The Omaha City Council approved a $2.9 million contract for architecture firm Leo A Daly to plan and design the city’s new police and fire headquarters, with a current estimated cost of $80 million.

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Council President Pete Festersen said a joint downtown headquarters has been in discussion for years. Both the Omaha Police Department’s headquarters, located at 15th and Howard streets, and the Omaha Fire Department’s headquarters, located a block south at 15th and Jackson streets, were built in 1990. Festersen said he supports the plan because public safety is the city’s most important responsibility.

“Our current stations are quite old and have probably gone past their useful life,” Festersen said. “So I support that vision and I think it is important and something we do need to accomplish for our police and fire departments.”

Mike Oestmann from the city’s public works department said design firm Leo A. Daly will oversee the first phase of the project, as well as conduct a study for a new downtown police precinct and fire station. The firm will begin by visiting other cities’ facilities before assessing needs and evaluating potential locations. 

Phase one will culminate in a schematic design, which Oestmann said will be made available to the public before Omaha voters consider bonds for the project. With voter approval, Leo A. Daly will complete construction documents and the city will bid the project to contractors. 

Oestmann said the city plans for the headquarters to be complete by the summer of 2027. 

Festersen said rough estimates have put the total project cost at about $80 million, but it’s still up in the air. City Finance Director Stephen Curtiss said the city plans to fund the project without any tax increase.

“It’d be pretty hard to predict what kind of tax effect it would have,” Curtiss said. “We all know we’ve got a fairly robust history of not raising taxes even when it’s been authorized.”

Curtiss said that although Leo A. Daly’s $2.9 million contract wasn’t budgeted for in the city’s general fund, they’ve generated enough tax revenue this year to cover the cost.

County Board

Douglas County began its 2023-2024 budget process Tuesday, as Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley presented the department’s requested budget.

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County finance director Joe Lorenz said his department sends out target amounts for departmental budgets. If a department requests more than that targeted amount, they must present that to the Board of Commissioners. 

The public defender’s office will request a department budget of nearly $7.9 million, which is $350,000 more than the target amount. Riley said he initially planned on requesting $8.1 million, but he worked with Lorenz to whittle down costs.

Riley said most of the department budget will go toward personnel, including hiring two new attorneys. He said cases have gotten more complex over the years, meaning they can’t assign as many to each individual attorney as they used to.

“Now, even in a misdemeanor DUI case, there’s body cam, there’s cruiser cam that you have to watch,” Riley said. “This is extremely time consuming, not to mention the complexity of felony cases with ever-changing DNA techniques.”

He said they also have to review evidence from cell phones, including text messages and photos, in order to build a case.

Riley suggested that the Board raise the starting salary for entry level lawyers, which is $70,000 for the public defender’s office by statute. He said they struggle to compete with other agencies with higher starting salaries, like the county attorney or nearby counties like Sarpy and Lancaster.

Riley said they’ve taken on cost-saving measures to mitigate the budget increase. The office has five Spanish-speaking attorneys and four secretaries to work with Spanish-speaking clients without the need for an interpreter, and Riley said they’ve partnered with a law professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for free training on immigration law.

Commissioner Maureen Boyle said it’s clear the public defender’s responsibilities have changed, and she appreciated that Riley gave examples of how the department is saving costs.

“As a commissioner trying to do what’s best for our constituents, which is trying to watch property taxes and keep that to a minimum, this is the type of argument we need anytime someone comes up here asking for more money,” Boyle said. “That piece of information is what I’m asking for when other departments come up here.”

The Board will vote on the county budget this summer.

Corrections Director Mike Myers gave a monthly update to the Board Tuesday, as the department reached 103.4% of authorized staffing, a milestone months in the making.

“Achieving full staffing for the first time in approximately 15 years was the culmination of a fantastic team effort involving many, many individuals,” Myers said.

He said they will now pause hiring and instead focus on training new officers to reduce overtime costs. 

Myers said the corrections department hired Bill Young as Wellness and Retention Coordinator. Young, who has authored books on mental stress corrections officers face, will oversee programs to promote the corrections staff’s well-being.

Young said a “culture of toughness” makes it difficult for corrections departments to talk about mental health, but Douglas County is lucky to have leadership willing to have those conversations.

“It’s not about keeping someone happy so they show up to work. It’s about letting a person live their career with their head, heart and household intact,” Young said.

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