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Why Omaha likely won't turn to wheel tax for more road work funding

It’s the tax that drivers love to hate.

And as Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert initiates a public discussion about increasing street funding, she’s already come out against increasing the wheel tax. “I WILL NOT SUPPORT,” the mayor outlined in her public presentations this week.

Omaha’s wheel tax remains an important revenue source for the city in fixing its streets.

But it doesn’t strictly fund road construction. The assessment — what’s officially known as the motor vehicle wheel fee — contributes to the entire city streets budget, helping fund street resurfacing but also snow and ice removal and traffic signals.

In some ways, the City of Omaha remains hampered by its 2010 attempt to increase street funding by expanding the wheel tax.

The City Council — without then-Councilwoman Stothert’s support — increased the rate and expanded the tax to all Omaha commuters, not just those who live in Omaha. Mayor Jim Suttle sought the higher funding at a time of increasing costs for resurfacing and for pothole repairs.

The idea was to tap into funding from suburban residents who use city streets commuting to jobs in Omaha.

But it sparked outrage in Sarpy County, and ultimately, the Nebraska Legislature prevented Omaha from expanding the “commuter wheel fee.” In doing so, the Legislature also took away Omaha’s ability to collect the wheel tax from thousands of people living outside the city limits but within the city’s zoning area.

The city could increase the wheel tax without a public vote, but Stothert told The World-Herald that she wants the people to decide about street funding. She said it’s important that a long-range funding plan have buy-in from taxpayers.

She’s raising the possibility of a $200 million bond issue to fund street rehab, with subsequent bond proposals to follow in the future.

“Taking it to a vote of the people is important,” she said.

In 2019, the wheel tax is budgeted to bring in $23.6 million for the City of Omaha — a figure that has benefited from the last increase from $35 to $50 and an increase in the number of vehicles being taxed as Omaha has grown.

At Stothert’s public meetings this week, some people again suggested that Omaha find a way to collect revenue from all drivers using the streets, not just Omaha residents.

David Krause, who lives outside city limits, suggested some type of countywide gas tax or countywide wheel tax to fund streets. He said he would like to see the revenue source relate to road use.

“You’re not taxing all the users of the highways,” he said.

Mark and Sandy Tillwick said they prefer using sales taxes because that would collect revenue from more taxpayers.

(Omaha would need legislative approval for greater sales tax authority, then voter approval of the increase itself. Increasing the sales tax also would automatically sunset the restaurant tax and its $34 million in revenue, said Stothert, who opposes using sales taxes for greater street rehab.)

The Tillwicks said they already pay enough property taxes and enough taxes to register their vehicles, even if only part of that is the wheel tax.

“I don’t like paying what we’re already paying,” Mark Tillwick said.

Councilman Chris Jerram, who introduced the wheel tax increase and expansion in 2010, said his thinking has evolved to favoring putting a bond issue before voters.

“If the people reject it, then we can consider our options,” he said.

The City of Lincoln’s wheel tax is $74. Stothert said increasing Omaha’s rate to match Lincoln’s would generate just $11.3 million in additional revenue.

The city needs an additional $34 million a year to fund street maintenance and rehab, she said.

To reach that level, Stothert said, Omaha’s wheel tax would need to increase to $122.

Stothert said it’s important to have an ongoing, sustainable plan.

“We’ve never had a plan like that,” she said.

World-Herald staff writer Aaron Sanderford contributed to this report.

To put men on the moon and bring them back to Earth safely, NASA had to do everything right


"Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace. These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope formankind in their sacrifice."

— Remarks prepared for President Richard Nixon, in a memo fromWhite House speechwriter William Safire, July 18, 1969, under the heading "IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER."

Spoiler alert: They lived!

They walked on the moon, gathered rocks, planted a flag, rocketed home to Earth and splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean. After three weeks in quarantine (to prevent a purely hypothetical moon-germ contagion), the three Apollo 11 astronauts got their ticker-tape parade and eternal glory. Why it worked — and why the U.S. beat the Soviet Union to the moon after having been humiliated, repeatedly, during the early years of the space race — remains a compelling story. But it was never as breezy as NASA made it look. The first landing on the moon could easily have been the first crashing.


