Romance of Omaha, Chapter XXIX

Statistics, even when presented in their most attractive form, are dry reading and, to most persons, dull and uninteresting. Yet one of the accurate ways in which to picture a city's development and greatness is in figures.

The Omaha of years ago has been depicted in various ways during the telling of "The Story of Omaha," but little or nothing has been told of the development of the city as it may be read in the public expenditures, value of public property, number of persons engaged in public service, the total resources of the city and the money required to keep all municipal, county, state and federal departments and activities functioninng at their highest state of efficiency.

At the present time the total value of Omaha property, according to federal census, is approximately $50,000,000. Fully $10,000,000 more can be added to that sum to represent that value of state, county and federal property within the city, a grand total of $60,000,000.

Then and Now

An idea of how Omaha has developed in the last 70 years may be gained by comparing that immense sum with the total value of public property in 1858. An estimate made at that time was that the city, county, state and federal government together owned property valued at approximately $150,000. That was considered quite an item in those days.

The assessed valuation of all Omaha property in the year 1858 was approximately $1,500,000. The total indebtedness of the city was less than $7,500, not quite enough to run the city government and the city fathers were accused of extravagance because they did not keep within their budget.

Ten years later municipal indebtedness had risen to $1,500,000 and there were those in the growing city who expressed the belief that the incurring of any further debt would mean the ruination of everyone. At that time Omaha had 40 miles of pavement and 66 miles of sewers and was beginning to put on metropolitan airs.

By 1892 the city and the property owners had expended $7,000,000 on grading, paving and sewers and long dreamed of public improvements were being carried on at a rapid rate.

Remake Streets

During that stage of the city's development grading of streets was a big item. At Sixteenth and Jones streets there was a cut of 50 feet, at Seventeenth and Farnam streets the cut was 45 feet with a fill of 45 feet between Twentieth to Twenty-fourth streets. As the city began to grow the cutting down of hills and the filling of valleys went on apace until Omaha began to take on its present contours.

As late as 1864 the city council appropriated the sum of $100 "for clearing away brush south of Jones street." In 1866 citizens worked out their poll taxes by cutting brush on the city's streets "south of Jones."

The area of Omaha in those long ago days was comparatively small. The original townsite was about 320 acres. At the present time the total area of the city is more than 25,000 acres.

Income Grows

The little sum of $7,500, which proved inadequate in 1858 and which caused maledictions to be hurled upon the heads of the "extravagant" city council, has grown in 70 years to the tidy sum of about $8,000,000 from taxes alone. Of that amount the city and school district share about equally, with nearly $200,000 going to the public utility district in the form of hydrant rental. County and state taxes are approximately $1,600,000.

In addition to that, the three public utilities, water, gas and ice, take in about $3,500,000 a year. From bonds, licenses, fees and special assessments approximately $1,500,000 is realized yearly.

As stated before, the total value of public property in the city is approximately $60,000,000. It is divided as follows:

School properties $20,000,000
Public utilities $18,000,000
Municipal properties $10,000,000
County properties $5,000,000
State and federal properties $6,000,000

In Public Works

Other statistics gathered from the department of public works, compared with the 40 miles of paving, 66 miles of sewers and 40 miles of sidewalks of which the city boasted in 1888, are interesting. At the present time Omaha has:

706 miles of streets
460 miles of paving
570 miles of sewers
250 miles of alleys
800 miles of sidewalks

The money invested in the foregoing improvements is estimated at:

Paving $22,000,000
Sewers $10,000,000
Sidewalks $3,000,000

What the People Own

If the amount expended on public improvements be added to the value of public property we have a grand sum of approximately $100,000,000, which may be said to represent what Omaha public property of all kinds is worth. Against that is a total indebtedness of approximately $41,000,000.

Deducting the value of federal, state and county properties Omaha is still left with enough public property to pay all its debts.

When Omaha was a village a few persons were able to transact all the public business. The first police force was made up of one or two men. It was quite an event when an early city council approved the appointment of a chief of police with four men under him.

Fires were fought by volunteers, who pulled the hose carts by hand. Street cleaning was done by the citizens when it was done at all; there was no free delivery of mail and the cost of transacting the public business was very small.

The first register of deeds, the first county treasurer and the first county clerk did all their own work. They needed no help.

Army of Workers

Now there are approximately 6,000 persons engaged in public work of one kind or another in the city of Omaha. They fill municipal, school, county state and federal positions. Their yearly salary cost is about $10,000,000. Among them are approximately 1,500 school teachers, more than 1,000 federal employees, 300 or more county employees and the rest on the municipal payroll, either regularly or at temporary employment.

Compared to the number of persons engaged in public service 70 years ago, the number working today seems like an army. There are more persons on the public payroll now than were included in the entire population of Omaha for some time after it had been founded.

The public resources of Omaha, which have grown from $150,000 to almost $100,000,000; the public expenditures, which have grown from $7,500 a year to $15,000,000 a year, and the increase in assessed value of taxable property from $1,500,000 to $350,000,000, all attest the great development of Omaha in the past half century.

Chapter XXX
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