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Stothert 'stunned' by $4 million bid to process Omaha's recycling in 2021

Omaha has been bracing to pay more to recycle residents’ plastic, paper and aluminum. This week, city officials got their first look at the new bill: up to $4 million.

Mayor Jean Stothert and the City Council have for months discussed the need to set aside up to $2 million in the 2021 city budget for recycling costs. But when the city unsealed the sole bid to process recycling Wednesday, officials learned that the estimated cost could double.

Stothert told The World-Herald that the bid from current processor Firstar Fiber is “so unacceptable” that she’s considering all options, including rebidding the contract with a different approach.

“I am stunned with the ($4 million) bid received from Firstar Fiber, which would put unneeded stress on the already tight city budget,” she said.

If the bid is accepted for 2021 through 2026, the city would go in one decade from profiting from recycling to paying $4 million a year.

City officials have said a $2 million cost could be managed without a tax increase. It’s unclear what might happen if the recycling contract costs $4 million.

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Firstar Fiber CEO Dale Gubbels said the company needs the new contract so his company can invest more than $3 million in upgrades to its sorting plant near 108th and I Streets. Those improvements would help Firstar more quickly and efficiently separate recycling from garbage, Gubbels said.

Omaha only recently started paying to recycle. The city pays Firstar $25.92 per ton to process Omaha’s recycling, the same rate the city pays the landfill to accept a ton of garbage.

Under the new bid, Omaha would pay up to $200 a ton for recycling. That’s near the high end of the recycling market nationally and above the $110 a ton Firstar is charging many of its commercial customers.

But the city expects to pay Firstar less than $200 per ton. The Public Works Department estimates that it will pay about $150 a ton, based on the current prices for recycled materials and the volume expected.

The reason for the difference: The city gets to reduce what it pays per ton to its recycling processor based on the selling price of recyclables. The city is able to deduct 60% of the revenue from the cardboard, newspaper and aluminum that Firstar sells.

Omaha would pay the full $4 million only if the market for recycled goods gets worse, said Jim Theiler, assistant director of Public Works. The city could also pay less than $150 a ton if the market for recyclables improves, or perhaps even make money.

In June, Firstar threatened to stop accepting the city’s recycling if the city didn’t renegotiate its deal that runs through the end of 2020. That’s when the city negotiated the $25.92-a-ton payment. Before that, the city broke even.

Firstar, with 120 employees, was the only company to bid on processing Omaha’s recycling for the next five years. The two other companies that submitted bids this week, FCC Environmental and Waste Management, submitted bids only to haul recycling to Firstar from local drop-off sites, not to process it.

Now the clock is ticking: Omaha recently approved a 10-year, $24.2 million-a-year trash contract that includes covered 96-gallon recycling carts for residents. That contract is set to begin in 2021.

In many cities that have switched from trash cans to the larger carts, including Bellevue, people have recycled twice as much.

Public Works estimates that Omahans will recycle about 20,000 tons of waste in the first year of the new contract, which is how officials came up with the $4 million-a-year estimate. Public Works is formally reviewing Firstar Fiber’s bid, a process that could take a month or more.

Council member Pete Festersen, who represents north-central Omaha, said the city must make recycling a priority. He said he doesn’t object to the city seeking another round of bids. But, he said, the city should work to strengthen recycling service and keep it from being interrupted.

“There’s no question the city needs to continue to support an effective recycling program,” Festersen said.

Several council members, including west Omaha’s Brinker Harding and Aimee Melton, have pressed the city to budget for recycling costs.

“It will be a challenge to the administration and the City Council to make sure it’s properly budgeted and paid for,” Harding said.

Harding and Melton, in separate interviews Thursday, said they want to make sure the bid is reasonable and that the materials that Omahans separate actually get recycled. Other cities have seen recycling contractors send items to the landfill that were supposed to be recycled. Omaha’s bid contains penalties for doing that.

If the bid falls short on either count, they said, they want Stothert and Public Works to take another look at it.

“I’m not going to rubber stamp $4 million,” Melton said.

Disruption in the recycling market is one reason the city pursued a five-year contract, instead of matching the new 10-year trash contract, officials said.

China has stopped buying American recyclable materials in recent months, forcing recycling processors to find other markets and cutting into prices.

