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special report
Long wish list for $166M in coronavirus relief: Ralston Arena, MECA, police and fire costs

The City of Omaha believes its entire police and fire budget for three months, about $57 million, qualifies for coronavirus relief money.

So, in the city’s view, do the $1.1 million property tax payment that the city-owned Hilton Hotel missed this spring and the $2.5 million in money that MECA spent preparing for the College World Series that got canceled, among other city liabilities.

Meanwhile, the City of Ralston wants money to reopen the Ralston Arena and to cover half of the city’s police and fire expenses. And advocacy groups want rental assistance for people at risk of homelessness.

Those were among the wishes listed Tuesday when the Douglas County Board held its first public hearing on what people think should be done with the $166 million in coronavirus relief money the federal government has allotted to Douglas County. No money was doled out Tuesday. The demands appear likely to grow, and the debate to intensify, before decisions are reached.

The money comes from the federal coronavirus relief bill known as the CARES Act. Besides the Douglas County money, the federal government allotted $1.09 billion to the State of Nebraska — but nothing directly to the City of Omaha. That’s because the money went only to cities and counties with more than 500,000 people, and Omaha is just under that.

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County Board Chair Clare Duda has said the money will be shared with Omaha and other municipalities in Douglas County. But how much and for what expenses are wide-open questions. Duda said Tuesday that he wants the county to hire the same accounting firm that the state is hiring and to hire a part-time staffer to manage the disbursement process. Tuesday’s meeting suggested that there could be wide gaps between requests and allotments.

City of Omaha officials believe they have already incurred nearly $72 million in eligible expenses. That’s nearly half the county’s total allotment. That includes the total cost of Omaha’s Police and Fire Departments from March 1 through May 31, City Finance Director Steve Curtiss told the County Board. It also includes the pay of parks, library and other workers who were diverted to other duties by the COVID-19 threat. It includes $2.5 million that the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority spent getting ready for the College World Series and the property tax payment that the city-owned Hilton can’t make because of lost business. Those bills revert to the city under its contracts with those entities, although the NCAA may repay MECA, Curtiss said.

The city’s expenses are likely to grow. Initial guidelines from the federal government said the money was supposed to go only for COVID-related expenses that had not already been budgeted for before the pandemic. But Curtiss said that later guidelines have expanded what the money can be used for, including complete costs for fire and police.

The County Board’s response to that pitch was less than enthusiastic.

“We’re not gonna do that,” County Board member Mike Boyle said.

Ralston Mayor Don Groesser said his city will submit a request for $2.7 million in COVID-related expenses. Those include “only 50% of (Ralston’s) police and fire operational response,” and an unspecified amount to reopen the Ralston Arena.

“Since the facility has been closed with the pandemic, expenditures necessary to reopen that facility are certainly within the current funding guidelines,” Groesser said. “If Ralston does not open the arena, at some point we won’t be able to generate enough revenue to meet our city’s financial obligations.”

That would hurt the city’s ability to pay for public safety and other services, Groesser said.

Erin Feichtinger of Together Omaha said the economic toll of the pandemic is hitting vulnerable populations hard, and it will get worse. She presented a letter from 17 organizations.

“An analysis of 211 calls (to the United Way) shows 1,422 calls requesting rental assistance between March 15 and May 11 of this year, compared to just 745 in the same period last year,” Feichtinger said. “We ask that a portion of the coronavirus relief funds allocated to Douglas County through the CARES Act be used for tenant-based rental assistance.”

County Board member Chris Rodgers asked for copies of cities’ and towns’ budgets so the board can compare new expenses with previously budgeted costs.

Duda sought to strike a cooperative tone.

“I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone that at the end of the day, I am hoping the state and the county will come together in partnership to meet the City of Omaha’s needs,” Duda said. “First, we have to agree on what those needs are. … But anything we do for one city, or volunteer fire department, one town, I hope we do for all. I hope we treat everybody equally.”


Our best staff photos of May 2020

Photos: Our best staff photos of May 2020

Articles
Drug Trump is taking needs a doc's OK, White House stresses

WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House hurried Tuesday to defend President Donald Trump's decision to take a malaria drug to protect against the coronavirus, despite warnings from his own government that it should only be administered for COVID-19 in a hospital or research setting due to potentially fatal side effects.

Trump told reporters a day earlier that he has been taking the drug, hydroxychloroquine, and a zinc supplement daily "for about a week and a half now," after two White House staffers tested positive for the coronavirus. Trump has spent months pushing hydroxychloroquine as a potential cure or preventive drug for COVID-19 against the cautionary advice of many of his administration's top medical professionals.

The drug has the potential to cause significant side effects in some patients and has not been shown to combat the new coronavirus.

