Library, missing days, COVID: Our Flatwater Free Conversation with Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert

Recently, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert sat down with FFP contributor Mike’l Severe for the latest installment of the Flatwater Free Conversation. Their interview was wide-ranging, touching on what Stothert says are the successes of her three terms as mayor, including lower crime and the new Gene Leahy Mall. They also spoke about a spate of controversial moves, including the removal and relocation of the downtown library, the on-again, off-again, on-again bike lane and the amount of time Stothert spends outside Omaha.

A slightly condensed and edited version of their conservation is transcribed below. You can watch the full, unedited video above.

MIKE’L SEVERE: Welcome to Flatwater Free Press. It’s the forum and of course we are joined by the Mayor of Omaha, Jean Stothert, in her third term. Yes, Yes. Thanks for taking the time. Appreciate it.

JEAN STOTHERT: You bet. My pleasure.

MIKE’L SEVERE: It was certainly, uh, a weird few years for us with the pandemic and how it has been handled. When you look back at it…how do you think the city did overall? How did we come out of the toughest parts of the pandemic?

JEAN STOTHERT: You know, the city of Omaha did actually great during the pandemic. In fact, I will tell you, last year when we met with the bond raters, which we do every fall, it’s coming up again this fall, they, they kind of just went off their normal script to, you know, ask about the financing and, and the union contracts and things, and they just said, ‘How did you do this?’

‘How did you, the city of Omaha, come through this pandemic financially so well when we are exposed to many, many other cities doing their bond rating and they’re still struggling?’ 

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So I think we did very, very well. We were very, very cautious. As soon as we knew the pandemic hit and it was gonna be a pandemic, which was in March (2020)…I made some choices that were very, very difficult and not very popular either, because I had to immediately reduce spending.

I knew I had to do that because we didn’t know. The worst part of it was the uncertainty of it. And we originally estimate, initially estimated that we were gonna have a 75 million shortfall…That is huge because we knew we were gonna lose the College World Series and the swim trials and, and Berkshire Hathaway and the trickle down with that when our hotels weren’t full and we don’t get the hotel, motel tax and the rental cars tax, everything. So I shut down, you know, the libraries. I shut down the community centers. We shut down all the swimming pools. We shut down all the summer camps. We had over 700 seasonal employees that we normally hire for the summer. We didn’t even hire them. My goal was that no full-time city employee would be laid off or lose their job, and we achieved that.

But I really was worried about the employees. I was really worried about all the citizens, but I think we came through it very, very well. You know, we had a lot of issues with, especially fire and police being off because of Covid, but we handled it very well. Uh, we allowed, uh, employees to work from home if they could.

You know, obviously fire and police can’t work from home. Public works can’t work from home. But at the end when we evaluate the number of people that got, that were ill. How we kept all of our city services going. We came out at the end of the year with a surplus in our budget, and so I think we came through it very, very, very well.

And then we, not only with that, we had the CARES Act money that we really fought for. The state of Nebraska and Douglas County did, (and it) took us about eight months to get that settled, but we ended up (receiving) 30 million from the state and 30 million from Douglas County.

So that really helped. And then now we have the (federal) ARPA funding. And we are working on getting that out in the community as fast as we can. So we are helping with everything from mental health to rental assistance to utility assistance. So we still have money that is going out in the community, helping those that were affected and survived…

There are still people that are struggling, there’s no doubt. But we are trying to get the, and we receive some additional money also, federal dollars that help with housing.

And so a lot has gone right out back into the community as soon as we possibly can. So I think compared to other cities, the city of Omaha did very, very well.

MIKE’L SEVERE: The riverfront project was an enormous project. How’s it come out? How do you think it’s doing right now?

JEAN STOTHERT: You know, I, I could not be more excited about the riverfront revitalization that’s going on and I like to talk about it because sometimes people forget this is 90 acres plus of city owned property. It’s an aggressive project. It is. It is unbelievable… $400 million private dollars and we, the city, put in $50 million.

I mean, if anybody does investments, that’s a good (rate of) return right there. These are city parks. We just opened July 1st, the Gene Leahy Mall, which is just fantastic. You know, I still get people that will complain and send me emails and say, I like the old one. I hate it. I’m never gonna go down there. But that’s not what the attendance is showing.

