Mayor to veto Omaha City Council funding for mental-health, workforce services

City Council discusses pulling funds from police budget, but finds another way
Published: Aug. 18, 2020 at 1:50 PM CDT|Updated: Aug. 18, 2020 at 7:56 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - During its meeting on the proposed budget Tuesday, the City Council decided to shift funds to community programs, mental-health services, and workforce support. But that money isn’t coming from where many thought it would.

The council voted 4-3 in support of a measure that doesn’t remove $2 million from the Omaha Police Department’s budget; instead, it pulls that money from the city’s rainy day fund. The council intends $1.5 million of the funds to be earmarked for mental-health services, with $350,000 going to Heartland Workforce Solutions for retraining and other jobs services.

But Mayor Jean Stothert told 6 News she would veto it, saying it would be “reckless” and “irresponsible” to take money from the contingency fund during uncertain economic times. The council would need another “yes” vote to overturn her veto.

While the plan to cut the police budget didn’t go anywhere, it did open a dialogue that led to a different idea on where to support social issues important to the community — and save OPD from having to look at personnel cuts in the near future.

Discussing proposed OPD cuts

Councilman Chris Jerram proposed cutting $2 million from the city’s police budget, taking issue with the comments made by Mayor Jean Stothert and OPD Chief Todd Schmaderer last week during a meeting with media on Thursday to defend the decision and frame it as a “defund the police” issue. Many appeared before the council last week to speak during public comment on the budget, particularly regarding the 1% increase designated for the Omaha Police Department.

Jerram raised the question of whether the police should be responding to so many calls involving mental-health issues, and said he thought the issue merited a conversation in the community.

Councilwoman Aimee Melton disagreed with Jerram saying that removing mental-health money from the police budget would be more like a punishment.

Melton asked Schmaderer to address the council to talk more about the concern. The police chief noted that state law mandates only law enforcement can put someone into emergency protective custody. He also emphasized the co-responder available at each precinct who comes to the scene to assist with the situation once police determine the scene is safe.

Schmaderer said that his department has been emphasizing de-escalation tactics, implemented body cameras, and programs like the co-responder program. He said these tactical method changes take years to implement, and that “there’s been a lot of progress in the City of Omaha.”

The chief also highlighted the city’s low rates of homicides and shootings in the past three years and noted that most of the police budget goes to personnel costs.

“We are trying to get a handle on July and August of this year. We’ve had a significant jump in crime. It’s been an aberration in Omaha compared to the last three years,” he said.

Schmaderer recognized that the number of shootings in Omaha has increased.

“We have a 10-year high in shootings,” he said. “Because you have that, your homicide numbers will go up. We are seeing an analysis of gang and gun violence and the retaliatory nature of that.”

Councilman Ben Gray said he also would not support Jerram’s agenda item but did appreciate the discussion. Gray said he was worried that any significant cuts to the police budget would undo the efforts made in getting more minorities in the OPD ranks. He said that he has seen the city go from 4% Black and 3% Latino officers to today’s levels of 10% and 8%, respectively.

Gray also commended Schmaderer’s leadership at key moments, including the in-custody death of Zachary Bear Heels as well as an incident at 34th and Seward streets that resulted in a number of officers getting fired.

The police chief does not hide from controversy, Gray said, noting Schmaderer’s response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“Chief Schmaderer was one of the first chiefs in the country to say that is not how we operate,” Gray said.

Gray said several OPD outreach programs — such as Cops & Bobbers, Step Up Summer Jobs, Coffee with a Cop, as so on — were making an impact in the community before COVID-19 hit.

The councilman also said the timing wasn’t right for the proposed OPD budget reduction.

“We are in the midst of a gang war,” Gray said. “We need all hands on deck. We need to stop this violence again.”

Councilman Brinker Harding said the issue warranted discussion, “but we need a well thought-out strategy.”

He said a more comprehensive plan that includes the county would have more success than throwing some money at the problem now.

Harding also questioned why the county wouldn’t designate CARES Act funds toward mental-health priorities.

Councilman Pete Festersen suggested taking the $2 million from the city’s cash reserves, rather than the police budget, to address mental-health issues and to further support Heartland Workforce Solutions. The council later voted 4-3 to do just that, despite advice from Steve Curtiss, the city’s finance director, not to do given the uncertainty of the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Councilman Vinny Palermo commended Jerram for suggesting more money be spent on community programs — and taken out of the police budget.

“It takes major courage to pull funds from police department that is already 40 people short,” Palermo said, echoing Gray’s concerns that the first officers to be let go would cost the department its diversity.

“You’re taking what we’re trying to accomplish,” Palermo said.

Jerram said he recognized he didn’t have the votes to take $2 million out of the police budget, but said he felt he had to try.

“At the end of the day, I hope people understand that I heard you and was willing to introduce a resolution,” he said.

On the agenda

Other matters before the council today’s include:

At the start of its meeting, the council passed several motions adding funds to community programs including:

  • $50,000 for Set Me Free to addresses the issue of human trafficking
  • $25,000 for the Women’s Center for Advancement/Women Against Violence, which has been dealing with call increases
  • $50,000 for Heartland Workforce, acknowledging the unprecedented numbers of residents in need of their services during the pandemic
  • $15,000 for the Center for Holistic Development on the recommendation of Councilman Ben Gray to increase mental health and substance abuse programs while simultaneously helping a business in Omaha’s Black community

The council also unanimously approved $35,000 to help with mail-in voting before shifting gears to discuss the possibility of adding a part-time health director position to the mayor’s office, particularly during pandemic and other health emergencies, to alleviate the threat of litigation.

Jerram cited the Douglas County Health Director’s decision not to implement a mask mandate for Omaha under threat of legal action from the governor’s office, despite having support from the city attorney to do so. The council passed the motion 5-2.

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