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Omaha to reopen libraries, community centers after county approves $30 million in CARES Act funds

Published: Aug. 25, 2020 at 10:33 AM CDT|Updated: Aug. 25, 2020 at 7:41 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - The Douglas County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday unanimously approved allocating $30 million in CARES Act funds to the City of Omaha for COVID-related losses.

Commissioner Clare Duda said during a Tuesday afternoon news conference with Mayor Jean Stothert that he was pleased the county was able to come to a good agreement with the city, and that the delay in the decision worked in Omaha’s favor as the guidelines were revised and allowed for more reimbursable expenses.

“I assured Omaha we would give them an answer as quickly as possible, but if we had given them an answer a month or two ago, it would not have been as good as what we were able to do today,” he said.

Last week, the state also committed $30 million from its portion of the CARES Act pool.

Stothert said Tuesday that the initial revenue losses for the city were estimated at about $90 million, but that with all the receipts in, that total looks to be closer to $72 million.

The $60 million in COVID-19 expenses are tied to Omaha Fire and Police services from March to May, the mayor said. The total for those costs was around $56 million, and other COVID-19 expenses for the city pushed the total to just over $60 million.

Stothert estimated that cost-saving measures enacted by the city, such as closing offices and not hiring part-time positions over the summer, saved about $18-$20 million.

CARES Act funding doesn’t cover the lost revenue, she said, but can reimburse other costs and prevent layoffs for first-responders.

The mayor said the city plans to re-open more city facilities soon. She said she was “especially excited” about re-opening libraries.

Laura Marlane, executive director of libraries for the City of Omaha, said the four largest libraries will reopen in the next four weeks: Millard, Abrahams, Washington, and either Cather or South. Masks have been purchased for staff, plastic barriers are being installed, and some seating is being removed to facilitate social distancing, she said. The rest of the city’s libraries are expected to reopen by Oct. 1.

Those re-openings do depend on the ability to hire part-timers, she said.

Tracy Stratman, Omaha’s recreational manager, said the city will slowly reopen community centers — two to three at a time — while following all safety and health guidelines. The nature center and ice rink will also reopen, she said.

But if Gov. Pete Ricketts moves the county to Phase IV, allowing more people in buildings, that could change things, officials said.

“Even though we are reopening our facilities, COVID is still here,” Stothert said.

The mayor also awarded nearly $105,000 to the Food Bank for the Heartland. The funds came from pool admission fees; the city charged $2 per entry with the understanding that the fees would be donated. Accepting the check, the food bank’s director acknowledged that the need for food assistance had jumped by 40% and said he didn’t see an end in sight.

Omaha Finance Director Steve Curtiss said Tuesday that he believes the combined $60 million will help make the city whole again. Mayor Jean Stothert submitted her 2021 budget to the City Council last month with a $60- to $70-million hole.

Stothert said this spring that Omaha’s general fund budget of $420 million for 2020 will suffer about an $80 million loss largely due to all the revenue lost from all the large-scale events that were canceled because of the pandemic. The all-fund budget which includes items like bond issue payments is $1 billion total and will suffer about $127 million in losses. That amount was revised to $56 million in July.

Stothert also said earlier this year that libraries and community centers would remain closed because the city wasn’t sure when it would receive CARES Act funding, and she was doing all she could to avoid layoffs of full-time employees.

Douglas County received $166 million in CARES Act funding in May. The county allocated $4 million on June 30 for utility assistance for residents. Earlier this month, funds were distributed also to a rental-assistance program and to help support the judicial system.

The county initially planned to give the City of Omaha $25 million.

Watch today’s news conference

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