The City of Omaha’s budget would exceed $1 billion for the first time and put more money toward public safety and streets under a proposal by Mayor Jean Stothert.
Under Stothert’s 2019 budget, the city’s share of property taxes would remain the same with no change to its tax rate. The restaurant tax also would remain at the same rate.
Omaha City Council President Ben Gray predicted that the council would make a few changes to the proposal, “but I don’t consider those changes to be major,” he said.
Stothert, who is in her second term as Omaha’s mayor, unveiled her budget proposal publicly Tuesday. She said it reflects what taxpayers want prioritized and feedback from members of the City Council.
“No. 1 is always public safety,” she said. “No. 2 is coming in very strong at roads.”
Gray said the city still has “a long way to go” on streets but said the nearly $230 million in capital bonds that voters approved in May will help fund more projects.
“We’re going to be making some substantial progress,” he said.
Councilman Brinker Harding said that while “anyone would like to see their taxes go down,” he thinks that Stothert has put together a budget that makes sense.
“It’s not every year that we’re going to be able to deliver a tax decrease,” he said.
The proposal will now go to the council for consideration. A public hearing is set for 6:30 p.m. on July 31.
Among the plan’s highlights:
» The general fund budget for city operations would grow 3.4 percent to $400 million.
The year-over-year spending growth is less than what was proposed last year, but a bit more than Stothert’s previously stated goal of 3 percent or less. Stothert said spending growth has averaged 3 percent during her tenure as mayor.
Most of the general fund budget — 80 percent — goes toward employee salaries and benefits.
» 20 police officers would be added to reach a sworn strength of 900 for when the city opens a fifth police precinct in Elkhorn next July. That’s a record high for the department.
The department would increase to 902 if the council approves Stothert’s annexation package, which would bring more than 8,000 residents into the city.
Stothert would also add money to fund five new 911 dispatchers. The Douglas County 911 director has requested six more people. Marty Bilek, Stothert’s chief of staff, said it takes five people to staff one 24/7 position.
The budget includes no new firefighters, but it does add a civilian education specialist to work in north Omaha, bringing the department’s budgeted strength to 666. (The department already has an education specialist in South Omaha.)
» There would be no change in the city’s property tax rate or Omaha’s 2.5 percent restaurant tax. Stothert said that other priorities were more important than lowering taxes.
She has successfully pushed for a 2 percent cut in the city’s property tax rate in the past, once in the 2015 budget and again in the 2017 budget.
City Finance Director Steve Curtiss said that lowering the city’s property tax levy 1 cent would create a $3.4 million hole in the budget.
The city’s tax rate is 47.922 cents per $100 of valuation, which means that someone who owns a home valued at $150,000 pays $719 each year in city property taxes. So even though the city’s tax rate is staying the same, a homeowner’s property taxes would go up if the home’s valuation increases. The county assessor handles valuations, not the Mayor’s Office.
The restaurant tax, which passed in 2010 when Jim Suttle was mayor and Stothert was on the council, is expected to bring in $33.9 million next year. That’s a 2 percent increase over last year’s estimate.
“I still don’t like it,” said Stothert, who campaigned against Suttle in part on her opposition to the tax, “but right now to eliminate it, it would be a major crush to our budget.”
Stothert said Tuesday that she would eventually like to get rid of the restaurant tax. Still, this is the sixth budget Stothert has submitted without a proposal to repeal the restaurant tax.
» Street resurfacing would get $500,000 more, to bring the budget to $12.3 million. (The city expects to spend $18 million on street repair in 2018 as other funding becomes available. Such extra funding could also become available in 2019, Stothert said.) Meanwhile, funding for brick street repairs would remain flat at $600,000.
Stothert’s budget would also add six full-time employees to help the Public Works Department plow snow and fill potholes.
Her budget calls for $820,000 — less than the $1.8 million budgeted in 2018 — to go toward upgrading residential streets to the city’s standards. About one-third of that would have to go toward streets in areas of high poverty, though that is contingent on the council approving a new cost-sharing policy.
Right now, the council considers requests to repave an unimproved street on an individual basis. The council in practice has generally agreed that the city will pay half the cost.
Most people who have asked for such upgrades live in the Westside area.
» Nonprofits seeking city funding would see more city scrutiny and would be subject to limits on what money can be used for.
Stothert said she’s seeking more details from nonprofits, including a list of their board members. She’s also banning the use of city money for executive director salaries, though it can be used for other personnel.
She said the city has given money in the past to a nonprofit that had “big financial problems” and asked the city for money each month to pay bills instead of waiting for a quarterly reimbursement. That organization didn’t apply for city money this year, she said.
Stothert’s budget calls for $6.6 million, the same as 2018, to help fund community programs.
It includes city funding for two organizations for the first time: $40,000 to Rejuvenating Women, a safe house for women who’ve escaped sex trafficking, and $25,500 to Youth Emergency Services, which has a shelter and provides services to homeless and at-risk youth.
Stothert’s proposal doesn’t include funding for Councilman Vinny Palermo’s proposal for a youth trades program based in South Omaha. Stothert had said Palermo provided an “idea” with no specifics.
Palermo said he’s disappointed but said the plan for a trades-focused program “is still in motion,” just without city funding.
“It’s unfortunate it was a ‘no’ before a specific dollar amount was asked for,” he said.
The Heartland Workforce Solutions jobs training program would receive $661,000, which is $140,000 more than in 2018. Stothert said the organization would use the money for a new program focused on helping people re-enter society from incarceration.
Gray said he’s pleased with that investment.
“We’re continuing to work with communities in crisis, and I think those things are important,” he said.