The Omaha-Douglas Public Building Commission is laying the groundwork to borrow as much as $120 million to build a juvenile justice center and parking garage.
The commission is scheduled to vote Thursday on resolutions declaring its intent to issue $110 million in bonds for a juvenile justice center, and $10 million for a parking garage.
The resolutions would not authorize the commission to actually issue the bonds. No plan has been formally proposed, much less approved. But the resolutions indicate that the commission wants to move fast on the courthouse addition, possibly within a year. The resolution also clarifies how commission members hope to pay for the project.
Passing the resolutions would take a step toward borrowing money that taxpayers would have to pay back, without requiring a popular vote. The public building commission has the statutory authority to issue the bonds. But approval by the Douglas County Board and Omaha City Council would be needed before bonds could actually be issued, said Paul Cohen, building commission administrator. And County Board approval would be needed for the building projects.
Under the scenario being considered, Douglas County would rent the buildings from the building commission. The commission would use the rent revenue to pay back the bonds. Douglas County would get the money to pay the rent from property taxes.
It’s unknown how much that would cost taxpayers.
He said the declarations of intent to issue bonds are being considered now to coordinate with the commission’s 2018-19 budget, and to save time if the County Board votes to go ahead with the project. Supporters of a juvenile justice center feel a sense of urgency because of what they say are crowded conditions in the courthouse. Cohen said they’re also concerned that interest rates on bonds will rise.
“If we are thinking about issuing a bond, we have to have a resolution of intent before we can issue them,” Cohen said. “This sets in motion that process, if the county decides that’s what it’s going to do.”
The building commission’s annual budget is also on the agenda for Thursday’s meeting, scheduled for 8:30 a.m. in the Legislative Chambers of the City-County Building, 1819 Farnam St. The budget includes the juvenile justice center projects, but only as “placeholders,” Cohen said.
“I don’t know that it will be happening then, but we want to be prepared if it does,” he said. “Without a placeholder in the budget, you’re delayed 12 months.”
The building commission manages and maintains the City-County Building and Douglas County Courthouse. Its five members include two Omaha City Council members, currently Ben Gray and Aimee Melton, and two Douglas County Board members, currently Clare Duda and Mike Boyle. The chair is John Christensen, retired chancellor of the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Commission members have expressed support for a new juvenile justice center. They hired a consultant who recommended a campus that includes space for juvenile courts and related services, plus a new youth detention center. The consultant estimated the cost at up to $100 million.
Most recently, County Board advocates for the project have been talking about erecting a building that would house juvenile courts and services, plus new offices for the Douglas County Attorney’s and Public Defender’s Offices.
The County Board is trying to assemble property for the project. It voted in April to offer $3.65 million to purchase two buildings and a parking lot on the southwest corner of 18th and Harney Streets. The Omaha Housing Authority tentatively accepted the county’s $2.75 million offer for OHA offices and parking. But the owner of the other building rejected the county’s $900,000 offer for his building.
Duda and Gray said Tuesday that they support the proposed resolutions.
“I’m not committed to a $100 million project, but I am committed to keeping the wheels moving,” Duda said.
A committee is working on a specific plan. Duda said he’s not on the committee but has heard talk of a 10-story building with a skywalk across Harney Street. He said he hasn’t formed a position on specifics, including whether a new youth detention center should be built, but he believes a courthouse expansion is needed.
“I’m anxious for the plans to come out, and to hear what the public thinks,” Duda said.