Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert plans to increase the city’s street resurfacing budget, modernize waste collection and pursue a crime lab merger with Douglas County in the coming year.
Stothert gave Omahans a preview of her 2016 goals Friday in her annual State of the City speech.
Stothert will soon need to find a new fire chief who, she said, has “some big firefighter boots to fill” after Bernie Kanger retires from that spot. And, Stothert said, she’s already working on an annexation package for this year.
She said the city is in “serious discussions” with the county to open a full-service crime lab on the University of Nebraska Medical Center campus.
The discussions between UNMC, city and county officials are in their early stages, and the group hasn’t made any decisions.
But Stothert said she’s going to ask the City Council and Douglas County Board to pass resolutions that support the concept of an accredited crime lab based at the university.
“It would be kind of a one-of-a-kind facility if this all works out,” Stothert said.
The city and county have long discussed merging crime labs, with little movement. But the idea of moving it to UNMC is new.
Sheriff Tim Dunning, whose office runs the county crime lab, said he’s open to the idea. He said he’s surprised that Stothert mentioned it because he thought the group that was having the discussions was planning to put out a joint press release.
Generally, Dunning said, he would support a proposal if it would save money.
On street funding, Stothert said she’s not yet sure how much of a spending increase she intends to propose for 2017. She said it’s too early to make many decisions about next year’s budget.
She said she’s looking at proposals from the city’s waste collector, Waste Management, to modernize Omaha’s system. This could mean that Omaha would get bins for garbage and recycling — though, she said, that would come at a price.
In her speech, the mayor described Omaha as “one of the most productive, livable and creative cities in the country.”
“The Omaha we share is compassionate and charitable, with acts of goodwill at every turn,” she said. “And the Omaha we share is financially strong, hard-at-work and focused on the future.”
Councilman Franklin Thompson, a Stothert ally and fellow Republican, said he liked what he heard from the mayor. He described the state of the city as “stable and growing in the right direction.”
City Council President Ben Gray said the speech highlighted the good in the community. But he said the city also needs to focus on finding a plan for its aging streets and getting the Crossroads Mall redevelopment going. “It is up to all of us to recognize that while we have done some good work, we still have some challenges we need to meet,” he said.
In her speech, Stothert looked back at the past year — and a lot has happened.
Last May, Officer Kerrie Orozco became Omaha’s first female police officer killed in the line of duty.
“We all grieved as if Kerrie was our family member, neighbor or best friend,” Stothert said. “She was all of those to many, especially our men and women in blue. I am always honored to recognize Officer Orozco.”
Omaha’s homicide rate hit a historic high of 50 in 2015.
Still, Stothert pointed to recently released Omaha Police Department crime statistics, which show that fewer crimes were reported in every category except homicide.
“I’m encouraged but not satisfied,” Stothert said.
The city is set to get its first body cameras for police officers on the street next month, she said.
The mayor also praised efforts to rein in city spending and negotiate labor contracts, which have been settled with every bargaining group except police. “Our first budget briefing on city finances in mid-2013 did not present a very pretty picture,” she said. “Since that time, the City Council, department leadership and all city employees have been part of a new management approach.”
Stothert highlighted the city’s efforts to increase job training, a push that Councilman Chris Jerram spearheaded last year.
“In terms of our economy and job growth, Omaha is at the point many cities hope to be,” Stothert said.
She noted a major disappointment from last year: ConAgra’s decision to move its headquarters from Omaha to Chicago.
Stothert closed by saying she wants to improve Omahans’ experience with their city government.
“Solving people’s everyday problems is the best part of my job, because after all, this is the Omaha we share,” she said.
After the speech, Stothert was headed to a fish fry, where she said she was looking forward to hearing from constituents.
“I hear a lot about potholes.”
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