Famous Nebraskans share their recollections of the Apollo 11 mission and how it impacted their lives

NASA's strategy during the 1960s was built around incremental achievements, with each mission wringing out some of the risk. Still, potential disaster lurked everywhere. Just two years before Apollo 11, three astronauts died in a freakish fire during a capsule test at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

To put astronauts on the surface of the moon and bring them home safely, NASA had to do many things right, in succession, with margins of error ranging from small to nonexistent.

"I consider a trip to the moon and back to be a long and very fragile daisy chain of events," Michael Collins, the third member of the Apollo 11 crew, told the Washington Post recently.

"There were 23 critical things that had to occur perfectly," recalls engineer JoAnn Morgan, who handled communications in Launch Control at the Kennedy Space Center.

One of those things was the landing on the moon, which obviously couldn't be practiced under realistic conditions. No one knew the nature of the moon's surface. Hard? Soft? Powdery? Gooey? The mission planners feared that the lunar module could become instantly mired, or just sink out of sight, gobbled up like candy.

Equally nerve-racking was the planned departure from the moon. The top half of the lunar lander, the ascent module, relied on a single engine to blast the astronauts back to lunar orbit. It had to work. If it didn't, Nixon would have to pull out that memo.

NASA has an institutional instinct to project supernatural competence; it downplays, or hides beneath jargon, the uh-oh moments in human spaceflight. If on July 20, 1969, a giant man-eating moon lizard had emerged from a lava tube and chased Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin back into the lunar lander, NASA would have described this as an off-nominal event requiring a contingency procedure.

Though everything about the moons hot was fraught with uncertainty, it benefited from a clearly defined goal. In May 1961, President John F. Kennedy asked NASA to put a man on the moon and bring him safely back to Earth before the decade was out. The next year, in September 1962, Kennedy gave his famous "We choose to go to the moon" speech at Rice University in Houston. He said the United States chooses to do these things in space "not because they are easy, but because they are hard ... "

He would not live to see this happen. But his murder made the moon program untouchable, something that simply had to be achieved, not only for geopolitical reasons but also to honor the martyred president. The United States poured $20 billion and 400,000 workers into the moonshot.

Navigating to and around the moon was a computing challenge — one that required the most advanced computers at MIT as well as human computers such as Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician celebrated in the book and movie "Hidden Figures." NASA chose a mission architecture for Apollo that saved payload weight and reduced the size of the main rocket but required astronauts to take a separate craft, the lunar lander, to the moon's surface and then rendezvous with the mother ship in lunar orbit. That was a splendid idea on paper but added risk and complexity.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union had its own moon program, but struggled to build a giant rocket that could launch without blowing up. The Russians had internal disputes among their engineers. The United States, meanwhile, had Wernher von Braun, the ex-Nazi who led the program that devised the V-2 rockets that terrorized Britain during World War II.

"In a simplistic way, we had von Braun, and he built a rocket capable of a lunar landing mission. The Soviet Union could not build an equally capable rocket," said John Logsdon, author of multiple books on the space race.

In December 1968, the three Apollo 8 astronauts flew all the way to the moon, orbited it and flew home.

Apollo 9 was a shakedown cruise in Earth orbit.

Apollo 10 was like a combination of the two previous missions: a flight to the moon and separation of the lunar module and the command module.

So that left one more giant leap.

Not long before his death in 2012, Armstrong said he had wished, back in July 1969, that they'd had another month to get ready for the moon-landing mission. He calculated only a 50% chance of a successful landing. He figured that there was a 90% chance the crew would make it back to Earth alive.

On July 16, 1969, the Saturn V rocket with three Apollo 11 astronauts riding on top blasted off from Kennedy Space Center. The trip to the moon took three days.

On July 20, Armstrong and Aldrin slipped into the Eagle and began their descent to the lunar surface. They hadn't gone far before the lander's computer flashed an alarm. "Program alarm. It's a twelve-oh-two," Armstrong told Mission Control.

After 16 seconds of silence, Armstrong spoke again, this time with urgency: "Give us a reading on the 1202 program alarm."

"It's executive overflow. If it does not occur again, we're fine," Mission Control told Armstrong.

The Eagle had overshot the intended landing area by several miles. The computer was guiding it toward a crater flanked by car-size boulders. Armstrong took manual control, slowed the descent, and began flying the Eagle like a helicopter, almost parallel to the surface.

Armstrong searched for a flat spot. "Kicking up some dust," Aldrin said.