Amid concerns from some public health experts that Trump's example could send more people to misuse the drug, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Tuesday that "tens of millions of people around the world have used this drug for other purposes," including malaria prophylaxis. She emphasized that "any use of hydroxychloroquine has to be in consultation with your doctor. You have to have a prescription. That's the way it must be done."

The drug is also prescribed for some lupus and arthritis patients.

At the White House, Trump said that his doctor did not recommend hydroxychloroquine to him but that he requested it from the White House physician.

"I started taking it, because I think it's good," Trump said. "I've heard a lot of good stories."

The White House physician, Dr. Sean Conley, said in a statement released through the press office that, after "numerous discussions" with Trump about the evidence for and against using hydroxychloroquine, "we concluded the potential benefit from treatment outweighed the relative risks."

The Food and Drug Administration warned health professionals last month that the drug should not be used to treat COVID-19 outside of hospital or research settings, due to sometimes fatal side effects. Regulators issued the alert for the drug, in part, based on increased reports of dangerous side effects made to U.S. poison control centers.

Calls to poison centers involving hydroxychloroquine increased last month to 96, compared with 49 in April 2019, according to data from the American Association of Poison Control Centers provided to the AP. It was the second month of elevated reports involving the drug, following 79 calls in March. The problems reported included abnormal heart rhythms, seizures, nausea and vomiting.

Trump dismissed reports of side effects, saying, "All I can tell you is, so far I seem to be OK."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told CNN, "He's our president, and I would rather he not be taking something that has not been approved by the scientists, especially in his age group and his, shall we say, weight group ... morbidly obese, they say."

Trump is 73. At his last full checkup in February 2019 he passed the official threshold for being considered obese, with a body mass index of 30.4. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a BMI of 40 or above is considered "severe" obesity, which some also call "morbid" obesity.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer called Trump's remarks on the drug dangerous.

"Maybe he's really not taking it because the president lies about things characteristically," Schumer said on MSNBC. He added: "I don't know whether he is taking it or not. I know him saying he is taking it, whether he is or not, is reckless, reckless, reckless."

At least two White House staffers tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month, sparking concerns about the steps taken by the administration to protect the president and sending Vice President Mike Pence and other officials into varying forms of self-isolation.

Trump last underwent an "interim" medical checkup in a November visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center that was not noted on his public schedule. His last complete physical took place in February 2019.

Several prominent doctors said they worried that people would infer from Trump's example that the drug works or is safe.

"There is no evidence that hydroxychloroquine is effective for the treatment or the prevention of COVID-19," said Dr. Patrice Harris, president of the American Medical Association. "The results to date are not promising."

People should not infer from Trump's example "that it's an approved approach or proven," because it's not, said Dr. David Aronoff, infectious diseases chief at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.

Hydroxychloroquine can cause potentially serious heart rhythm problems even in healthy people, but "it's hard to infer" that Trump's artery plaque, revealed in tests from his 2018 physical, makes the drug especially dangerous for him, Aronoff said.

White House officials did not say whether any other administration officials were taking the drug.

Trump said he took hydroxychloroquine with an "original dose" of the antibiotic azithromycin. The president has repeatedly promoted the use of the drug with or without the azithromycin, but no large, rigorous studies have found them safe or effective for preventing or treating COVID-19.

Two large observational studies, each involving around 1,400 patients in New York, recently found no COVID benefit from hydroxychloroquine. Two published Thursday in the medical journal BMJ reached the same conclusion.

Prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine surged roughly 80% in March to more than 830,000 compared with the same period in the prior year, according to data tracking firm IQVIA. That jump in prescribing came before the federal government accepted nearly 30 million doses of the drug donated to the strategic national stockpile by foreign drugmakers.


Livewellnebraska
special report
Here’s what has to happen for us to go back to work in Omaha

Even when Omaha and Nebraska are ready to get back to business, for most of the region’s workers, it’s certainly not going to be business as usual.

Shuttered break rooms and common areas.

Face coverings.

Staggered shifts to minimize worker contact.

And continued encouragement to work from home.

All are among the best practices being recommended by the Greater Omaha Chamber as regional businesses consider when and how to reopen their office operations. The suggested guidelines are part of an overall plan the chamber is promoting to help businesses and the Nebraska economy move on from the COVID-19 crisis toward recovery.

“With these tools and the invincible spirit of our businesses and citizens, we are optimistic,” said Tim Burke, CEO of Omaha Public Power District and chairman of the chamber’s board. “But we’re practical. Recovery will be a balancing act.”

Most businesses in the region are still likely weeks, or even months, from being able to implement even Phase 1 of the proposed reopening plan. But a chamber task force is also looking even further into the future, working on a strategic plan that’s designed to help the region thrive in the post-pandemic world.

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That could include initiatives that would help the region take advantage of economic opportunities created by the deadly bug, such as manufacture of equipment or devices that can aid in the battle against it.

