As Douglas County pushes for construction of a $120 million justice complex downtown, conflict and controversy have emerged over greater good and expediency versus accountability to stakeholders.
The 10-story tower courthouse annex would house a combination of county adult and juvenile courtrooms, judges’ chambers, public defender and probation offices and related facilities. The juvenile justice element is getting the most attention because a four-story youth detention center containing 48 to 64 beds would connect to the annex. Services and programs for juveniles and families would be onsite. A parking garage would also be built.
The Douglas County Board of Commissioners is charged with approving or denying the project. A majority of the seven-member board supports it. The project’s two vocal opponents, commissioners Jim Cavanaugh and Mike Boyle, take issue with its scale and location as well as the mechanism to pay for it and the private nonprofit created to oversee it. They’ve called for a reset to halt the project to review alternatives, including scaling it back.
Meanwhile, the county seeks to acquire a nearly century-old brick building at 420 South 18th Street, raze it and then build the complex. When owner Bob Perrin refused to sell last summer, the county began eminent domain proceedings, only to have a court order the county to back off pending further hearings.
“There are obstacles we’re going to have to overcome now and we’re working through those,” said commissioner Mary Ann Borgeson, who champions the project. “I hope in the end we’ll be able to come to a resolution. It (eminent domain) isn’t a popular thing to do or use, but we can’t go forth really without that (building).”
Cavanaugh sees things differently.
“With the court having stopped eminent domain for now
it allows us that chance to step back and take a deep breath and look at alternatives that exist and that will work,” he said. “We have been proposing specific alternatives, which include construction of a juvenile justice center courthouse on land we own adjacent to the (current) courthouse and refurbishment of the (existing) youth center on 42nd Street. We would add a courtroom facility to the youth center to allow proximity.
“Kids will have access to outdoor activities on a campus that looks more like a school than a correctional center with numbers significantly lower than those proposed for the $120 million project.”
There’s broad agreement the current courthouse is past capacity and long overdue for expansion.
“We have been trying to jerry-rig judges into cubbyholes and all kinds of things to try and make this thing work without having to do what we know we needed to do 20 years ago, which was to build an annex facility,” said Ben Gray. an Omaha City Council member who served on the city-county building commission driving the project and now chairs the nonprofit overseeing it. “So this was not fast-tracked or anything like that.”
“It’s nothing new,” Borgeson said. “What is new is that we actually have a conceptual plan that puts the center across the street from the existing courthouse-civic center.”
She said other locations, including the old Civic Auditorium site and MUD property, were considered.
There’s less agreement on the need for a new detention center and how many youth it should serve.
Proponents tout the efficiencies of a one-stop shop. The current center near 42nd and Woolworth would be replaced by the new one, thereby putting detainees in close proximity to the justice system and to services supporting their transition back into society.
“Hopefully, this one-stop shop being imagined will be built based on the input of what kids, families and community providers who work with them say they need,” said LaVon Stennis-Williams, a county Operation Youth Success initiative committee member. Her ReConnect Inc. serves families of current and former incarcerated. “Programs that can keep kids from being detained are underutilized. That has to be factored in.”
She said a proposed partnership among the county, University of Nebraska Medical Center and Creighton University to bring more psychologists and psychiatrists onsite “is going to be a game-changer in terms of getting the assessments done on children quicker.”
“Then we can look for services that will keep kids at home,” she said. “On any given day, most of the kids detained are there awaiting placement and professional assessment, not for their underlying offense. You’ll remove maybe two-thirds of your population with the right professionals engaged and looking for alternatives to detention. There are opportunities in the community to put those things in place.”
Gray, who has a long history working with at-risk youth, said the new center will utilize “best practice policies for getting kids in and out and served quickly and assessing what their real needs are.”
“We want to change the trajectory of how we’re doing things by enhancing service at the county level for our kids and families,” Borgeson said. “A lot of details are being worked out in terms of the internal guts of the buildings and how they’re going to look and operate.”
