of manure a day, about twice the solid waste generated by the City of Omaha.

“This is not a regular (concentrated animal feeding operation). It’s the size and the scale. It’s not a family farm. It’s extreme,” said Melissa Baker of Lincoln, a leader in one of the groups, GC Resolve, that is opposing an eight-barn complex a mile from Raymond Central School in Lancaster County.

The complex, which goes before the Lancaster County Board next month, is unanimously opposed by the Raymond Central school board, which expressed concerns about increased heavy truck traffic and depletion of underground water supplies for the school.

Ricketts and other Costco supporters maintain that the opposition is fueled by out-of-state, radical environmentalists, who are anti-meat.

But Baker disputed that. Her husband, she said, grew up on a farm, and she said that opponents are local residents, including many farmers. They are concerned, she said, about the huge size of the chicken barn complexes, and concerned about a future in which a huge corporation like Costco dictates the profit and practices of farmers.

“We are not interested in shutting down family farms,” Baker said. “We just want a freeze and hold until our regulations are updated.”

Jessica Kolterman of Premium Poultry, the firm managing the Fremont plant and contracting with the chicken growers, said there were only “pockets” of opposition to the 520 barns, which are spread across 20 counties in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa. Now, she said, there’s a waiting list of people seeking to build barns and grow chickens for the Costco plant.

The “odor footprint” of the barns is only about a quarter-mile, and Kolterman maintained that the manure — actually a wood-chip litter mixed with chicken waste — has less potential to be washed away than synthetic fertilizers.

She added that Costco asked for additional state environmental regulation that requires chicken growers to obtain the same state permit as operators of feedlots and hog confinement complexes, which includes monitoring the disposal of the litter from the barns. Truck traffic generated by the barns, Kolterman said, should be no more than during crop harvest seasons.

About one-third of the chicken barns are now producing, using chicks hatched at the Costco plant and fed feed milled there.

“We’ve checked every single box that we’ve ever been asked about,” she said.

As of last week, the Costco plant had 550 employees, an increase of 150 since the plant opened on Sept. 9. Hiring of a second shift of workers is expected to begin in February, with full operations expected by the end of summer 2020.

Kolterman said that 97% of the workforce has so far been hired from the local area. She cited better wages (the lowest starting wage is $15 an hour plus benefits), better opportunity for advancement and the ability to avoid a commute outside of the area as some of the reasons.

The migration of workers to Costco has impacted the workforce at other Fremont businesses, according to Garry Clark, executive director of the Greater Fremont Development Council.

But the area already had labor shortages, and the opening of the plant has spawned an increased effort to lure and train workers and to increase housing, he said.

Kolterman said that the size of the chicken barn complexes in Nebraska, up to 16 barns each with 47,000 birds per barn, is moderate compared with other states, which have farms twice that size.

“It’s just not something that people are familiar with,” Kolterman said.

One of the Costco growers, Bruce Williams, came back to the Morse Bluff farm of his childhood in 2005, and signed a contract for Costco because it was a way to diversify his corn-soybean farm, and a way to possibly keep one or more of his four children on the farm.

“We’re a family farming operation that wants to produce a safe, domestic food product for U.S. citizens to eat,” Williams said. “That’s what we’re supposed to do as farmers.”

His 12-barn complex overcame opposition from some neighbors, though he said he’s fielded plenty of comments, often confidential, that support his endeavor. The chicken complex won approval on a 5-2 vote by the Saunders County Board earlier this month on the condition that Williams install a retention pond for runoff, plant a barrier of trees to contain odor and dust, and provide a fire hydrant in case of fire.

He said he purposely located the barns “in my own backyard,” within 3/8ths of a mile of his home, to avoid criticism.

“What’s frustrating is that people want to eat a safe, domestic food supply, but a lot of people don’t want it produced near them,” Williams said.

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This is a six-barn chicken grower facility in Nebraska.

He said he initially looked into building an eight-barn complex, and had consulted with his local banker. Then he learned of a North Carolina investor, Jody Murphey, who was willing to bankroll chicken growers. Williams said he looked into Murphey’s background and met with him in Nebraska, before agreeing to a 15-year deal to finance a larger complex of 12 chicken barns. The barns, costing $7 million to $8 million, would be paid off by the time his children are ready to take over.

“For us it was just like getting a loan from the bank,” he said, adding that it would have been too expensive to get into growing chickens if not for his contract to supply the Costco plant.

