A proposal for a new Douglas County Juvenile Court, office and youth detention complex received a warm welcome from the Douglas County Board on Tuesday in its debut appearance in public.
Six County Board members spoke favorably about the $120 million proposal, though they stopped short of saying how they will vote when it comes down to deciding whether to increase property taxes to pay for it.
Board member Mary Ann Borgeson, who has championed the project and worked on a committee shaping it, said the new complex would improve juvenile and family justice. She said she hopes people focus on how it will affect families and not only on cost.
Board member Marc Kraft, expanding on proponents’ thread that the project would benefit children, stood and asked people to look closely at his necktie.
“It says, ‘Save the Children,’ ” Kraft said.
There are many questions that remain to be answered about how the building project would benefit children and whether there are other alternatives that might benefit them more. Board member P.J. Morgan invited the public to ask hard questions. He extended a personal invitation to property tax watchdog Doug Kagan, who was at the meeting, to scrutinize the project. Kagan said afterward that his group, Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom, is studying the proposal and hasn’t taken a position yet.
The proposal’s most strident critic on the board, Jim Cavanaugh, was measured in his comments Tuesday. He said he was glad it’s finally out in the open but raised questions about the need for a new juvenile detention center, the cost, why other sites were disregarded and how tax dollars would be safeguarded in the proposed development process.
An executive from HDR Architecture and the county’s chief administrative officer presented the proposal to the board.
The presentation, by HDR First Vice President Bruce Carpenter and the county’s Patrick Bloomingdale, added visual images and more details about the proposed structures and about how the project would be structured financially.
Their information generally followed what previously has been reported by The World-Herald. A 10-story tower would house Douglas County Juvenile Court judges, courtrooms and related services and agencies, such as juvenile probation, plus the Douglas County Attorney’s and Public Defender’s Offices.
A new juvenile detention center would be built next door. It would replace the current Douglas County Youth Detention Center at 1301 S. 41st St. The new center would have a secure connection to the tower. A secure skywalk above Harney Street would connect the tower to the City-County Building and Douglas County Courthouse.
The unveiling of the proposal is likely to ratchet up the public debate. Discussions have been underway for some time, but now a series of public votes could begin as early as July 10. The project could raise Douglas County’s property tax rate by about 3 cents per $100 of valuation, County Finance Director Joe Lorenz has said. That could cost the owner of a $150,000 home about $50 more in annual taxes beginning in fiscal 2019-20.
Borgeson said the board long has talked about creating a juvenile justice center, but the need became more urgent last year after the Nebraska Legislature funded a sixth Juvenile Court judge. One or more judges could be coming soon. Borgeson said the County Attorney’s and Public Defender’s Offices also badly need more space.
The justice center proposal would address those space needs and could improve services to troubled youths and families with a more modern design and by having the courts, detention center and services in one place.
“We would gain efficiencies and serve our kids and families better,” Borgeson said.
Currently, law enforcement officers drive young people accused of offenses from 42nd Street to the courthouse downtown for hearings. Attorneys and probation officers drive to 42nd Street for meetings. Bloomingdale said having a youth center downtown would be safer for the youths and officers. It also potentially could reduce the number of days that youths, some of whom have simply missed court-ordered appointments, spend in detention waiting for their cases to be processed, he said.
As proposed, the new detention center would be built to house a maximum of 64 youths. That’s fewer than the average daily number of youths, 70, currently being held at the Youth Detention Center. And it’s less than half the current juvenile detention center’s capacity of 144.
Borgeson said the county has made progress toward reducing the number of youths in detention by developing alternatives, in an effort to keep the youths from long-term involvement in the criminal justice system. She and Carpenter said they hoped the proposed new development would accelerate that effort.
“What we see a lot of times is inspiration around a building project that kind of gets everybody focused in a new way,” Carpenter said.
The images presented Tuesday show the taller building built primarily of stone, but with a large glass area on its eastern side. The building is meant to impart civic pride “as both an extension of the existing justice campus composition and representing the strength of the contemplative equality of justice,” Carpenter said.
But he stressed the function over the form.
“The primary aspect is to have an efficient plan and to improve the juvenile justice system by having all components connected,” Carpenter said. “Improving the communications and, in turn, reducing the length of stay for the kids.”
The project has been in the works for about a year. Douglas County and the Metropolitan Utilities District signed a $30,000 contract with HDR in October to do predesign services. That was when MUD’s headquarters was considered a potential site. That fell through. The county is now attempting to purchase most of the block southwest of 18th and Harney Streets, with plans to demolish all but the historic library building and build from the ground up. The project also would include building a parking garage.
The Omaha-Douglas Public Building Commission and Douglas County would use a newly formed nonprofit corporation to develop the project. HDR would most likely be the architect on the project, and Kiewit and philanthropist and businessman Mike Yanney’s Burlington Group probably would be hired to manage the development and construction.
That would follow the model used to build the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Buffett Cancer Center. Borgeson said that method worked well for the cancer center and would bring the county project in on budget and on time. Carpenter said about 85 percent of the construction work would be publicly bid. But it’s unclear how much, if any, of that would be done through government purchasing, with sealed, competitive bids submitted through a public process.