Chris Jerram's cellphone started buzzing right after Tuesday's City Council meeting.
He forgot to turn his phone to silent mode, so it kept right on buzzing past midnight. It buzzed as he went for his pre-dawn run, and it buzzed as he showered, and it buzzed as he tried to take a catnap before he put on his city councilman's uniform.
Text after text buzzed in from incredulous friends and confused constituents, trying to understand why four members of the Omaha City Council — you know, the people who represent the residents of Omaha — had passed a resolution seeming to support the idea that nonresidents should be allowed to vote in city elections.
Let me repeat that, this time slower: Four of Omaha's elected representatives want to consider giving non-Omahans the right to vote in Omaha elections.
That confused and infuriated the people blowing up Jerram's phone. And just as the city councilman drifted off to sleep at 6:30 a.m., a quick nap before he had to face the day and the onslaught of texts to come, his wife walked into the bedroom and shook him awake. She had watched the Tuesday council meeting on public access TV. And like so many of us, his wife, Jennifer, was confused.
“My wife wakes me up to say, 'Hey, you guys didn't really do that, right? I'm imagining things, right?' ” Jerram, who voted against the resolution, told me on Wednesday.
“And I have to say, 'No, your eyes saw what they saw.'"
Here is what must be seen to be believed: By a vote of 4-3, the Omaha City Council asked its lobbyist to fight for a bill in the Nebraska Legislature that would allow people living in a three-mile area surrounding Omaha to vote in city elections.
It did this, even though these people — residents of what are known as sanitary and improvement districts — do not pay property taxes for Omaha's firefighters or police officers. Even though they do not pay for the upkeep of the city's parks or the city's bus system. And even though, starting this year, SID residents no longer pay wheel taxes for the construction and upkeep of city streets that quite often run directly up to their neighborhoods.
Which is all fine and good. Except then why should they get to vote for the next Omaha mayor or the next city bond issue? And why is the Omaha City Council advocating that they should?
“It's ludicrous,” Jerram said Wednesday. “All I can really say is that the sound principles of law and common sense don't always apply in politics. It's a head scratcher of epic proportions.”
Let's set aside, for a moment, the idea that the resolution, if somehow passed by the Nebraska Legislature into law, may violate two different sections of the U.S. Constitution, according to the city's own Law Department.
Let's consider instead the difference — not in dollars, but in details — between my Omaha tax bill and one for an identically valued home in Shadowbrook, a subdivision near 144th and State Streets northwest of Omaha.
The Shadowbrook homeowner actually pays more in property taxes than I do: $4,296 a year, compared with my $3,625.
Most of the money in both our tax bills goes to the Learning Community and local schools, and the biggest difference in our tax bills is that we live in different school districts. We both pay for the area's community college system, county government and other shared services.
But the remaining part of our tax bills goes to very, very different places.
The Shadowbrook resident pays $1,136 to his SID for what's mostly a debt payment. Why? Because Shadowbrook has been recently carved from farmland. The homeowner has moved to Shadowbrook, and pays these taxes, because he has made a choice that he would rather live in a newly created neighborhood with new streets, new sewers and the related debt. He's paying to create his own neighborhood.
I, on the other hand, pay $937 in property taxes to the City of Omaha and related agencies. I pay for the aforementioned police and the aforementioned firefighters and the aforementioned bus system. I help pay the city to plow the snow in front of my house and pick up my garbage and repave Cuming Street. And when I do that, I also help pay for police who walk the beat in north Omaha, and firefighters who fight fires in South Omaha and buses that run way out into west Omaha. I'm paying for these things even though I live in midtown.
Why? Because that's how a city works.
I called Councilman Franklin Thompson, the resolution's author, to try to understand how an Omaha city councilman could advocate for voting rights for people living outside of Omaha — people who pay for none of these things.
Thompson steered the conversation toward the idea that residents of SIDs, many of whom live right next to his district, feel that they are unfairly controlled by the city. The city does have a say in how their neighborhoods are planned and developed, in part because the City of Omaha will most likely someday annex these same neighborhoods.
Maybe the city has too much control, Thompson argued to me. Maybe the County Board doesn't have enough control. And maybe his resolution is just a fun way of pointing out that residents of SIDs “live in a kind of no-man's zone.”
“Why is it wrong to ask this question?” he asked.
But they do have a say on the City Planning Board, I countered. And they do get the benefits of Omaha: the roads and the jobs, the steakhouses and the skating rinks. They didn't choose to live in a no-man's zone. They chose to live right next to the biggest city in Nebraska.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
“Listen, I'm not necessarily saying that the rights should be given to them to vote,” Thompson said. “But, if not, then maybe we should rethink the amount of control over them.”
Now, Councilman Thompson is an esoteric guy. He once penned a guest editorial in The World-Herald on poverty and politics in Omaha's inner city by giving himself a new name, “Rapzinski Xeralien,” and proclaiming himself a resident of the planet “Resilient-C of the Forgiveness Quadrant” sent to Earth to study urban life in Omaha.
But, even given that, it's quite a stretch for Rapzinski — er, Thompson — to argue that a directive to Omaha's legislative lobbyist is, in fact, a philosophical and educational exercise in the relative balance of power between the city and its nearby nonresidents.
It's a stretch because his resolution, which fellow Republicans Aimee Melton and Rich Pahls and Democrat Garry Gernandt voted for, did in fact pass. And because Jack Cheloha, the city's lobbyist, told me on Wednesday that he's fully prepared to go to Lincoln and try to find a state senator to sponsor a bill to give Omaha voting rights to non-Omahans.
“When they saddle me up like a camel and ride me to Lincoln, I'm going to treat every resolution with this sort of wording the same unless someone tells me different,” Cheloha said Wednesday. “And no one has.”
And because, for now, the actual residents of Omaha who think this a spectacularly bad idea have to rely on a veto from Mayor Jean Stothert, whom we elected. Stothert's office told The World-Herald on Wednesday that she was reviewing the resolution.
And because if, by some admittedly far-fetched series of events, this resolution does indeed become state law, we should probably stop and consider the following fact.
Non-Omahans who don't pay Omaha property taxes would, through their elected officials, have a say in how much actual Omahans pay in Omaha property taxes.
“How ironic would that be?” Cheloha asked when I pointed that out to him.
Ironic. That's one word for it.