The Douglas County Board of Commissioners approved the 2023-24 county budget Tuesday. The $554 million budget was approved 5-1, with Board Chair Mary Ann Borgeson voting no.

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Excluding nearly $52 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), the budget is about 5% above last year’s budget. Douglas County Budget and Finance Director Lori Pirsch said the increase was driven largely by labor costs.

“In order to get and retain employees, we have to be competitive,” Pirsch said. “That’s been especially a challenge…in corrections, law enforcement and health care.”

Pirsch said the budget assumes no increase to the property tax rate, which has been set just over 29.5 cents per $100 of valuation since 2019. She said the county will bring in more revenue because of a 9% increase in property valuations. The County Board will officially set the tax levy in August.

Douglas County is a “one-legged stool” that relies on property taxes, Pirsch said, rather than “three-legged stools” that receive revenue from property taxes, sales taxes and income taxes. 

Commissioner Maureen Boyle said she supports efforts to lower property taxes, but that would mean less revenue for the county to fund services. She said Governor Jim Pillen’s plan to provide more state funding for schools would benefit the county, as 55% of Omaha residents’ property tax levy goes toward Omaha Public Schools and only 13% goes to Douglas County.

“I’m hoping that that is actually going to decrease some of the property tax burden that we experience here in Douglas County,” Boyle said.

Along with rising property values, the county brought in higher revenue from the inheritance tax. Pirsch said this is an anomaly, and she doesn’t expect high inheritance tax proceeds in future years.

“[The inheritance tax] is an important part of our budget,” Pirsch said. “It’s used to fund the departments that are providing social services such as the health center.”

The County Board also approved $12,000 for Carlson West Povondra Architects, a Dundee-based firm, to study an alternative to the county’s plan to expand Douglas County Corrections for mental health treatment

The county plans to allocate up to $30 million in ARPA funding for the mental health treatment unit, and potentially more funding for a new community mental health center. The study will assess if renovating existing space at the jail would be a viable alternative to new construction. 

Douglas County Administrator Patrick Bloomingdale said federal regulations require that the county looks at least two alternatives for this capital improvement project. He said he didn’t think renovations would be feasible, but the study keeps them in compliance.

Ed Fogarty, a lawyer who has raised concerns about ARPA compliance at previous meetings, said there’s still risk of a clawback — the federal government could take back the ARPA funding. The guidelines don’t explicitly allow the funding to be used on capital improvements, he said

Fogarty said that Deloitte — the consulting firm contracted to advise the county on COVID relief spending — didn’t give notice about the clawback risk soon enough.

“Nobody has given you the risk benefit that is essential for every lawyer with a client,” Fogarty said. “If I’d been your lawyer, I’d have given you some warnings early.”

City Council

The Omaha City Council met Tuesday to discuss whether the proposed streetcar will allow developments to allot fewer parking spaces. 

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The City Council delayed voting on the Digs Apartments Mason redevelopment plan at 31st and Marcy Streets. The developers plan a maximum of 147 parking spaces — just over half of what would typically be required. The planning department waived the requirement because of the development’s proximity to the proposed streetcar route.

Neighbors have repeatedly raised concerns about the amount of parking near the development.

Michael Carter, an attorney for the project, said they’ve worked with city staff throughout the process and followed all of the city’s rules. He said the parking plan would be tenable because they plan to rent to young professionals who think differently about transportation.

He said no one would rely entirely on the streetcar, but many young people use services like Uber as well as biking as cheaper alternatives to car ownership.

“We have to view it as a 22 to 32-year-old. That’s who we’re going to lease to,” Carter said. “They do not want cars.”

The City Council voted to lay the issue over until August 1, as Councilmember Brinker Harding was absent. Councilmembers Danny Begley and Juanita Johnson said they wouldn’t support the plan because of neighbors’ concerns. 

“The neighbors aren’t against developing this area or location but it’s just not the right mix with the parking,” Begley said.

Councilmember Aimee Melton said she was on the fence, but she said the City Council should look at the parking ordinances themselves rather than singling out specific developments.

“What we shouldn’t be doing is picking winners and losers on an individual basis after they’ve followed the rules,” Melton said.

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