Gubbels and other recycling processors nationally have scrambled to renegotiate local recycling contracts to stay in business.

Check out nearly 100 stunning photos of Nebraska

Education
Retired leader of Naval Academy calls NU presidency his 'next calling'

LINCOLN — Walter “Ted” Carter sat with his hands folded as University of Nebraska representatives gushed about him, and it appeared that he had made another safe landing.

Carter holds the American record for aircraft carrier-based plane landings, and on Friday, he landed in Nebraska to accept his role as the sole finalist for the NU presidency.

The 60-year-old spent the past five years as superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland and one year before that as president of the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island.

Having retired from the Navy as a vice admiral this year, he sought another challenge.

“I thought this might be a fit for me,” he said Friday evening.

As the priority candidate, he will spend the next 30 days touring the state and speaking to Nebraskans. The 30 days amount to a review for Carter, after which he will most likely be selected by the Board of Regents as the NU system’s next president.

Carter defined the term “priority candidate” this way: “It means that all this is just talk, and I haven’t done anything yet.”

U.S. NAVY 

Walter E. "Ted" Carter Jr.

Carter’s record shows diverse interests and abilities. The graduate of the Naval Academy played hockey in college and graduated from the Top Gun fighter pilot school, which was made famous by a 1986 movie starring Tom Cruise.

NU said in press release that Carter has run eight marathons and commanded 20 ships and two nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.

He addressed suicide and mental health issues while superintendent of the Naval Academy. He also reported to a U.S. House subcommittee on the academy’s efforts to address sexual assault and harassment.

He grew up in a Rhode Island town and played clarinet and baritone sax.

He and his wife, Lynda, have two adult children.

Carter flew combat missions in Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, a Navy biography says.

That biography also says he received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Bronze Star, among other awards.

“He knows a lot of things,” said John Bravman, a friend who leads Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. “He also knows what he doesn’t know.”

Bravman, who was reached Friday afternoon, wrote a letter of endorsement for Carter.

Carter won unanimous support from the regents and the 23-member advisory search committee, which worked with the East Coast consultant AGB Search to find candidates.

The committee forwarded roughly 10 names to the regents, who are charged with making the final call.

Regent Jim Pillen of Columbus, who chaired the search committee, said Carter is a top-rate leader.

“I’m certain once everyone else meets him, everyone will feel the same,” Pillen said during the regents meeting.

Carter, who didn’t attend the regents meeting, said in prepared remarks that when he left the Naval Academy in July, “I said that the role had been the highest calling of my life. Then I saw that the University of Nebraska was looking for its next president. The more I learned about the university, the more I read about the remarkable work of its faculty and students, the more convinced Lynda and I became that we had found our next calling.”

The president oversees the NU system, which has campuses in Omaha, Lincoln, Kearney and Curtis. Chancellors report to the president, and the president reports to the regents.

Carter would replace Hank Bounds, who stepped down as president in August.

The board met Friday at Varner Hall on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s East Campus. The regents went into closed session and unanimously voted for Carter when they came out.

Susan Fritz has served as interim president since Bounds stepped down.

The regents need to name only one finalist.

Three years ago, university leaders convinced the Nebraska Legislature to change state law so that searches for the top positions at NU — the president and chancellors — had to publicly divulge only the “priority candidate” and no one else.

Before the change in law, the regents named four finalists for the top positions in the NU system.

Bounds, who was NU’s president for 4½ years, said in the spring that he was tired and that it was time to move on. Bounds is now on the faculty at the University of South Alabama.

The NU regents have hired Bounds as a consultant to help raise money for the planned $155 million sports complex at UNL. He will be paid $250,000 a year.

Bounds was paid $540,000 a year as president.

World-Herald researcher Sheritha Jones contributed to this report.

Photos: Walter E. 'Ted' Carter

State_and_regional
'Simple economics': Nebraska lawmaker says higher pay can solve problems at penitentiary

LINCOLN — A “staffing emergency” declared this week at the state’s largest prison can’t be solved without hiking wages of corrections officers by $3 to $4 an hour to compete in a tight labor market, a leading state senator on corrections issues said Friday.

“It’s frustrating to us to see a problem that can be solved by simple economics,” said State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha.

A union official told Lathrop and other state lawmakers that the Douglas and Sarpy County Jails regularly lure away state corrections employees with higher wages and less required overtime.

