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New proposal allots $65 million in federal aid for Douglas County buildings and programs

Douglas County would spend $65 million in federal coronavirus relief aid on its buildings and programs, including improvements to the health center and jail, while distributing just $25 million to the City of Omaha, under a proposal presented Tuesday to the County Board.

The money comes from the federal CARES Act, which allotted $166 million for Douglas County to distribute. Besides the county and city money, another $30 million would go to other local governments and agencies. And $46 million would be reserved for unspecified future needs.

Omaha’s $25 million in federal money is about one-third of the $72 million that city officials sought from the county. However, Douglas County Finance Director Joe Lorenz told board members that Omaha might receive an additional $25 million from the State of Nebraska’s allotment, bringing the city’s total to $50 million.

The County Board did not vote on the proposal Tuesday. But the board could vote as early as June 23 on many of the county’s proposed capital expenditures in order to meet requirements that the projects be done this year.

The federal money is intended to help local governments that have seen some costs rise under COVID-19 even as their revenues have slumped amid the economic disruption. In Omaha, for example, Mayor Jean Stothert has said she expects at least an $80 million revenue shortfall for this year because of the coronavirus.

She and City Finance Director Steve Curtiss have said the county should give the city more money, including enough to cover all of the city’s fire and police costs from March through May. City officials believe the federal regulations would allow that, but county officials disagree.

“We’re not going to cover revenue loss; that’s specifically not allowed,” said Clare Duda, board chair. “We’re not going to cover the entire fire and police payrolls. The expenses that meet the guidelines, we are going to cover.”

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Duda said the city’s proposed portion is calculated based on the monthly amount of direct, unbudgeted-for coronavirus expenses that city officials have said Omaha is incurring.

Stothert said the city would be grateful for $25 million, although she said the city made a valid request for more.

While the county suggests that Omaha could still receive additional money from the state, a spokesman for Gov. Pete Ricketts said nothing has been decided.

“The amount of coronavirus-related expenses that the State of Nebraska will cost-share with Douglas County is still a matter of consideration,“ said spokesman Taylor Gage.

The County Attorney’s Office and other officials are still researching whether the proposed expenditures in the county plan are allowed by the regulations, and the County Board plans to hire an accounting firm to help with that question. In addition, discussion and debate are still to be held.

Besides the $25 million to the city, the plan calls for distributing $8 million to other local governments and rural fire departments in Douglas County, $2 million to the Omaha/Douglas Public Building Commission, and a combined $20 million to government agencies and nonprofit organizations for rent assistance and aid to the homeless.

As for Douglas County itself, the proposal envisions spending $55 million on capital improvement projects and equipment upgrades, plus another $10 million to cover additional costs to the county for COVID-19 expenses.

The projects include several new air handling units, pumps and exhaust fans, a replacement steam boiler and chilling towers, upgraded lighting, new isolation rooms and automatic faucets in patient rooms and nursing stations at the Douglas County Health Center. The 240-bed center provides long-term nursing care and assisted living to Douglas County residents regardless of their ability to pay. It had a COVID-19 outbreak among staff and residents.

At the Douglas County Jail, federal money would be used for boiler and chiller repairs as well as new lighting. The proposal includes upgrades to HVAC systems at the jail and Douglas County Youth Center that would make those systems “pandemic ready.”

The Douglas County Jail typically houses about 1,100 inmates, most of them arrested by the Omaha Police Department. The jail has not had a COVID-19 outbreak.

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Duda said some of the items, such as new boilers, might seem hard to justify, but he said he’s being told that they would qualify under the federal regulations. The new lighting would be an ultraviolet light that kills bacteria, which would make the facilities more sanitary — but as Duda noted, it would not kill the coronavirus, which is not a bacteria.

“Until somebody tells me they don’t qualify, we believe they do,” Duda said. “Nobody’s giving their blessings yet. We’re just saying here is what we’re considering. ... If there is a second wave (of the coronavirus), I think these actions would prepare us for that.”

Stothert said she was “a little speechless” over what the county is proposing to spend on its own projects.

“I just don’t understand putting things in like chillers and HVAC systems and steam boilers,” she said.

The mayor said it’s her understanding that the federal money is supposed to go for costs incurred during the current pandemic, not a second wave of the coronavirus or future pandemic.

“They (the County Board) are the ones that have to decide how they’re going to spend the money,” Stothert said. “But I know for a fact that these will get audited, and if (the money is) spent on expenses that are not permissible, they may have to pay the money back.”


