Despite a visit from Mayor Jean Stothert, libraries once again took center stage at Tuesday’s Omaha City Council Meeting. Along with a design contract for a new central library at 72nd and Dodge Streets, the City Council also approved a temporary downtown location to provide service while the W. Dale Clark Library is relocated.
Earlier this year, the City Council approved the lease for a new downtown branch at 1401 Jones Street to replace the existing 215 South 15th Street site, which will be demolished in favor of Mutual of Omaha’s new headquarters. Mayor Stothert’s Deputy Chief of Staff Troy Anderson said construction of improvements at the new location have setback the timeline, and the current location can’t stay open because the city is obligated to have the site cleared for Mutual by January 1.
To prevent a lapse in service for downtown library patrons, the project team proposed 1410 Howard Street as an interim library site. The $27,000 lease agreement will last through February, setting the deadline for the permanent new library to open on March 1. The City Council approved $10,000 to HDR Engineering to design the necessary improvements to have the site up and running by September 1.
The 2,570 square foot space will allow for only limited services; Anderson said patrons will be able to drop off and pick up books and other materials and find space for reading and working, but there won’t be many books on display.
The City Council amended the agreement with Noddle Company to oversee the library relocation for an additional $150,000, bringing the total contract to $540,000. CEO Jay Noddle said the project has taken more time because the design and construction market has seen higher prices recently.
“You have to take a little bit of time to think through value engineering, substituting materials, systems and things like that without sacrificing quality,” Noddle said.
Councilmember Vinny Palermo said he was unsure from the beginning that the new downtown location would be ready in time for the demolition of W. Dale Clark. He said they’ve had problems with transparency throughout the entire project, including the fact that these items weren’t added to the City Council’s agenda until Friday afternoon.
“I’m not against the bare services we have to provide, it’s just the circus that surrounds the aggressiveness of the contracts we see in front of us,” Palermo said. “We’re not working together.”
Foreseeing potential future delays, Palermo said a layover might be necessary so they can negotiate with the landlord for either a longer lease or optional extensions. Noddle said the agreement already included two 60-day extensions. However, that language was missing from the agreement presented to the City Council, as they had apparently received an outdated version of the document. Councilmember Brinker Harding moved for an amendment to include the extensions after Noddle confirmed that was the original intent.
“I want to make sure that we get the right language, the right document included in this,” Harding said.
Council President Pete Festersen said the mistake didn’t inspire confidence in the project. However, the City Council moved forward with the project to avoid a lapse in service.
Opponents also expressed frustration with the project’s transparency. Anthony Cato Jr. said the city is catering to big corporations like Mutual of Omaha, while North and South Omaha are in “dismal, almost warlike states of distress.”
“I’ve heard some people say on this council, ‘We have constituents and we listen to the public,” Cato said. “I really want to question that right now.”
The Douglas County Board of Commissioners also discussed libraries Tuesday, after receiving a presentation on the new central library project. Heritage Services CEO Rachel Jacobson and HDR Design Director Tom Trenolone emphasized sustainability and flexibility for the building at 72nd and Dodge Streets.
Mayor Stothert presented the 2023 proposed city budget and six-year Capital Improvement Program to the City Council Tuesday. The city’s general fund is proposed to be $474 million, a 3.9% increase from last year’s budget.
Despite high inflation and a miscalculation by the Douglas County Treasurer, Stothert said Omaha has a strong local economy. Because of a rise in expected sales and restaurant tax revenue, the Mayor declined to raise the property tax levy.
The police and fire departments were a priority, Stothert said. The departments’ budgets rose to $178.4 million and $134.4 million respectively, and she said they will focus on recruiting and retaining employees.
As promised, the library budget is also increasing by over 10% to $19.3 million. In addition to money for the lease agreements of the new library branches, the city expects to hire more employees and raise wages for part-time staff.
The public works department has a proposed budget of $579.8 million, including $18 million for street resurfacing. The city is also planning for improvements to the city’s public spaces, with the parks department budget being raised to $39.2 million. That number doesn’t include $10 million from American Rescue Plan Act funds that will go toward improving city parks.
A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for Tuesday, August 9 at 6:30 p.m.