Steve Lathrop

Mike Chipman of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 88 said corporals start at state prisons at $18.44 an hour, compared with $21.25 an hour at the Sarpy and Douglas County Jails.

“And we need to raise pay higher than the counties to try and get some of our guys back,” Chipman told a panel of state lawmakers.

The comments came at a state legislative hearing to discuss problems plaguing the state’s prison system, which include chronic overcrowding, high turnover and record-high overtime expenses to cover vacant posts.

On Thursday, a staffing emergency was declared at the State Penitentiary in Lincoln after weeks of staff shortages forced the prison to frequently cancel family visits, recreation time and rehabilitation programs.

The emergency allowed the state to order all security staff to immediately begin working 12-hour shifts as the state and union work on “long-term solutions” to staffing problems that have left about one in four security posts vacant at the penitentiary, which holds about twice as many inmates as its design capacity of 718.

State Corrections Director Scott Frakes testified Friday that the staffing emergency may last six months and that it will mean two to three hours a day less for inmates to have recreation, group Bible studies or club meetings.

Frakes, like Lathrop, said he couldn’t directly raise corrections officer salaries — that’s a function of labor contracts negotiated by a union and state negotiators. But Frakes said he can offer hiring incentives, such as the $10,000 hiring bonuses he announced this week for new workers at the penitentiary and some other state prisons. The bonus is more than three times a current incentive, and Frakes expressed hope that it would boost hiring success.

The prison chief didn’t respond when asked how high state wages needed to be raised. But when Lathrop, who has visited nine of the state’s 10 prisons this year, gave his estimate, Frakes responded: “I appreciate that you shared that.”

Chipman, the union official, said a negotiator with Gov. Pete Ricketts’ office had reached out to the union this week about discussing amendments to the union contract. In April, the state and union signed a new contract granting immediate raises of up to 12.5% for some veteran staff and providing regular “merit raises” as incentives for workers to remain employed with the state.

Chipman said that while that was a great first step, it hasn’t been enough to halt high turnover of security staff, particularly among new hires. Frakes said Friday that the penitentiary had lost 70 corrections officers and corporals in the past seven months. Currently, about 90 of the 350 security posts are vacant, he said.

The prison director disputed that the state was losing staff to county jails. Frakes maintained that excessive overtime and the inability to count on time off were bigger reasons for staff to leave.

He said that moving temporarily to 12-hour shifts, which means working 48 hours a week, would be the equivalent of adding 50 new staff members. Frakes said the state is also planning to hire 40 corrections officers in Omaha and transport them by vans each day to the penitentiary in Lincoln. The state is already paying to transport 80 officers a day to the Tecumseh State Prison, about an hour’s drive, to fill vacant posts there.

Friday’s hearing before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee also dealt with the use of “restrictive housing,” or solitary confinement, which provides inmates with only about an hour outside their cells per day. Recently, a state legislative watchdog reported that Nebraska’s use of solitary confinement was much higher than in other states.

Frakes said that on Friday, 326 inmates were being held in restrictive housing. That is a significant decline from 2018, when an average of 404 inmates a day were held in solitary confinement.

Doug Koebernick, the Legislature’s inspector general for corrections, said that 326 still represents a high rate of the use of solitary confinement, a practice that can mentally damage inmates, and that 45 of those inmates have spent more than two years in such confinement.

He also said the state has added housing units that fit the definition of solitary confinement, due to the short out-of-cell time, but are not included in their statistics.

Notable crime news of 2019

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U.S. will send troops and armored vehicles to protect Syrian oil fields

BRUSSELS (AP) — The United States will send armored vehicles and combat troops into eastern Syria to keep oil fields from potentially falling into the hands of Islamic State militants, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Friday.

It was the latest sign that extracting the military from Syria is more uncertain and complicated than President Donald Trump is making it out to be. Though Trump repeatedly says he is pulling out of Syria, the reality on the ground is different.

Adding armored reinforcements in the oil-producing area of Syria could mean sending several hundred U.S. troops — even as a similar number are being withdrawn from a separate mission closer to the border with Turkey where Russian forces have been filling the vacuum.

Esper described the added force as "mechanized," which means it probably will include armored vehicles such as Bradley infantry carriers and possibly tanks, although details were still being worked out. This reinforcement would introduce a new dimension to the U.S. military presence, which largely has been made up of special operations forces not equipped with tanks or other armored vehicles.

