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Mayor Stothert's State of the City Address
February 26, 2014
Good afternoon Council President Festersen, City Council members and citizens of Omaha. it is a pleasure to be with you today to discuss the city and our future.
The City Charter requires the Mayor each year to meet with the council and present a “state of the city” to you and the public. I am honored to address you on my first such occasion as mayor. The city we are privileged to serve is evolving and growing. Our identity is more clear and positive.
The economy is rebounding, commerce and employment are improving. Our unemployment rate is 3.9%, far below the national average. Omaha is a city of steady progress and great opportunity. Our city is hopeful, spirited and optimistic about the future. That’s what I see and I hope you do too.
Although I served on the City Council with most of you for four years, one does see things differently as Mayor. I’ve met more people in every corner of the city than I ever imagined. The creativity, generosity and leadership that are constantly on display are impressive and motivating.
There are many reasons that great potential is before us and within our reach. Omaha, along with neighboring cities in the metro, enjoys widespread recognition as a wonderful place to work, create a business, educate our children and enjoy family time.
We love our world class zoo, especially the baby penguin with the unforgettable name, Payton, named for Payton Manning of course, on his run to the Super Bowl, and we’re excited that Manning will be visiting Omaha in the spring.
Omaha has a growing and deserved reputation as a great sports destination. From the College World Series, the Olympic Swim Trials, NCAA basketball and volleyball tournaments, Omaha continues to demonstrate that we are one of the best host cities in the country for sports events.
We are recognized for affordability and the work environment for young professionals. Once again in 2014, Omaha has been named the best city in which to raise a family and a top-ten city for job seekers.
Of course, we all enjoy hearing how others rank Omaha or write about our work ethic, great traditions, and quality of life. What is more satisfying is to see how we see ourselves and how we treat each other.
A great city is defined not by its government, but by its people. We are truly blessed that Omaha’s history, strong neighborhoods, and families have resulted in a community that is caring and selfless.
We are blessed by great institutions of education, faith, culture, entertainment, health care, and philanthropy. When a call for help is made, people respond, from multi-million dollar charity drives to spaghetti fundraisers.
Two weeks ago, nearly one-thousand people turned out to help the employees of International Nutrition and their families. Since the building collapse last month, and the tragic death of two workers, the company has laid off some of its workforce. We respond in times of need, we rally around our friends, co-workers and neighbors with the small town friendship we all appreciate.
This is Omaha, coming together.
Through hard work, we have a great foundation on which to build. With your help, we were fortunate to keep our momentum going during the change of administrations.
Thank you for being strong partners in that effort.
Together, we moved quickly to fix the 2013 city budget. We turned a thirteen and a half million dollar deficit into a $10 million dollar surplus. It was difficult and every city department worked hard to accomplish this savings.
Sales tax collections in the fourth quarter were very strong and building permit fees for the year exceeded our budget projections by 57%. These are signs of an improving local economy.
Our responsible 2014 budget includes a 3.3 percent increase in general fund revenue and expenses. The restaurant tax is expected to generate 27.7 million dollars, an increase from 2013. We will resurface more neighborhood streets, tear down more unsafe housing, hire more police officers, and keep your libraries open. We will do that by spending your money carefully.
We have made positive leadership changes in the Omaha Fire Department. We reached an agreement with the firefighter’s union to reduce expenses for 2014, while maintaining high levels of service. Starting with our first full budget for 2014, the days of the fire department overspending by millions each and every year will end. Next month, I will name a permanent fire chief who shares my goals for excellence in public safety and administration.
We are making progress with our public employee unions to control costs, especially in the areas of pensions and benefits. We project our health care costs to increase to $59 and a half million dollars this year. We must continue to look for new ways to reduce those costs and still provide medical care for our employees and retirees.
Our unfunded pension liability must also be remedied. The progress we have already made must continue in our upcoming collective bargaining agreements to further improve our pension obligation for the future and better control year-over-year spending.
We have reorganized our planning department to address complaints from developers, builders and homeowners who simply want to make improvements on their homes. We are now focused on our customers, simplifying the processes and providing quality service.
We have cut ribbons at dozens of grand openings, small family-owned businesses, hotels, medical care facilities, retail stores and corporate headquarters.
This is Omaha, growing together.
Every decision to build or expand in our city benefits all of us. Look at the new Wal-Mart at 50th and Ames. The superstore is an investment in north Omaha. Hundreds of people have jobs and consumers have a convenient place to shop.
This year, Doctor Jorge Sotolongo will open the first outpatient surgical center in south Omaha at 24th and Vinton. The south Omaha surgical center will provide convenient, more affordable medical care in south Omaha. it will also create fifty high-paying jobs. Doctor Sotolongo was born in Cuba and earned his medical degrees in Puerto Rico. He supports our south Omaha community by funding scholarships through the Heartland Latino Leadership Conference and provides OB-GYN care at his network of metro-area clinics. The surgical center will close a gap in health care services. Doctor Sotolongo, we are grateful for your commitment.
