Tree planting

Eric Gustafson of Jensen Gardens plants a tree in Bemis Park. Keep Omaha Beautiful paid for the tree planting to help make up for the loss of ash trees from the emerald ash borer. More ash trees will come down because the city has decided that it is no longer cost-effective to treat them.

The public gets its first chance at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday to comment on Mayor Jean Stothert’s $1.1 billion budget plan, which proposes spending $419.6 million in general funds.

Digging into a billion-dollar budget can be daunting, especially when one number can decide how often a local park gets mowed or which days a neighborhood library is open.

So let us do some Cliffs Notes for this week’s public hearing. Here are five things to watch in the mayor’s 2020 city budget:

Faster police response

The Omaha Police Department this fall plans to open its fifth police precinct in the Elkhorn area. This change could help policing citywide, officials say.

Police Chief Todd Schmaderer said he has spent years hiring and training police officers with the idea of improving how the city responds to crime, from response times to clearance rates.

The department aims to start hiring the recruit class in October that should reach its authorized strength of 902, the chief told the City Council last week. That is up nearly 100 officers in recent years.

The goal, he said, is to spread police resources around the city where they are needed, when they are needed, with an increased focus on solving property crimes and improving relationships in every neighborhood.

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Pothole patching

The city’s Public Works road resurfacing budget would get a $300,000 increase under Stothert’s plan, which the mayor acknowledged does little more than cover inflationary costs.

This comes after a winter, spring and summer of 2019 in which the city has already spent more than $13 million patching potholes. Some on the council wanted to spend more.

Stothert has held a series of four public meetings in which she suggested that the only way the city could catch up from being more than 50 years behind on road maintenance was to find more money.

One option she suggested: a public vote as early as May on issuing up to $200 million in bonds to repair streets, an option that would increase property taxes on a $200,000 Omaha home by $71 a year.

Parks and trees

At first blush, the Omaha Parks Department looked to have taken 2020 on the chin, with a budget decreasing nearly $1.7 million from 2019 funding levels.

But it didn’t take a cut. The city made an accounting choice to shift a $2.25 million payment to the Henry Doorly Zoo to another part of the budget. Other factors include less maintenance on riverfront parks while they’re being renovated and the phasing out of some 2014 bonds for parks, the city says.

Parks Director Brook Bench told the City Council last week that he plans no cuts to park maintenance, no cuts to recreation staff and no cuts to camps or programs for young people.

The biggest change people might see in Omaha’s parks, besides the usual rehabilitation projects planned for Brown Park, Walnut Grove Park and more, may be the loss of some mature trees.

The city has decided it is no longer cost-effective to keep treating the city’s 13,280 ash trees with chemicals to protect them from the emerald ash borer. The Parks Department is now cutting down about 26 trees a week to prevent the risk of a tree or limb falling on people or property.

The Parks Department plants a new tree for any tree it cuts down.

Libraries

One of the biggest new capital expenditures planned for 2020 is $15 million toward a new southwest Omaha branch library near 210th and Q Streets.

Renovations at other library branches in 2020 will depend on donor interest, said Laura Marlane, the libraries’ executive director.

The library system also wants to get all 12 of its libraries open at least six days a week. Today, half are still open five days a week, officials say.

To do so, it might trim some little-used hours from nine of its library branches — the six branches open five days a week and three open six days a week.

The library has no plans yet to change hours at its three libraries already open seven days a week, W. Dale Clark, Millard and Milton Abrahams.

Recycling

The cost of recycling has skyrocketed since China stopped buying American waste because too much of it was contaminated, and perhaps in part because of a trade war with the U.S.

Omaha’s recycling processor, Firststar Recycling, wants to charge the city a tipping fee of $100 per ton of waste it drops off to recycle. Today the city pays zero for dropping off collected recycling.

The city plans to seek bids on a new contract as early as this fall.

A new tipping fee for recycling tonnage could cost taxpayers $1.7 million or more a year. The mayor set aside no funds in the budget. Some on the council want to do so.

Aaron covers political news for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @asanderford. Phone: 402-444-1135.

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