Some downtown property owners would pay higher special assessments under a proposal to increase the budget of the group charged with cleaning and beautifying the area.
Supporters say the increase is needed to help hire an additional staffer to look after a 75-block area of downtown.
“We do a pretty good job at cleaning, but we could do a better job,” said Dan Emanuel, a downtown resident and president of the Omaha Downtown Improvement District Association.
The increase would affect those who own property roughly between 17th and 10th Streets and Webster and Leavenworth Streets.
In 2006, the city created the business improvement district in an area of downtown. Such business “improvement districts” are allowed under state law to collect a special fee to pay for services like picking up trash, providing extra security and planting flowers in a specified area in which the property owners pay the fee.
The downtown district, which is the city’s largest, works with an accompanying nonprofit association that handles operations and is led by representatives from the area. The city’s other business improvement districts are in Blackstone, Dundee, Benson and, most recently, Elkhorn.
Right now, the assessment for commercial property in the downtown district is 44 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. The means the owner of a commercial building assessed at $3 million would pay $1,320 each year. It’s half that — 22 cents per $1,000 of valuation — for residential property owners. That amounts to $66 for a residential property valued at $300,000.
In all, those assessments bring in roughly $400,000 annually for the district. The group’s work is in addition to what’s already done by the city’s Public Works Department.
The group employs four full-time staffers: its executive director, who made $81,000, according to the organization’s 2016 federal tax forms, the most recent available. It also employs a communications coordinator, a maintenance supervisor and a maintenance worker.
It has several part-time workers that serve as ambassadors and do seasonal work.
Under the proposal to increase the district’s revenue, the assessment would grow 10 percent the first year and 3 percent each year after that for four years.
For the district, the increase would result in an extra $40,000 the first year — money the district says would be used to hire another full-time Clean and Green Team staffer. The subsequent increases floated in the proposal would help cover cost-of-living salary increases.
If approved, property owners would pay $132 more the first year on a commercial property assessed at $3 million. They’d pay $7 more on a residence valued at $300,000.
Holly Barrett, executive director of the Downtown Improvement District, said the proposal has generated broad support.
She said two-thirds of the 200 stakeholders surveyed in 2016 said they’d support increasing the assessment if it would provide new and improved service.
The proposal isn’t universally beloved. Michael Henery, the owner of a number of commercial and residential properties downtown, including Michael’s Cantina at the Market restaurant, said he’s “totally against” the proposed increase and said “they need to remove the tax” instead.
He estimated that he paid $500 in special assessments last year, yet downtown is dirtier than ever in his observation.
“Last winter was a pig pen,” he said. “I’ve never seen the alleys so bad. You can quote me on that.”
He questioned what difference the group’s work has made and said the city, through property taxes, should be taking care of basic city services the group says it provides.
Barrett and Emanuel said the need for services is great. Currently, two maintenance workers canvass the district. Adding one more staffer would mean the group could pick up litter faster and more efficiently and take better care of the district’s plants, the group says.
The group’s leaders say it could raise funds in other ways. They’re looking into that, they say. A recently formed foundation will work to secure grants and private donations. And they’ve talked about expanding the district’s boundaries, but don’t want to force the district on property owners.
Barrett said the district does important work, from picking up litter and making sure public spaces are clean, to promoting downtown and serving as a liaison between the city’s decision-makers and the community. For example, it has brought in additional security officers, including a handful for the College World Series and other events.
The association, which has a board with more than 20 members that represents property owners, business tenants, residents and others within the district, voted overwhelmingly to support the proposal.
Mark Mercer, a board member and longtime Old Market business owner, voted against it. He didn’t respond to a message seeking comment.
The plan now goes before the Omaha City Council for approval. The council will hold a public hearing at 2 p.m. Tuesday in the Legislative Chambers of City Hall, 1819 Farnam St.
Mayor Jean Stothert and the City Planning Department signed off on the plan. Planning Director Dave Fanslau noted that the area’s property owners approached the city about wanting to raise the assessment.
He said it’s beneficial to the city and those who visit Omaha because the district provides extra security, landscaping and upkeep beyond what the city provides.
Council Vice President Chris Jerram said he thinks the group has made a compelling case. “My thought was if their group supports it, I would support it,” he said.