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Mayor Stothert presents 2021 budget to Omaha City Council amid outbursts by protesters

Published: Jul. 21, 2020 at 2:03 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert unveiled her 2021 recommended budget Tuesday afternoon before the Omaha City Council.

It comes at an uncertain time as the city is still trying to fill a $60-to-70-million hole this year because of lost revenue during the pandemic. The city has not yet received any CARES Act funds from Douglas County or the State of Nebraska.

Next year’s budget will increase by 4.6 percent to $439 million.

Finance Director Steve Curtiss said hotels have been slower to rebound during the pandemic, while the sales and restaurant taxes are stabilizing.

The city’s property tax levy will stay the same.

The biggest increase in the budget is for garbage and recycling -- $10 million -- which is a 44 percent increase.

“We knew the increase with a new collection contract would be significant,” said Stothert. The previous 20-year contract expires in three months.

Stothert said she prepared next year’s budget with the idea COVID-19 may not be a problem.

“Every budget year is based on estimates -- every year. And if things change, we adapt. Like this year, there was no way to know, to plan or budget for a pandemic and we were able to cut a good $20 million out of the budget by reducing spending. So if we have to adjust, we will. We can,” she said.

One reason the budget team is optimistic for next year’s estimates is that three of the four major events and revenue producers that canceled this year are planning to take place next year -- the Olympic Swim Trials, College World Series, and the Berkshire Hathaway shareholder’s meeting.

At a time when many are calling for mayors to defund the police, the 2021 budget for the Omaha Police Department will grow by 1.23 percent to $162 million. Stothert said it would be “irresponsible and reckless” -- and pointed out the $20 million the city already spends on community programs for jobs, housing, mental health, and youth services.

“Now more than ever, we need a well-funded, well-paid, well-trained, professional police department,” she said.

This summer’s protests led the mayor to create a new position in her office. She will hire a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion manager for $95,000 a year. “The city needs to take the lead on diversity hiring. We need someone to concentrate on it every day,” she said.

Other highlights of the proposed budget include:

Stothert also reiterated libraries and community centers will remain closed without knowing when the city will receive CARES Act funding. “We have reached a critical point,” adding that she’s doing all she can to avoid layoffs of full-time employees.

Protestors chanting “Defund the police” interrupted the mayor’s opening remarks and were escorted out but continued to interject and interrupt Stothert with comments questioning city spending and at one point swearing at the mayor while calling her a coward.

“We will continue to appropriately fund the Omaha Police Department,” she said. Her comment drew applause and shouting from attendees who were then escorted out by Douglas County Sheriff’s Deputies, shouting expletives at the mayor.

“You’re a liar! You’re a liar and a coward!”

As Stothert continued, more shouting from the gallery, with some cursing at those in attendance as they were escorted out. Shortly thereafter, others joined in comments against the mayor.

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