Two days before a vote on bonds, proponents of building a new juvenile detention center in downtown Omaha rolled out an analysis that projects that the project will generate more savings than its cost.

The $15,000 study, conducted by Creighton University economist Ernie Goss through his Goss & Associates consulting firm, was commissioned by Douglas County and three companies that would work on the project: HDR Inc., Burlington Capital Group and Kiewit. Douglas County paid $5,000 of that total.

Goss presented the report at the Douglas County Board meeting Tuesday. It received a mixed reception from the board and large doses of skepticism and criticism from people attending the meeting.

The Omaha-Douglas Public Building Commission is scheduled to vote Thursday morning on issuing $114 million in bonds to build a courthouse annex and 64-bed juvenile detention center at 18th and Harney Streets. About $22 million of that would go toward the youth detention center. The commission rejected a similar proposal in January.

Goss’ study projected a “community benefit” over the next 20 years of about $4 for every $1 spent on the youth center. He based that on an assumption that it would have an average daily population of 40 young people, about half as many as the current Douglas County Youth Center has been averaging in recent years.

Proponents have said they will reduce the number of juveniles in detention and their length of stay through an increase in programming and changes in state law.

Goss’ study projected that over 20 years, the new building would save $33 million in detention center operating costs and $1.3 million in the costs of deputies transporting young people from the current detention center to the courthouse.

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It said the construction project would generate $5.1 million in local sales and property taxes over 20 years, plus $2.8 million in tax revenue because of “increased educational attainment” of juveniles who received more services and were not detained.

The study also found that the community would save $122 million in costs because of “reduced recidivism.” That’s because a reduced use of detention would lead to fewer young people going on to commit more crimes, Goss and his co-authors said.

They said they based their analysis on more than 500 other studies from across the nation on the effects of reducing youth detention.

Constance Mierendorf, a former English professor and critic of the proposed detention center, said she would give the study an F for a lack of logic and support for its conclusions.

“It is really based on wishful thinking,” Mierendorf said. She is the former campaign treasurer for Douglas County Board member Jim Cavanaugh, who opposes the project.

Omahan Scott Williams welcomed the research but questioned some of its findings, particularly the $122 million savings from reduced recidivism.

“That seems frankly fantastical, incomprehensible to me at this point,” he said.

Scott Strain, who worked on the study with Goss, said that projection was based on a calculation of the costs of crimes to victims and the community, based on studies on the increased likelihood of people who have been detained as children going on to commit more crimes.

Cavanaugh called Goss’ presentation “a commercial” for the proposed project.

“You’re up here to enhance the steamroller effect of this sales job” and to get County Board member Mike Boyle to change his vote on the bond issue, Cavanaugh told Goss.

Goss defended the study, saying that, as an economist, his findings have never been influenced by who was paying for a study and that they were not in this instance.

Boyle, one of five members of the Omaha-Douglas Public Building Commission, has changed his mind a couple of times. He voted for the project on the County Board multiple times but voted against the bonds on the Public Building Commission in January. Boyle said earlier this month that he was planning to vote yes on the bonds this time. But Tuesday, he said he was wrestling with his vote again.

“My conscience is telling me to vote no,” Boyle said. “My practicality is telling me to vote yes.”

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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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