Hour-for-hour, retired Omaha Planning Director Steve Jensen's consulting contract would cost taxpayers roughly twice as much as the original plan that would have brought him back full time.
His proposed contract, which is up for a public hearing Oct. 22 before the City Council, would pay him $100 an hour to “assist and advise the planning director.” With the contract's maximum value of $100,000, that means he could work no more than 1,000 hours a year.
In early September, the city's human resources director sent an email saying Jensen was willing to work full time — 2,080 hours — for $100,000.
That's a difference of more than $50 an hour.
Mayor Jean Stothert says the contractual arrangement is the best option, offers price protection and runs only through December 2014.
Stothert said a contract will allow more flexibility in how Jensen will fill his role. While Jensen's pay caps out at $100,000, his contract might end up costing only $60,000, Stothert said. “It was the cleanest and easiest and didn't require changes in code,” she said.
City code prohibits retirees from coming back to work for the city, except on a part-time basis.
Stothert's staff looked into changing a city ordinance to be able to hire Jensen full time. Human Resources Director Mikki Frost emailed council members in August with an idea for changing that ordinance to allow retirees to return as full-time department heads.
Under a potential ordinance that was floated, Jensen would have paid into the pension system without accumulating additional pension credits.
The council balked at changing the rules for one job candidate.
The discussions came when the council was wrestling with how to handle the case of Jamie Gutierrez Mora, who was appointed to the MECA board. She lives in Sarpy County, making her ineligible for the position, but some council members suggested changing the eligibility requirements to enable her to continue serving.
Stothert said at that time she did not believe in changing the board rules for one person.
Emails among council members show that the MECA case was a matter of at least some discussion during the Jensen talks.
After enough council members indicated that they wouldn't change the rules for Jensen, a contract plan came together.
The city's leadership plan calls for Jensen to team up with longtime planner James Thele, who became Stothert's planning director.
That switch in Jensen's potential duties means he would not become the Planning Department's lead administrator. But Stothert said Jensen would provide leadership and work on some specific projects — and a contract more appropriately reflects his scope of work.
Stothert said she looked at bringing back Jensen part time, but ultimately decided that a part-time role would be too limiting.
“We don't know how much Steve Jensen will be working,” she said. “He might work 10 hours one week, 60 the next. We may pay him $50,000, $40,000, $75,000. We don't know yet. That's the reason I chose (a contract).”
Still, part-time city employees don't have limits on how much work they do each week. City code prevents them from working more than 1,664 hours a year. If an employee stays on for a full year, that works out to an average of 32 hours a week.
The city's finance director, Al Herink, is a retired employee who works part time. In one two-week pay period this year, he worked 87 hours. In others he has worked as few as 42.
Stothert said that's not an ideal situation. Herink often works the hours of a full-time finance director on a part-time salary, she said.
Stothert said she's actively interviewing candidates to become a full-time finance director.
Jensen, who does consulting work for a number of clients, said stepping in as director “was not my preference. I'm glad to see things worked out the way they did.”
He said working in a part-time role didn't make sense, either.
Jensen said he will have to re-evaluate many of his consulting contracts to make sure there are no conflicts of interest now that he will again be working with the city.
Working on contract makes it clear he's not an official city employee and will leave decision-making with city staff, he said. “I think (the contract) is more appropriate. I think it will work more cleanly,” he said.
Councilman Franklin Thompson, however, said he would like to explore other avenues before signing off on the deal.
Thompson was the only council member who supported changing the ordinance so that the city could hire Jensen back full time.
He said he supports the idea of bringing Jensen back because the Planning Department can use any help it can get. But he said he wants to look at other options.
“Are we rolling this out the right way? I'm not sure,” he said. “I think it's better (to hire him back part time). It's a better allocation of our funds.”
Stothert said she will be glad to bring back such a respected, experienced official as Jensen. And Planning Department employees and Omaha's development industry will be, too.
“I think he's absolutely worth it,” Stothert said, “and I'm confident this is the right route to go.”
World-Herald staff writers Jeffrey Robb and Cody Winchester contributed to this report.