In fact, MECA keeps track of it and it shows that in the first 60 days, there were over 200,000 visitors to the Gene Leahy Mall. If you go down there, it’s crowded every day, and I love it because everywhere you look, the detail is just unbelievable. The attention to detail is unbelievable and it’s a beautiful space, a beautiful public space. 

Now Heartland of America Park will actually connect all that to the river. And then you go north to Lewis and Clark Landing. That will be done in August of 2023. And then to add to that, the Luminarium. Which is a STEM science museum that is down on the landing. You know, when I ran for mayor back in 2013, I said one of my goals is to have something down on Lewis and Clark Landing besides restaurants that had failed…something that will bring people down there every day of the year. And now we’ve got it with the Luminarium, and that is a hundred percent privately funded. So this is something…on our riverfront that is a hundred percent privately funded that is gonna bring people down there every day of the year.

It’s fantastic. And so when you look at what is happening with this development, and you look at what it is spurring downtown. New development, redevelopment, the street car coming in downtown, Mutual of Omaha building a new corporate headquarters that could be up to 50 stories high, a new skyscraper. This is 4,000 Mutual employees that are gonna be in downtown Omaha.

This is really big for us. It’s really big for downtown and it’s really big for the whole city. Cause every city that grows. It’s prosperous and people wanna come to, they have a vibrant downtown, and that’s just what we’re building.

MIKE’L SEVERE: Was there no way to keep the library.

JEAN STOTHERT:  Oh, well, you know what? Of course there was a way to keep the library.

But we knew we owned the library, we owned the property. Even the library director and the staff there did not like that building. It’s an old building. It’s not efficient. It’s not good for safety. And we knew that, that once that Gene Leahy Mall was done, that would be prime real estate.

Somebody would want to develop something great there and we can move a downtown library. And then when we started discussions with Heritage (Services) and with the private sector on what they wanted to do with a new central library, which was gonna be at 72nd and Dodge, right at the heart of our city.

And right now that project is a hundred million dollars. All privately funded. It will still be an Omaha public library. It will have Omaha public employees there. It will be right in the heart of the city. They chose that spot because (it’s) easy access for everybody because it’s right where all the bus lines are…

And so, you know, we are, we are freeing up that spot for a great development, you know, over a $600 million development right there. I think every time you look at a picture of Omaha in the future, you’re gonna see the Gene Leahy Mall, and you’re gonna see Mutual of Omaha right there. 

The library that we have downtown, that we are building at 1401 Jones to replace it. It’s a neighborhood library, which is what you usually have in a downtown area. It’s in a great spot, but I am not opposed to if that site doesn’t seem convenient and people don’t like that site or, or what the library staff designed for that site, I’m still open to looking for a new site downtown and building something new. 

But we wanted to get the Gene Leahy Mall. You know, we wanted to get it empty so that we could start demoing it. And so Mutual Omaha can stay on their schedule and that’s why we have remodeled 1401 Jones and the library staff has had all the input on what that was gonna look like, and I think people are really gonna enjoy it.

So it’s a win-win for everybody. We get 4,000-employee Mutual of Omaha, world headquarters, downtown Omaha. A new skyscraper that will add to the skyline. We will have a new neighborhood library downtown, and we will have an over $100 million new state-of-the-art library on 72nd and Dodge, totally privately funded. 

I mean, if anybody loves libraries, they’re gonna be thrilled with this.

MIKE’L SEVERE: You’ve been criticized for being out of town. Is there an amount of time, in your opinion, if a mayor’s gone that power should be transferred? Or do you believe it’s an unlimited amount of time to be out…

JEAN STOTHERT: Oh, no. And you know when, and I will say this, That when I first did the charter convention back in the first one in 2013 when I was just mayor. That was on my list then is when the mayor is out of town, The way the city charter is, is that you lose your authority. So if I go to Costco down in Sarpy County, I’m not the mayor anymore. If I go to Council Bluffs..

 MIKE’L SEVERE: It’s not out of state? It’s literally out of the Omaha area?

