The Douglas County Board engaged the public Tuesday in a marathon public hearing about a proposed $120 million courthouse expansion and youth detention center and an alternative from a critic on the board.

As they have for weeks, critics of the proposal urged the board to put the bond issue to a vote of the general public, and to abandon plans to use a nonprofit private development corporation. Proponents said it would lead to better services for troubled youths and families.

County Board member Jim Cavanaugh formally presented an alternative proposal that he said would cost $50 million and was shaped with help from the public.

There was no vote on the matter Tuesday. A series of votes is expected later, possibly this fall, by the Omaha-Douglas Public Building Commission, the Douglas County Board and the Omaha City Council.

The 3½-hour discussion became emotional at times, when board members Mary Ann Borgeson and P.J. Morgan defended themselves from criticism that they are acting in their self-interest by supporting the justice center proposal.

“The reason I’m here is to do the right thing for the young people, period,” Morgan said, his voice quavering, after a private citizen, Tyler Wilson, asked whether board members were representing taxpayers or the people who “line your pockets.”

“If I have to take the heat for that and you work to recall me, then so be it,” Morgan said.

Borgeson said she and other proponents of the proposal could have done a better job of providing information about it earlier on in the process. But she was clearly stung by critics’ suggestions that philanthropists and political donors are driving the bus on this project.

“I don’t operate that way,” Borgeson said, struggling to control her emotion.

She said people, including her, have been working on juvenile justice reform and courthouse expansion for a long time. They’ve made progress, she said, and the proposed justice center is needed for further progress. She said the proposal follows advice from people involved in the juvenile justice system and expert consultants on what is best for young people and their families.

Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine, who is stepping to the fore in support of the proposal, said that creating a campus with courts, detention, family and youth services and attorneys all in one place would reduce the number of youths in detention. He said it would help put Douglas County on the cutting edge of juvenile justice reform.

Kleine said he realizes that the $120 million proposal is a lot of taxpayer money. “It’s an investment in our children,” he said. “It’s an investment in our community. It’s going to pay dividends in the long run.”

Cavanaugh agreed that a courthouse expansion is needed for Douglas County Juvenile Court. But he said it doesn’t need to be as big as proposed. And he said the county doesn’t need, and should not build, a new youth detention center in downtown Omaha.

Cavanaugh proposed building a new, eight-story structure for juvenile courts and related services on the site of two buildings the county already owns at 18th and Harney Streets. He suggested moving some city and county staff members out to an existing downtown building to make room for the county attorney’s and public defender’s staffs in the City-County Building.

Cavanaugh’s alternative would renovate the existing Douglas County Youth Center off 42nd Street instead of building a new one downtown. He said the current youth center could be renovated so it looked like Norris Middle School, whereas a downtown youth center would look like a jail. He said his alternative would cost $50 million, based on the analysis of volunteer architects and real estate experts who support his position.

His presentation drew applause from the audience. A large majority of people from the public who spoke Tuesday were critical of the proposal. They included Doug Kagan of Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom and LaVon Stennis-Williams, who runs a nonprofit that combats recidivism, truancy, high school dropout rates and high unemployment.

Kagan said the board should jettison the nonprofit development corporation and put bonds for the project to a vote of the people.

Stennis said the county “is putting the cart before the horse” by proposing a building project before doing juvenile justice reform. She urged the board to slow down.

Omaha City Council President Ben Gray urged them to press on. Like Kleine, Borgeson and Morgan, Gray is on the board of the nonprofit justice center development corporation. He said he has worked firsthand with youths in the juvenile justice system.

He said proponents may not have been as transparent as possible earlier in the process but should vote to approve bonds and build the center.

“This is representative government,” Gray said. “We as elected officials have to make the tough decisions.”

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Chris Burbach covers the Douglas County Board, Planning Board and other local government bodies, as well as local neighborhood issues. Follow him on Twitter @chrisburbach. Phone: 402-444-1057.

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