Williams called the requirements put on contract growers no different from the risks he takes in growing corn and soybeans.

“We have to produce a quality product that people will want to buy,” he said.

But critics say that Costco will have too much control over farmers, and that corporate domination of farming and farmers endangers the independence that rural life provides.

Graham Christensen, who heads up GC Resolve, as well as selling solar energy installations and being an environmental consultant, said he recently talked to a North Carolina grower who got crossways with the chicken plant he had contracted with. His contract was canceled, and now he’s stuck with a complex of expensive, and empty, barns, Christensen said.

“The contracts give them full control. ... You’re disposable,” Christensen said. “If there’s anything not quite right, they can terminate the contract at any time.”

He said that current state and local regulations concerning these “mega” chicken barn complexes are weak and inadequate, and urged Nebraskans to call for updates and improvements. He disputed the notion that the only way to stay in agriculture was to “get bigger.”

“That’s one vision, but it’s not the way it has to be,” Christensen said. “There are better ways.”

Former State Sen. Lee Rupp of Monroe, who still helps farm, lives just down the road from two 16-barn chicken complexes being built for Costco. He calls them chicken “factories” rather than barns — the two will host up to 1.5 million birds.

But, he said, the days when every farm had a chicken coop with a few hens are gone. Farms have gotten bigger, and farmhouses are fewer and farther between, which has meant fewer people, and fewer rural schools. The massive chicken barns are just part of those changes, Rupp said.

“We’ve seen the industrialization of the pork industry and now the chicken industry,” he said. “Whether we like it or not is immaterial.”

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Cancer's effects on kids can linger. New survivorship clinic in Omaha helps them thrive

Seven years after completing his cancer treatment, 13-year-old Carson Vecera recently was back in the doctor’s office.

This time, however, the focus wasn’t on keeping him alive in the face of a scary diagnosis but providing the kind of care needed to help him thrive for the rest of his life.

Over the course of a couple of hours, the good-natured Fremont youth met with a series of specialists who make up the new Survivorship Clinic that Children’s Hospital & Medical Center launched in June.

Carson got caught up in school after his treatment for neuroblastoma, a nervous system cancer in young children, and now gets A’s and B’s, his father, John Vecera, told team members. He likes golf, track and basketball and gets up early to shoot hoops with an older brother at the local YMCA.

BRENDAN SULLIVAN/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Carson Vecera, 13, of Fremont, Nebraska, participates in the Survivorship program at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha. Vecera finished treatment for neuroblastoma in 2012.

“He’s a character,” John Vecera said. “He’s got a lot of energy.”

But Carson also has some lasting effects from the intense treatment he received in 2011 and 2012.

He lost about 50% of his hearing, so he wears hearing aids at school and sits up front in class. One of his kidneys is smaller than the other, so he wears a kidney guard when he plays basketball to protect the organs.

And he’s not alone.

Advances in treatment mean that more than 80% of childhood cancer patients now survive to adulthood, said Dr. Melissa Acquazzino, one of two pediatric oncologists who launched the Children’s clinic.

Estimates, however, indicate that as many as 95% of those survivors will face at least one chronic health condition as adults as a result of treatment.

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The clinic’s goal is to help them keep ahead of those late effects, particularly as they transition to adulthood and face managing their own care.

While doctors have always provided follow-up care to cancer survivors, Acquazzino said, a dedicated clinic allows providers to do it in a more focused way — and in a one-stop shop.

“A survivorship clinic lets us focus on helping our patients achieve their best health after treatment,” she said.

Focusing on care for survivors is important in Nebraska, a state that last summer ranked No. 7 nationally in incidence of childhood cancers, said Dr. Don Coulter. Coulter is the director of the Pediatric Cancer Research Group, an umbrella group for pediatric cancer research at Children’s and the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

The ranking is based on a 12-year analysis by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which also showed Nebraska with the highest incidence of pediatric cancer in the Midwest.

Pediatric cancer, to be sure, is relatively rare, accounting for less than 1% of cancers diagnosed among Nebraskans. But concern about its incidence led parents, advocates and others to lobby the Nebraska Legislature for funds to bolster pediatric cancer research in the state.

The state’s commitment, which began in 2015 and now stands at $9 million, has funded a number of studies by the research group, including a 24-year look at Nebraska’s numbers and ongoing work on basic science, potential new treatments and possible environmental contributors.

