The Omaha City Council discussed a plan to remove Councilmember Vinny Palermo from his seat during Tuesday’s meeting. The City Council also received a presentation from Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert on the 2024 budget, which proposes pay raises to address police shortages, a property tax cut, and more money for the library system.
Tuesday marked three consecutive months since Palermo last attended a City Council meeting. Palermo and three others have been in jail awaiting trial on fraud charges since April. This provides basis for the City Council to remove Palermo from his seat, according to section 2.05 of the City Charter.
In a statement, Council President Pete Festersen and Aimee Melton announced that the City Council will vote to remove Palermo during next week’s meeting on Aug. 1. After the vote, the City Council will begin a “thorough and transparent process” to fill the vacancy.
The City Council’s handling of Palermo’s absence has come under scrutiny, with some community members filing recall petitions against their representatives for not advocating for a special election to fill the seat. However, those recall petitions did not garner enough signatures. Section 2.06 of the City Charter provides guidelines for filling Council vacancies, and does not include a special election.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Councilmember Brinker Harding said the process could take up to two months before a new representative is sworn in. He said Palermo’s District 4 will have been without representation for five months.
“The people of District 4 deserve better and the people of Omaha deserve better,” Harding said.
Mayor Stothert presented the 2024 city budget and Capital Improvement Program (CIP) to the City Council Tuesday.
The $508 million general fund budget comes in 7% higher than last year’s budget. A proposal to increase pay for police officers accounts for more than 2% of that increase, Stothert said. The Omaha Police Department’s $186 million budget would be 4% higher than last year’s, though she said a proposal to raise salaries for officers could add another $9 million to the budget.
With approval from the police union and the City Council, Stothert said OPD would have the highest starting salary and top pay for officers in Nebraska and among cities of similar size. She said the raise is necessary to address difficulties in recruiting and retaining officers.
“The declining pool of law enforcement candidates is a national public safety crisis, and we must address it now,” Stothert said. “We must offer higher, competitive salaries.”
Currently, the city is budgeted for 906 police officers but only employs 811. The latest recruitment period only brought in 340 qualified applicants, which Stothert said was a fraction of the usual number.
The police budget will also include advertising and marketing campaigns for OPD, as well as eight new civilian positions.
Omaha Public Library’s department budget will also increase by over 8% to account for increased staffing as the city looks forward to the new central library, Stothert said. The central library will replace the former W. Dale Clark Library which was demolished late last year to make way for a Mutual of Omaha skyscraper which is currently under construction.
Despite the increased budget, Stothert recommended a 2% reduction in the property tax rate thanks to projected higher property valuations. Stothert said the levy will have decreased by over 8% since she first took office.
“We must always work to keep taxes as low as we can,” Stothert said. “While other taxing entities have a combined far greater impact on property taxes, we will cut the city’s tax rate whenever we can.”
Stothert said Omaha’s strong local economy brought in higher revenue from both property taxes and sales taxes. Stothert said the city has been able to fund the $200 million transportation bond for street repair and rehabilitation without utilizing the 3.5% tax increase approved by voters in 2020.
The proposed 2024-2029 CIP — which outlines the city’s major infrastructure improvements over the next six years — totals $3.2 billion, and includes $306 million for the proposed streetcar. It also includes $6 million for the Market to Midtown Bikeway, which will coexist with the streetcar along Farnam and Harney streets from 10th Street to Turner Boulevard. The streetcar is estimated to be complete by 2026.
The CIP also estimates $150 million for the new central library at 72nd and Dodge streets and $15 million for a new library in Southwest Omaha.
A public hearing on the budget will be held on Aug. 8, and the City Council will vote to adopt the budget on Sept. 12.