A controversial proposal to build a courthouse annex and a new, smaller juvenile detention center in downtown Omaha took a big leap forward Thursday with a bond issue vote, but a bumpy road may still lie ahead.
The Omaha-Douglas Public Building Commission voted 3-2 Thursday to issue $114 million in bonds for the project, reversing a January vote against funding it. The vote came after more than two hours of public testimony Thursday, most of it from people opposed to the detention center.
“This has been kind of an arduous process, but it actually has given us a better product,” Clare Duda said. “We still need City Council approval, but I feel confident about it.”
Duda voted yes Thursday along with fellow Douglas County Board member Mike Boyle and Public Building Commission Chairman John Christensen.
The two Omaha City Council members on the commission, Aimee Melton and Brinker Harding, voted no.
The project, planned for 17th and Harney Streets at the MUD headquarters site, calls for erecting an eight-story tower to house Douglas County Juvenile Court, plus the County Attorney’s and Public Defender’s Offices and community programs. It also would renovate MUD’s office building into space for juvenile and family services, and erect a four-story juvenile detention center with space for 64 youths.
The City Council will have a say in whether the complex is actually built.
The county and building commission can’t move ahead unless the council approves changes to an agreement between the City of Omaha, Douglas County and the building commission.
The council could be asked to vote in June.
It’s unclear how the council will vote, and what position Mayor Jean Stothert will take.
There also has been talk at City Hall that people may file legal challenges against funding it through the building commission and using a nonprofit corporation to develop it.
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“This is not over,” Douglas County Board member Jim Cavanaugh said.
He has led opposition to the downtown juvenile detention center part of the project and the funding and development process. Cavanaugh has pushed for building the courthouse annex, but for renovating the current juvenile detention center at 42nd and Poppleton Avenue instead of building a new one downtown.
Boyle cast the swing vote Thursday. After originally supporting the project, he become an opponent.
But in recent weeks, Boyle changed his mind again.
He said Thursday that he has come to believe the downtown justice center complex will be best for Douglas County children and families.
He said that more programming for alternatives to detention and diversion, including mental health treatment, has been emerging and that more is on the way. Boyle said he still doesn’t like putting the new detention center downtown but said “in life, you can’t always get what you want.”
He added that having a detention center downtown would mean that youths would no longer have to be put in shackles and driven from 42nd Street to go to court, which Boyle said is a traumatizing experience.
“These are our children,” Boyle said. “We should support them.”
Harding said everyone on the commission shares the common goal of helping youths become productive members of the community, but have different ways of getting there. He said the county should first develop programs, then see what kind of building they need.
Melton sounded a similar note. While opponents, including the Omaha police union, have said 64 beds is too few when the current juvenile detention center has an average daily population of 75 to 80, Melton said the county might need fewer if it’s successful in developing programs and processes that reduce youth detention further.
She said Ramsey County, Minnesota, home to St. Paul, only has about 25 youths in its detention center.
Duda countered that a new detention center, built to modern standards and co-located with courts and services, is essential to reforming juvenile justice in Omaha. He said more programming would be coming.
Melton tried to split the two main parts of the project.
She moved to approve $91.6 million in bonds for the courthouse annex, and not build the detention center.
Her motion failed 3-2, with Harding providing the other yes vote.
The bonds most likely would require an increase in Douglas County property taxes. County Finance Director Joe Lorenz said Thursday that it would require an additional 1.1 cents per $100 in assessed property values.
He said that would amount to about $30 a year on a $200,000 house.
Noting that the courthouse annex part of the project has received near-unanimous support from elected officials and the public, Duda asked how much taxes would be needed to service debt on $91.6 million for just the courthouse annex. That would cost 0.9 of a cent per $100 in assessed value.
“We would be foolish for two tenths of a cent to turn our backs on the kids,” Duda said.
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