After 127 years in business — through five generations of the same family — John Roth and Son Inc. could leave Omaha over a bill for the largest public works project in the city's history.
Or so says Robert Buscher Jr., president of the South Omaha blood meal company that stands to be one of the largest contributors to the city's nearly $2 billion sewer system overhaul.
His firm, along with about a dozen other industrial water users, is pushing the City of Omaha to revise a plan that would require them to pay a combined 5 percent of the bill.
In a press conference Tuesday, members of the SaveOmahaJobs.org coalition said paying that big of a share would likely force some of them to lay off workers or leave the city altogether.
They warned that the city stands to lose thousands of jobs. Together, the 11 members of the coalition employ about 4,000 people.
“How can it be that a small company, with 20 employees, is forced to pay $1,300,000?” Buscher said.
Leaders of other big water users, including Skinner Bakery, Kellogg's Omaha and Greater Omaha Packing Co., said negotiations with the city, which began after the rates were approved in 2009, have stalled out.
Julia Plucker, an attorney who represents the coalition, said the businesses have reached a “crisis point,” and she warned that the businesses feel they have ample grounds to sue the city.
“We feel very confident that there is a lawsuit here based on the notion that this isn't a fair and equitable solution as required by the (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,”) she said.
The Mayor's Office declined to make Mayor Jim Suttle available for an interview.
But in response to the possibility of a lawsuit, the city says its current plan would stand up in court.
It has residential customers footing about 63 percent of the bill and commercial users paying 20 percent. The top 19 industrial users would pay 5 percent, and wholesale customers — other communities like Papillion and Bellevue — make up the remaining 12 percent.
The city approved a rate schedule in 2009 that calls for annual increases through 2014.
In response to the businesses' concerns, the city has considered a handful of alternate funding options that would spread the burden among more commercial users. But Marty Grate, the city's environmental services manager, said the problem is that the money's got to come from somewhere.
“The reality is any kind of scenario where we come up with a way to bring costs down for larger water users is that somebody else below them is going to have to pay more,” he said.
The coalition plans to meet with a mediator and Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce officials Saturday, a meeting Plucker said came out of her group “putting quite a bit of pressure” on the chamber.
After that meeting, she said the chamber plans to meet separately with city officials on the issue.
Chamber officials declined to comment on the planned mediation. It instead released a statement from Wendy Boyer, vice president for community affairs, who said her group is encouraging businesses and the city to continue to look for an “equitable solution.”
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