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5 things to know before Tuesday's public hearing on Omaha's $1.1 billion city budget

The public gets its first chance at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday to comment on Mayor Jean Stothert’s $1.1 billion budget plan, which proposes spending $419.6 million in general funds.

Digging into a billion-dollar budget can be daunting, especially when one number can decide how often a local park gets mowed or which days a neighborhood library is open.

So let us do some Cliffs Notes for this week’s public hearing. Here are five things to watch in the mayor’s 2020 city budget:

Faster police response

The Omaha Police Department this fall plans to open its fifth police precinct in the Elkhorn area. This change could help policing citywide, officials say.

Police Chief Todd Schmaderer said he has spent years hiring and training police officers with the idea of improving how the city responds to crime, from response times to clearance rates.

The department aims to start hiring the recruit class in October that should reach its authorized strength of 902, the chief told the City Council last week. That is up nearly 100 officers in recent years.

The goal, he said, is to spread police resources around the city where they are needed, when they are needed, with an increased focus on solving property crimes and improving relationships in every neighborhood.

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Pothole patching

The city’s Public Works road resurfacing budget would get a $300,000 increase under Stothert’s plan, which the mayor acknowledged does little more than cover inflationary costs.

This comes after a winter, spring and summer of 2019 in which the city has already spent more than $13 million patching potholes. Some on the council wanted to spend more.

Stothert has held a series of four public meetings in which she suggested that the only way the city could catch up from being more than 50 years behind on road maintenance was to find more money.

One option she suggested: a public vote as early as May on issuing up to $200 million in bonds to repair streets, an option that would increase property taxes on a $200,000 Omaha home by $71 a year.

Parks and trees

At first blush, the Omaha Parks Department looked to have taken 2020 on the chin, with a budget decreasing nearly $1.7 million from 2019 funding levels.

But it didn’t take a cut. The city made an accounting choice to shift a $2.25 million payment to the Henry Doorly Zoo to another part of the budget. Other factors include less maintenance on riverfront parks while they’re being renovated and the phasing out of some 2014 bonds for parks, the city says.

Parks Director Brook Bench told the City Council last week that he plans no cuts to park maintenance, no cuts to recreation staff and no cuts to camps or programs for young people.

The biggest change people might see in Omaha’s parks, besides the usual rehabilitation projects planned for Brown Park, Walnut Grove Park and more, may be the loss of some mature trees.

The city has decided it is no longer cost-effective to keep treating the city’s 13,280 ash trees with chemicals to protect them from the emerald ash borer. The Parks Department is now cutting down about 26 trees a week to prevent the risk of a tree or limb falling on people or property.

The Parks Department plants a new tree for any tree it cuts down.

Libraries

One of the biggest new capital expenditures planned for 2020 is $15 million toward a new southwest Omaha branch library near 210th and Q Streets.

Renovations at other library branches in 2020 will depend on donor interest, said Laura Marlane, the libraries’ executive director.

The library system also wants to get all 12 of its libraries open at least six days a week. Today, half are still open five days a week, officials say.

To do so, it might trim some little-used hours from nine of its library branches — the six branches open five days a week and three open six days a week.

The library has no plans yet to change hours at its three libraries already open seven days a week, W. Dale Clark, Millard and Milton Abrahams.

Recycling

The cost of recycling has skyrocketed since China stopped buying American waste because too much of it was contaminated, and perhaps in part because of a trade war with the U.S.

Omaha’s recycling processor, Firststar Recycling, wants to charge the city a tipping fee of $100 per ton of waste it drops off to recycle. Today the city pays zero for dropping off collected recycling.

The city plans to seek bids on a new contract as early as this fall.

A new tipping fee for recycling tonnage could cost taxpayers $1.7 million or more a year. The mayor set aside no funds in the budget. Some on the council want to do so.

Weird World-Herald headlines from the archives that leave you wanting more

Military
Admissions on hold at new Central Nebraska Veterans Home amid shortage of food service workers

LINCOLN — Hiring difficulties have forced a temporary halt in admissions at the new Central Nebraska Veterans Home in Kearney.

The action leaves the state-operated nursing home only two-thirds full, nearly eight months after it opened with much fanfare as a replacement for the outdated Grand Island Veterans Home.

State records show that, as of Aug. 2, the home had 79 beds empty out of its 225-bed capacity. There were 185 veterans and veterans’ spouses on a waiting list to get in.

John Hilgert, director of the State Department of Veterans Affairs, said officials “paused” admissions in July because of a shortage of cooks and other food-service workers. He could not say when admissions would be reopened.