Our best staff photos of May 2020

Photos: Our best staff photos of May 2020

Local
Rules on Omaha scooters are set, but they won't appear on city streets just yet

Rules of the road for riding electric scooters in Omaha are now mostly set, but City Council members on Tuesday weren’t ready to give companies the green light to put scooters back on the streets.

The council voted 4-2 to approve the basics of what people can and cannot do when riding a scooter. Scooters won’t be allowed on sidewalks. Nor will they be allowed on streets with speed limits greater than 35 mph. No one under 18 will be allowed to use them. And they can’t be parked in certain places, among other rules.

Riders would have been mandated to wear helmets under an amendment proposed by Council President Chris Jerram, but it failed on a 3-3 vote. Council members Brinker Harding, Aimee Melton and Pete Festersen voted it down.

“To me, having an (ordinance) that doesn’t ... require the use of helmets is just too dangerous a situation,” Jerram said.

Jerram and Councilman Rich Pahls voted against the ordinance that sets rules for scooters. Councilman Ben Gray was not present for either vote.

The council also approved a $100 fine for violating scooter rules.

Julie Harris, executive director of Bike Walk Nebraska, characterized that amount as unreasonable and out of line with similar violations.

Many parking violations for vehicles in Omaha are $16, Harris noted. Bikes aren’t allowed on downtown sidewalks, but Harris said she couldn’t find anything in the city code about a fine for riding on them.

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“It’s just an inequitable fine,” said Harris, who leads a group that advocates for safe and accessible transportation in the state.

Harris said she does think another scooter pilot program is good for the city, and she welcomes reasonable regulation of the scooters.

After approving the rules, the council on Tuesday also was poised to vote on operating agreements with Spin and Bird, the two companies expected to participate in Omaha’s second pilot program this summer and fall. That would have allowed the companies to break out their scooter fleets Monday.

But those agreements weren’t added to the council’s agenda until this week, and some council members had concerns, including the companies’ ability to control where people ride scooters and keep the devices sanitized during the pandemic.

Harding said the public should have a chance to comment on those agreements, which will be discussed during a public hearing at the council’s June 16 meeting.

Festersen on Tuesday wanted to know more about how riders will be prevented from going to prohibited areas of the city, a concept known as geo-fencing. During last year’s scooter pilot program, riders were supposed to be limited to areas like downtown, Midtown and Benson.

Ken Smith, Omaha’s parking and mobility manager, said the city will be divided into color-coded sections that will be shown to riders on the apps. Parking a scooter in some areas could result in a fine for the rider or in other areas an accumulating credit card charge. It was unclear Tuesday if the scooters will be automatically brought to a stop or slowed if they enter a restricted area.

Blanca Laborde, a Bird representative, and Phuong Bui, a Spin employee, both said Tuesday that their companies offer free helmets to anyone who requests one, which can be done in the apps that riders use to unlock scooters. The companies also offer educational programs and promote social media events to encourage safe riding habits.

The scooters will be cleaned at the end of each day, Laborde and Bui said. Some will be cleaned throughout the day as they’re picked up and redistributed in the city.

One amendment to the regulation ordinance that did pass Tuesday requires people under the age of 18 who own their own scooters, electric or otherwise, to wear a helmet. But they can’t be prosecuted for riding on sidewalks or violating most of the other rules on electric scooters.

The rules won’t go into effect until 15 days after Tuesday. That would mean the rules go into effect June 24.

And if the council approves the contracts with the companies at its next meeting, scooters could once again roam Omaha’s streets by the end of June.

This article has been updated to reflect when the scooter rules will go into effect.


Omaha zoo’s first weekend open since closing amid coronavirus

Photos: Omaha zoo's first weekend open since closing amid coronavirus

 


Local
'A step in the right direction': Omaha City Council approves hate intimidation ordinance

Omahans who use hateful speech in connection with a crime against someone in a protected class can now be charged with a separate municipal offense under an ordinance approved Tuesday by the City Council.

The addition of a hate intimidation offense to the municipal code gives prosecutors another tool to charge someone if he or she commits a crime against someone based on age, race, gender, gender identity, ethnicity or other protected classes.

The ordinance, which passed the council on a 7-0 vote, establishes hate intimidation as a separate criminal offense, but the charge will be brought only if someone commits another crime. Matt Kuhse, the city prosecutor, compared the offense to someone being charged with using a firearm in the commission of a felony — the felony itself must occur for that charge to be added.

The maximum penalty for a hate intimidation conviction is up to six months in jail, a $500 fine, or both.

