The Omaha City Council on Aug. 18, 2020.
The Omaha City Council on Aug. 18, 2020.

The Omaha City Council did not support divesting funds from the city’s police department. It instead narrowly passed an amendment that would draw nearly the same funds from the city’s cash reserve for mental health and employment training services.

The resolution, brought forward by Council President Chris Jerram, which would have moved $2 million from the police department, effectively giving the Omaha Police Department the same budget as last year, had no support among the council.

Jerram himself said in an opening statement that he did not think the resolution would have the support to pass, let alone pass an inevitable veto from Mayor Jean Stothert.

“We have a problem in our community…and in large part this budget resolution helps our city break the silence on the scope of the mental health of our citizens,” Jerram said.

For some it felt like this resolution would be viewed as a punishment against OPD. Councilmember Aimee Melton called on Chief Todd Schmaderer to address the council on the work they’ve done in crime reduction and community policing. 

The city has seen fewer homicides in recent years, though they’re on the rise this year. Officer involved shootings are also very low, with only one in 2019. Violent crime has held fairly steady in the city in the last 10 years, however.

Schmaderer said to make up for the lost $2 million allocation, he would have to limit the purchase of new vehicles, cut programs and most likely, cut officers.

Councilmember Ben Gray said he didn’t support this resolution, to the dismay of many constituents, precisely because he’s afraid of who Schmaderer would have to fire. Over his time on the council, Gray said diversity in the department has grown significantly. If any of those officers lost their jobs, it would undo years of work.

Councilmember Pete Festersen said this budget as a whole does not meet Omaha’s needs. While he said it was apparent the council would not support taking money from the police department, he proposed taking $1.8 from the city’s cash reserve. $1.5 million would still go to community mental health resources and $350,000 would go to Heartland Workforce Resolutions—$150,000 less than Jerram’s resolution would have allocated them.

He said while some say it’s inadvisable to take money from the city’s rainy day fund during a pandemic, that’s not a good excuse in the context of this budget. The budget’s forecast relies on gains in property tax and restaurant tax revenue that Festersen said seems unlikely.

“If $2m is a concern in that respect, than this whole budget is a concern.”

Some didn’t tread that political ground and chose not to pass the resolution for those financial reasons. 

Others said the conversation around mental health needs to be handled in a most pragmatic way. Gray said to take $2 million from the police now would be a “knee-jerk” reaction. Councilmember Brinker Harding said the council isn’t ready to address mental health in the way the community needs.

To do that would require the council to put together a budget, come up with a plan and identify metrics to measure their success. He proposed partnering with the Douglas County Board and utilizing CARES Act funds to accomplish that.

The council passed the amendment 4-3 with Harding, Pahls and Melton voting no. It later passed the city’s budget 5-2 with Jerram and Festersen voting no. 

Festersen said he’s still not in support of this budget and doesn’t know if his amendment can override the mayor’s veto. That would require five members to support the amendment.

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Chris Bowling

Chris has worked for The Reader since January 2020. As an investigative reporter and news editor he’s taken deep dives into topics such as police transparency, affordable housing and COVID-19. Originally...

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