The legislative chambers inside the Omaha City Hall. Photo by Chris Bowling.

Only $200,000 was earmarked by Mayor Jean Stothert for the Omaha City Council to allocate in amendments to the 2022 Omaha City Budget. With over $250,000 in proposed amendments, it was Councilmember Aimee Melton’s proposal that didn’t make the cut.

Melton’s proposal would’ve allocated $50,000 from the $456.1 million general fund to pay someone to coordinate the Douglas County Tenant Assistance Project (TAP). The program provides volunteer lawyers to tenants facing eviction.

“Eviction judgements mean homelessness,” Erin Feichtinger from Together Omaha said. 

Feichtinger said it’s easier to prevent homelessness than to find housing. She used an example of a family of seven that was evicted and are now homeless, despite assistance from multiple organizations. Programs like the TAP and eviction moratoriums work, Feichtinger said.

In order to make room for her amendment, Melton opposed Councilmember Juanita Johnson’s proposal for $40,000 to the Reach program to provide assistance to small business owners. Melton said eviction was a more immediate need, and Reach is already well-funded.

“If you’re homeless, you can’t start your own business,” Melton said.

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Councilmember Johnson said evictions are a temporary issue, and that assisting small businesses in underserved areas like North Omaha would provide long-term benefits like higher wages. Johnson also said that denying her $40,000 proposal wouldn’t free up enough money for Melton’s $50,000 proposal.

“This is something that we have struggled with in District 2 for a very long time,” Johnson said. “I just want to make sure that we have the necessary tools to move forward.”

City attorney Matt Kuhse said the TAP could be funded by federal rental assistance money. The City Council approved $22.2 million in rental assistance in March to be distributed by local nonprofit Metro Area Continuum of Care for the Homeless (MACCH). 

“We know $22 million is a lot more than the crumbs we’re fighting over right now,” Councilmember Vinny Palermo said. “So maybe that’s the discussion we should have.”

The council approved Johnson’s amendment 4-2, as Councilmember Don Rowe joined Melton in voting no. Melton’s amendment was then withdrawn.

Melton opposed another amendment introduced by Councilmember Johnson. Johnson proposed allocating $15,000 to hire a website consultant to provide “interested Councilmembers with a customizable web page.” Johnson said the web page would be used to communicate with her constituents as a pilot program, before it would expand to pages for other council members.

“We will get notifications about different programs,” Johnson said. “We know that in Omaha, Nebraska, information flows very slow, at a snail’s pace.”

Melton said she was uncomfortable with a program that would provide services to only one district, and that it would create a “political website funded by taxpayer dollars.” She said council members can use social media or their own websites.

Johnson clarified that the webpage would not be used for political purposes. She said it would provide information on opportunities for constituents more effectively. The amendment passed 4-2, with Councilmembers Melton and Rowe again voting no.

The City Council approved an amendment introduced by Councilmember Festersen to allocate $90,000 to the mental health clinic Community Alliance. The money would fund the Family Education Program, which assists family members of those experiencing mental illness.

“We want to avoid police involvement, we want to avoid crisis involvement,” Aileen Brady from Community Alliance said. “We want to be able to get them interventions with mental health support and treatment much earlier in the process.”

Councilmembers Danny Begley and Vinny Palermo proposed $40,000 for the Nebraska Center for Workforce Development and Education (NCWDE), which was approved unanimously. NCDWE provides programming and mentors for justice-involved individuals through Project Reset.

Ed Black, a worker who went through the program, said Project Reset benefits both the individual and the community as a whole. Black said if it weren’t for his mentor who helped him find a career path, he may have ended up in prison.

Councilmember Melton then raised concerns over two amendments to the 2022-2027 Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) that created the Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan and will make the Harney Street Protected Bikeway permanent in 2023.

Melton said the projects might not qualify for the CIP and that transportation bonds couldn’t legally be used to fund them. Melton said she supports protected bike lanes, but the city council needs more information on the current bike lane to know if it will last the required 15 years.

Festersen, who introduced the amendments after input from constituents, said transportation bonds could legally be used to fund the projects. The city council approved both amendments 4-2.

“It’s important we start demonstrating our commitment to pedestrian and bike infrastructure throughout the city and put our money where our mouth is,” Festersen said. “That starts with something like this.”

The city council approved the amended budget, which now goes back to Mayor Stothert for final approval. In a statement, Stothert said she was disappointed that Melton’s proposal for a TAP coordinator didn’t pass. She said she’ll consider potential vetoes later this week.

The Douglas County Board of Commissioners’ Child and Youth Services Committee also met Tuesday. The Juvenile Assessment Center (JAC) gave a report on juvenile justice diversion and the GOALS Center reported data on school attendance. Committee chair Chris Rodgers said the data would be used as a baseline to develop a Family Resource Center.

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