The Douglas County Board has a crucial obligation to show proper respect to the public. The public, after all, elected all seven of the board’s members. The public generates the millions of dollars that fund the county budget. The public, indeed, foots the bill for the County Board members’ salaries — salaries the board majority voted in 2016 to increase by 34 percent over two years.
Whenever the County Board considers complex, big-ticket, publicly funded projects, it needs to ensure public accountability by providing complete explanations and demonstrating that it’s proceeding in a fiscally prudent way. If board members neglect that duty, they risk coming across as a clique guided by an elitist, group-think mentality.
The majority on the board is risking public trust in its fast-track approach toward proposed construction of a $120 million justice center in downtown Omaha. Although paid for with taxpayer-funded bonding, the financing would be through the Omaha-Douglas Building Commission, which wouldn’t require a vote of the people. The county and the building commission would use a newly formed nonprofit corporation to develop the project. The County Board is asserting eminent domain powers to obtain one building on the preferred site, since the owner refuses to sell.
The board says the project has significant advantages: It would provide much-needed space and efficient layouts to relieve cramped facilities for Douglas County Juvenile Court. It would create a juvenile detention center with a dormitory setting, in contrast to the current facility’s jail-like atmosphere. It would locate support services for juveniles and their families next to the county’s juvenile detention center.
Specifically, the project involves two buildings and a parking garage. A 10-story tower would house juvenile courtrooms, juvenile court judges’ offices, juvenile and family court services and the Douglas County Attorney’s and Public Defender’s Offices. The other building would be a juvenile detention center.
At the moment, the train for this complicated project seems hurtling well down the tracks toward the board’s final approval. Only one board member, Jim Cavanaugh, is voicing opposition. Board members need to slow down and take the time to provide the public — the public that elected them and will cover this project’s $120 million price tag — with full information about this sweeping proposal, which could raise the county’s property tax rate by about 3 cents per $100 of valuation.
The public needs reassurance, for example, about the proposed private nonprofit that would manage the project and oversee construction. Supporters say such an approach boosts efficiency. That type of nonprofit oversaw construction of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s cancer center as well as Baxter Arena and portions of the Scott Campus at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
But those projects involved a sizable portion of private dollars; this expensive project so far has none. Transparency requirements are particularly high for projects funded completely by public dollars. The county needs to explain precisely how financial transparency would be guaranteed for the nonprofit’s operations. About 85 percent of the construction would be publicly bid. But it’s unclear how much, if any, of that would be done through government purchasing, with sealed, competitive bids submitted through a public process.
A nonprofit manager isn’t required for public entities to successfully carry out major projects. A prime example: Omaha’s convention center/arena. Among the other questions:
» The new juvenile detention facility could house up to 64, well short of the capacity at the current facility, which can house up to 144 and averages 70. Where are the details or studies to show how the numbers would drop?
» Supporters say detention time is prolonged because juveniles and attorneys must travel between current facilities. Just how much would stays be shortened by placing facilities beside each other?
» Planners say the current site was one of six considered. What were the other five, and why were they discarded?
» Supporters cite a need to act quickly, yet space has been an issue for years for county attorneys, courtrooms and juvenile offices. With $120 million in taxpayer funding at stake, how can the current rush be justified?
Taxpayers need to know exactly what’s involved, for this proposal and the alternatives. The County Board will jeopardize the public’s trust unless it addresses these questions fully and responsibly before taking action.