The legislative chambers inside the Omaha/Douglas County Civic Center.

City Council

After two meetings of debate, the Omaha City Council approved a contract with The Schemmer Associates for snow plow inspection by a vote of 4-3 Tuesday. The $60,000 agreement received vocal opposition from Councilmember Vinny Palermo, who was joined by Councilmembers Juanita Johnson and Danny Begley voting against.

The agreement with The Schemmer Associates was the fifth and last contract with a private company to inspect snow removal this season. Each contractor oversees other private contractors tasked with plowing snow in designated residential areas. The city handles snow removal on major streets.

This year’s contracts for inspection could total up to $300,000, but city engineer Todd Pfitzer said the city spends an average of $160,000 per year. The amount varies based on how much work is needed from the season’s snow events. Pfitzer said the contractors come in handy when the city experiences a big snowstorm.

“It is a cost-savings to the taxpayer to have those folks come in only when we need them,” Pfitzer said. “The rest of the time we’re not paying them; we’re not keeping them busy.”

Palermo called this system “contractors babysitting contractors.” He said snow removal and oversight could be handled by city workers and foremen.

Councilmember Aimee Melton said it wouldn’t be fair to deny this agreement now. With winter around the corner and four other agreements already approved, a denial would leave one part of the city without snow plow inspection.

The Schemmer Associates will cover a section of northeast Omaha, lying mostly in Councilmember Johnson’s district. Johnson said having inspection is good, but it doesn’t address the fact that snow removal is subpar in her district.

Councilmember Begley said there’s already room in the city budget to hire more street maintenance employees, and there isn’t enough accountability for private contractors.

Public Works Director Bob Stubbe said the department is short about 40 to 50 employees. Councilmember Don Rowe said the city is struggling to find workers. 

“We have less people in this city working in street maintenance today than we did 10 years ago,” Palermo said. “And think about the lane miles we’ve gained.”

County Board

Newly appointed Commissioner Roger Garcia participated in his first Douglas County Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday. The board also debated spending funding from the American Rescue Plan Act on mental health services and programs.

The board delayed approval for a $75,000 consulting contract with Deb Anderson to assist the county to help determine how ARPA and general funds should be spent on mental health. Anderson formerly worked for Project Harmony, a nonprofit that provides support for victims of child abuse.

Anderson said she will work with different organizations in the government and medical community to perform a needs assessment of mental health services in the county.

Commissioner Jim Cavanaugh said he had concerns that the contract was not discussed in an ARPA Strategy Committee meeting. He said the process established by the board was not followed, and there wasn’t room for public input.

Commissioner Maureen Boyle made a motion to delay approval of the contract until next week, after the ARPA Strategy Committee meets on Monday. Boyle said she intends to support the contract, but she wants the board to have a chance to speak with Anderson more. The board voted to delay 7-0.

The county board then approved four resolutions to allocate ARPA funding on mental health programs: $19,500 for mental health training for 911 communications staff, $354,000 for the Visiting Nurses Association’s Shelter Nursing Program, $165,000 for Omaha Integrative Care, and $189,000 for the Wellbeing Partners campaign to reduce mental health stigma. 

Commissioner Mike Friend said all of these programs will take the pressure off the government’s core responsibilities. He said the government doesn’t do things very well, and these nonprofits and organizations can do a better job.

Commissioner Boyle again moved for approval to be delayed until Anderson is brought on as a consultant. Friend said the strategy committee has already spoken with each of these organizations, and he called it “delaying the inevitable.”

Board Chair Mary Ann Borgeson said each of these programs have gone through the determined process for ARPA spending. Boyle rescinded her motion, and the board approved the programs.

Douglas County Health Director Lindsay Huse gave a weekly COVID-19 update through Zoom Tuesday. Huse said although cases have been declined the past few weeks, they increased slightly in the past week. Douglas County is currently in a plateau, and Huse said transmission is still considered high.

The highest proportions of new cases are in children and adolescents, Huse said. She said they’re still working with school districts to contain clusters of cases. The good news, however, is that a vaccine for children aged 5-11 should be coming in the next week following approval from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Over 70% of the eligible population is now fully vaccinated, although that number will go down when the eligible population includes children under 12.

There were seven deaths reported in the last week, five of which were people who were unvaccinated. Huse said 75% to 83% of deaths each week are unvaccinated, so they are still focusing on encouraging vaccinations.

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