Some observers express concern the new detention center will house fewer youth (68 max) than the current average detainee population of 70 to 80 and less than half the existing capacity (144).
“It doesn’t make sense why we’re reducing capacity when the average daily population has been steady for years and the county has not produced any projections on how they will reduce the number of kids in detention,” community activist Brian Smith said.
“That is a valid concern,” Stennis-Williams said. “But if we’re moving towards juvenile justice reform we should applaud reducing the number of beds – just so long as we do not have any notion of shipping kids to other jurisdictions when we run out of bed space. We need to address why we’re detaining the number of kids we are and what we’re detaining them for.”
Opponents question another number – the price tag. It would be the largest capital construction project in Douglas County government history. Funding would come through bonds issued by the Omaha-Douglas Public Building Commission and likely require a county property tax rate increase. Mayor Jean Stothert said she wants no city taxpayer money used for its construction.
The 501C3 formed to develop and manage the project – Douglas County Unified Justice Center Development Corp. – is based on a model UNMC used to construct its Buffett Cancer Center. The nonprofit would have the ability to solicit private philanthropy to fund the project.
“We have some ideas, but we have to have a more concrete plan before private donors will jump on board,” Borgeson said, “and that’s what we’re trying to get at.”
Critics assert a lack of transparency and due diligence in the process that created the nonprofit, whose board is comprised of various elected and appointed officials.
“We don’t need a private corporation to head up construction. We’re perfectly capable doing it ourselves,” Cavanaugh said. “There’s a better, cheaper, smarter way to go, and we’re doing that right now with the 2016 public safety bond $45 million construction project voters overwhelmingly approved after months of public hearings and discussions. It’s refurbishing a large county office building to consolidate some county services, including a new state-of-the-art 9/11 center, a satellite office for the Douglas County Treasurer to serve western Douglas County and West Omaha, headquarters for our emergency services and environmental services, plus the crime lab and sheriff’s department spaces.
“We are also refurbishing the county correction center downtown. We’re installing in all fire stations in the city new alert systems. All this new construction and equipment is administered by the public property division – on time, on budget and no tax increase.”
He dislikes the apparatus behind the juvenile justice project because, he said, “It’s not accountable to the people.”
“Handing to a private corporation concocted behind closed doors by private entities control over the expenditure of $120 million of tax dollars without any vote of the people, without public access, hearings or discussions, and without any public bidding process, is wrong. It’s a top-down, cart-before-the-horse approach to what should be a well-thought-out, strategic, decision-making plan in public,” Cavanaugh said.
“I’m calling for the process to result in a bond issue that would be voted on by the public.”
He suspects the slated downtown location is more about accommodating lawyers and judges than serving kids.
County officials selected a troika of Omaha power players – Burlington Capital, Kiewit Construction Corp. and HDR – to manage and build the project without apparently other potential players considered or asked to submit bids. It strikes some as back-room, sweetheart deal-making and incestuous political maneuvering. The Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission is investigating a conflict-of-interest complaint brought against some officials sitting on multiple boards involved in the project’s governance.
“It seems like HDR, Kiewit and Burlington Capital have been preselected for this program with no competitive bids,” said watchdog Smith, whose Omaha Public Meetings has convened forums on the topic. “There’s no explanation of where that $120 million number came from and why this 501c3 is going to manage it using the Double A bond borrowing status versus the county’s Triple A bond status.
“There are a lot of unanswered questions.”
Smith and others point out that HDR has pitched doing a mega-justice complex for more than a decade.
Cavanaugh sees “real estate development, sales and construction” interests as “the driving forces behind a lot of the private discussions by a lot of private players in the way the thing has been designed and put forward.”
“When they (the building commission) originally brought it to us in private,” Cavanaugh said, “I said we immediately should go public and have some discussion on this. But for months there was no public discussion. Finally, I started holding hearings in the Administrative Services Committee simply because it was clear something of this magnitude needed to be discussed in public. You can’t do a $120 million project like this without public discussion and a public vote really.”
