Community waits in line to influence Council votes

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August 10th, 2011

Omaha, NE – The Omaha City Council voted on several measures Tuesday, including raises for the Omaha police department. They also heard concerns about plans to revitalize Crossroads Mall, and hours of testimony from the public as they tried to sway the Council’s vote on a city contract with the Fire Department.

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Richard O'Mara and a line of proponents of the new Fire Department contract lined up to speak. (Photo by Lindsey Peterson)

A long line of people waited to speak on the proposed firefighter contract Tuesday afternoon. The contract, which is set for a vote next Tuesday, drew a large crowd hoping to sway council members. Speaking as a proponent, Richard O’Gara, Director of Human Resources, Rights and Relations for the City of Omaha, spoke first.

“Over the last 30 years, the can has been kicked down the road by previous mayors,” said O’Gara at the podium. “Previous mayors and city councils failed to make the full amount of required pension contributions, failed to address the unfunded pension liability, and failed to meet their fiduciary liability to keep the pension plan solvent.”

O’Gara said the new deal solves the most controversial part of the contract: unfunded pensions. The new combined police and fire pension fund, according to O’Gara, saves $13.5 million. Also included, he said, is an 11 percent cut in firefighter benefits.

An opponent of the proposed Fire Department contract expressed concern, and urged City Council to wait on voting. (Photo by Lindsey Peterson)

“These are the first benefit concessions, significant concessions in over 30 years. And this you don’t see in the news a lot, but this is a major concession on the part of the firefighters,” said O’Gara.

Chip Maxwell of Omaha Alliance for the Private Sector disagreed. “This is the best deal we’ve seen in 30 years, how can anybody refuse this?’ he asked sardonically. “But you have to ask yourself, the best deal compared to what? In recent history, for the last eight years or so, we’ve had one of the worst contracts in the country.”

Maxwell said the pension concessions do not match sacrifices made by private sector employees and rejected the current proposal.

“When your employer is getting hammered economically, you don’t get a raise. You don’t get a better pension,” he said. “This taxpayer-gauging, salary-spiked formula, put in place in 2003 that’s been killing us for eight years, and has produced us with this unfunded liability ticking time bomb we face, the idea that that is sacrosanct, that that is sacred? We don’t accept that argument,” said Maxwell.

Council members listened to hours of testimony from the public. (Photo by Lindsey Peterson)

Earlier in the meeting, the council unanimously approved a pay raise for management in the Omaha Police Department. Though not the $35,000 raise originally requested by Major Jim Suttle, the council approved a 2.75 percent raise for Police Chief Alex Hayes and a 2.5 percent raise for Assistant Chiefs. The proposal also includes a permanent move to a civilian health care plan.

Also, officials from District 66 spoke to the city council regarding revitalization plans to Crossroads Mall. The area planned to be designated blighted for Crossroads development consisted of nearly 80 percent of the landlocked district. Developers of Crossroads Mall, the City of Omaha, and District 66 agreed on a motion that would shrink the area to about 60 percent of the commercial property within the district.

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