Mayor-elect Jean Stothert laughed Friday when she looked into her City Council office and spotted an industrial-size garbage can.
Someone must be ready for me to leave, she said.
On the eve of her mayoral inauguration — and as she begins to clean out her old office — the mayor-elect sat down with The World-Herald to discuss her plans for her biggest Cabinet hires, the city's development and its finances.
She made clear she wants to shake up the Fire Department, without its current chief. On downtown development, she left open the possibility of preserving the aging Civic Auditorium.
Stothert promised to bring major changes to how the city spends taxpayer money. She promised to tackle the city's financial challenges without raising taxes, as the mayor she defeated, Jim Suttle, had done.
Starting Monday, Omaha's first female mayor gets the opportunity to carry out her vision.
Major decisions already await. Stothert said the city currently faces a $13.5 million shortfall for 2013. Its chief culprits, she said, are Fire Department spending and higher-than-expected sales tax refunds owed to the state.
She also must prepare the city's 2014 budget. Department budget requests currently exceed revenue forecasts by $16.5 million, she said.
Stothert's staff is taking shape. She has quietly interviewed job candidates inside the Baird Holm law offices near City Hall, she said, and expects to hire two deputy chiefs of staff — in addition to Marty Bilek, who was named her chief of staff after serving as chief deputy of the Douglas County Sheriff's Office. She's also been meeting with the current directors of each city department.
Stothert said she wanted each department to have an interim director “so we have leadership in every department as we continue to interview, and then those directors that I wanted to stay, I have talked to.”
Here is some of what else is on the mayor-elect's mind.
On the 2013 budget
“It started out balanced, it is not balanced now, and it's estimated at the end of the year it's going to have about a $13.5 million shortfall,” Stothert said. “We're looking at what is causing the problem, and we've identified what's causing the problem.”
She said property tax revenue is down slightly, but that the shortfall's chief culprits are higher-than-forecast sales tax refunds due to the state and an estimated $8 million shortfall in the Fire Department budget.
The city budgeted for roughly $7.6 million in business tax incentive refunds but already owes about $6 million, Stothert said, so the city predicts a shortfall for the end of the year if trends continue.
Stothert tangled with Fire Chief Mike McDonnell last week over whether the city needed to hire a recent batch of fire recruits this year.
How much of an effect did a recruit class of 47 firefighters have on the budget shortfall?
“I hesitate to say all (of it) is because of that, because I haven't gone through the detail of their budget yet, and that's something we need to do. But we will do that,” Stothert said.
How will the overall budget shortfall be addressed?
“We've got to reduce spending now in 2013, and that's a problem. That's a challenge. What the current mayor has told the finance director is put a hiring freeze on everyone and then look at every department and ask them to come up with reductions. That would include things like not hiring open positions and maybe eliminating some positions or eliminating some work. If you take Public Works, they're talking about eliminating some work that they had planned to do. Well, I hate to see that. I hate to see that all these other city departments that are on budget and been following the rules and are very accountable, that they are all suffering because one or two other departments are so over budget. And one in particular is Fire. … Police is a little over budget, but it's primarily Fire.”
On Fire Chief McDonnell, his department budget and his future
“The Fire budget was developed with input from the fire chief,” Stothert said. “He was satisfied with that budget. He was satisfied with the number of firefighters in that budget. And I've made this statement many times: I expect every department director to keep their department within the budget that was allocated to them and appropriated by the City Council. So we need to go through that budget and figure out why they're saying they're $8 million over budget.”
Do you expect McDonnell to retire?
“It's no secret he's eligible to retire. It's no secret that I think the department could be better led and better run.”
And if he doesn't retire?
“He does have civil service protection, as well as the police chief and the city attorney. That doesn't mean that they are totally protected. That doesn't mean that they don't have to perform well. That doesn't mean that they don't have duties and responsibilities and have to be accountable for their department, as well as every other director. I expect accountability and good performance of every director.”
What are you looking for in a finance director?
“I would like to have someone that has experience handling big budgets. This is a pretty daunting budget, with so many departments with salaries dictated primarily by union contracts, it's pretty complex. I want somebody that I feel not only understands the financial part of it but somebody that has the personality and the political will that's going to be able to go in there and go through these departments and say 'Help me find those efficiencies.' Don't think for a minute there isn't waste in city government, because there is.”
Stothert said she wants a finance director who will help her get into departments to find efficiencies.
“We need to make sure that our directors are accountable. I would like at least a quarterly report to the community about where we are with our budget. I don't think we should have any secrets. It's not our money we're spending.”
What about the 2014 budget?
Stothert said the city is looking at a $16.5 million shortfall for 2014.
“But we are at the point that each department has submitted the budget they want. It's their requests. ... Al (Herink) and I are going to look through every department and detail it out, and we're going to try to find those efficiencies and make sure each department has the right number of employees. Again, the salaries are mandated by contract, and we have to follow that. I will not violate the labor contracts. ... We're going to make sure that what we do makes sense, is fiscally sound and doesn't violate any of the labor contracts.”
Stothert said she'd discuss the possibility of an additional police recruit class with Police Chief Todd Schmaderer.
What are you looking for in a planning director? What are your goals for the department?
“My goal in that department is to reorganize how it is currently organized. I have some ideas. I want it to be a very customer-friendly department, which I believe right now it is not. I want their turnaround time to improve for permitting and inspection and plan reviews. I want this to be the type of department that makes businesses and new businesses feel like we are open for business and we want them to come to Omaha. I don't want to stifle economic development because of policies in our Planning Department.”
Stothert said she's interested in having performance standards for every department, and turn-around time needs to improve in the Planning Department because “people are so frustrated, they don't like dealing with that department.”
On the future of the Civic Auditorium
Stothert asked the council to put off a vote on Mayor Suttle's request to have a commercial real estate firm find a developer for the site. She wants to handle redeveloping the site instead.
Stothert said she'd like to see something developed in cooperation with Creighton University, and she reiterated the idea of developing property that includes retail and student housing.
“I am not sure (the Civic) needs to be taken down. I never felt that way 100 percent. I want to make sure we're doing the right thing in that area, to tell you the truth. Some people think it's a building that has outlived its use, but it is being used for some things now. I think we really need to evaluate 'Is it worth fixing and still using it? Or is the best move to demolish it and try to develop something there?' I'm not saying that it doesn't eventually need to be demolished. … I just want to make sure we make the right decision for the Civic, but we need to make a decision.”
Interim directors help fill cabinet
Mayor-elect Jean Stothert's top staff is led largely by interim directors.
Public Works Director Bob Stubbe and Dana Markel, head of the Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau, will remain at their posts, Stothert said Saturday.
So will Gary Wasdin, the public library director hired by the Omaha Library Board.
Aside from that, Stothert asked widely known civil servants to fill four positions — including Omaha's top Planning and Finance Department jobs.
James Thele, a Planning Department official, will take over for Rick Cunningham and serve as acting planning director. Thele will be paid $118,116, Stothert said.
Al Herink, city comptroller and interim finance director, will stay on and keep his $120,000 salary.
Steve Kerrigan, now serving as human resources director after Richard O'Gara's resignation, will earn $109,017.
Acting Parks Director Brook Bench will continue to be paid his $93,650 salary, Stothert said.
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