The Omaha-Douglas Public Building Commission plans to use a private, nonprofit corporation to develop a potential $120 million juvenile justice center in downtown Omaha.
The corporation would function like private entities that the University of Nebraska used to develop the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Fred and Pamela Buffett Cancer Center and the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Baxter Arena, officials said. The corporation would hire construction and management firms to develop and build the project, with oversight from public officials. It’s unclear what parts, if any, of the project would go through a public bidding process.
Douglas County Board member Mary Ann Borgeson is chair of the board of the nonprofit, named the Douglas County Unified Justice Center Development Corp. Its registered agent, according to public records, is attorney Joel Pedersen, who was the general counsel for the University of Nebraska when the cancer center was developed. The corporation’s board members would include County Board member P.J. Morgan and City Council President Ben Gray, who is on the Public Building Commission.
Those members were chosen by public officials and private proponents who have been meeting for months to discuss the project, Borgeson said. The Public Building Commission appointed former UNO Chancellor John Christensen and Paul Cohen to the corporation’s board. Christensen is chair of the building commission, and Cohen is its administrator.
Borgeson said that officials “are looking at” HDR and Kiewit Corp., both Omaha-based, to work on the potential project and that Omaha investor and philanthropist Mike Yanney’s Burlington Capital Group probably would be involved in the project.
“But that would have to be approved” by the county and Public Building Commission, she said.
The commission is being advised by its attorneys that the structure is allowed by law, Cohen said. Agreements with the project manager and lead construction firms would be publicly vetted and voted on, he said.
“All we may do, and underline ‘may’ four times, is contract with them,” Cohen said. “We think these guys can do it cheaper and faster, on budget and on time. ... We would certainly want some assurances that certain standards are met. We are very committed to making sure that the basic rules are followed.”
No specific proposal for the project has been made to any public body. But several County Board and Public Building Commission members have been discussing their desire to erect a 10-story building to house Douglas County Juvenile Court — including courtrooms and judges’ offices — as well as the Douglas County Attorney’s and Public Defender’s Offices and related agencies. There has also been discussion of building a new Douglas County juvenile detention facility next door to the new building, and a parking garage nearby.
The Public Building Commission voted this spring to declare its intent to issue up to $120 million in bonds to pay for the project. The building commission would own the buildings and the county would rent them. That rent, paid for by Douglas County property taxpayers, would repay the bonds. That would most likely require a property tax increase.
Borgeson said proponents of the project were attracted to what she called the cancer center model because of its success and accountability.
“This is big, this is huge, if it goes forward,” Borgeson said. “We wanted to use a successful model, one that would keep us on top of things, that would keep us accountable, that would keep everything on time and on budget.”
She said using a nonprofit 501(c)(3) entity would allow the project to include private donations. No such donations have been made, but they will be sought, Borgeson said.
County Board member Jim Cavanaugh has questioned the need for the project and criticized the process as not well-thought-out and not open to public scrutiny and discussion. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
County Board member Mike Boyle said he is comfortable with the potential arrangement and thinks it would be in the best interests of taxpayers. Borgeson said that the project would be open to public scrutiny and that the public’s money would be carefully safeguarded.
“There’s going to be lots of eyes and lots of conversation to make sure everything and everybody stays on task, on time and on budget,” she said. “I’m not worried about that at all.”