JEAN STOTHERT: It, it’s, it’s, it’s, that’s what the charter says. And you know, even though our city clerk says, well, that’s not what we practice, we practice with the mayor goes outta state. That’s not what the charter says. All I was asking is five days or less. That’s what we were asking them to change in the charter, that if the mayor was out of town five days or less, that you don’t lose your authority. 

So when I go down to Lincoln, Or I go to Council Bluffs, I could still remain the mayor. And so they turned that down and that, that I don’t understand. The Mayor of Council Bluffs, the Mayor of Gretna, the mayor of Bennington, the mayor of Lincoln even called me about about it. None of them, Bellevue, none of them lose their authority. Only the mayor of Omaha. 

Now to criticize me for being out of town, I thought was very misleading. And I thought the TV station that did that was very unfair because they put up all these pieces of paper saying, here’s when the mayor’s out of town.

(Editor’s note: Stothert is referring to this KETV story, which used her calendar to show she had been absent for 84 days between late July 2021 to early August 2022.) 

People need to understand, I don’t get vacation time. I don’t get holiday time. I don’t get bereavement time or sick time. When the mayor needs to go out of town, whether it’s city business or it’s private and personal. You, you take the time and you do it. 

But the report, when people are saying, Oh, she’s been out of town for 80 days in the last 12 months, they counted weekends. They counted holidays. You know, usually if I go to St. Louis, and I don’t know where this big rumor started, they said, I go to St. Louis cuz my husband lives there. My husband hasn’t lived in St. Louis since 1978. So, no, I don’t go to St. Louis to see my husband. I go to St. Louis to see my mom and I have a 95-year-old mom.

And usually when I go out of town, I go on a long weekend, I will go maybe on a Thursday, Friday, the weekend, and then Monday and come back. Well, when the, the TV station did this report, they counted that whole thing. They counted the weekend. too. Um, for instance, I went home to St. Louis last Christmas to be with my mom and my sister that lived there.

Well, they counted Christmas Day, They counted the holidays, you know, So I thought it was very, very misleading. Now, I will say this, the first eight years that I was mayor, I hardly ever went out of town. In fact, maybe vacation, maybe once or twice a year. Most of it was city business. They count that too. If I’m out of town on city business and say, Well, she’s on vacation.

You know, I have been to Houston, I have been to Denver, I’ve been to Washington DC, I’ve been to Kansas City, speaking as the mayor of Omaha. So I was speaking at conferences with other mayors. They count that. It’s vacation time. And I’m doing city business. I went to New York City twice to talk to a potential business to come to Omaha with the (Omaha) Chamber.

I went to Silicon Valley in California with the chamber. They count that as she’s on vacation…This is city business. Now, when I went to a sister city trip, uh, I just got back from Sicily, you know, that really does give me a little bit of concern. And I’ll tell you this, I look at it as almost a sexist comment because Mayor Suttle went on on sister city trips.

Mayor Fahey went on sister city trips, Mayor Dobb went on sister city trips. They were business. When I go on a sister city trip, I’m on vacation and I don’t think that’s quite fair. 

MIKE’L SEVERE: If you do go out of (the) country like that, whether it’s a city trip or just a vacation, do you believe then, that the power should be transferred?

JEAN STOTHERT: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. Absolutely. I do. I think if I’m, if, and it shouldn’t be about me, you know, but if the mayor is incapacitated, if the mayor is in surgery under anesthesia, if they’re in. You know, if they’re out of town more than five days, um, if they’re in another country, sure.

They could have somebody step in the city council, you know, (city council) president is what the charter says as acting. But I have asked, and I, and the city council president, Pete Esterson, was very outspoken about it, saying – so are some of the other council members – that we need boots on the ground. And I said, ‘name me one thing, one thing in 10 years that was critical, that I should have been here in a critical decision had to be made, and I, and I couldn’t do it because I was out of town?’ 

Not one, and I’m in my 10th year. There isn’t any. 