For nine seconds, no one said anything. Armstrong's heart rate hit 156.

"Contact light," Aldrin said. A rod extending from the bottom of one of the Eagle's legs touched the surface. Armstrong killed the engine.

"Houston, uh ... " He paused. "Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."

Armstrong and Aldrin were supposed to get some sleep but instead decided to get on with the moonwalk, which turned out to be in prime time for the U.S. television audience.

Armstrong's backward journey on the ladder was as incremental as the entire Apollo program. Then he stepped onto the moon proper.

"That's one small step for man ... "

He paused. Armstrong would later claim that he said "a man," and not just "man." He said the missing article must have gotten dropped from the radio transmission.

" ... one giant leap for mankind."

Aldrin followed 20 minutes later, and as he looked around, he offered a perfect description: "Magnificent desolation."

Why did it all work so splendidly? The stars aligned.

In upholding Nikko Jenkins' death sentence, high court rejects notion that he is mentally ill

The Nebraska Supreme Court left little unturned as it upheld spree killer Nikko Jenkins’ conviction and death sentence in the 10-day rampage that left four Omahans dead in August 2013.

In an exhaustive 53-page ruling, the high court sifted through professionals’ often contradictory mental health diagnoses of the troubled Omahan, delved into the state’s repeal and later reinstatement of the death penalty, and explored the years that Jenkins spent in isolation before the killings.

This won’t end Jenkins’ appeals. His attorney, Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley, said Friday that he will raise issues that he believes could result in the U.S. Supreme Court reviewing Jenkins’ case, a rare occurrence even in death penalty cases.

But Jenkins’ conviction and placement on death row just passed one of its most important reviews — the state high court’s rejection of appeals can be difficult for a condemned convict to overcome.

“This ruling was very thorough,” said Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine, who prosecuted the case along with his chief deputy, Brenda Beadle. “The criminal justice process really is completed, other than postconviction actions that may be filed later.

“I hate to use the word closure. But at least this tells the victims’ families that they’re not going to have to sit in the courtroom and relive the evidence anymore.”

That fact wasn’t lost on the mother of one of Jenkins’ victims. Jenkins and his sister, Erica Jenkins, took turns shooting Curtis Bradford in the head after luring him to a house near 18th and Clark Streets in northeast Omaha.

“Oh my gosh, I’m glad it’s over,” Velita Glasgow said Friday. “This case has taken so much from us — it just doesn’t hurt the one individual, it hurts the entire family.

“I don’t ever want to have to come to court again. I don’t ever want to see him again. I’m just glad that all this evil is over, and my life can move on.”

While striking a major blow to his chances to succeed on appeal, the Supreme Court’s ruling doesn’t end the court actions on his behalf.

Riley recently filed a motion to have Jenkins removed from death row because state officials have declared him incompetent and in need of forced medications. This ruling didn’t address that request.

Riley noted a couple of ironies coming out of the Nebraska Supreme Court ruling. One, the high court noted that there was ample evidence to support the three-judge panel’s conclusion that Jenkins was feigning mental illness for secondary gain, such as to try to get transferred to different prisons.

At the same time, Nebraska prison officials — including doctors and psychologists — have recently declared that Jenkins is psychotic and is in need of forced medication. In the past week, Jenkins cut his throat — the latest in a series of self-mutilations.

“The irony of this is the (professionals) who are now dealing with him in prison are unanimously saying he has a mental illness,” Riley said. “Not only that, they are saying we need to be able to forcibly medicate him so that we can make him healthy enough to be executed.

“The word ‘irony’ doesn’t even do justice to what that entails.”

In Friday’s ruling, the Nebraska Supreme Court addressed several of Riley and Jenkins’ arguments about whether Jenkins truly is severely mentally ill, what effect his extensive stay in solitary confinement had on him, whether a mentally ill defendant can be executed and the legality of the death penalty.

Jenkins was convicted of the Aug. 11, 2013, killings of Jorge Cajiga-Ruiz and Juan Uribe-Pena after his sister and cousin lured them to an Omaha park on the pretense of sex; the Aug. 19, 2013, killing of Bradford, who served time in prison at the same time as Jenkins, after luring Bradford on the pretext of committing a robbery; and the Aug. 21, 2013, killing of Andrea Kruger, a wife and mother of three, near 168th and Fort Streets.

