The World-Herald asked Omaha's mayoral candidates for their views on several key issues facing the city.
Monday: Union contracts
Today: Streamlining government
Thursday: Job creation
How would you describe the current financial state of the City of Omaha?
I think we could do a lot better. We've done amazingly well in some areas — the riverfront. Individual businesses are doing very well. There's low unemployment. But the poverty in Omaha is dramatic. Seventy percent of (Omaha Public Schools) kids (are eligible for) free and reduced lunch. We're really in a place where we could go one way or the other. We could continue to grow and be more prosperous, or we can get dragged down by the poverty and the violence, and I think that's where we are.
I feel like when we do our research, it's going to show we're way out of balance. One of my criticisms of politicians is that whenever there's a budget crisis, they take the easy route. When the mayor came in, rather than do a balanced approach to layoffs throughout all departments, he laid off positions in civilian employment then left police alone and let the fire department grow.
We still have many financial challenges before we can say our finances are stable. We still have over a $600 million unfunded pension liability. We are $1.8 billion in debt. We have only $4 million in cash reserves, and our bonding rating dropped a notch (Moody's).
Our financial picture is sound. We're in the black; we're going to stay there. It has been tough to manage it and keep it there, but we've been doing it. That's a success story. That's why the 'attaboys' are there for (former city Finance Director) Pam Spaccarotella and (Suttle chief of staff) Steve Oltmans and the whole team. This $7.3 (million in extra costs from recent fire contract) was a problem. We figured out how to handle it, but sadly every time I try to get our cash reserve going up into double digits the council does something to pull it back down towards zero. So we are using reserves. I don't have any choice.
The city is currently overtaxed and overregulated, which will eventually lead to a loss of business, a loss of the ability to attract business and therefore a higher probability of an unacceptable tax burden on the people of Omaha.
Are there any areas where you favor merging or eliminating city functions?
I'm a firm believer, and I have been for all my years in public life, we have way too much redundancy in city and county government. We should work aggressively to reduce redundancy. We should break down the boundaries of these 100-year-old government systems, and we should promote collaboration by having one city-county board. All those things are going to promote more business development and will promote efficiency.
I don't want to just rush into that without really understanding the mechanics of what the city is doing. I want to be very strategic. There are two ways to do this, and I'm not sure which model I want to use. The first is you put together a performance review board. That board's made up of business people that you borrow from the private sector for five months. You match them with the people you have running government, and then you bring in a facilitator. And then they look at every place they can eliminate duplication, inefficiency, overemployment, top-heaviness that shouldn't be there. They look for places where bureaucratic mandates are really impeding efficiency.
We always need to be looking at where we can avoid duplication and combine departments. One in particular I see now is the Public Works Department — combining efforts with the county for street maintenance and repair, street engineering, snow plowing and trash collection. These could be done immediately, with interlocal agreements, for savings to start now and not have to wait for a full-blown city and county merger. Other areas we could look at (merging) could be crime labs and prosecution.
We are working on the planning functions. Counties have such a small planning component that I think we should merge and put county planning functions into the City Planning Department and do a contract.
I think that we need to talk about a city/county merger in terms of interlocal agreements, but I don't think we can have a serious conversation about city/county merger until the state provides the blueprint for the city and county to do so. Each and every department should be audited at least once every four years for savings. Right now in accordance with the Matrix report, there are many cost savings in our public safety departments. Certainly there are additional savings to be made and efficiencies to be had in our Planning Department. We need to use better technologies in the Planning Department to expedite contracts and permits, and we need a mayor and a planning director who are willing to get involved with the process to the point of where developments and contracts aren't being held up and costing us money.
Are there any city projects that you favor putting off or eliminating?
There are things that could be privatized, or semi-privatized. We did that with the Qwest Center when we created (the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority). You took what had been a city function and made it into a quasi-governmental function. You could do it with the Convention and Visitors Bureau. Also creating a MECA-style, quasi-governmental body to buy up dilapidated houses and vacant lots through foreclosure proceedings. I think you have to look at the large taxing entities in the city. We don't do anywhere near enough collaboration to figure out how to reduce costs across the board, to collaborate on services.
You look for places you can privatize. If there's a company in the Yellow Pages doing something government is doing, the company in the Yellow Pages should probably do it. The reason for that is private companies pay taxes. They pay property tax, sales tax, and they have the benefit on pension costs, not the city. I do think the city should spend $15 (million) to $20 million a year on growth. But I can't get there until I reorganize government. Everything hinges on my ability to reorganize the government.
Trolley cars, streetscaping, expanding the Bob Kerrey bridge are intriguing. However, I do not support these projects at this time, without a plan to shield taxpayers from the yet-to-be-determined costs. I'm also concerned with starting new projects when we have a multibillion-dollar sewer project and a massive pension shortfall to address, and taxpayers are already being stretched to their financial limits. My priorities are tax relief and public safety.
I firmly believe we need a recycling program, a modern upscale recycling program for the entire county. What we now need to do is come up with a way to incentivize and design that and manage it. But we want to keep much of it in the private sector. So I've got to find a way to do this and get someone hired as an entity to put it together.
I think every mayor is going to make his or her own mark on the city, and certainly I would review the capital improvement plan for the City of Omaha, and I would review all projects that are currently planned by this mayor and I would make a decision if those projects are affordable and in the best interests for the people they would serve. And if they were not, then I would discontinue them.