I will tell you, I remember like it was yesterday, the day (Omaha police officer) Kerrie Orozco was killed. Yeah. I was on an airplane going down to Florida with my husband at that time for my son’s wedding. It was on a Wednesday. I remember it like it was yesterday. She was killed on a Wednesday…I got off the airplane, turned my phone on, and it would just blew up and (Police Chief) Todd Schmaderer told me Kerrie Orozco was shot and killed. I went to the rehearsal dinner on Thursday, the wedding on Friday. I was back here Saturday.

And the other thing is, is the city council uses technology. They have people that come in and testify on Zoom. Now, you know, they use all the technology they can. I can answer a question and make a decision with my cell phone or on my computer or on my laptop. If I’m in St. Louis, or Council Bluffs, our Lincoln, or if I’m in Houston or Florida, I mean, I can make a decision.

And talk to my staff, whether I’m sitting here at this desk or sitting in St. Louis with a cell phone and a laptop. So we need to modernize how the mayor communicates and what the mayor does. So I will say, I think that counting vacation times, holiday times, weekend, and you know, and, and I have to bring up too, my husband died in 2021 in March. 

And, uh, that was very difficult. And yeah, I did take a, I took probably a week and a half off and then I was back to work, but I had to spend some time with my kids. I had to go to his funeral. Um, they counted a vacation in May of 2021 that I was on vacation. That’s some that they counted.

(Editor’s note: The original KETV story, linked above, counted Stothert’s days out of town starting in late July 2021.)

My kids and I took his ashes out to California and spread his ashes. And they, they looked at that as vacation time. So I don’t think that that was fair. And I will say I do my job and anybody that knows me knows I am here most of the time. I fractured a vertebrae several years ago too. I was back to work in a week and a half.

I was back to work in a week and a half after my husband died, so I don’t think I abuse going outta town too much.

MIKE’L SEVERE: Moving on from that, I know a thing that’s very important to you is transportation. Public transportation. You have the ORBT buses. Maybe we’ll have street cars eventually.

 Bike lanes though are something that people…get pretty upset about. We don’t have a good grade in terms of being a bike friendly city. What can we do?

JEAN STOTHERT: You know what? I think that, number one, we want to be a bike friendly city. Um, we have, we are working on a bike ped (pedestrian) master plan in our planning department. We have a (Metro Smart Cities) group and their main focus – and that’s been in effect for…probably about four years – was transportation, Using technology and transportation. And what we did through the smart city group is agree to do a pilot on Harney Street.

That really came after the Urban Core Committee also looked at public transportation in our urban core. And we have to say urban core because we include midtown. We can’t just say downtown, but, you know, a couple things I have to say about that. 

Number one, the bus system ORBT, you know, that’s real important that we worked on with Metro Transit.

We don’t run the bus system in Omaha, but Metro Transit does. People, I’ve heard people say over and over, well, nobody. Nobody’s on the ORBT and that’s just not true. 

MIKE’L SEVERE: We have numbers showing? 

JEAN STOTHERT: We do have numbers…with Metro Transit and I was looking,  I did have the numbers sitting in front of me. I got ’em just the other day. And there is, in 2021, for example, there were 440,000 people that rode the ORBT. 

From January of this year through September, there’s been 310,688 people that rode the ORBT. Now did the numbers go down during COVID? Yeah, they did. And yeah, I did see some of the ORBT (buses) moving around that didn’t have a lot of people riding it.

Remember it just really started when COVID hit, but we had a drastic reduction in flights out of Eppley. Should we close down the airport? You know, it’s all coming back. And that (rapid bus) ridership…Metro transit is very happy. 

But you know, the other thing is bikes.

Okay. We wanna look at all modes of transportation.

MIKE’L SEVERE: What do folks think about the Harney experiment? Cause I mean, it’s up there right now. The lanes are there.

JEAN STOTHERT: Well, it’s not, I wouldn’t call it an experiment. Okay. I would call it a pilot. Okay. We agreed…for Metro Smart Cities to do an 18-month pilot.

We decided on the south side of Harney and we picked Harney because there were multiple uses along the way. There was residential, single family, multifamily. There were businesses, there was construction, there was all this stuff going on that we wanted to see how a protected bike lane works. Now, there’s a difference between a dedicated and protected (bike lanes).