Jenkins’ court case was so wild, so unconventional and so long that Nebraska lawmakers repealed the death penalty, a ballot initiative was undertaken and Nebraska voters eventually restored it — all while Jenkins was awaiting his fate. Those twists and turns led Riley to challenge whether Jenkins should have even been eligible for the death penalty.

The Supreme Court rejected that argument.

“Less than 3 years ago, Nebraskans had the opportunity to eliminate the death penalty and 61 percent voted to retain capital punishment,” Justice William Cassel wrote. “The judiciary bears no license to end a debate reserved for the people and their representatives. In Nebraska, the people have spoken.”

The high court addressed several other issues that have dogged Jenkins’ case.

Is he severely mentally ill?

The court spent dozens of pages addressing Jenkins’ dueling diagnoses — and pointed to facts that seem to debunk the idea that he hears voices, including those of a serpent god.

In short: about half of the psychologists and psychiatrists who have examined Jenkins have diagnosed him as psychotic or schizophrenic. The other half have determined that he is faking those mental illnesses for secondary benefit, such as to excuse his criminal behavior, to obtain different placement in prison or, at one point, for his hope that he would receive government disability payments upon his release.

The high court noted that the three-judge death penalty panel — including the trial judge, Peter Bataillon — sided with psychiatrists who concluded that Jenkins was malingering.

One notion that the high court took aim at: the defense’s contention that Jenkins spoke of hearing voices when he was 8 years old. Defense experts have pointed to that psychiatrist’s note as proof that Jenkins’ psychosis is long-standing.

The problem: Questioned further, 8-year-old Nikko told the doctor that the voices he was talking about were actual voices of older neighborhood boys who told him to steal a bicycle.

“There is no doubt that Jenkins exhibited abnormal behaviors,” the high court wrote. “A previous report had said (Jenkins) heard voices telling him to do bad things. On further inquiry, (Jenkins) said these are real voices of these older boys, and he only hears them when the boys are there with him. There was no evidence of psychosis or auditory hallucinations.”

Did state prison officials, by keeping him in solitary confinement for years, create a monster that they’re now trying to execute?

Riley argued that Jenkins should not have been put on death row because prison officials had improperly isolated Jenkins during his first prison stint after he committed two carjackings when he was 15 and 16. Riley noted that Jenkins killed these four Omahans within three weeks of his release from a prison term that saw him spend six of his 10 years in solitary confinement.

Jenkins himself has advanced this argument. In his eight-hour confession with detectives, he told them: “The Nebraska Department of Corrections is so responsible. This is equivalent to me being a pit bull that they pull off that chain and whoever it hurt, you’re responsible for it. Because you knew the danger of the animal, knew the danger that you created in that cell.”

The high court agreed that expert studies have shown that “years on end of near-total isolation exact a terrible price.”

“Here, Jenkins’ own actions led to his disciplinary segregation,” the court wrote. “The Department of Correctional Services must have some recourse to deal with an inmate who does such things as manufacture a weapon from a toilet brush ... assault staff, attempt to escape. ... The sentencing panel acted reasonably in not rewarding such behavior.”

The plea hearing

Jenkins’ hearings were often described as circuses — in which Jenkins tried to dominate the proceedings and sometimes claimed to be speaking in tongues to an Egyptian serpent god.

In one hearing, he called County Attorney Kleine and a World-Herald reporter to the stand, which is unusual. Even more unusual, Judge Bataillon allowed him to call both witnesses. The lead prosecutor isn’t a witness; and the shield law typically precludes a reporter from taking the stand.

Jenkins’ plea hearing was the climactic example of business as unusual in Jenkins’ case.

After Bataillon allowed Jenkins to act as his own legal counsel, Jenkins declared that he wanted to plead no contest to the killings.

The 12 men on Nebraska’s death row and their crimes

The judge informed him that he would have to plead guilty rather than “no contest.” Jenkins initially pleaded guilty but said he couldn’t remember shooting each of the victims. He stopped short anytime he got close to describing the actual killings — sometimes bursting into garbled speech in which he claimed to be talking to his serpent god.

Faced with a defendant who wouldn’t describe his guilty actions, Bataillon rethought his original stance, relented and allowed Jenkins to plead no contest. Under no contest pleas, prosecutors give the factual basis of the murder charges.

