The board of a nonprofit corporation formed to develop a new Douglas County justice center will hold its future meetings in public, Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine said.
The Douglas County Unified Justice Center Development Corp. board, as a private entity, doesn’t have to follow public meetings law, and initially did not intend to do so. That is one of the criticisms of the proposed $120 million project and the process the public officials are using to pursue it.
Kleine, a member of the nonprofit’s board, said he expects it to vote to make the meetings public. Kleine said members of the board, which include two Douglas County Board members and an Omaha City Council member, had discussed the matter at their last meeting and decided that future meetings should be public.
“I hear what people are saying,” Kleine said. “People need to know what’s going on. People need to be aware, and people need to be a part of it. That’s something I think is very important, to be transparent about what is going on.”
He said the nonprofit board’s members will vote at its next meeting to open its meetings to the public. That meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. Sept. 7 in Room 903 of the City-County Building, 1819 Farnam St.
The members of the board are Kleine, Douglas County Board members Mary Ann Borgeson and P.J. Morgan, Omaha City Council President Ben Gray, Omaha-Douglas Public Building Commission Chair John Christensen and Omaha Housing Authority Board Vice Chairman David Levy.
Kleine made the remarks in an interview with The World-Herald on Friday. He and George Achola, a representative of the project manager, were seeking to address concerns that the project is being pursued and would be conducted outside of public view and without public input. Achola is a vice president of the real estate division of Omaha businessman and philanthropist Mike Yanney’s Burlington Capital Group.
“The public should be aware of what’s going on,” Kleine said. “There’s nothing that they shouldn’t know about here. We want to make sure they understand, they know we hear them and their concerns, and we want to make sure they understand the purpose, the whys, the wherefores, all those things.”
The board will publish agendas of its meetings in advance, and documents in support of the agenda will become available to the public once they have been distributed to the members.
Details of how the meetings will be run have yet to be determined. Various public bodies, such as the Douglas County Board and Omaha City Council, run their meetings differently. The nonprofit board’s format will allow for public input, but how that will be shaped is still being determined.
The board is working on professional services contracts with Burlington Capital to manage the project, Kiewit Corp. to lead construction and HDR Architecture. HDR currently has a contract with the building commission and Douglas County for pre-design services.
Achola said those three were chosen because they were among the group that worked on the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center, which used a similar model of development.
The three will “use their experience to bring the project in, in terms of budget and timing” and they, including Yanney personally, will inspire confidence in potential donors, Achola said. No private dollars have been pledged, but they are being pursued.
Achola said the nonprofit board will vote in public on those contracts, and the contracts will become public record. He said Burlington will be paid a fee of about 2.25 percent of the project’s cost, which he described as “under market.” That would amount to $2.7 million on a $120 million project. Achola said project managers’ fees typically are more than 3 percent. Jacobs Project Management Co. was paid 3.79 percent, or $15.1 million, to manage the Omaha Public Schools’ $421 million Phase 1 bond program, which voters approved in 2014.
While the design and oversight work by Burlington, Kiewit and HDR aren’t being bid out, Borgeson and others have said that about 85 percent of the construction work will be openly and publicly bid. It’s unclear exactly how. Kleine and Achola said those details are still being worked out. But Achola said the work will be bid out, possibly by Kiewit and/or Burlington, under a public bidding process similar to one used by local governments.
Which format will be followed has not been decided, Achola said, but it will include the basic components of putting the projects out for bid publicly, receiving sealed bids and opening the bids publicly.
The nonprofit corporation will not have check writing authority. It’s working as an agent for the building commission and County Board, Achola said.
The proposal calls for the construction of two buildings and a parking garage southwest of 18th and Harney Streets. A 10-story building would house Douglas County Juvenile Court, related juvenile and family services and offices of the Douglas County attorney and public defender. The second building would house a youth detention center.
As proposed, the Omaha-Douglas Public Building Commission would issue up to $120 million in bonds to pay for the project. Douglas County taxpayers would repay that debt through rent to the building commission, which manages the City-County Building and Douglas County Courthouse. The county finance director, Joe Lorenz, has estimated that could require a property tax increase of 2 to 3 cents per $100 in valuation.
Issuing the bonds would not require a vote of the people. It would require the approval of the building commission, Douglas County Board and Omaha City Council.
“Obviously, we’re talking about a lot of taxpayer money,” Kleine said. He said Lorenz and Public Building Commission Administrator Paul Cohen are also involved in the nonprofit’s oversight. He said they are all working to get “the best bang for the buck for the taxpayer.”
“So there’s nothing to hide from as far as making everything transparent,” Kleine said.