The city's five best-known mayoral candidates again used a public forum — this time for members of a southwest Omaha homeowners' association — to outline their campaigns' platforms.
As with similar events, those attending Monday night's gathering inside a Millard South High School lecture hall pressed candidates for specifics on their plans to combat street crime and ease city tax burdens as well as their desire to fully merge city and county government.
State Sen. Brad Ashford repeated his endorsement for such a merger, putting him somewhat at odds with candidates who offered more tempered plans to streamline local government.
“You have to be awfully careful when government starts tinkering around with things like a city-county merger,” said former City Councilman Dan Welch.
“Because all of a sudden you talk about more efficiencies, and you've got more government employees. You've got more dollars going out, and you don't have any more efficiency than you had before you started,” he said.
Businessman Dave Nabity said his administration would implement performance-based audits of city departments along with other efforts to find efficiencies in government. Such work, Nabity said, would help clarify whether a full-blown merger makes sense.
“But I really want to go after it carefully and make sure what research we're doing before we just jump into it,” Nabity said.
Calls to integrate Douglas County and the City of Omaha under one governance structure have long been voiced and have sparked varying degrees of controversy. Several mergers already have been enacted, including combined purchasing departments and 911 services.
Councilwoman Jean Stothert said she fully supported “anything that the city can do to make our government run more efficiently” and said such department mergers could continue to achieve a more immediate financial impact.
“If you do a full-blown, city-county merger, it would take not only state law change, but it would take a city charter change and a vote of the people,” Stothert said.
“We can accomplish a combination of those services right away through the interlocal agreements,” she said. One possibility, Stothert said, is consolidating Public Works departments for services such as snow removal.
Mayor Jim Suttle said a full city-county merger could jeopardize elected positions such as county sheriff, threaten independent cities such as Ralston or Valley, or lead to higher property taxes.
“I'm not really a proponent of this,” Suttle said of a full merger. “I think the city and county can handle things that are functional ... areas where we have some common functions.”
That left Ashford.
“I'm for it,” the state senator said. “I think it makes sense.”
Since citizens would have to vote on any full merger, Ashford said he would bring stakeholders together to develop a merger plan.
“We have to find efficiencies through collaboration and consolidation of services wherever we can,” he said.
Omaha's primary election is in April, followed by the general election in May. All Omaha city officials are elected on an officially nonpartisan basis.
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