County board members’ arguments, a former mayor’s suggestion and the question of what to do about community mental health dominated a Tuesday Douglas County Board of Commissioners meeting about a proposed facility that could cost up to $60 million.

The Douglas County Board of Commissioners meeting, held at 1 p.m. Tuesday on the ninth floor of the city-county government building, featured a packed room with several members of the public as well as six commissioners, according to notes from Omaha Documenters. Commissioner Maureen Boyle joined via Zoom along with 24 others.

The two-hour meeting largely centered around new details for a proposed two-building county mental health facility in downtown Omaha. Plans, presented by Architect Al Povondra of Carlson West Povondra Architects, would renovate the county jail at 17th and Jackson Streets along with another two-story structure on 16th and Jackson Streets, currently the site of a Greyhound bus station, that would be used for further community health support.

Costs were estimated between $54 million and $60 million, according to Povondra. At the Tuesday meeting, Commissioners Mary Ann Borgeson and Chris Rogers said the county had earmarked about $58 million for the project through pandemic relief funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, which must be spent by 2026. The current proposed timeline gives 17 months until construction, and then 23 months to build the structures.

The project would be a big step forward in assisting under resourced county, city, law enforcement and mental health workers as well as divert people suffering from mental illness from incarceration.

Currently, about 20% of the jail’s population is considered seriously mentally ill, which the current facility was not designed to treat. The Douglas County Community Mental Health Center also lacks space at its location inside the Douglas County Health Center. The new facility would feature more therapeutic settings and beds for mental health care.

“The Downward Spiral.”

Read More about the fraught relationship between crime and mental health in The Reader series.

Many have raised concerns about stigmatizing community members receiving mental health care alongside incarcerated people being treated for a mental illness. Douglas County Department of Corrections Director Mike Myers said the jail and Douglas County Community Mental Health Center are already working together, this would just expand their abilities.

“That is how we impact the quality of life, not just for the people that come to this campus but for their families and their neighbors and for businesses downtown,” Myers said. “Because they’re not recycling through the system by committing crime after crime after crime simply because we’re ineffectively treating their mental illness.”

But not everyone agrees the proposed plan is the best option.

“The chair has not allowed this alternative proposal to be presented for months and months,” Commissioner Jim Cavanaugh said.

“Jim, will you please stop,” an exasperated Borgeson said over him. “Just stop. No. You’re interrupting people’s time so just stop. Stop doing what you always do.”

The alternative proposal, which Cavanaugh has long advocated for and on Tuesday was presented by former Omaha Mayor Hal Daub, is to consider building a long-term care facility on 42nd and Woolworth streets. Currently, Omaha has no long-term mental health treatment programs, which many parents and community members have openly demanded of this new mental health facility.

Daub suggested the county update existing county buildings rather than build new ones as well as collaborate with nearby health care providers like Nebraska Medicine and the University of Nebraska Medical Center. He said whether they like that plan or not, it should be compared to the plan Povondra presented earlier. 

“The mental health problem is really, screamingly climbing,” Daub said. “And [looking at] how to pay for it means we can take care of more of those people, if we’re careful, rather than narrowing our view.”

Commissioner Mike Friend said he was under the assumption long-term care, which has historically been financially fraught, was not part of this plan. He said the board needs to focus on what it has responsibility for, which is the jail and the community mental health center. He also proposed the board use its ARPA money to bolster existing networks of behavioral health care.

“Can we take this fragmented environment and bring people together?” he asked. “What would UNMC do with $23 million?” 

Commissioner Rogers said that would be like pouring a cup of water on cement during a 105 degree day: it would disappear almost immediately. He said this solution is not meant to be a fix-all but rather treat people under the county’s responsibility and try to prevent them from feeding other behavioral health programs. Doing more would set bad precedents, he said.

Cavanaugh again advocated for an alternative plan saying the board should slow things down and seriously consider this alternative plan, especially given current troubles with the county’s new juvenile justice center.

“You know it’s a low deal to try and bring some kids into a discussion that’s really not working,” Rogers said. “But I guess you have to create a cloud of smoke to get your idea across. And it takes an awful lot of balls to… say [the county] doesn’t need the juvenile justice center but on the other end you’re saying [the county] needs a bigger space to lock more up.”

“I didn’t say that,” Cavanaugh said over Rogers. “You, Chris Rogers, expanded the ability to lock kids up. Congratulations. Now you’re going to expand the ability to lock adults up.”

“You want to put more time into a project, with limited time to spend, and you don’t even have all the strings tied,” Rogers said. “You’re spinning your wheels.”

Borgeson cut off Rogers and Cavanaugh’s discussion for a final public comment. Mark, who did not identify his last name, said while there had been a lot of arguments, everyone was on the same page.

“Even though there’s been some acrimony in this room we’re all trying to achieve the same goal. That is to provide better healthcare for the residents of Douglas County,” he said. “No matter how that’s done.”

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Chris has worked for The Reader since January 2020. As an investigative reporter and news editor he’s taken deep dives into topics such as police transparency, affordable housing and COVID-19. Originally...

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