Mayor Jim Suttle is being challenged for not going back to collect $1 million in excess pay given to Omaha police officers.
City Councilwoman Jean Stothert's mayoral campaign distributed a November 2012 memorandum from Suttle ordering his finance director to “not to pursue the matter” because it was not in the public interest and would keep the city from jeopardizing its relationship with the police department.
The memo's release comes as the Omaha police union continues to campaign against Stothert. The police union's current contract with the city expires at the end of the year.
The overpayment is linked to a 2008 state labor court decision on police wages. The city paid the money in the first five months of 2009, but paid an excess of $1,062,285 as it worked to implement the court's complex changes to officer pay scales.
The overpayment occurred because 2007 pay rates for some officers were higher than those established by the court in 2008, said assistant city attorney Bernard in den Bosch.
Extra pay granted to officers ranged from as little as $22 to around $9,000, though many officers received between $3,000 and $5,000.
Suttle's memo points to months of discussions within his administration on the overpayment.
“As we have discussed, there are a variety of complicated legal issues in this case. ... The Law Department has attempted to resolve this matter but to no avail,” the mayor wrote.
Suttle wrote that the court might not allow the city to recover the money and that the police union claimed the city waived its right to collect.
City Attorney Paul Kratz said the city feels no agreement was made to waive the city's ability to collect the overpayment.
“I do not believe it is in the best interests of the City of Omaha to incur a significant expense to try and recover claims that present difficult factual and legal issues,” Suttle wrote.
Suttle wrote that the legal department indicated a need to hire outside counsel to launch individual cases against 258 affected police officers. Each separate litigation case, Suttle wrote, would require “significant expenditures” to pursue, with no guarantee the city would reclaim its full share.
“Further, I also believe it is not in the best interest of the City of Omaha, because of the efforts over the past couple of years to rebuild the relationship and trust between the City Administration and a young police department,” Suttle wrote. “It is imperative that this relationship continues to grow and that the parties continue to feel confident in each other.”
Stothert's campaign charged that Suttle handled the matter secretly and in the middle of his re-election effort.
“Even with the city facing a serious financial crisis, Jim Suttle refused to collect $1 million in overpayments, unknown to either the City Council or the public,” said Ryan Horn, Stothert's campaign manager, in a statement. “And now three years later in a secret memo, we find out that Suttle ordered his administration not to collect the overpayment, essentially giving a $1 million handout to his union supporters, funded by Omaha taxpayers.”
Aida Amoura, Suttle's campaign spokeswoman, said Suttle's decision was motivated by a desire to avoid collection proceedings that would create legal expenses that might exceed the amount of overpaid money.
“In the end, the mayor thought it wasn't cost-effective to do this,” she said.
Sgt. John Wells, head of the Omaha police union, said temporary wage freezes and other concessions built into the latest union contract saved the city $2.3 million in 2009 and 2010.
“We paid for this,” he said.
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