As Mayor, promoting economic development and job creation throughout the city is one of my top priorities.
I support legislation to “ban the box”. This bill is being considered right now by the Nebraska legislature. It prohibits public employers, like the City of Omaha, from requiring job applicants to disclose their criminal record on their job application. It gives all job applicants the chance to be considered for a job in the public sector. We’re not going to wait for the legislature to act. We will revise our city job application and remove the box. The change will have to be approved by the Personnel Board and the City Council. We will still conduct background checks on the final candidates for jobs, but we will take this important first step to provide equal opportunities.
This is Omaha: taking the lead.
We have many projects in development. Last week, we announced the civic auditorium site is “for sale by owner”. redevelopment of this site continues our commitment to build downtown Omaha into a vibrant residential, commercial and entertainment center. We also have Crossroads Village, the Capitol District at 10th and Capitol which includes a full-service Marriott Hotel, the Omaha multi-sports complex at Tranquility Park, Prospect Village and 75 North, to name only a few.
By summer or early fall, 75 North expects to start on their ‘ground-breaking’ community redevelopment project. The goal is to provide high-quality housing, improve academic achievement and provide services to families. This concept has worked in other cities, changing high-crime, high-poverty neighborhoods into new communities, offering a better quality of life. That’s the vision of 75 North. Omaha Public Schools, the Urban League, Charles Drew Health Center, Salem-Baptist Church, private investors like the Sherwood Foundation and support from leaders like Warren Buffett will make this change possible. When asked about the mission, Mr. Buffett said, “I like things that change people’s lives.” So do I. 75 North intends to be that change.
Developments like this can be sparks. they create new interest in the surrounding neighborhoods. Wrapped around 75 North is Prospect Village, a neighborhood rehabilitation project managed by the Omaha Planning Department. This is a neighborhood in decline. Existing homes are deteriorating and there are many vacant lots. We will build 80 new homes, rehab 36 existing houses and make energy, health and safety upgrades to twenty more. This is your city’s commitment to making Prospect Village a more stable neighborhood. I would like to thank the community partners who are working with us to bring these projects to life.
This is Omaha; working together.
In May, voters will have the opportunity to move Omaha forward by approving general obligation bonds for the city’s ongoing capital expenses. These bonds, totaling 92-million dollars will pay for street and highway projects, sewers, parks and recreation, public facilities and public safety. Voter approval will not increase property taxes as they will replace existing bonds about to be paid off. The new bonds will allow us to buy new fire trucks and medic units, rehab older city parks like Adams, Levi Carter and Hanscom. We will also be able to complete more street projects and continue the redevelopment of 16th street in downtown Omaha, to name a few.
We appreciate the funding from the state of Nebraska that allowed us to resurface state highways in Omaha, including Dodge Street in 2013. This year, resurfacing on dodge will continue at the busiest intersection in the city, 90th and Dodge. Thank you to Governor Dave Heineman for providing $12 million dollars in additional state funds for these projects. The state funds allow us to budget more city money for residential streets. In 2013, we resurfaced 151 blocks of neighborhood streets. This year, we estimate 180 neighborhood blocks will be resurfaced.
For many months now, we have been working on the massive sewer separation project, to get it done less expensively and with more design flexibility and alternate financing. When completed, this 18-year construction project will cost the equivalent of at least fifteen TD Ameritrade baseball parks, so even small reductions in cost will be significant. I am most concerned with the excessive hardship this project will have on taxpayers if future rate increases are implemented as previously designed. My job is to monitor the cost, and be sure the project is efficient and well-managed. This is a federal mandate and it must be done.
Our city’s future is bright, but we have work to do in many areas. I hear it through my personal interaction with citizens, our hotline calls, letters and emails, and we heard it at our seven town hall meetings. I know you hear it too.
At the top of the list is reducing violent crime. On January 15th, a tragic day in our community, five-year-old Payton Benson was murdered. A little girl, so full of hope and kindness, her life ended by those with no regard for human life or the rule of law.
We are still angry, and grieving. I think about Payton every day, as many do. As sad as we are, let me focus on what else we saw that day and the days that followed. We saw a community respond as one. We witnessed compassion and forgiveness. We saw resolve; a determination to make the community safer, by the community itself. Often, only in the most tragic of times, do we see the full capacity of the human spirit.
