The Omaha City Council and mayor have what amounts to the final say, and the Tuesday vote on the financing for Douglas County’s controversial $114 million justice center looks very close.
We asked council members how they expect to vote and asked Mayor Jean Stothert what she will do if the council approves the project.
Two council members — Ben Gray and Pete Festersen — plan to vote yes. A third, Vice President Vinny Palermo, is strongly leaning to yes. Brinker Harding and Aimee Melton plan to vote no. Rich Pahls is undecided. Council President Chris Jerram wouldn’t say how he intends to vote.
And Stothert maintained her stance of not taking a position.
If no one changes their minds, that leaves the proposal needing a yes vote from either Jerram or Pahls to pass, and from both for a veto-proof 5-2 majority.
That sets up yet another dramatic vote on the proposal, which has been the subject of multiple political battles for more than a year. The lobbying has been intense.
“We’ve been paying attention,” Palermo said. “I think we were really hoping this wouldn’t come to us. I’ve gotten bombarded in the last 48 hours.”
The Douglas County Board wants to build a courthouse annex and new juvenile detention center at 17th and Harney Streets. The council is considering an ordinance that would authorize the Omaha-Douglas Public Building Commission to issue $114 million in bonds — $92 million for the annex and $22 million for the detention center — to pay for it.
The proposed ordinance would amend an agreement among the City of Omaha, Douglas County and the Public Building Commission to allow the bonds to be issued. Douglas County property taxpayers would repay the bonds. It would require an additional 1.1 cents per $100 in assessed property value, about $30 a year on a $200,000 house.
The County Board voted 6-1 on Tuesday to approve amending the agreement.
About 40 people testified Tuesday during a 2½-hour public hearing before the City Council. The biggest debate was over whether the proposed juvenile detention center, with a capacity of 64 people, would be big enough and whether it should be built downtown.
Gray, an ardent supporter of the proposal from the beginning, said he will definitely vote yes.
“I’m confident that the 64 beds are enough,” he said. “What they need more than anything else are services. Some are mentally ill, some are suffering from PTSD, some are coming from broken homes. They don’t need detention, they need services.”
Harding and Melton said nothing has happened to change their positions from when they twice voted against the proposal as members of the Public Building Commission.
“I understand the need for programs,” Harding said. “I also would like to see the programs implemented before we spend $25 or $30 million on bricks or mortar. I would like to see the programs in place, and then we could build to the need.”
Melton made the same point. She said she supports the courthouse annex and noted that she unsuccessfully tried to get the Building Commission to separate the parts of the proposal and approve the $92 million for the annex.
“We’re not ready for the detention center,” she said. “There are too many issues with it.”
Festersen said he agrees that the county needs room to expand and thinks that the proposal advances needed juvenile justice reform.
“The process has been less than desirable, but proponents made an effective case for the benefits of co-locating (juvenile detention and courts) and increasing our juvenile justice resources,” he said. “Ultimately, this is a county project, and it’s up to them to decide whether to move forward and how to finance it. So I’ll support giving them that ability.”
Palermo said he has heard “a lot of support from people I know and recognize from South O. That helps me in my decision.”
He said he and Gray should be a yes across the board.
“We know where the majority of these juveniles come from: our districts,” Palermo said. “After this week … I’m leaning yes. But I’m still talking to people.”
Pahls said he needs more clarity about juvenile detention numbers, in particular the demand for services and the costs of programming versus detention.
He said he was personally checking out alternatives to detention that proponents have been touting and wants to know how they would work. Pahls said he’s still listening and needs more information.
Jerram said Friday that he didn’t want to talk about where he stands on the issue before Tuesday.
If the measure passes, Stothert will have three options: sign it, veto it or let it go into effect without her signature.
It could make her decision easier if it passes with five votes, enough to override a veto. Stothert typically signals displeasure with proposals she might veto before the council’s final vote.
She has expressed skepticism in the past about the justice center proposal. But as Tuesday’s vote approaches, the mayor has not yet taken a public position on the bond proposal, her office confirmed to The World-Herald.