We have dedicated bike lanes already. Protected have some sort of barrier or wall on it, so we wanted to get some information on that. 

We did 18 months. We got 18 months of information on the south side of Harney. We just found out that that is where the rails are gonna go for the street car. That bike lane on the south side of Harney will not be there in the future.

We know that because that’s where the rails are gonna be, and there were different cities that have tried to run rails along with bike lanes, it doesn’t work. 

Seattle is a great example. They had bike lanes along with their rails. There were not only injuries, but there were deaths and there were multiple lawsuits against the city, so it’s not gonna be there.

(Editor’s Note: Omaha Chamber of Commerce officials pushed back against that characterization of the situation in Seattle in this story from the Omaha World-Herald.)  

And so I felt like we had enough information there. It wasn’t gonna be there in the future. And why don’t we move ahead with some conceptual design about, in a study, about what it’s really gonna look like and what are the best streets downtown to do it. That makes sense to me. We got all the information we need on Harney Street.

There was a lot in the bike community that just were furious about it…

We got that pilot done. We ended the pilot at the end of September. But I did have a donor, everybody knows who it is. Sherwood Foundation, (I) talked to Susie Buffet..she said she was interested in keeping it up just for commuters in transportation until the streetcar went in.

I said, I gotta get you some real numbers. We started talking about that immediately. I said the pilot was gonna end and I said, It is not $40,000 because if it’s gonna stay there, we have to restripe it. We have to buy all new bollards because they’re all beat up. We gotta bolt ’em to the pavement. We’re not gluing them to the pavement anymore.

We have to pay for snow and ice removal. Last year they only had two snow and ice removals…We had a real light winter last year. It cost over $30,000 for just two. Snow and ice removal is huge. They also found during the pilot then, on the south side of Herney, is not a good place for it.

They had a lot of trouble with ice on that bike way. It wasn’t used a lot in the winter, and they said if they were gonna leave it on Harney and the street car wasn’t going in, they’d move it to the north side of Harney. So Susie Buffet, I talked to her personally.  I told her I have to get her real accurate numbers, which I got from the LLC that was formed that helped us run this pilot.

And those numbers, if you include this study, are over $600,000…And she was willing to pay for not only all of that, but the study on top of it. So she is putting in over $600,000.

So it wasn’t just $40,000 to keep it up. It’s over $600,000. But the thing of it is for a permanent dedicated (bike lane) downtown. I don’t wanna just be the first one to throw something up and do a bunch of bollards. I want something that’s attractive. You know, I looked at what we see in other cities, big concrete curbs.

Sometimes they’ll put concrete planters along the way. It’s attractive, it’s protected, and it’s easy for us to maintain and plow it and remove the ice.

MIKE’L SEVERE: In your final…in this term… Do you plan on any more annexation? Are you looking at some spots?

JEAN STOTHERT: You bet. I mean, I really believe,

MIKE’L SEVERE: Is it only SID (special improvement district) stuff or… is in

JEAN STOTHERT: Unincorporated areas. And, uh, you know, when I first became mayor, I wanted to, I said I believe in real aggressive annexation. That’s what’s that, you know, if you wanna lower taxes and keep ’em low, you broaden your tax base.

You know, and that’s what you do. And we had all of these, if you looked at a map of Omaha, we had all of these SIDs, they look like islands all over the city. If you drove from east to west, it was like you were in Omaha, you’re not in Omaha, you’re in Omaha. You’re not in Omaha. I said, We gotta smooth that out, Smooth out our boundary, and then really look out West in those areas that are unincorporated and ready to to annex.

It’s very strategic, it’s very planned. We don’t just say, Hey, we’re going to gobble you up now. but we have a team that works on it for months and months and months. And you know, when you annex, you assume the debt. You assume the asset. We, it has to be net positive for the city and it has to be that way over a 10- year period.

So we look at all the cost of annexing from snowplowing to, we know the acres of parks in that area. We know the lane miles of road. We know the condition of the road. We know their debt, we know their assets, and if it’s gonna be positive for the city, that’s when they’re right for annexation. 

