Douglas County Board member Jim Cavanaugh’s effort to derail or at least downscale a $120 million proposal for a new juvenile justice complex in downtown Omaha attracted about 50 people to a public meeting Thursday.
The proposal calls for two buildings and a parking garage at 18th and Harney Streets, across the street from the Douglas County Courthouse. One building, 10 stories tall, would house Douglas County Juvenile Court and related services, plus the Douglas County Attorney’s and Public Defender’s Offices. The other would be a youth detention center.
The event Thursday was a meeting of the County Board’s administrative services committee, of which Cavanaugh is the chairman. He had billed it in a press release as a hearing to “focus on the best, least costly common sense solutions to our Douglas County Juvenile Court needs.”
Several people spoke against all or parts of the proposal, especially building a new, smaller youth detention center downtown and the projected cost.
Tyler Wilson, who said he works in corrections, drew applause when he called for a public vote on issuing bonds for the project. Under the current proposal, the Douglas-Omaha Public Building Commission would issue up to $120 million in bonds, and the debt would be repaid by county taxpayers. That would likely require a property tax increase. The Building Commission can vote to issue bonds without going to the voters.
“Why do we as taxpayers not get to vote yes or no?” Wilson said. “Let’s get a vote, yes or no.”
Cavanaugh, who has also backed putting the bonds to a vote, joined in the applause that followed.
Constance Mierendorf, who is the treasurer of Cavanaugh’s re-election campaign committee, said she and others had calculated that there is enough space for juvenile courts in the footprint of buildings the county currently controls at 18th and Harney Streets. Those are the Omaha Housing Authority headquarters, which the county is buying, and 408 S. 18th St., which the county owns.
Mierendorf said the AIM Exchange Building, 1905 Harney St., could be renovated into offices for the county attorney and public defender staffs. She said her work on this issue was as a private citizen, and unrelated to her work on Cavanaugh’s campaign.
That alternative is similar to one suggested by Cavanaugh. He has said the county could erect a four- or five-story building for juvenile courts and renovate an existing downtown building for attorney’s offices.
Tim Rouse, who said he lives downtown, said the youth detention center should remain where it is, at 1301 S. 42nd St. He said that’s a more pleasant setting than downtown .
David Corbin, chair of the Nebraska chapter of the Sierra Club, said the county shouldn’t tear down a building that it is trying to buy by using its eminent domain authority, or build another parking garage.
Christine Henningsen, director of a juvenile justice-focused group called Nebraska Youth Advocates, spoke in favor of building a new youth detention center next to a new juvenile court and services building. She said locating those services together would help provide better services to children and families.