Proponents of a Douglas County justice center proposal pushed back this week against County Board member Jim Cavanaugh’s assessment of the costs of their project and those of an alternative that he has put forward.
At a Douglas County Board meeting on Tuesday, Cavanaugh repeated his assertion that the proposal a majority of the board is backing would actually cost $140 million, not $120 million as estimated by their architect, HDR Inc.
Cavanaugh said his alternative proposal would cost about $116 million. The cost comparison was part of a presentation Cavanaugh made to the County Board Tuesday on his alternative proposal, which is also backed by board member Mike Boyle.
The County Board-backed proposal calls for building a 10-story courthouse annex and juvenile detention center at 18th and Harney Streets in downtown Omaha. Cavanaugh’s alternative calls for a 12-story courthouse annex downtown, and a renovation of the county’s juvenile detention center off 42nd Street instead of a new one downtown.
Cavanaugh had rolled out his proposal Nov. 8 at a meeting of the County Board’s administrative services committee, which he chairs. He said he put it together with the help of architects and other experts. He presented it Tuesday as a proposal of his committee.
Bruce Carpenter, a senior vice president of HDR Inc., and George Achola, a vice president of prospective project manager Burlington Capital Group, defended their firms’ estimate of $120 million and criticized Cavanaugh’s numbers for his.
They submitted their own cost comparison that showed each project costing about $124 million.
They said Cavanaugh had incorrectly inflated their proposal’s cost by adding expenses, a combined $6.3 million, for demolition and inflation that HDR already had included in its estimate.
Cavanaugh also included the $7 million cost of a proposed parking garage to the County Board proposal’s price tag. Achola said the garage should not be included because, if built, it would be an Omaha-Douglas Public Building Commission project funded by revenue bonds that would be repaid by parking revenue.
Achola and Carpenter did include site acquisition expenses in their cost comparison this week, but they only listed $4 million, not $7 million as Cavanaugh estimated. They noted that money is coming from Douglas County’s inheritance tax, not a prospective bond issue for the project.
Cavanaugh had added $3 million in site acquisition costs for having a portion of 18th Street vacated and buying it from the city. The HDR/Burlington proposal envisions a public plaza on what’s now 18th Street south of Harney.
“If that part of it occurs, that is only going to occur through the private sector donating funds,” Achola said.
Carpenter and Achola said Cavanaugh’s proposal underestimated the cost of renovating the current juvenile detention center. Cavanaugh estimated that at $14.6 million. But HDR’s and Burlington’s estimate puts the renovation cost at $21.6 million.
Carpenter said Cavanaugh based his renovation estimate on a per-square-foot cost, $162, that is too low. Carpenter said an independent construction estimator, Dennis Sieh of Building Cost Consultants, Inc., had said $240 a square foot was a more realistic number.
Cavanaugh’s estimate for his proposal did not include costs for a project manager. But the estimate that Achola and Carpenter submitted Tuesday added $2.4 million for project management to Cavanaugh’s proposal, saying such a large project would require those services. That’s about how much Burlington is expected to be paid if the County Board’s proposal were to be built.
Cavanaugh disagreed. He said the proponents of the County Board proposal had incorrectly inflated his costs and deflated their own.
“The whole purpose is to bring our number and their number closer so that they appear to be in the same ballpark,” he said.
Cavanaugh said the parking garage cost should be included because it would be a public expense. He noted that no private donor has pledged money for acquiring 18th Street. He defended his renovation estimate as accurate, saying it came from experts in the field. And he said there may be some outside project management cost under his alternative, but it would be less because only part of it would be new construction.
Tuesday’s meeting included sharp exchanges between Cavanaugh and fellow County Board members Chris Rodgers and Clare Duda. Cavanaugh objected to Rodgers allowing Carpenter and Achola to present their rebuttal to his cost comparison.
Cavanaugh said his own presentation was on the board’s agenda as an administrative services committee report.
“This committee report does not include this commercial for HDR which we are now hearing again,” he said.
Cavanaugh and Rodgers argued for several seconds until Duda interjected, “Oh, c’mon, let’s have some discussion!”
An argument between Cavanaugh and Duda later became so heated that Rodgers called for a 5-minute recess. When the meeting resumed, Duda, who has been undecided on the downtown juvenile detention center part of the project, said he is becoming “quite a fan of co-location.” By that, he means putting a detention center and juvenile courts together in the same place.
Earlier this week, The World-Herald learned that the County Board has reopened talks with the Metropolitan Utilities District on possibly acquiring the district’s headquarters site downtown as a potential location for the justice center.
Under consideration is the county’s purchase of the entire block on which MUD’s headquarters sits, from 17th Street on the east to 18th Street on the west, and from Harney Street on the north to Howard Street on the south. MUD has said there is no offer from the county on the table.