Omaha City Council Talks 2016 Legislative Package


November 4th, 2015

IMG_1003With just two months before the start of the 2016 Nebraska Legislative session, Omaha City Council members must decide which issues to present to the State Legislature, and which issues to put save for a later date.

The 2016 Nebraska Legislative session starts on January 6th. At that time, Senators will present bills to their committees. It’s up to those committees to decide which bills are eventually debated by the entire Legislature.

It’s up to the City’s lobbyist, Jack Cheloha, to make sure at least some of those bills represent Omaha’s interests.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Cheloha received his marching orders in the form of the City’s 2016 legislative package.

The first item to be considered for that package was a request from Council President Ben Gray for a bill to expedite the tax foreclosure process on abandoned and neglected properties. Currently, when someone buys a foreclosed property, they have to wait three years—by state law—before taking over the property. Gray said for abandoned buildings, the wait should be shorter.

“By State constitutional law, we can only do two years. I was hoping we could do one for abandoned and neglected properties only, but the constitution tells us we can go down to two,” Gray said, “and I’m just asking this Legislature to consider, and this Council to consider as well, this legislative proposal to move the tax certificate maturation period from three years to two.”

Gray’s proposal was approved by a vote of 6-0. It probably would have been 7-0, but Councilman Pete Festersen was overseas, celebrating Omaha’s 50th anniversary with its sister city Shizouka, Japan.

In his absence, Councilman Chris Jerram introduced a request on Festersen’s behalf to be included in the legislative package.

Festersen wants the City to support legislation for the Urban Reinvestment Districts Act, which proponents said would allow the State to return 50% of new sales tax revenue to help fund local projects.

Speaking for Festersen, Jerram said, “This particular item, he believes, would be important—if passed—in assisting projects in the size and magnitude of the Crossroads redevelopment goal.

“And isn’t necessarily something that, as it’s drafted, that there’s [sic] much specifics on. Not that I’m personally advocating for it, but I told [Festersen] that I thought it was worthy of discussion and the Legislature should take this up and have an opportunity to debate it.”

The council voted 6-0 to approve Festersen’s request.

Councilman Franklin Thompson’s request regarding wheel taxes, however, was not met with unanimous support.

Thompson wanted the Legislature to allow municipalities to collect wheel taxes from residents living outside city limits, but within a three mile, territorial planning jurisdiction. Those jurisdictions are typically annexed as the municipality grows, but residents living in the affected areas can’t vote in city elections.

“This really, it’s a user fee. It’s sort of a tax, it’s a half tax, but it’s also a half user fee,” Thompson said, “and people who use streets ought to pay for them.”

City leaders recently added $1 million to the streets and road repair budget for 2016, bringing the total to $8.1 million.

Still, that’s only about half of what Omaha should be spending to repair the City’s 4500 miles of roads.

If the City were allowed to collect wheel taxes from territorial planning jurisdictions, as it did between 2007 and 2012, Omaha would gain around $3 million a year for street repairs.

Opponents to Thompson’s request said it amounts to taxation without representation.

Councilwoman Aimee Melton said, “We take a lot of actions and measures on this Council that affect a lot of people in that three mile zone. Just at our last session, we voted on some storage units that affect people that don’t have the opportunity to vote for us next time, and I think a number of them probably wouldn’t be voting for me next time after that vote [on storage the unit], but I need to be held accountable to the people that I am affecting.”

The Council voted to deny Councilman Thompson’s wheel tax proposal by a vote of 4-2.

Plans for a proposed heliport and other upgrades to CHI Health/ Bergan Mercy Medical Center were unanimously approved by Council members, before they turned their attention to liquor license applications.

Last December Joe Cascio, the owner of a building at 1516 Jones Street, appeared before the City Council with plans to open a “fast-paced, high-volume” comedy club.

At the time, the Council said Cascio should find a different use for his building. Even though it had been a night club for years, the Council said the neighborhood was changing, and a “high-volume” comedy club was not what was best for the area.

Fast forward 10 months to Tuesday’s meeting, and Cascio was back before the Council asking for a liquor license for his new business venture, “Funkytown”, a nightclub with high-end drinks and 70’s and 80’s music.

Cascio’s lawyer told Council members his client spent $1 million renovating the space, and reminded Council members his client had never been in trouble with the law.

Around a dozen neighbors attended Tuesday’s meeting to voice their opposition to the proposed nightclub.

In the end, Councilman Chris Jerram said Tuesday’s dealings felt like the second act of the same play, and Cascio’s proposed nightclub idea wasn’t different enough from his failed comedy club idea to warrant a recommendation for approval.

The Council denied Cascio’s application 5 to 1.

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