Mike Boyle is poised to switch his vote to yes on issuing bonds to build a courthouse annex and juvenile detention center in downtown Omaha.

If the Omaha-Douglas Public Building Commission member votes yes, the commission would most likely approve the $114 million bond issue when it meets May 23. That would reverse the commission’s previous 3-2 vote against financing the controversial project, thus greatly boosting its chances of actually being built.


Mike Boyle

“It’s a high percentage that I’ll vote yes on May 23,” Boyle said.

The project still would need to be approved by the Omaha City Council to go forward.

Many of Boyle’s concerns are being addressed, he said, by the expansion of programs and services to create alternatives to holding youths in detention.

And Boyle, also a member of the Douglas County Board, said he believes that the project is likely to go forward even if he votes against it again. His term on the building commission expires in June. The County Board could appoint another of its members to the commission, and Boyle would lose the platform to further influence the project, he said.

“I’m pretty much committed to voting yes,” Boyle said. “It’s not perfect. I don’t like it completely. ... But it’s a big improvement from where we were.”

The proposal has two main parts:

  • One would erect a new eight-story edifice and renovate the Metropolitan Utilities District headquarters at 18th and Harney Streets to house the expanding Douglas County Juvenile Court, the staffs of the Douglas County Attorney’s and Public Defender’s Offices and other juvenile and family court-related services. They would connect by skywalk across Harney Street to the Douglas County Courthouse. That would make up the vast majority, about $92 million, of the complex.
  • The second part of the complex, a four-story juvenile detention center, would be next door. The detention center would cost about $22 million in public funds, plus $5 million in private funds. Philanthropist Susie Buffett’s Sherwood Foundation has conditionally pledged to donate $5 million to build a detention center to modern standards of “trauma-informed” design to replace the Douglas County Youth Center near 42nd Street and Poppleton Avenue.

Sherwood has also conditionally pledged to give $5 million for programs for youths and families.

The proposed detention center makes up the bulk of the controversy. County Board member Jim Cavanaugh and other critics, while generally supporting the courthouse annex, say the proposed detention center would be too small and doesn’t belong downtown.

They propose renovating the county’s current juvenile detention center instead of building a new one downtown. They also want to put the bonds to a vote of the public, instead of going through the building commission.

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Boyle originally had backed the entire project. He voted for it multiple times on the County Board. But after hearing from downtown constituents and others, Boyle had come to support Cavanaugh’s alternative proposal.

Boyle joined two fellow building commission members — Omaha City Council members Aimee Melton and Brinker Harding — in voting against the bonds in January. The yes votes came from County Board member Clare Duda and the building commission chairman, former UNO Chancellor John Christensen.

Boyle said he shared the concerns of the Omaha police union and others that the proposed detention center, originally designed with 48 rooms with potential to expand to 64, would be too small. Since then, proponents have said they would build the center with 64 beds.

Boyle also preferred moving juvenile courts to 42nd Street and renovating the current detention center to take advantage of green space there for recreation. And he questioned whether talk about increased programs and services for youths and families would actually lead to action.

Boyle said an increased emphasis on alternatives to detention in recent months has him believing that more programs are actually on the way. He said he had challenged a roomful of people at a recent juvenile justice issues meeting at Sherwood Foundation’s downtown Omaha office.

The group included juvenile court judges, juvenile probation officials, foundation leaders, Duda, County Board Chair Chris Rodgers and County Board member Marc Kraft.

“I said, ‘Are there real commitments to these things?’ ” Boyle said. “Unless I hear it today, I’m going to vote no. Everybody started scrambling and said yes. I feel that’s a commitment. I’m going to count on them.”

Boyle said he believes that pressure from opponents of the project has led to an increased emphasis on programs and services. He said many people in government agencies and outside advocates are working to make juvenile justice work better for children and families.

Boyle said he has not been threatened with losing his seat on the building commission if he votes no again.

“I don’t feel threatened,” he said.

But he has heard talk that a replacement is lined up for him.

Boyle said that prospect isn’t influencing his decision on how to vote. He said he has come to believe that the proposed project would be best for children and families.

“I still would prefer it at 42nd Street,” Boyle said. “But I’m not going to be able to get it at 42nd Street. So we have to do the best we can.”