“How can the Omaha region regain what we’ve lost and accelerate more?” said James Blackledge, CEO of Mutual of Omaha.

Over the past two months, most businesses in Omaha and across Nebraska have significantly curtailed or even shut down their on-site office operations as part of the effort to keep the coronavirus curve from overrunning the state’s health care system.

Many businesses are now working on operational plans for how they will one day reopen. And a number of them have been looking for guidance.

“There are literally thousands of small- and medium-sized businesses out there attempting to navigate the situation on their own,” Burke said. “When should we reopen? How can I protect my people? What’s the next step toward recovery?”

That prompted the chamber’s creation of what it’s calling the “We Rise” economic recovery plan.

Burke said the chamber’s playbook will not supersede the guidance from the state and local health officials on when they can operate and how to do so safely. But it will help businesses tailor plans within that framework that work best for them.

Implementing the plan will also be guided by science.

The chamber plan utilizes PRAM, the Pandemic Recovery Acceleration Model that was developed by infectious disease and public health experts at the University of Nebraska Medical Center to help the public and private sectors make decisions related to COVID-19.

PRAM provides a real-time snapshot of the status of the virus in the region. While PRAM’s status dashboard offers a number of benchmarks, David Brown, CEO of the chamber, said two of the measures that are particularly important to businesses are the number of new cases per day and the percentage of tests that are coming back positive.

“If those things are trending in the right way, then it might be safe to open up business again,” Brown said. “If they’re going the wrong direction and ‘in the red,’ then it might be time to pause on getting your employees and customers back in their places.”

The World-Herald's complete coronavirus coverage

At this point, PRAM appears to show that new cases statewide are flat at best, and in the Omaha region they’re continuing to rise. One of PRAM’s benchmarks calls for new cases in the Omaha area to be no more than eight per day. Right now, the area is averaging 195 a day.

That suggests it could still be some time before many employees will be green-lighted to return to the office.

But once they are, chamber officials said, businesses need to have both the guidance and supplies to do so safely.

Among the topics covered by the “We Rise” plan are employee screening — including possible temperature checks and use of a screening mobile app — and revised on-site practices and work spaces to promote social distancing.

In Stage 2 of the reopening plan, more normal business practices would resume, though vulnerable individuals would still be encouraged to work from home.

The chamber calls the third stage “We Thrive,” the time where the disease is under control and businesses can operate in a new kind of normal.

To help the region take advantage of that post-recovery phase, a chamber task force is studying what tools and resources could help accelerate the region’s job and economic growth.

That phase also could include assistance to help the unemployed get back to work or even upgrade their training, a way to ensure that future prosperity is broadly shared, said Carmen Tapio, who chairs a “We Thrive” task force committee.

Said Tapio, CEO of North End Teleservices, a North Omaha telemarketing firm: “We will put together targeted strategies to accelerate access to opportunity, so we can all get back to enjoying the quality of life we’ve worked so hard to create here.”


Top 25 counties with the highest per-capita rates of COVID-19 infection

Top 25 counties with the highest per capita rates of COVID-19 infection

Crime
Ex-wife: Omaha man arrested in killing of registered sex offender fearful man would offend again

An Omaha man accused of fatally shooting a registered sex offender probably was acting on his instincts to protect children, his former wife said Tuesday.

James P. Fairbanks, 43, was arrested Tuesday on suspicion of criminal homicide in the death of 64-year-old Mattieo Condoluci, who was found dead in his home at 4305 Pinkney St.

Fairbanks, a now-suspended Omaha Public Schools employee, was booked Tuesday into the Douglas County Jail and is awaiting his first appearance before a judge.

James Fairbanks

Mattieo Condoluci

Chief Deputy Douglas County Attorney Brenda Beadle said Omaha police are still investigating the slaying, and prosecutors would know better Wednesday about charges that may be filed against Fairbanks.

But Beadle cautioned against vigilante justice.

“It’s a really dangerous thing, when people start taking law enforcement into their own hands,” she said. “That’s why we have a justice system.”

Fairbanks has no history of violent crimes, according to a review of court records, but his ex-wife, Kelly Tamayo, applied for protection orders against him in 2016 and 2018 while they were going through a divorce.

Tamayo said Tuesday that her ex-husband “called me yesterday afternoon and told me what he had done and that he was turning himself in to police.”

Fairbanks, she said, “was apologetic and asked me to tell the kids that he loved them.”

Tamayo said she and Fairbanks are the parents of two boys, ages 12 and 17. She said Fairbanks also helped her raise two children, now adults, from a previous relationship.

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Authorities say Fairbanks wrote an email claiming responsibility for the slaying.

The writer of the email, sent to The World-Herald and other local news media outlets, claimed to have shot Condoluci after learning that he was listed on Nebraska’s sex offender registry. The author said he or she was apartment hunting in the neighborhood where Condoluci lived and learned of him while investigating the neighborhood.