The survivorship clinic, Coulter said, already is sparking new projects. Researchers are proposing studies on improving cardiac and bone health in childhood cancer survivors. A UNMC scientist recently received a National Institutes of Health grant to look at negative side effects of chemotherapy on mouse ovaries and explore whether certain inhibitors might head them off.

Acquazzino said patients typically switch from the oncologist who diagnosed them to the clinic two years after treatment ends. Patients typically are seen annually, and the visits generally are covered by insurance. Acquazzino said she anticipates having about 100 patients enrolled in the clinic by its second year. Most large children’s hospitals have survivorship clinics.

“There’s a natural transition when we’re no longer screening for relapse, and that’s a great time to focus on maximizing health for the long term,” she said.

Each survivor’s risks are different, she said, depending on the treatments they received.

BRENDAN SULLIVAN/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Carson Vecera, 13, of Fremont, Nebraska, participates in Children’s Hospital & Medical Center’s Survivorship Clinic, which launched this summer.

Guidelines recommend long-term follow-up based on those treatments. Some chemotherapies, for instance, can harm the heart. Patients who get them should undergo echocardiograms, or heart imaging, on a routine basis.

Radiation can cause other cancers later on. That means children who have had radiation to the abdomen, for instance, should start colonoscopies earlier than their peers.

The medical literature, however, indicates that more than half of adults who survived childhood cancer aren’t getting recommended screenings, Acquazzino said.

The Children’s team — which also includes a physical therapist, behavioral health provider and social worker — develops an individual plan for each patient. The plans include the lab tests and screenings they should receive and any mental health or school support they might require.

Behavioral health care is supported entirely by philanthropy, so patients aren’t charged for it, she said.

Dr. Sachit Patel, the clinic’s other pediatric oncologist, also will begin seeing patients who’ve had bone marrow transplants. The transplants, one of Patel’s specialties, have their own long-term risks.

Before Carson’s visit, the team met to discuss what follow-ups he should receive. A cardiologist concluded that his last heart imaging was good enough that he could wait a year for the next. The group recommended a vitamin D test to check bone health, which can be impacted by chemo. His was normal.

During his visit, Acquazzino counseled him on sticking with a healthy lifestyle, including reminding him to drink plenty of water to keep his kidneys healthy.

Physical therapist Carissa Rowberry assessed his strength and checked his ankles, knees and spine. Some chemotherapy can affect nerves, leading to weak ankles that can in turn trigger knee or back pain.

“We’ve actually found a few things kids (just) dealt with, because they didn’t know it was an issue,” Acquazzino said.

BRENDAN SULLIVAN/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Carson Vecera, 13, of Fremont, Nebraska, participates in the Survivorship program alongside his father, John, at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha on Oct. 4. Vecera, who was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, finished treatment in 2012. Children’s has launched a survivorship clinic where cancer survivors meet with a team of doctors who help them work through issues after chemo.

LesLee Hacker of Omaha said a physical therapist who saw her daughter, Lauren, in the clinic is working to sort through the cause of leg pain that has persisted for two years. Lauren, now in high school, survived two bouts of acute myelocytic leukemia.

“They’re putting things around her to improve her health,” LesLee Hacker said.

Providers can collaborate in real time during appointments, without the lag time that naturally occurs if they see patients separately. Fewer appointments also means less lost school time, an issue for those who’ve already missed a lot.

Lolo’s Angels, a nonprofit Hacker started, plans to donate $30,000 to support the clinic in the next several weeks, funds raised during a recent event. The organization has pledged to raise additional funds, with an eventual goal of $100,000. “That clinic is going to help so many kids,” Hacker said.

The Brian Duensing Foundation, established by Omaha native and Chicago Cubs pitcher Brian Duensing and his wife, Lisa, will hold a gala fundraising event in mid-November to benefit the clinic.

Acquazzino said the clinic team also fields questions that may not have come up in the heat of treatment, when families typically are deluged with information. They provide families with summaries of the care each patient received that they can use as a road map for future care.

Carson said he doesn’t think about his treatment much. “I just kind of put that away, because it’s been so long,” he said. “I haven’t really worried.”

The good news, Acquazzino said, is that survivorship has increased each decade. For some conditions, doctors now can scale back some treatments and still provide good care.

And part of the fun of the clinic is seeing how well most patients are doing. The clinic plans to launch a survivorship celebration next fall.

Still, there’s more to do.

“I don’t want our outcomes to be the same in 10 years, 20 years,” Acquazzino said. “Our kids and families deserve better, so that’s what we’re striving for.”

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