“There’s a lot of folks that would like to get in there,” he said. “We’re not going to sacrifice safety and quality to do that.”

The Kearney home opened Jan. 16 with about 90 residents relocated from the Grand Island facility. New admissions began in March, after the home passed its initial federal Veterans Affairs inspection.

Hilgert said officials had planned to add residents gradually, about 10 to 12 per month, so they would have time to settle in and the facility would have time to hire and train the new staff needed to care for them.

More than 50 people were admitted from April through June, putting the home ahead of schedule on the admissions plan, he said.

But additional admissions will have to wait until the home can hire enough food-service assistants and cooks to care for more residents. Eight of the 23 job vacancies listed on the state jobs website for the Kearney home Monday were in food service.

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Hilgert said the biggest problem is the competition for such workers from local restaurants, fast-food businesses and other employers. People can get jobs with most private businesses without having to go through the background checks and other hoops required to work for the state.

But Justin Hubley, executive director for the Nebraska Association of Public Employees, the largest state employees union, pointed to wages as the biggest obstacle. Food-service assistants working for the state veterans homes are paid $10.97 per hour, while a food-service cook gets $11.79 per hour.

“They’ve got to address some of that,” he said.

Before the home opened, Hilgert said officials had been concerned about finding enough certified nursing assistants. That had been a shortage area in the past, but he said a 20% boost in pay has helped attract candidates.

He said officials are working hard to fill the food-service positions, including holding job fairs, reaching out to Central Community College, working with local business leaders and spreading the word through existing employees. Some hours have been filled by temporary agency staff.

More than 150 people have been on the waiting list to get into first the Grand Island and now the Kearney home over the past three years, despite the number of empty beds. The three other veterans homes, in Norfolk, Scottsbluff and Bellevue, have fewer than 10 empty beds each.

The number of residents at the Grand Island home declined in the last years before the home closed, partly because of hiring struggles and partly in preparation for the move to Kearney.

The number of staff also declined as many Grand Island employees quit rather than commute to Kearney. Hilgert said almost all the employees remaining in mid-January, or about 208 people, made the switch.

Honoring our heroes: A gallery of Nebraska veterans

Higher-education
Cannabis industry is focus of Doane University's online program

Doane University plans to offer a three-course online program this fall on the cannabis industry, which produces hemp and marijuana.

Andrea Holmes, a Doane chemistry professor who will help teach the certificate program, said the industry is growing rapidly. There are jobs across the country for cultivators, technicians, scientists, geneticists, administrators, salespeople, marketers and advertisers, Holmes said Monday.

“Cannabis has two sides — the marijuana side and the hemp side,” said Holmes, co-founder of a Denver business that removes the oil from hemp. Holmes’ business, Precision Plant Molecules, refines the oil so that it is THC-free, meaning that the THC level is lower than .3%.

THC is the ingredient responsible for the “high” experienced when cannabis is consumed. Her business sells the refined extract to companies that produce tablets, lotions and liquids used for pain relief and other purposes.

The Doane program will cover the science of cannabis, health and wellness aspects of it, cultivation and processing, regulations, and professions in the industry.

In May, Nebraska passed a hemp law under which cannabis with a THC level of less than .3% is legal. Hemp is sometimes called a “cousin” of marijuana and is used in clothing, medications and other items.

Many states have legalized marijuana for medical purposes, and some have legalized it for recreational purposes as well. In limited cases, Iowa allows the use of cannabidiol, a component of cannabis, for medical purposes.

Doane, a private university based in Crete, Nebraska, intends to start the program in October or November, Holmes said. Those who complete the program will receive a certificate.

Holmes, an organic chemist who has a doctorate from New York University, said she will be responsible for certifying those who complete the program. They will use the certification to show that they have finished the program and to land jobs in the cannabis industry. Holmes has been a professor at Doane since 2005.

The first course, provided over two weeks, will cost $149. The second, she said, given over three weeks, will cost $179. The third, over four weeks, will cost $199. Some of the information will be available for free online, she said, but the payments are necessary to get all of the content and to acquire the certificate.

Holmes said Doane will offer a rare, comprehensive program. A Doane press release said the university will be the first in the state to offer it. A spokesman for Doane said Florida Gulf Coast University and the University of Vermont offer somewhat similar programs.

Holmes said she seeks professionalism in the industry. That includes producing clean, tested products, she said.

State Sen. Mike Groene, chairman of the Nebraska Legislature’s Education Committee, said it sounds like Doane is offering a useful program. “Right now, they can get a job in that in an awful lot of states,” he said.

