Omaha City Council President Ben Gray and Douglas County Board member Jim Cavanaugh clashed Thursday at a forum on plans to build a new courthouse annex and youth detention center in downtown Omaha.
Gray backs the justice center project, which is projected to cost about $120 million and would require a property tax hike. He calls it necessary to improve juvenile justice in Omaha.
But Cavanaugh opposes the proposal by the Omaha-Douglas Public Building Commission and the County Board. He advocates a scaled-down plan that he estimates could cost much less.
The Omaha Area Board of Realtors hosted the forum for its members. About 40 people attended.
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As proposed, the project would include two buildings. One would be a 10-story courthouse annex that would house Douglas County Juvenile Court, juvenile probation and related services, plus new offices for county attorneys and public defenders. The other would be a smaller, less jail-like juvenile detention center to replace the current Douglas County Youth Center at 41st Street and Poppleton Avenue. A parking garage also would be built.
A private, nonprofit development corporation would develop the complex.
Realtors in the audience questioned the County Board’s proposed use of eminent domain to acquire a building on the proposed justice center site, southwest of 18th and Harney Streets. Gray said it’s needed “for the public good.”
“We need the building in order to create this campus environment that we’re talking about,” Gray said.
He and fellow proponents say locating the detention center next to juvenile courts, attorneys and related offices will lead to better services for children and families.
But Cavanaugh said the county should not use eminent domain to acquire the building, which is owned by Omaha architect Bob Perrin.
“We don’t need that building unless we’re going to build another cellblock downtown,” Cavanaugh said.
He calls the proposed new detention center a “cellblock” because it would be three to four stories tall.
Cavanaugh proposes renovating the current juvenile detention center and creating green space for a more campuslike setting. He said the county could erect a smaller building for Juvenile Court on the site of buildings it already owns at 18th and Harney Streets. Earlier this month, Cavanaugh proposed an eight-story court building. On Thursday, he said it could be five or six stories tall. He said his proposal would cost about $50 million and wouldn’t require a tax increase.
But Gray said Cavanaugh’s alternative would cost more than $80 million and would require a tax increase.
The current proposal could raise Douglas County’s property tax rate by about 3 cents per $100 of valuation, the county estimates. That would cost the owner of a $150,000 home about $50 more in annual taxes.
As proposed, the Omaha-Douglas Public Building Commission would issue up to $120 million in bonds. That would require a vote of the commission and approval by the Douglas County Board and the Omaha City Council, but not a general public vote. Cavanaugh has said the bonds should be put to a public vote.
“A vote of the people is being avoided because I think they’d have trouble selling it to the public,” he said.
Gray said the American system of representative democracy sometimes requires elected officials to make decisions for the people to solve problems.