Renovating the Douglas County Correctional Center to accommodate a new mental health treatment unit may cost more than its worth, according to a study by the architectural firm hired for the project.

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The Douglas County Board of Commissioners met Tuesday to discuss increasing the county’s mental health resources, an issue that has divided officials over the past year as they seek to spend funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). 

Mental health treatment has become a priority for the county, where the jail has become a de facto treatment model due to limited resources elsewhere. Incarcerated people with a serious mental illness make up about a quarter of the jail’s population, with longer stays and higher recidivism rates.

Originally, the county planned to spend $60 million on a new facility for both the jail and the Douglas County Community Mental Health Center. The idea was scrapped in May after protests that the county could partner with health providers and utilize existing buildings to cut costs, and that colocating mental health treatment with incarceration would increase stigma.

The County Board then approved ARPA funding to build an addition to the county jail at 16th and Jackson streets for mental health treatment while they consider other options for community mental health. Federal ARPA guidance requires that the county consider alternatives to new construction, like renovating existing space.

Al Povondra of Carlson West Povondra Architects said Tuesday the first floor of the jail’s southwest building — its oldest portion, built in 1979 — would be the best location for renovation. 

“Spending the money on a mental health addition and also modernizing the oldest portion seemed to make sense,” Povondra said.

He said the site would be close to the jail’s existing ad hoc mental health clinic (no part of the jail was designed to treat inmates with mental health issues) and the emergency response team, while being separate from the rest of the jail population.

The problem, Povondra said, is that they couldn’t find enough room for the county’s goals. The renovation would displace existing bed space to create space for 65 mental health treatment beds, resulting in a net loss of up to 151 beds and coming up short of their goal of 76 mental health beds. 

Capacity is already an issue, Correction Directors Mike Myers said, as an ongoing project to add safety netting at the correctional center is forcing dozens of inmates to sleep on the jail’s gym floor. Myers said the renovation would make the situation permanent and take away recreation opportunities for inmates, increasing safety risks.

“We did try to do a real balanced and thorough investigation of this,” Myers said. “I do not think this is the right choice for the department going into the future.”

Povondra said the project would need to be divided into two phases to minimize displacement, which would increase the cost and extend the timeline as the county seeks to spend its ARPA allocation by the federal December 31, 2026 deadline. The security needs of renovating an operating facility would also make construction inefficient. He said contractors would need to be vetted and any tools and materials being brought in would need to be checked in.

“The juice is probably not worth the squeeze here,” Povondra said.

Next, Carlson West Povondra Architects will conduct a study on options for constructing a new building for mental health treatment adjacent to the facility. 

The County Board also voted to rescind measures previously approved to reduce the population at the Douglas County Youth Center in preparation for a move to a new, smaller facility. Commissioner Roger Garcia said the vote puts them in line with the transition timeline approved earlier this month.

The Omaha City Council also met Tuesday to approve tax increment financing projects, including a $2 million TIF plan for Boho Flats, a proposed mixed-use building at 1432 South 13th Street which will feature retail space and 59 apartment units.

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