Piece by piece, Mayor Jean Stothert says she's working down the list of pledges she made during last year's mayoral campaign.
Some are easier to measure than others: a balanced budget, reorganized city departments, a financially stabilized Fire Department. Others, such as lowering taxes and cutting violent crime, are works in progress, she said.
Wednesday, in her first State of the City speech, Stothert told council members and community leaders that the city is making strides in creating jobs, fostering new development and delivering public services.
She pointed to new businesses opening in north Omaha and South Omaha, city departments running leaner and more efficiently and pending deals for large-scale developments around the city. This year, she said, the city will hire more police officers, resurface more streets and tear down more abandoned houses than it did in the recent past.
“We will do that,” she said, “by spending your money carefully.”
But the mayor, who campaigned on goals of lowering crime, streamlining city services and cutting taxes, said she knows that the people who elected her have high expectations — and it will take time to deliver on all of them.
“I feel like we are making great progress,” Stothert told The World-Herald after her speech. “It's teamwork — I can't do it on my own. But I'm going to be honest: We have a lot more to do.
“I get impatient with myself because I know what needs to be done and I know the direction we need to go in every single city department. It's taken a long time for us to get where we are, and it's going to take a long time to get where we want to be.”
Stothert said her first priority after taking office in June was shoring up the 2013 budget, which was on track to result in a deficit. By year's end, after making cuts and holding off on spending across city departments, the city had a $10 million surplus.
Now, she's focused on putting more resources into her No. 1 priority: public safety.
The mayor paused and appeared to tear up as she talked about a shocking crime in January: the slaying of 5-year-old Payton Benson. The girl's mother, Tabatha Manning, sat in the front row alongside City Council members during the speech.
“Omaha is family,” Stothert said. “When we lose a member of our family, it hurts. Every life matters. Every violent death is unacceptable.”
Stothert said the Police Department will kick off a new recruit class in April. When those 35 recruits finish training in December, they are expected to get the city back to its authorized level of 804 officers. Stothert said she intends to increase that total with additional recruit classes in 2015 and 2016.
In addition, the mayor said, the department will get funding to replace cruisers, buy new radios and expand its gang unit.
“We are focused on policing and crime-fighting strategies to address the long-standing problem of gun violence in our city,” she said in the speech. “It's clear more needs to be done. And more will be done.”
Councilman Chris Jerram said he's glad to hear the mayor make commitments about public safety — but wants her to ensure that the promises turn into reality.
“Undoubtedly, the mayor is off to a good start,” he said. “But we need to underscore the statements about making sure the commitment that's expressed in terms of police staffing actually manifests itself and has support in the budgeting process. Because we're at staffing levels right now we haven't seen in about 10 years, in terms of lows.”
Jerram said he's also waiting for action on another big expense mentioned by the mayor: the city's federally mandated sewer system overhaul.
Stothert said she's concerned about rate increases required to help pay for the $2 billion project. Jerram said he is, too — but the city needs to act soon on setting new rates if it wants to be able to repay bonds and keep the project on track.
“The fact is we have had — since even before the elections — a rate structure that the consultants say needs to be implemented, that we haven't addressed yet,” Jerram said. “Funding levels are at dangerous levels if we don't act in the near future.”
Council President Pete Festersen said he's also keeping a close watch on that project and others.
“I share the optimism about the state of our city but agree we have many challenges that still need to be addressed,” he said, “such as a renewed emphasis on crime prevention and poverty, unfunded sewer mandates and unfunded pension liabilities.”
Funding those efforts, Stothert has said, will require the city to remain financially stable.
In her speech, she said projections for taxes and building permits in 2014 are looking positive — and noted that the restaurant tax is expected to generate $27.7 million, up from $24.5 million in 2013.
Stothert voted against the budget package that introduced the 2.5 percent restaurant tax and has said frequently that it should be repealed.
After the speech, she reiterated that she does not support occupation taxes but acknowledged that revenues from the restaurant tax are currently an essential part of the budget.
Repeal the tax now, she said, and the city would “undoubtedly have to raise property taxes.”
Stothert said the tax has outperformed expectations and doesn't appear to be hurting the restaurant industry — though she still doesn't think it's a fair tax.
She said getting a better grip on city departments' spending will help her figure out when and if repealing the tax could become a reality.
“It's hard to put a timeline on it,” she said. “But we're making progress, we're not forgetting about it at all.”