Dozens of Omahans gave over two hours of testimony against the proposed 2022 city budget during the Omaha City Council’s public hearing Tuesday. Opponents targeted the Omaha Police Department, which is slated to receive a $5 million budget increase. Like protesters did in 2020, Tuesday’s opponents said the money would not stymie crime, and that it should be spent on other programs targeting the root causes of crime.
“You can call it divesting, you can call it defunding, you can call it whatever you want,” Nick Bonnett-Murphy said. “What I’m talking about is fiscal responsibility.”
The budget general fund, which funds most city departments and is paid for by local taxes, would total over $456 million. Over $169 million, or 37.2%, would go to the Omaha Police Department.
Opponents asked for amendments to the city budget, which the council will vote on during their Aug. 17 meeting. Several testifiers reminded the council of an amendment to last year’s budget by former Councilmember Chris Jerram that would have rerouted $2 million OPD’s budget toward other projects. That amendment received no support among former council members. An alternative to move $1.8 million from the city’s cash reserves was passed but vetoed by Mayor Jean Stothert. Some community members hoped the city council would build on what Jerram started.
“We would like to see that and more today from our city council,” one opponent said. “What will you guys be remembered for?”
Some offered other ideas for public safety to the city council. Denver’s Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) program and the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program from Eugene, Oregon, were both referenced as alternatives for mental health crises.
Others highlighted how dollars in the police budget have been misspent in recent years, like funding for a new police helicopter. OPD crashed two helicopters in separate incidents in 2019.
“Three percent reallocated could fund an unarmed civilian traffic safety division,” Johnny Redd from activist group Strongly Worded Letters said. “Which could prevent further tragic deaths like that of Kenneth Jones.”
Strongly Worded Letters held a testimony workshop on Monday to help people prepare for Tuesday or send emails to city councilmembers. Redd said about 10 people the organization worked with spoke during the public hearing.
Gab Rima, also from Strongly Worded Letters, said city officials need to be open to input. Their constituents have once again used every opportunity they have to make their voice heard, part of a growing sentiment toward civic engagement. But that’s only one half of the equation.
“There’s no lack of passion, concern or care for our community in Omaha,” Rima said. “The problem we have is a listening problem.”
Others made their voices heard outside City Hall. On the front steps of city hall, Revolutionary Action Party (RAP) hosted a “Omaha Budget Justice Rally,” with speakers and a ten-minute explanation of the budget process. Activists lined the steps in chalk with messages like “fund the people” and “abolish the police.”
RAP organizer Bear Alexander has helped organize protests almost since demonstrations started in the summer of 2020. He, like many others, has been arrested, harassed by police and named as a defendant in an ACLU lawsuit against the City of Omaha as well as its police department. Still, the need for protesters to gather and make their voices heard has only gotten stronger.
“The emphasis and main premise of this rally is political education and organization,” Alexander said. “There is no ‘defund the police’ without organization.”
For those who couldn’t make it to protests or the budget hearing, Kyliesha Peak collected opinions on the budget. She compiled about 60 people’s testimonies in a booklet that she gave to the city council members after she gave her own.
“I ask of you today to read this book,” Peak said. “Read what the people have said they would like to see for the city of Omaha, and to be the change-makers that the people want you to be.”
Several speakers addressed their representatives directly, especially District 3’s Councilmember Danny Begley. Begley narrowly defeated progressive candidate Cammy Watkins in May. The Police Officer’s Association endorsed Begley and put out attack-ads against Watkins that drew ire from some and were even disavowed by Begley himself.
Taylor Thornberg told the other six council members to “hop on your phones and answer some emails” as he spoke to Council President Pete Festersen directly. Thornberg said Festersen didn’t listen to his request to defund the police in last year’s budget hearing. He called Festersen a “sly, snake-oil selling sneak of a fox.”
“Defy my expectations,” Thornberg said. “There may be a man worth more than the fox fur underneath.”
Other opponents, including member of transit advocacy group Mode Shift Omaha Sarah Johnson, asked for the city to invest in public transportation and promote biking. Johnson said the Capital Improvement Plan included $129 million for parking, but no funding for protected bike lanes.
“You want to deal with parking issues? Don’t make everyone drive places,” Johnson said.
Proponents for the budget included representatives from nonprofits receiving city funding like Siena Francis House and the Set Me Free Project, a human-trafficking prevention effort. Doug Kagan from Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom also supported the budget, and said it was “taxpayer friendly.”
One proponent, Pierce Carpenter, pushed back against criticisms of the police department. Carpenter said “riots that occurred in other cities” didn’t happen thanks to Mayor Stothert and OPD.
“I support the police. Don’t cut their spending,” Carpenter said.
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