Mayor Stothert's Planning Department goals await new director -
Published Tuesday, July 30, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 10:02 am
Mayor Stothert's Planning Department goals await new director

Omaha's Planning Department has been redeveloped somewhat since Mayor Jean Stothert took office last month.

The new mayor targeted the department during her campaign, arguing that it needed to be reorganized and streamlined to better serve as a catalyst for economic development.

Its proposed budget for next year, though, suggests that major changes aren't immediately in store until Stothert finds a permanent planning director.

Stothert said she's still looking to find the person she will task with reshaping the department, now that the heavy lifting to complete her 2014 budget proposal is complete.

“To make the changes that I want to make,” Stothert told The World-Herald, “we need to really have that new planning director in there.”

Some business interests continue to lobby for change. Last week, a landlord association said it would file a new federal lawsuit to challenge the city's code inspection process.

In the meantime, Stothert reached out to business leaders and the development industry. The Mayor's Office said it sent letters to about 90 business officials, developers, attorneys, engineers and architects, inviting them to an August meeting at City Hall to solicit suggestions for the Planning Department's leadership and future.

“It's a task force,” Stothert said. “And we really want to get their input on it.”

The most obvious Planning Department changes since Stothert's election affect its top staff.

Its previous director, Rick Cunningham, resigned shortly after Stothert defeated former Mayor Jim Suttle. An assistant director, Chad Weaver, has been transferred to long-term planning duties.

James Thele, another assistant director, is leading the department on an interim basis.

Stothert has interviewed candidates for the permanent position but also plans a national search. She said she hopes to have a hire “as soon as possible” but would be pleased if she could complete the process by the end of August.

Next year's budget includes $140,000 for the director's salary, a drop from the $185,712 budgeted for this year. Stothert said its possible that salary could crimp the candidate pool.

“But we're going to work with what we've got,” she said, “and hopefully we will get some really good, quality candidates.”

For now, the department's proposed 2014 budget doesn't suggest major changes.

The department's stated goals for the year include many objectives set out under Suttle: Conduct a streetcar study, improve online permitting and improve distressed neighborhoods.

The roughly $8.3 million total budget is about 2 percent more than this year.

“Given the financial circumstances and everything, that could be expected,” Thele said.

Budget documents say the department plans to demolish about 50 run-down properties — up from the 25 planned for this year. About 650 properties are on the city's demolition list.

“The thing we're, of course, pleased about is we're able to maintain funding for demolition, in spite of the lean times,” Thele said.

The budget also says the department plans to implement four “streetscape” design and construction projects — potentially including ongoing projects in Benson and Dundee and new work in midtown's Blackstone area.

The department's overall headcount is down eight positions for next year, most of them from its urban planning and building and development divisions, as the city cuts vacant positions and money for some grant-funded personnel expires.

Budget documents show that the department will fund nine housing inspectors next year. Twelve housing inspector positions were authorized in the current budget, but Stothert and planning officials said only nine slots were actually filled.

As the budget works toward approval, the threatened lawsuit serves as a reminder that challenges to the department won't fade easily.

John Chatelain, president of the Metropolitan Omaha Property Owners Association, informed Stothert's office that his group plans a federal lawsuit against the city. A federal lawsuit from 2002, Chatelain said, won property owners the right to appeal code inspectors' citations.

Landlords will ask a judge to allow older properties to be protected from evolving building codes, he wrote in a recent message to the association. The group has sought to negotiate with the city to dial back inspectors' authority and bolster appeal procedures, Chatelain said.

“The city's response to our conscientious plea for relief is to suggest yet another mindless task force,” he wrote.

Now that Stothert has proposed her budget, she is setting out the Planning Department as one of her next priorities. Stothert said she was open to re-evaluating ordinances.

“We're aware of some issues, and we are looking into them,” Stothert said. “But sometimes these things take time, and we could certainly have proceeded a little bit easier if we weren't being sued about it.”

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