Any jail time associated with the offense would be added to the end of the sentence for the underlying charge.

Dozens of people spoke in support of the measure at a public hearing this month, but many of them characterized the ordinance as only the first step in creating an equal system of justice.

That public hearing came days after 22-year-old James Scurlock, a black Omaha man, was shot and killed outside a downtown bar by Jake Gardner, a white man, during protests over racism and the killing of black people by police.

A few opponents said the ordinance doesn’t go far enough. Some said it infringes upon First Amendment rights.

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One opponent, LaVon Stennis Williams, said during the public hearing that she was concerned that the ordinance will be “weaponized” against the people it was designed to protect, especially young black men.

She said harassment against people of color often comes in the form of comments — which, on their own, would not be prosecuted under the ordinance. Stennis Williams said hateful words can be used to incite violence, and pointed to recent examples of white people calling the police on black people in situations where they were not committing crimes.

“The examples are plentiful of white people who feel uncomfortable with the presence of black people being places where they don’t think they belong,” she said.

Councilman Ben Gray, who represents parts of northeast Omaha, said he shared Stennis Williams’ concerns that the ordinance could be used against minority groups. But he said he thought the measure was a step in the right direction.

And if the ordinance succeeds, Gray said, the city should consider enhancing it.

Pierce Carpenter, another opponent, said he thought the ordinance would infringe upon people’s right to free speech by deeming hate speech a prosecutable offense.

“We don’t need to have that taken away from our First Amendment rights,” Carpenter said.

But Kuhse, the city prosecutor, said the ordinance doesn’t prevent people from saying nearly anything they wish. (There are exceptions under prior U.S. Supreme Court rulings.) For someone’s conduct to rise to the level of violating the ordinance, he or she must combine speech with an action.

Kuhse used a hypothetical domestic violence crime as an example: If a man were to physically harm a woman who holds a seat of power — but first comments that he hates women and disapproves of them holding power — then the additional intimidation offense could come into play.

“I’m not being penalized because I said ‘I hate women,’ ” Kuhse said of that hypothetical. “I’m being penalized because of what those words show” in the context of the assault.

Omaha has never had a hate intimidation offense on the books. There is a similar Nebraska state statute, but Kuhse said it’s more limited in scope than the one Omaha created Tuesday.

The language of Omaha’s offense states that someone can be found guilty if he or she commits a crime with the intent to intimidate someone “in whole or in part.” Kuhse highlighted those final words as an important distinction from the state statute, which he said requires prosecutors to prove that the “sole reason” the crime was committed was because of hatred of a protected group.

Councilwoman Aimee Melton, a family law attorney who previously worked as a deputy Douglas County attorney, said she was pleased with the way the city’s Law Department crafted the language of the offense. She said the city doesn’t want to prosecute people for their language use.

“As long as nobody’s committing any crimes, this will never apply to you,” Melton said.

Deputy Chief Greg Gonzalez of the Omaha Police Department called the ordinance a “trailblazing resolution” for police officers. He said the ordinance will give local law enforcement entities “a little more authority” to investigate and prosecute people who commit hate crimes.

Anthony Conner, president of the Omaha Police Officers Association, called the ordinance “another tool in the toolbox” for law enforcement officers and prosecutors.

Clarice Jackson, a member of the city’s Human Rights and Relations Board, said during the public hearing that she hoped the ordinance will be used against law enforcement officers who “choose not to obey the law,” as well as those who try to incite violence by using racial slurs.

“I feel like this ordinance is a step in the right direction,” Jackson said. “However, I am very (aggrieved) at how we as a society have handled my community.”

Kuhse said the offense can be brought against anyone who shows hate toward another group while committing a crime.


Several rallies and protests in Omaha on Friday

Photos: Several rallies and protests in Omaha on Friday

Local
State Sen. Ernie Chambers finds reason for hope in widespread outrage over Floyd killing

LINCOLN — Omaha State Sen. Ernie Chambers had gone into his legislative office on a recent morning to watch the news and put together a new protest sign.

MARTHA STODDARD/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Chambers made this sign, shown in his legislative office at the Nebraska State Capitol.

“Police training without accountability is mockery & a sham,” it read, in neat block letters on posterboard.

He hadn’t yet decided where he would go with the sign. He didn’t expect others to join him. He wasn’t sure it would make any difference or change any minds.

But Chambers, Nebraska’s longest-serving lawmaker, who gives his occupation as “defender of the downtrodden,” was ready for yet another round in his lifelong battle against racism, injustice and police brutality. This round seems to offer a little more hope.

