Owners of Omaha homes and businesses might pay more for city government next year, depending on whether their property valuations went up.
Mayor Jean Stothert proposed a 2020 city budget Tuesday that holds the city property tax rate steady, based on an estimated 6.65% increase in city property valuations from the Douglas County assessor.
But that increase is just an average. The impact on individual property owners hinges on the specific valuation change. An earlier analysis of preliminary valuations showed that some hikes were substantial in Douglas County.
Even though the city’s property tax rate would remain the same, at 47.922 cents per $100 of valuation, the city expects to collect about $11.3 million more in property taxes in 2020.
Stothert, who has successfully pushed to cut the city’s property tax rate twice in the past, said the city can’t afford to lower rates this year without sacrificing public safety or letting Omaha’s roads get worse.
The mayor’s budget priorities for 2020 include, among other things, hiring more workers to patch potholes, fix streets, clear ice and snow off roads, and maintain sewers.
The proposal contains a handful of big-ticket items, including a new branch library in southwest Omaha and the costs of opening a fifth police precinct.
Stothert’s 2020 budget would increase general fund spending for city departments by about 2.2%, slower growth than the projected 3.4% increase in city revenues. One way the city saved money was shifting more employees to high-deductible health insurance plans with health savings accounts.
The city also expects a 2.1% increase in sales tax revenues and a 1.7% increase in revenues from the restaurant tax.
Councilwoman Aimee Melton, who represents northwest Omaha, praised the mayor’s efforts to hold the line on spending.
Councilman Pete Festersen, who represents central Omaha, called the mayor’s proposal “a good framework” but said he needed time to go through the budget’s details.
Stothert said she slowed the growth of spending in the 2020 budget, at least in part, because she sees some clouds brewing over the 2021 city budget, including the city’s next contract for trash collection.
That contract, if the City Council hires the bidder favored by the mayor and Public Works, could add $7 million a year to the city’s tab.
One problem: A smaller-than-recent-years surplus carried over from 2018, at $5.7 million. The previous year, the city was able to transfer $11.3 million into the new budget.
Another factor: The city starts paying $1.1 million in 2020 to cover debt on bonds for its $50 million contribution toward the riverfront revitalization. Private donors have pledged $250 million toward the $300 million project that includes renovating the Gene Leahy Mall and Heartland of America Park.
Not reflected in the mayor’s budget is another looming issue: Omaha voters may be asked to approve $200 million in bonds to help the city catch up on street work. The mayor has said the measure could reach the ballot as early as May 2020.
“This was the hardest budget that we have done,” Stothert said of her seventh budget, which she forwarded to the City Council on Tuesday. “It took us longer to balance this out than in the past.”
The mayor is proposing a 4.58% total increase in the general fund budget, to $419.6 million, officials say. But that amount includes $4.6 million the city receives from the company that is in the process of buying the downtown Hilton hotel from the city. Those funds are used to pay the hotel’s debt.
Some budget highlights:
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Omaha Public Library
One priority in Stothert’s 2020 budget proposal is the city’s library system.
The libraries would receive $15 million in one-time funding to build a long-planned library branch in southwest Omaha, near 210th and Q Streets.
The Millard Library branch, near 132nd and Grover Streets, is one of the system’s busiest. The city included the new library branch in its capital spending plans.
The mayor’s proposal calls for a slight increase to the library’s operating budget, to nearly $16.3 million. It also includes slightly more money for library materials and includes enough funding for the library to continue its work to upgrade broadband speeds, Stothert said.
Omaha Public Works
The Public Works Department is slated to receive about $800,000 less in general funds in the 2020 budget.
But Public Works pays for most of its work outside of the general fund budget. The department expects an increase of more than $62 million in total funding in 2020.
Gas tax funds, sewer fees, the wheel tax and other funding sources should help Public Works add seven new full-time employees to do street maintenance. The new employees would allow the department to add two pothole patching crews and three snow and ice removal crews.
The mayor proposed adding the seven full-time employees after the city called in additional contractors to help with snow and ice removal this winter, as well as with patching potholes in the spring. She said the city might need to bring on contractors in the future, too.
Councilman Vinny Palermo, who represents South Omaha, said he was pleased to see the city recognize that Public Works needs more employees, especially to repair streets. But, he said, more might still be needed.
Sewer maintenance would add eight full-time employees to help the city keep up with maintaining more than 2,000 miles of sewer lines under the mayor’s budget plan.
The city also added $300,000 to its street resurfacing budget. The $12.6 million the city plans to spend should at least keep up with inflation, Finance Director Steve Curtiss said.
And the city plans to add a fall cleanup before the next trash contract begins, modeled after the city’s current spring cleanup that lets people drop off bulky items and waste they can’t throw away at the curb.
The city expects to save money on streetlights next year, because the Omaha Public Power District is installing LED streetlights, which the utility says should cost the city about 5% less a year to run.
Omaha Fire Department
The city increased the Fire Department’s budget 2.6%, to $110.1 million. That total includes funding for a second set of fire-retardant uniforms to reduce firefighters’ exposure to carcinogens.
It also includes money for new heart monitors for ambulances.
The city’s capital improvement plan also includes a new fire station near 34th and Q Streets. The new station, which could go before the City Council as early as August, would replace an aging fire station near 25th and L Streets, the city says.
Omaha Police Department
The Omaha Police Department could fund up to 902 police officers with its nearly $160 million budget.
Stothert said Police Chief Todd Schmaderer has plans in place to have enough trained officers to fill the new fifth police precinct in Elkhorn, when it opens in September.
The 2020 budget also includes funding to increase the department’s use of DNA testing in police investigations, working with the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
Omaha Parks Department
The mayor proposed less funding for the Omaha Parks Department, roughly $500,000 less, because the department doesn’t need to set aside funds for upkeep of the Gene Leahy Mall while it’s under construction.
The same goes for Heartland of America Park and the Lewis & Clark Landing. The Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority has taken over responsibility for the parks during the riverfront redevelopment.
The $22.3 million parks budget also contains some bad news for tree lovers. Stothert said the city is shifting toward removing city park trees at risk of being damaged by the emerald ash borer.
The city had been treating those trees with chemicals. But the advance of the ash borer means the city has decided that the prudent — and cheaper step — is to remove at-risk trees.
The city also plans a miniature golf course and dog park at Miller Park in Minne Lusa and a 5-mile recreational trail and campground at Cunningham Lake Park.
Omaha Planning Department
Many advocates who supported the city’s new rental registry ordinance with mandatory inspections expected the Planning Department to add housing code inspectors right away.
But the mayor’s budget would add only one inspector in 2020, using community development block grant funds. Stothert said there is no need to add more yet.
She 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, she said.
The planning budget also decreases the budget for demolition of troubled properties. Stothert said the city is catching up on a backlog and won’t need as much funding moving forward.
The public hearing on the city budget is set for 6:30 p.m. Aug. 13 in the Legislative Chambers of the City-County Building, 1819 Farnam St.