Payton’s mother, Tabitha Manning is here today with councilman Ben Gray. She made a televised plea the day after Payton died. She asked that we remember Payton with love, not violence. That evening, Payton’s parents joined a prayer walk to remember their little girl. They heard pastors pray for their daughter and our city. They heard total strangers cry in the cold wind, and they heard the strong voice of a man somewhere in the crowd. “Community is family,” he said. “We have lost a member of our family.” I don’t know who that man was. I could not see him in the crowd, but I heard his words too.
This is Omaha, stronger together.
Omaha is family. when we lose a member of our family, it hurts. Every life matters. Every violent death is unacceptable.
Public safety is my number one priority and responsibility. It must be and it always will be. We are focused on policing and crime-fighting strategies to address the long-standing problem of gun violence in our city. It’s clear. More needs to be done and more will be done. We will put more officers on the street this year. A recruit class will begin training April 14. The class of approximately 35 officers will be on the street in December. This will bring our police department back to its authorized strength of 804 officers.
But we’re not done. Chief Schmaderer and I agree we need more officers. We plan another recruit class in 2015 and 2016 to further increase the police department’s authorized strength. Our officers need the tools to be effective. This year, we will replace outdated radios and continue to replace cruisers.
We have expanded the gang unit to be on the street 365 days a year and we will expand the unit again next month. We completed two successful operations to address gun and gang violence, “Operation Purple Haze” and “Operation Wipe It Down”. Omaha police, working with federal law enforcement partners made dozens of arrests and took dangerous, illegal guns and drugs off the street.
We support legislation to ensure that violent offenders who are released have met rigorous sentencing requirements and have some transition guidance to a lawful life. This includes GPS monitoring after release. This technology will give the Omaha police department another tool to protect citizens. We also support changes in the “good time” law, requiring violent offenders to earn reductions in their sentence by participating in programs to prepare for release. This is the effective incentive, not the automatic expectation of good time.
Our Faith and Community Task Force will help us identify the necessary steps to support our families. Pastor Bruce Williams, co-chairman of the task force, says simply, “If we have strong families, our community will be strong.” I meet regularly with leaders from all the school districts in the city to improve the ways we work together on truancy, job training and early identification of at-risk youth.
This is Omaha, safer together.
As promised last year, I have signed an executive order to create the citizens complaint review board. I am confident in Chief Schmaderer and his command staff to address police misconduct. Almost without exception, our police officers are hard working, display sound judgment and pursue the safety goals we share for our city. Chief Schmaderer welcomes the review board as it goes towards strengthening public trust. When a citizen believes there has been misconduct, this is an opportunity for further review. More than 150 people applied to serve on this board, and we expect to name the members next month.
Overall, Omaha is a safe city. We have a very high clearance rate for homicides, nearly 80%. We have a good conviction rate. Our challenge is prevention. We need the ongoing leadership and intervention from the many organizations already doing good work on this front.
Reverend Servando Perales sets an example at the Victory Boxing Club. Servando uses his own comeback story to motivate young people and provide an alternative to gangs and street life. From a gang, to prison, to the boxing ring, to the ministry, Servando makes a difference one teen at a time. Our community needs to support innovative programs like Victory Boxing that give our kids hope for their futures, reasons to get off the street, stay in school, improve their grades and set goals. One of the newest members is a high school sophomore whose mom recently died of cancer, his father is in prison. He’s the kind of young man who needs mentoring and coaching. At Victory Boxing, he will learn news skills, he will be tutored so he’s ready for college if that’s his goal, and he will develop the confidence he needs.
This is Omaha, succeeding together
Last month, we celebrated the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior and invited everyone to share their dreams for Omaha, in just three words. We had hundreds of great ideas. One that stands out is the dream of Mrs. Barbara King’s class at Nathan Hale Magnet School. The students’ dream for Omaha is a “Place of Peace”. So we asked the class, what does a place of peace look like? These 8th graders see a city that works together. They see churches, schools, and families doing their parts. They see young people, like themselves, being good role models in their own families, in their school and in their neighborhoods. Mrs. King’s class is here today. Thank you for your thoughtful ideas. We all share your dream, for Omaha to be a “Place of Peace”. It starts with each one of us, we can all do our part.
This is Omaha, living together, better together.
I want to know how we are doing. We have expanded the Mayor’s Hotline to provide fast, thorough responses to your calls and emails. I use Facebook everyday to share city news and answer your questions. We redesigned my website to provide timely information and resources. You can also use a link to send us your opinion, and we’ll answer. Your opinion matters.
I would like to thank our department directors and Mayor’s office staff for the dedication and service in making our city better, and to all city employees who work every day to make our city safer and more productive, thank you.
I feel blessed to be playing a role in the rich history and exciting future of the city we call home. Thank you and all our citizens for working every day so Omaha can realize its full potential.
2013 was a year of change in Omaha. I believe change is progress, and I believe together, we can make our great city, extraordinary.