Riley argued that the judge’s changing conditions in which he would accept Jenkins’ plea essentially robbed Jenkins of a fair hearing. Riley also argued that Jenkins never should have been allowed to represent himself.

The high court ruled that Bataillon properly informed Jenkins of his rights and properly ruled that Jenkins was able to understand the proceedings against him and represent himself.

What’s next?

Beyond the appeal, Riley has filed a couple of motions to try to get Jenkins off of death row on the suggestion that he is severely mentally ill and, thus, incapable of being executed.

Riley noted that Corrections Department psychiatrists and psychologists have twice in the past year found that Jenkins is “psychotic, delusional, acting upon command hallucinations and is seriously mentally ill.”

Jenkins has a history of cutting himself, including his private parts, tattooing his face and carving his skin with Satan, Hitler and 666 666 (though it came out backward because he was looking into a mirror).

Riley accused Corrections Director Scott Frakes of failing to “carry out his statutory duty to notify the District Court of Douglas County of defendant’s mental illness.”

Under state law: “If any convicted person under sentence of death shall appear to be incompetent, the Director of Correctional Services shall forthwith give notice thereof to a judge of the district court of the judicial district in which the convicted person was tried and sentenced.”

A hearing on corrections’ placement of Jenkins and use of forced medications is set for August.

Notable crime news of 2019

British official: Iran's seizures of 2 vessels are 'unacceptable'

LONDON (AP) — Britain's foreign secretary said Iranian authorities seized two vessels Friday in the Strait of Hormuz, actions signaling an escalation in the strategic waterway that has become a flashpoint in tensions between Tehran and the West.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said one of the seized ships had a British flag and the other sailed under Liberia's flag. The crew members have a range of nationalities but are not believed to include British citizens, he said.

"These seizures are unacceptable," Hunt said, entering an emergency meeting to discuss securing the release of the two vessels and their crews. "It is essential that freedom of navigation is maintained and that all ships can move safely and freely in the region."

Details of what took place remained unclear late Friday. Iran said earlier that it had seized one British oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. Later Friday it said it had detained a second oil tanker before freeing it.

The first tanker, Stena Impero, was taken to an Iranian port because it was not complying with "international maritime laws," Iran's Revolutionary Guard declared.

A statement from Stena Bulk, which owns the tanker, said it was unable to contact the ship after it was approached by unidentified vessels and a helicopter in the strait. The company said the tanker, with 23 crewmembers aboard, was in international waters when it was approached but later appeared to be heading toward Iran.

Bob Sanguinetti, U.K. Chamber of Shipping chief executive, said the seizure represented an escalation in tensions in the Persian Gulf and made it clear that more protection for merchant vessels was urgently needed.

The British government should do "whatever is necessary" to ensure the safe and swift return of the ship's crew, Sanguinetti said.

The incident came just one day after Washington said a U.S. warship downed an Iranian drone in the strait. Iran denied that it lost an aircraft in the area and said perhaps the U.S. accidentally downed its own drone.

On June 20, Iran shot down an American drone in the same waterway, and Trump came close to retaliating but called off an airstrike at the last moment.

Tensions in the region have been growing since the Trump administration withdrew a year ago from Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. After the withdrawal, the U.S. imposed harsh sanctions, including on Tehran's oil trade, that have sent the Iranian economy into a tailspin.

Iran's government has desperately tried to get out of the chokehold, appealing to the other partners in the deal, particularly Europe, to pressure the U.S. to lift the bruising sanctions. Europe wants to maintain the nuclear deal, but has not been able to address Iranian demands, particularly concerning the sale of oil, without violating U.S. sanctions.

On Friday, Iran and the United States emphatically disagreed over Washington's claim that a U.S. warship downed an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz. American officials said they used electronic jamming to bring down the unmanned aircraft, while Iran said it simply didn't happen.

Neither side provided evidence to prove its claim.

At the White House, President Donald Trump said flatly of the Iranian drone: "We shot it down." But Pentagon and other officials have said repeatedly that the USS Boxer, a Navy ship in the Strait of Hormuz, actually jammed the drone's signal, causing it to crash, and did not fire a missile. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive technology.

The strategically vital Strait of Hormuz is at the mouth of the Persian Gulf and serves as the passageway for one-fifth of all global crude exports.