“We are all in shock to say the least,” said Tamayo, who divorced Fairbanks in 2016. “Jim is a protector. He has worked with vulnerable kids his entire career. He took it very personally to protect his kids and other kids from (sex) offenders like that man was.”

Tamayo, who said she has a doctorate in psychology, said she thinks Fairbanks was “overwhelmed by the thought that this man was going to offend again.” He most likely was living in fear of that possibility, she said.

“He would have been that way because the penal system fails to rehabilitate these individuals,” she said. “They just put them back in our neighborhoods.”

Fairbanks is employed by OPS but has been placed on leave pending the outcome of the criminal investigation, said Jeremy Maskel, a district spokesman. Fairbanks had worked since December at the Secondary Success Program, the middle school-level alternative school at 3030 Spaulding St.

From October 2016 to December 2018, Fairbanks worked at Morton Middle School, near Interstate 680 and Fort Street. At both places, he was a paraprofessional, which included behavioral intervention work, Maskel said.

Tamayo said her ex-husband graduated from Lincoln High School. He had taken some college classes, she said, but didn’t have a degree. Before working for OPS, his ex-wife said, Fairbanks worked with troubled youths for a private company.

“He worked with some of the most troubled kids, and he never had to restrain them,” Tamayo said. “He was able to talk with them and calm them down.”

CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD 

A child’s playhouse sits in the backyard of 64-year-old Mattieo Condoluci. Condoluci, a registered sex offender, was found shot to death in his home near 43rd and Pinkney Streets over the weekend.

In March 2018, Fairbanks incurred a $1,000 bill for counseling services from Bryan Heartland Psychiatry and a Papillion urgent-care facility. Fairbanks, who once declared bankruptcy and made about $18,000 a year with OPS, never paid that bill, court records show.

Leading up to their divorce, Fairbanks’ behavior prompted Tamayo to apply for two separate protection orders. In one instance, she wrote that Fairbanks had been drunk in front of their minor children and “sent me threatening texts while out drinking.”

Fairbanks came to her home and “got in my face repeatedly in a threatening demeanor to scare me.” She also wrote that Fairbanks threatened “to scorch the earth” and kill a family friend.

“The idea of the divorce was extremely stressful for him,” Tamayo said Tuesday. “He was fearing that he could lose his connection with his kids. He said things in sadness, fear and anger that were perceived as threats, but he never acted violently. It was just personal in nature.”

According to the sex offender registry, Condoluci was convicted of attempted lewd or lascivious assault upon a child in 1994 in Florida and sexual assault of a child in Sarpy County in February 2007. Both are felonies.

Condoluci’s daughter, Amanda Henry of Omaha, said her father’s killer should be given probation.

“Murdering my dad was a horrible thing,” she said in an article that appeared in Tuesday’s World-Herald. “But children are much safer now, any other child he could have hurt is much safer.”

Tamayo said she felt relieved after reading the daughter’s statement in the paper.

“That’s all I can pray for,” Tamayo said. “As bad as (Fairbanks’) actions were, they came from a good intention to protect children from that man.”

Several people on social media lauded Fairbanks, many calling him a hero and saying he deserved a medal instead of being arrested.

Others said they planned to give money to his jail commissary account or a fund to hire an attorney.

The email from the person who claimed responsibility, which was sent Monday, included the subject line “Mattieo Condoluci Homicide” and came from a “Stop Predators” email address. The anonymous author claimed in the email to have killed Condoluci on Thursday evening, which was two days before police discovered Condoluci’s body.

The writer, who wrote of having worked with victimized children, said when he or she drove by Condoluci’s home, Condoluci was standing in his driveway “pretending to wash his truck (no soap or water just a rag) while staring at a group of children playing in the street. I watched him for a few minutes and just felt sick to my stomach. He just kept staring at them. The kids thankfully left and he went inside.”

For at least a brief period several years ago, Condoluci was a street minister to Omaha’s homeless. Through Disciples for Christ Street Ministry, he served meals at downtown Omaha’s Gene Leahy Mall and provided haircuts to homeless people. The ministry’s Facebook page was in operation from 2013-2015.

On the Facebook page, Condoluci talked about his outreach and asked for donations.

Laura Smith said it was that publicity that helped her find Condoluci, and about four years ago she started a Facebook page to warn others about him.

Smith’s Facebook page apparently caught the eye of the person who claims to have killed Condoluci. The email received by The World-Herald includes this passage:

“One kids mother had created a predator facebook page about him trying to warn people about him. Her son had been assaulted by him when he was 5 and the damage he did led the poor guy to die of a drug overdose years later and his mom directly blamed that incident on him.”

World-Herald staff writers Todd Cooper and Alia Conley contributed to this report.

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