Problems Easy To Spot

Finding solutions among recall rhetoric more difficult

In the seven weeks since nearly 29,000 citizens consented to potentially recall Mayor Jim Suttle, headlines in Omaha have read like a political thriller. But among the fraud allegations, busing controversies, court dates and political bickering, the two questions that started it all continue to get lost: What’s wrong with Omaha, and how do we fix it? Dave Nabity has an idea. “I think our problem is we’ve had elected officials that have been funded and sponsored by the labor unions that negotiated their own contracts,” he says. With a better negotiator in place, Nabity believes Omaha wouldn’t have needed the 2.3-cent property tax increase, $50 wheel fee on residents and commuters, or 2.5 percent tax on restaurant tabs it got under the mayor’s 2011 budget. On Aug. 17, the City Council approved a new police contract that raised some officers' retirement age, closed a projected $620 million pension liability and froze pay for 2009 and 2010. The contract finally eliminated spiking — preventing officers from inflating retirement packages by loading overtime and vacation into their final years on the force. Suttle’s camp hailed it as the first major pension reform in 30 years. Nine days later, the Mayor Suttle Recall Committee announced it was exploring a recall. Nabity, a Republican gubernatorial candidate in 2006, has become one of the most outspoken critics of Omaha's Democratic Mayor. A potential candidate for mayor if Suttle is recalled, Nabity founded the recall group Citizens for Omaha's Future and helped raise funds for the Mayor Suttle Recall Committee. He spent much of 2010 hammering away at the police and fire contract negotiations as president of Omaha Alliance for the Private Sector, a group formed in 2009 to “free the private sector from excessive government.” His solution for Omaha goes beyond a simple change in leadership. “We have to change the pension formula,” Nabity says. “We have to make the [police and fire] unions realize they received a pension perk they shouldn’t have gotten. That pension is way too rich. We have a formula that no other mayor or city council would approve.” Under the police agreement, the city’s pension contribution increased from 20.17 to 33.67 percent — a 13.5 percent increase. Omaha police officers are also paying more, contributing 16.35 percent of their pay, up from 14.55 percent. The Omaha police union also agreed to a 12.8 percent decrease in benefits for a total increased contribution of 14.5 percent, a fact police union president Aaron Hanson says frequently gets lost. “Both sides paid the same amount,” he says. “The police had the option to pay in cash and benefits. The city didn’t have that option because they don’t own the benefits. Hanson says Suttle achieved pension reform that hasn't happened elsewhere. “There’s a lot of rhetoric and politics behind the recall,” he says, “but what Suttle did was unprecedented.” The fire contract is entering its fourth year of negotiations. The state labor court ruled early this year that the city owed its firefighters $2.2 million in raises from 2009 and 2010. The firefighter’s union agreed in 2009 to a pay freeze for both years if a new contract was approved. With no contract in place, the union sued the city in December to protect the pay raises. Nabity, a financial advisor, wants the city to restart the negotiations from scratch. He says Omaha Alliance for the Private Sector has urged the city to bring in outside negotiators and provided the city council with detailed proposals reducing costs in the fire and police departments by as much as $26 million. The mayor’s tax increases were a driving force behind the recall effort. But Mayor Suttle Recall Committee spokesman Jeremy Aspen acknowledges that the city’s $4.7 million budget deficit in 2010 may have required some tax increase. But he doesn't think new taxes like the restaurant and commuter taxes were the best solution. “Before you can institute new taxes, you first have to work on cutting expenses, making real tough decisions which may have been unpopular but ultimately would have benefitted the city,” he says. “There were missed opportunities — employee furloughs, combining city and county resources, decreasing staffing in the fire department. Past solutions deserve to have been on the table and they weren’t.” In the short term, Suttle’s solutions appear to have worked. At the end of November, the $4 million budget gap was down to less than $700,000. Credit rating agency Moody’s restored Omaha’s triple-A bond rating in October, allowing the city to refinance some of its $37.5 million in outstanding loans at lower interest rates. The city says that should should an estimated savings of $6 million over the next five years. But if the mayor’s choices are getting results, why is his job on the line? Suttle has admitted he didn't do a very good job of communicating with the public, and promised improvement in a pair of YouTube videos posted over the holidays. “The tone deafness is a really big deal,” Aspen says. “I’ve spoken with city council members who are frustrated they weren’t able to get through to Mayor Suttle. He heard the ideas, he just didn’t take them into account.” The man who's pushed so hard for the recall, Nabity says he won’t decide whether he'd run for the office until and if there's a race. He says the recall is really about people’s faith in politics and holding politicians accountable. “He needs to be recalled, and the rest of the politicians need to take note. The citizens are not going to put up with the politics as usual.”

posted at 04:13 pm
on Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

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