Omaha City Council Approves Mayor’s Budget


August 26th, 2015

IMG_1003The Omaha City Council voted Tuesday on the Mayor’s proposed 2016 budget for the city, as well as two amendments to the budget.

It’s been a little more than a month since Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert presented her 2016 budget to the City Council. Before finally voting on it at Tuesday’s Council meeting, members first decided the fate of two budget amendments proposed by council members.

The first dealt with library funding. The Mayor’s budget includes a 2.7 percent increase in library funding, but Library Board President Mike Meyer said that’s not enough to keep all of the library’s facilities open, and could mean cutting hours of operation at most if not all branches.

As a compromise, Council member Pete Festersen co-authored an amendment with Council President Ben Gray to give the library an additional $250,000

“Without some additional allocation of funds, we’re most likely looking at a reduction of library hours at our branches, at almost every branch, between 8 hours and 19 hours a week,” Festersen said, “and that’s not something I support. I hope my colleagues can support this alternative so that doesn’t happen.”

Funding for the library has been a controversial issue during this current budget discussion, as it’s been for the past two years. Council Member Aimee Melton has gone on record several times in support of Mayor Stothert’s budget. Tuesday’s meeting was no different.

“The mayor has given the library a 2.7% increase in their budget, and I guess I really don’t appreciate the other side when they use fear tactics to say that getting a 2.7% increase would result in a 20% reduction,” Melton said, “because I don’t believe that that’s the case.”

Council Member Chris Jerram took issue with Melton’s use of the term “fear tactics”, and said his support for increasing library funding comes after listening to a library trustee say closing outdated branches is one way to operate within the Mayor’s proposed budget. Councilwoman Melton told Jerram he was taking those remarks out of context.

The amendment to fund the library an additional $250,000 in 2016 failed by a vote of 4-3. According to the City’s charter, budget items require a super majority, or five affirmative votes, to pass.

The other amendment to the mayor’s 2016 budget dealt with funding for the City’s Public Works Department, which handles street and road repair. A recent independent study found Omaha is under-funding road repairs and new road construction by as much at $50 million a year.

Council President Ben Gray has said multiple times poverty and road repair are his top priorities. Tuesday, he went further and said some streets in his district have never been repaired.

“What we need to say to some of our constituents, especially what I need to say in my district is either one of two things is going to happen,” Gray explained, “either one, we’re going to bite the bullet and do something necessary to get these streets done; or two, we need to tell people and be honest with them that we’re never going to get your street. And that is a very real possibility that we are never going to get your street. Never, the way we’re going now.”

The budget amendment under consideration by Council members would have allocated almost $1 million more towards street repair, but would have been balanced in the budget by increasing the estimated revenues from sales tax.

Like the first amendment concerning library funding, the second budget amendment also failed to receive the required 5 vote super majority to pass.

Council Member Franklin Thompson said in the future, if the people of Omaha truly want better libraries and streets, they’ll need to be prepared to pay for them.

“Too many times, I’ll get a call and I’ll hear ‘I want my streets fixed and I want my libraries open, but I don’t want to pay for it. Boy, that’s getting kind of old with me,” Thompson said, “and I think my colleagues are feeling the same way. So, we’re a little on the conservative side this year, and next year we’re going to have to be on the creative side, and that creation is going to have to include your input and your willingness to dig a little deeper.”

The Council ultimately voted to adopt Mayor Stothert’s 2016 budget by a vote of 5-2. Council Member Chris Jerram and Council President Ben Gray cast the two opposing votes.

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