The Douglas County Courthouse annex and juvenile justice center have now received the go-ahead. This project — approved by the County Board, the Omaha-Douglas Public Building Commission and the Omaha City Council — can bring important improvements, with more efficient courthouse services and more effective treatment and supports for juveniles.
The project, across the street from the courthouse, will help relieve a major space crunch and provide a far better building configuration for courthouse offices. Judicial agencies that in some cases are spread out among different buildings, for example, will be consolidated, improving services.
Juvenile services will be provided through a one-stop facility in the expanded courthouse space and a new county juvenile detention center in an adjacent building. This will be a major improvement over the current detention facility, near 42nd Street and Woolworth Avenue, with its jail-like atmosphere. In addition, juveniles will no longer be shackled and taken back and forth from the detention facility to the courthouse, where they often sit for long periods in the same area with adults charged with crimes.
Some critics criticize this approach by saying it will require juveniles and their families to come downtown. But youths and their families involved in the system already are coming downtown, since that’s where the court facilities are.
The juvenile detention center will be built to current national standards, provide a less stressful atmosphere and focus on rehabilitation. Douglas County officials visited the juvenile detention facility in Heppepin County, Minnesota — the Twin Cities area — where such an approach has proven effective. The average daily population of juveniles in the facility decreased by 61% over a 10-year period.
The approach at the Minnesota center includes behavioral health services; staff training focusing on safety and effectiveness; partnering with youths and families; collaboration with youth service nonprofits; and practices geared toward diverse juvenile populations. The Douglas County project is to use a similar approach. It’s crucial that all partners work together effectively to provide treatment and supports at the needed high standard.
The Douglas County Board has a key obligation. This has been a highly controversial issue, in part because taxpayers will be covering the costs ($92 million for the courthouse annex, $27 million for the juvenile detention center). If the costs were entirely passed on to property taxpayers, the $114 million in bond payments is expected to lead to two 1.5-cent tax increases per $100 valuation, in 2020 and 2023. That would mean an increase of 5.3% in the Douglas County portion of taxes in 2020, and a combined 10.7% by 2023.
(It should be noted that county government accounts for a minority of residents’ overall property tax bill, though. So, by 2023, this project would mean an increase of 1.34% in the overall tax bill for most property owners.)
But raising taxes isn’t the only path the County Board can take. The board can and should seek budget efficiencies and make fiscal restraint a top priority, to lessen the size of any future tax increase. Such a conscientious step would show respect to county taxpayers in the wake of the protracted controversy over this project.
The County Board has prevailed on this needed project. Now it needs to demonstrate its dedication to sensible fiscal management.