Well, there’s probably about 130, 140 SIDS out there. Mm-hmm. . And then we look in unincorporated areas too. But it has to be contiguous with the city, right? You can’t just pick somebody out in Waterloo. And so we look at it very carefully. We’ve had very big annexations some years that we bring in tens of thousands of people.

We’ve had very small ones and sometimes they’re just not, like this past summer they’ve been very small, but the other areas just weren’t quite ready. So next year we’re gonna do the same thing and look at everything over again. But the positive thing is we are bringing in more revenue for the city. You know, we’re bringing in more sales tax, like when we annexed the Village Point area.

You know, the car dealerships and the retail out there. We’re getting the sales tax benefit from it now. And so property tax, sales tax, all of that is very beneficial to the city. And most of those areas, most of them, not all the time, but most of the SIDs, their taxes go down when we annex.

And that’s a positive too.

MIKE’L SEVERE: Last thing, and I appreciate all the time I’m taking up. So in politics for years, it’s always, ‘OK, are you better off after four years? Are you better off after eight years?’ Point out a couple things that you’d say that the city is better off in. What are you most proud of, what you’ve accomplished?

JEAN STOTHERT: Well, you know, I think the city is better and I wouldn’t have run for a third term if I didn’t think we are in better shape than it was when I started. If I thought the city needed somebody else as a leader, I would be more than happy to say, ‘I’ve done all I can, but, but we need somebody that’s gonna come in here and do a better job than me.’

I’m open to that, but I truly feel like we have done a very good job. I will say two things that just come to my mind right away. Number one, my biggest responsibility is public safety. That’s keeping the citizens of Omaha safe, whether that (is) violent crime to keeping the streets plowed. 

Is the trash picked up? Are the parks in good condition? Are the street lights working? 

All that’s public safety and we are a safer city than we were in 2013. There is no doubt. 

2015, for example, we had 50 homicides. We got down into the low twenties. Now we had a little spike, but so did the rest of the country, and we feel like we’re back (down).

We’re only in our twenties. As far as homicides, well that’s 20 too much. But when you look at Kansas City, our neighbor, you know, Kansas City is trying to follow us now. Chief Schmaderer  just went down there to talk to the mayor about our Omaha 360. (Editor’s Note: Omaha 360 is a collaborative program meant to reduce violence in Omaha.)

 They wanna start something like that after what we did in Omaha, and we’ve had so much success…

Violent crime is down in Omaha. That is a very, that’s a huge positive. People feel safer. The police department has done a great job. I added over a hundred new police officers. We opened up a new fifth precinct. All of those things are things that Chief Schmaderer and I felt like we needed to do to make Omaha safer, and we are a safer city.

The other thing is…our city budget. When I became mayor in 2013, we were predicted by the end of the year to be 13 million short by the end of the year. And I got smacked with, I had to get the budget to the city council in a couple months because I took office in May. I had to get it to the council in August.

And we worked really hard at what we needed to do to reel in spending and do what we had to do so that we did not have to raise property taxes to fill in. For the next year, what that big deficit was gonna be. And by the end of the year, we had over a 10 million surplus in 2013. I have had a surplus every year since I’ve been mayor.

…It’s balanced and we look at every department every month, and if one department gets off balance, we talk to ’em and we’ll say, ‘What’s the problem here? Let’s work on it.’ So that we at least are balanced at the end of the year. But we’ve always had a surplus. So I would say financially this city is in really good shape.

I have lowered the property tax levy three times, 2% each time. We had a voter approved three and a half penny property tax increase that the voters approved when we passed the road bond issue in May of 2021. They, there was two ballot questions. One was a $200 million bond issue for the roads. The second was a three and a half cent property tax increase to pay for those bonds.

We started immediately in 2021, doing twice as much road work and people can see it all over the place, and I (haven’t) yet had to raise that 3.5 pennies that the voters approved to pay for the bonds. We, by very, very careful budgeting by refinancing current bonds, by paying off bonds that we already have, we are able to pay that bond debt on the bond issue for the roads without raising the property tax, like the voters approved. 

I think we’ve done a very good job at managing the taxpayer dollars.

MIKE’L SEVERE: Mayor, we appreciate your time.

JEAN STOTHERT: You bet. Thanks for having me. Appreciate it.

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