Jean Stothert

The City of Omaha should spend more money next year to enforce its new rental housing registry ordinance, including by hiring more than the single additional inspector proposed by Mayor Jean Stothert, several people told the City Council on Tuesday night.

Stothert’s proposed 2020 budget calls for increasing the number of housing code enforcement inspectors from nine to 10.

But adding one won’t get it done, advocates contended. Of 19 people who spoke at Tuesday’s public hearing on the budget proposal, nine called for spending more to enforce the ordinance.

Gerry Sullivan, from the Gifford Park neighborhood, called it “truly astounding” that Stothert’s budget called for adding only one inspector when the City Finance Department had estimated that a similar ordinance would require 3.5 more inspectors.

“This program seems designed to fail,” Sullivan said. “By not budgeting sufficient funds for a robust licensing and code enforcement program, the city is subsidizing the profits of these landlords, on the backs of the poor.”

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The community group Omaha Together One Community thinks the city should add four inspectors for a total of 13, said Gloria Austerberry, a member of that group and of Augustana Lutheran Church.

Dennis Walsh, also of OTOC, said one is not enough, and four wouldn’t be either.

“But fully funding the ordinance with four new inspectors would show (the city is) starting on a process of fundamental change,” he said. “The rental ordinance gives them a structure to change. This budget shows a failure to accept that challenge.”

Stothert has said there is no need to add more inspectors yet. She has said that 10 inspectors is enough to focus on known problem landlords and that the city will be able to add inspectors before mandatory inspections of rental properties start in 2022.

The mayor is proposing a general fund budget of $419.6 million and total spending of just over $1 billion in 2020. The proposal would hold the city’s tax rate steady at 47.922 cents per $100 of valuation.

But many people’s property tax bills will go up, because their property valuations increased this year, Omahan Andrew Sullivan noted. He criticized the budget for not reducing the tax rate.

Doug Kagan, of Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom, echoed that point. Wearing a sticker that read “Jean’s Team,” Kagan generally praised Stothert’s proposal.

“Mayor Stothert, with acknowledged difficulty, has crafted a budget friendly to city taxpayers,” Kagan said. But the city should make more spending cuts, he said.

Three members of the group Students for Sustainability said the city should continue its contract with Omaha’s recycling processor, First Star Recycling. First Star wants to charge the city a tipping fee of $100 per ton of waste it drops off to recycle. That could cost taxpayers about $1.7 million a year.

That’s a minuscule part of city spending and it’s worth it to do the right thing, Cate Kelly, a Mercy High School student and member of Students for Sustainability, told the council.

“If anyone in this room bought a coffee or a pastry for breakfast this morning, congratulations,” she said. “You have paid, I am guessing, between five and six months of recycling for your household.”

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Chris Burbach covers the Douglas County Board, Planning Board and other local government bodies, as well as local neighborhood issues. Follow him on Twitter @chrisburbach. Phone: 402-444-1057.

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