Esper spoke at a press conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, where he consulted with American allies.

Sending an armored force to eastern Syria would partially reverse the ongoing shrinkage of the U.S. troop presence in Syria. Trump has ordered the withdrawal of nearly all 1,000 U.S. troops who had been partnering with a Syrian Kurdish-led militia against the Islamic State. That withdrawal is proceeding even as Esper announced the plan to put reinforcements in the oil-producing area.

Speaking to reporters Friday at the White House, Trump said the U.S.-brokered agreement with Turkey to halt its offensive against Syrian Kurdish fighters was a win for his administration. That offensive began after Trump announced that U.S. troops would not stand in the way, though he also said the U.S. would punish Turkey's economy if the country acted inhumanely.

He also said anew on Friday that "we're getting our troops out" of Syria, without mentioning Esper's announcement.

"We are doing well in Syria, with Turkey and everybody else that we're dealing with," Trump said. "We have secured the oil. … We have a couple of people that came knocking, we said don't knock. And I think I would say that things are going very well."

White House officials would not clarify whom he was referring to as "knocking."

The U.S. special envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, said in Geneva on Friday that he had talked to a Russian official about an unspecified issue in Syria's oil region.

"We are currently very concerned about certain developments in the south, in the Deir el-Zour area," Jeffrey said. "I've talked to my Russian colleague about that and we're having other contacts with the Russians concerning that situation. We think it is under control now."

Although Esper did not mention the size of the U.S. reinforcements, it could total several hundred troops because fuel-guzzling tanks and other armored vehicles depend on a large supply and logistical support group. One official, who discussed the planning on condition of anonymity because some details remained unresolved, cautioned that tanks might eventually be eliminated from the mix because of logistical challenges, including air transport.

Russian and Turkish leaders have now divided up security roles in northeast Syria following Trump's troop withdrawal from the Turkey-Syria border region. The American move triggered widespread criticism that the U.S. administration had abandoned the Syrian Kurdish fighters who fought alongside the U.S. against the Islamic State for several years.

Esper's announcement came even as Trump again indicated in tweets that the U.S. military mission in Syria is complete. He previously has acknowledged a willingness to help protect the oil fields in eastern Syria, suggesting they could benefit the Kurds as well as the United States, although those resources belong to the Syrian government.

"Oil is secured," Trump tweeted Friday. "Our soldiers have left and are leaving Syria for other places, then.... COMING HOME! … When these pundit fools who have called the Middle East wrong for 20 years ask what we are getting out of the deal, I simply say, THE OIL, AND WE ARE BRINGING OUR SOLDIERS BACK HOME, ISIS SECURED!"

Asked about America's shifting Syria strategy, Esper said the U.S. mission has always been to prevent the resurgence of the Islamic State. "That mission remains unchanged," he said.

But he made clear the main purpose is to prevent the Islamic State from regaining access to Syrian oil, which prior to 2017 was a major source of its revenue. "We are reinforcing that position. It will include some mechanized forces."

Starting in late 2015 and continuing for many months, the U.S. conducted airstrikes against a range of oil resources in the Deir el-Zour province that had been taken over by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

The attacks damaged or knocked out oil tanker convoys, oil processing plants, storage facilities, pumping stations, pipelines and refineries. It was called Operation Tidal Wave II, after a World War II air campaign to hit Romania's oil industry.

Esper said the Islamic State must not be allowed to again threaten the oil.

"If ISIS has access to the resources, and therefore the means to procure arms or to buy fighters or whatever else they do, then it means it makes it more difficult to defeat ISIS," he said.

Just last week, Trump insisted that all American forces in Syria would come home. Then he said the 1,000 in the north would return home and that American troops in the south, numbering about 200 at the al-Tanf garrison, would stay.

Trump in recent days has turned a greater focus on the Syrian oil facilities in the eastern part of the country, saying the U.S. will stay in Syria to protect them.

According to officials, top military leaders have pushed for the U.S. to leave forces in Syria to guard against an Islamic State resurgence.

While the group's physical zone of control was largely destroyed by U.S. and Syrian Kurdish forces, insurgents remain in small pockets throughout the country and in Iraq.