It comes as thousands of Nebraskans have taken to the streets in outrage sparked by the death of a 46-year-old black man at the hands of Minneapolis police.

Video of a white police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, while he pleaded for help and repeatedly said he could not breathe, and while two other officers pressed down on Floyd’s back, led to the wave of protests in cities big and small across the United States calling for racial justice and changes in law enforcement.

Chambers has seen similar eruptions over his eight-plus decades. This time is different, he said. Past demonstrations have been mainly by black people.

ANNA REED/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Sen. Ernie Chambers speaks to people protesting outside the Omaha Douglas Civic Center in Omaha.

“White people are involved in all of this. They have been outraged by what they saw police doing and officials not making appropriate response,” he said.

“There are instances where black men have been killed, even black women, and it didn’t result in this kind of reaction because words can never convey what the image can. For some white people, it might have made them say, ‘I’ve heard about this happening, but I didn’t believe it.’ 

“I think even some of the racists, I’m just speculating, might have said this is too much,” he said.

Floyd’s death renewed attention to other police killings and shone a light on other instances of alleged misconduct by law enforcement. Among them, three months ago in Louisville, Kentucky, plainclothes police executed a no-knock warrant in the middle of the night and fatally shot Breonna Taylor, a black health care worker, in her own apartment.

In Buffalo, New York, last week, a video showed police apparently shoving a 75-year-old man to the ground, then walking on as he lay bleeding from his head. The police initially claimed that the man had tripped.

Cases like these, Chambers said, are bearing out his criticism of law enforcement and demonstrating why he argues that police officers lie and are encouraged in doing so by their supervisors.

“If these top cops had been implementing a spirit or requirement of professionalism, these cops wouldn’t have thought about manufacturing these lies, and other cops, who were aware of it, would have intervened to stop these rogue cops from doing what they’re doing,” he said.

CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD 

People listen to Sen. Ernie Chambers during a rally at the Omaha police’s northeast precinct.

That’s the reason for Chambers’ new sign. Police training means nothing if officers can ignore the training without being held accountable, he said.

The videos and reports also illustrate, Chambers said, why he once compared black people’s fear of police to the fear that others have of the Islamic State, a radical Sunni militant group. Those comments, made during a 2015 legislative hearing on a gun bill, prompted widespread calls for the North Omaha firebrand to resign or apologize.

“I was making an analogy,” he said. “You-all are afraid of these terrorists over there, well, they never did anything in our community. They never shot our children or broke into our houses and did these kind of things. ISIS didn’t do that; the police have done it.”

He said some who joined the recent protests experienced the response of law enforcement firsthand. Protesters in both Omaha and Lincoln were met with tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper balls, as authorities sought to control the crowds, enforce curfews and, at least at some points, respond to some people setting fires and breaking windows.

“If the police come and they are militarized in the sense of body armor, high-velocity weapons, helmets and trying to give the impression of being soldiers, that approach is provocative,” he said. “That is the worst possible way to respond to a group.

“They are to maintain the peace, or, if there’s something inappropriate going on, it’s to restore the peace. Never should they have ever been allowed to get the notion that they are warriors.”

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For all his criticism of national and state leaders and despite saying black people have never been free in America, Chambers remains a firm believer in the U.S. Constitution and its principles.

“Although I refer to it as you-all’s Constitution, I have said over and over, I want it to be maintained,” he said. “I want the promises to be kept and, even though they don’t respect us and bestow on us the right to exercise what other people can under the Constitution, it’s our only hope.”

He maintains that hope in the face of repeated setbacks on issues of life and death, race and equity. It’s not always easy, he said, admitting to having “a battle going on in my mind all the time.” But he keeps going.

“You learn how to reckon success and failure differently from the way other people do. A success is not what you achieve. That is a form of success, but the real success is when you do what you believe you should do under the most adverse of circumstances.”

And Chambers said the public response to Floyd’s death has given him particular hope.

“People are coming alive, young people, of all races, are coming together, and I’ve often said there’s going to be a new generation. Well, I think the new generation is on the horizon. They’re doing what is available for them to do. They’re not sitting back and saying, ‘Well, we’re not in office, we don’t have any power.’ They’re walking. They’re talking, they’re carrying signs.

“So it gives me hope that things might change, and it’s not that hopeless, hoping against hope,” he said. “I actually see some things that give reason for somebody who is as cynical as I am to think that a better day is possible.”


Omaha protesters come out again on first night curfew is lifted

Photos: Omaha protesters come out again on first night curfew is lifted