Change comes slowly to City Hall, but it is coming.
Six weeks into her term, Mayor Jean Stothert submitted her first city budget, and the highlight is holding Omaha’s tax rates steady. It also sets some clear spending priorities on public safety and street resurfacing and spares library branches and hours.
Stothert says she knows this first budget falls short of her campaign promises of lower taxes and less city spending, but that this was the best she and her team could do in the time they had.
She did walk into a budget hole of nearly $20 million, largely from spending on labor contracts and health care that she as a City Council member helped adopt, as well as larger-than-expected refunds under state business tax incentives.
That her general fund budget proposal would close the gap without raising tax rates is a welcome change from the city’s recent history of almost reflexive tax hikes. It’s also a credit to the restaurant tax that Stothert criticized but which is expected to bring in almost 8 percent more revenue this year than last. That helps offset flattened property and sales tax revenues.
The mayor says people should judge her on her next budget, by which time she hopes an anticipated bump in property valuations would help her cut property tax rates and consider a restaurant tax repeal.
But even with this year’s modest changes, she deserves credit for setting a new tone of budget prioritization and spending restraint.
The example starts at the top, with a Mayor’s Office budget cut of more than 11 percent. And it carried through to the way Stothert set a $90.6 million spending level for the Fire Department, less than what the fire chief says is needed to meet terms of labor contracts — but still some 10 percent more than the department’s current budget.
It is the mayor’s job to set a budget target. Fire Chief Mike McDonnell’s job is to hit that target, to manage the money he gets to the maximum benefit of public safety. Layoffs, demotions and outsourcing are never popular, but they are sometimes necessary. It’s time for the chief, who has had a good relationship with the union rank-and-file, to provide management that builds consensus and steers the department through these budget challenges.
It is unfortunate that the fire union greeted the mayor’s budget proposals with a lawsuit. This response came despite plans to give the Fire Department the largest dollar increase of any department. In contrast, Police Chief Todd Schmaderer and his department worked with City Hall, even offering some budget cuts that the mayor sent him back to restore.
Members of the City Council might want more spent to get new officers on the street sooner, but it’s hard to question Stothert’s commitment to public safety. She made police a priority, down to their proposal for more funds to demolish abandoned homes.
Then look at libraries, where Stothert listened to her constituents and proposed more funding to keep all branches open and maintain library hours. A branch or two might one day close, she said, but not until or unless the city opens a new branch library at Crossroads Mall. That’s good news in an information economy.
Clearly, Stothert’s priority of street resurfacing benefited from the state law change that earmarks part of the state sales tax for road work. She will be able to trim back her Public Works budget and still spend more on state and local roads in Omaha.
The mayor also clearly appreciates future challenges. Her budget pitch acknowledged the continuing needs of the $2 billion sewer replacement project in east Omaha. It lays out the need for future labor contracts to deal with pension funding shortfalls, primarily through increased employee contributions. It sets out Stothert’s goal to get all of the city’s public employees, including its police officers and firefighters, onto the less costly health insurance plan it offers civilian employees. And it aims to grow the city’s cash reserves.
This sort of big-picture planning on budget matters is what makes cities in the post-Detroit-bankruptcy-era look like smarter investments. The mayor’s first budget is a solid first step.