He described Colorado, where marijuana is legal medically and recreationally, as “the Wild West.” Professionals are needed there and elsewhere to test the products so that customers know what they’re getting, said Groene, of North Platte.

Holmes said she will be one of several people at a half-day cannabis-related forum in Pilger, Nebraska, starting at 11 a.m. Friday. The forum will be at the Cooper Family Community Center at 100 W. Second St. She said farmers have shown interest in the state’s new hemp law.

“I can tell you what — the train has left and people are already on it (the train) in Nebraska,” she said.

Holmes said she believes that some people, in pain or with mental health conditions, for example, could benefit from marijuana.

She said she has never used pot. “I don’t need it,” she said. “I have a wonderful life.”

Check out nearly 100 stunning photos of Nebraska

Plus
Grace: Nebraskans join hundreds of relatives in celebrating 400-year-old farm. In Germany

The Steffensmeiers of Nebraska have a familiar American story: A plucky or desperate — or both — ancestor left the Old Country for a new life, planting immigrant roots in American soil and making the upward climb.

There were hardships and tragedies. There were joys and successes. As the generations came and went, that connection to the place left behind either weakened or blended into a family story about being from fill-in-the-blank. Ireland, perhaps. Or Bohemia. Or Poland. Or, in Gene Steffensmeier’s case, Germany.

Germany was among the European countries in the late 1800s sending massive waves of emigrants across the Atlantic.

These family stories tend to start with the ancestor’s arrival to America and go from there.

For Gene, who owns car dealerships in Fremont and Columbus and used to own one in Dodge, the Steffensmeier family story began with his great-grandfather Bernard, who came to Nebraska in 1871, and his great-uncle Frank, who came in 1872. Both had big families who had big families. Today there are at least 400 Steffensmeiers around.

But what about the Steffensmeiers who didn’t come to America? What about Bernard’s and Frank’s other siblings who skipped the boat, stayed on the old family farm or otherwise remained in Germany?

A chance trip to Berlin, a phone call and a strong desire on two continents to unify the Steffensmeier clan helped answer these questions for Gene.

And all of this resulted recently in a huge party in Germany celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Steffensmeier farm, which remains in operation and in the family.

Learning the German prelude to his American story, Gene said, “has changed our lives.

COURTESY/SUE MANDEL  

Peg Steffensmeier of Fremont painstakingly recorded the family history of husband Gene, to her right. They are pictured on the Steffensmeier ancestral farm with Gerlinde and Franz Steffensmeier, who own and operate it.

The author of the Steffensmeier genealogy is Peg Steffensmeier, who as Gene’s wife is a Steffensmeier by marriage, not blood.

Peg has compiled hundreds of neatly organized three-ring binders that include photos, timelines, names and connections. She took the additional step of personalizing different sets of family history for different family members.

The Steffensmeier story begins in Germany in 1577, as early as she can find. A name on a tax record.

In 1619, Engel and Martinus Steffensmeier obtain property in the village of Mantinghausen. The village sits in western Germany, in the North Rhine-Westphalia region. The family name and year are inscribed in a wooden beam on a farm property that exists today.

The Steffensmeier name pops up next in 1763. Records that show a Cord Steffensmeier , a farmer who owned four horses and 353 sheep.

Fast-forward a century, and in the late 1800s, Stephan Steffensmeier has inherited this still-running farm. Stephan is the oldest of nine children. He, as oldest male child, gets the land. This means that the four younger male siblings have to find something else to do. But unemployment was high, and that made America suddenly very attractive.

A Steffensmeier cousin who had left Germany in 1851 and settled in St. Louis had come back to visit relatives and described the United States in glowing terms — opportunities galore. So 33-year-old Bernard Steffensmeier and his fiancée Gertrud, the daughter of a local tavern owner, didn’t wait around for a wedding in Germany. They got on a steamship and, 20 days later, landed in New York. Then they headed west.

PEG STEFFENSMEIER  

Bernard and Gertrud Steffensmeier, seated, emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1871. They settled in northeast Nebraska and had 10 children, seven pictured. Son Joseph Steffensmeier, back row, second from left, was the grandfather of car dealer Gene Steffensmeier of Fremont.

Bernard and Gertrud wound up in the West Point area of Nebraska. Within five years, the couple purchased their first property: 40 acres of land northwest of the town of Dodge, near Orlean. The Union Pacific Railroad sold it to them in 1877.

