By Chris Bowling
The red light glared as the clock ran out, but Douglas County Commissioner Mike Boyle continued lobbing questions and criticisms.
For the second week in a row, rental assistance dominated much of the county board’s meeting with commissioners in agreement that the county needs to get money to people financially hurting from the pandemic. But tensions flared as commissioners debated nonprofits’ role in the process, how much the county should rely on a contracted company to administer the funds and whether the allocated money is enough.
“I’m not in favor of what you’re doing,” Boyle said to the plan’s presenters. “You’ve created an incredible bureaucracy and a company in Delaware is going to get rich as a result.”
The county’s current plan, presented to the county board after it approved $10 million of its $166 million in CARES Act funds for rental assistance, is to create a website where individuals answer questions and receive funds based on the results. Deloitte, a professional service company incorporated in Delaware contracted by the state and city to administer CARES Act funds, would run that process.
Commissioner Boyle and Commissioner James Cavanaugh raised the most concern over the presented plan.
Cavanaugh said people need help and they need it fast. But the informality of the plan and the lack of answers after weeks of public comment and planning concerned him.
“Sooner is better,” he said. “We’re 90 days into having CARES Act money and none of it is going to people in need.”
The plan came together the week following the county’s decision to allocate funds toward rental assistance, said Patrick Bloomingdale, Douglas County chief administrative officer. He and Melissa Sewick, director of Douglas County General Assistance, worked on the plan.
Boyle said he didn’t want to rush this process if it meant a big payout to Deloitte instead of more money to keep Douglas County residents housed.
He proposed bringing nonprofits into the decision making process and enlisting their help in administering the funds. Boyle said as much as he’s pushed to expedite the process, this is an opportunity to keep the dollars in Nebraska and possibly employ a lot of people in the area skilled enough to spread awareness and help people fill out applications.
“Let’s put people to work in Omaha,” he said. “I don’t think that’s outrageous.”
Bloomingdale said the problem with that is it slows the process, adding extra time to elicit applications, go through an interview process, present findings to the board and train whoever’s hired. The benefit of Deloitte is that the company can deploy professionals trained in this sort of work right now, especially from its remote call centers.
“It’s a lot quicker,” Bloomingdale said.
Boyle repeatedly asked commissioners and presenters for a breakdown of how much it would cost to keep the process internal versus enlisting Deloitte’s help. No one could give him an answer.
Erin Feichtinger, who leads community outreach and advocacy for the nonprofit Together Omaha, said she’s in favor of the county’s presented plan.
This process could work a lot like getting benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, she said. Nonprofits work with their clients every day to connect them with services and this is no different. What matters is that enough money is earmarked and it gets to people quickly.
Because even as the county officials debate spending money on food and boosting community resources, this issue has to be premier.
“All of that will be unsustainable if we don’t keep them in housing,” she said. “Bottom line.”
Commissioner Marc Kraft calling in from home on Zoom suggested the issue is so important that they more than double the funds.
At a meeting last week, Omaha Together One Community suggested spending $35 million on the rental assistance program. Kraft suggested meeting that standard in the future.
But even as commissioners drew harsh lines and suggested several different directions for the rental assistance program, they came together quickly on utility assistance.
Though it wasn’t on the agenda, commissioners declared an emergency after officials with the Omaha Public Power District and the Metropolitan Utilities District said moratoriums on disconnected services would soon end.
OPPD will start mailing disconnection notices July 1 with shutoffs coming tentatively in the third week of July.
MUD would start disconnecting gas in August and water in September, although both those dates are tentative, said Richard Kubat, a government relations attorney representing MUD.
County commissioners voted unanimously to set aside $4 million in utility assistance funding. Kubat said while the plan isn’t finalized, the money could be handled by the Dollar Energy Fund, a nonprofit based in Pittsburgh that provides utility assistance to those facing economic hardship.