By then, Bernard’s brother Franz had come from Germany to Nebraska. Franz and his wife, Anna Maria, moved in with Bernard and then built their own place — a sod house. These Steffensmeiers suffered snakes in the rafters, snowstorms and crop failure. Devout Catholics, they walked 16 miles to Mass before a church was built closer to home. They survived the five years required under the Homestead Act to get their land for free.

There are several Steffensmeier family farms still around in Nebraska: one near Orlean, one near Howells, one near Monterey.

The Steffensmeier families were known for their size. Bernard and Gertrud had 10 children. Franz and Anna Maria had six.

Peg’s family albums show this proliferation. Page after page of Steffensmeiers. Steffensmeiers getting married. Steffensmeiers in their armed services uniforms. Steffensmeiers dying and Steffensmeiers being born. Peg dutifully recorded dates and repeated connections and kept biographical information to the basics but included life events like divorce.

The wedding pictures wonderfully chart the passage of time, evolving from stiff and stone-faced in black and white through the cat-eye glasses and poofy-skirt 1950s through the shaggy 1970s to the sleek look today.

Peg, a former schoolteacher turned stay-at-home mom, got into family history as her large nest — she and Gene had 10 children — emptied. She didn’t want to take up tennis or bridge or golf. So she audited German classes at Creighton University.

Gene sold cars. He sold a lot of cars, moving from Dodge to Fremont to form Gene Steffy Auto Group. (Short for Steffensmeier). He also has a dealership in Columbus.

Gene sold so many cars that Chrysler rewarded him by sending him and Peg on international trips.

The first one, in 1995, was to Berlin.

***

Gene and Peg Steffensmeier from Nebraska were in Germany’s capital city.

On a whim, Gene picked up the phone book at their Berlin hotel and thumbed to the S names. He saw two Steffensmeiers listed and called the first one, Johann. He got a voicemail in English and left a message that said: Hey, we’re Steffensmeiers from America and wonder if we might be related.

“Turned out,” Gene said, “we were completely related!”

Over lunch, Dr. Johann Steffensmeier of Berlin and Gene Steffensmeier of Fremont connected the dots. Johann’s great-grandfather was Stephan Steffensmeier, the heir of the family farm. Gene’s great-grandfather was Bernard Steffensmeier, Stephan’s younger brother who had to go to America in order to own a farm.

Johann told Gene it was a fluke they even connected. Normally his phone number is unpublished but he’d forgotten to have it unlisted in the 1995 Berlin phone book. Another fluke? Johann’s wife was American and later helped translate.

That same year, Gene and Peg returned to Germany and met another relative, Franz Steffensmeier. Franz lives on that family farm in Mantinghausen, the farm that Gene’s great-grandfather left back in 1871. The farm that was founded in 1619.

Erin Grace 

Steffensmeier family farm in Mantinghausen, Germany.

The couple toured the dairy operation, which looked nothing like the farms back home. For one, farms in Germany are smaller. For another, farms in Nebraska sit in the country, unconnected to towns. The way Mantinghausen is laid out, farms like Franz Steffensmeier’s are like wheel spokes to the city center hub. Franz could walk out his front door and be in the heart of his village.

Franz and wife Gerlinde are about the same ages as Gene and Peg, now 76 and 73, respectively. The couples forged a tight bond.

In 1996, Franz and two nieces traveled to Nebraska to meet their American cousins. Gene and Peg organized a giant reunion that drew some 400 Steffensmeiers.

Over the next 20-plus years, Gene and Peg would make about a dozen more trips to Germany to see Johann and Franz. Other members of the Nebraska Steffensmeier family would go, too.

Gene and Peg marveled how much it felt like home going to Germany. How consistent their Steffensmeier traits like big hands and extroverted personalities and values like the Catholic faith and hard work had been over time and across an ocean.

The Nebraskans saw in the German Steffensmeier farm’s 400th anniversary a once-in-a-lifetime chance.

Peg said Franz Steffensmeier thought it was funny that his Nebraska relatives wanted to mark the occasion. The village of Mantinghausen is more than 700 years old.

But being the good host, Franz threw open his doors in July, and the family came. Some 300 or so people partied in Mantinghausen. Cousin Franz spared no expense, wining and dining everyone, including 29 Steffensmeier relatives from the United States, most from Nebraska.

One was Sue Mandel, a Mary Kay saleswoman in Omaha and mother of three. Her great-grandfather is the same as Gene’s: Bernard.

“I cried the whole time. It was amazing,” she said. “It was so overwhelming to me to think we walked on the same soil. It was totally overwhelming to me that we’d come home.”

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