Project advocates concede it could have been a more open process.
“I think some things could have easily been done in a public session,” Gray said, “but there were some concerns about prices going up and other things like that which made it more or less a better proposition to do it in executive session so as to try and preserve and not create any additional burden for taxpayers.
“So it was necessary in the beginning to start this effort in a sort of quiet way to get things started and get people on board and get things moving in the right direction. Now you can argue back and forth whether we should have done it sooner or not. We debate that among ourselves even. But at the end of the day it is what it is and we’re here now and we are telling the story that needs to be told.”
Said Borgeson, “We should have done a better job of coming out sooner with the conceptual plans, and what our thoughts are on that I can’t go back and change that, but what I can change going forward is what we’re doing and that is a monthly update at the board meeting of where we are – good and open conversation about the programs and gaps we have in the programs.”
She said she’s heard from constituents who support and oppose the plan, but she adds, “Once people really listen to what the end result is they may continue to disagree with how we got there but they’re supportive of what we’re trying to do because it’s such a need.”
ReConnect’s Stennis-Williams thinks what should be the main focus has been obscured by the conflict.
“I believe some of the arguments are mere distractions
when what’s lacking are quality services for our kids.
The county needs to separate the issue of having a new courthouse, which is badly needed, from the issue of renovating, redesigning, reimagining youth detention,” she said.
“When you’re talking about formulating even the design of this detention center, parents’ voices need to be first, not secondary. I don’t care where it’s built, if we get it, how much it costs. My concern is what’s ultimately going to go inside the building. What is disturbing to me is that most of the people advocating for or against it have not sat down and talked with parents to see what they really do need. Most people on either side of the issue do not serve kids or represent that parent voice of having a system-involved child. Instead of reducing the argument to sticking points, talking points, we need to throw down deep enough to see how we keep kids from even getting system-involved. That is what needs to be upfront.”
For Omaha architect Perrin, who owns the four-story, 40,000-square-foot, industrial-style building at 18th and Howard impeding the project, his property is no side issue. He rejected the county’s $900,000 offer for it, declaring it’s not for sale because he has plans to convert it into offices or condominiums.
His attorney, David Domina, filed suit against the county’s eminent domain attempt, and a judge enacted a temporary restraining order. The suit maintains the county lacks jurisdiction alone to obtain the property and contends the City Council and county building commission must also OK seizing the building.
Perrin has led various Omaha preservation efforts. He’s also previously challenged efforts to seize his holdings. He won a nearly $2 million settlement over land he owned coveted by the University of Nebraska Board of Regents for a University of Nebraska Medical Center expansion.
Gray openly suspects Perrin’s motives in bucking community progress interests. “He wants a better price for his property. That’s what this whole thing is about.” Perrin flatly refutes the assertion and says he simply wants the right to retain his property for what he deems a better public use. He added that he only broke even in his lawsuit against the university.
Gray questions the current structure’s historical integrity. “Because the building is old doesn’t make it historic.”
The Omaha Planning Board has unanimously approved the 1920 building for local landmark status, on which the Council must vote. Landmark status would not guarantee the building from being taken by the county.
Several individuals and groups have expressed support for saving the building and criticized the city’s poor preservation track record.
Gray counters that two historic buildings – the courthouse and former downtown public library – are being preserved rather than razed for the project.
The county’s aggressive pursuit of the building became the public flashpoint for the project.
“The project had been behind the scenes with Cavanaugh the only one yelling and getting no attention at all until they started to take my building and I resisted,” Perrin said. “I feel like all the commissioners were in a dark room with their clothes off and I walked in and turned the lights on.”
He believes the industrial building, which housed early auto dealerships and more recently U.S. Corps of Engineers testing labs, is a diamond in the rough that should not be sacrificed for a project that could be built elsewhere.
“They’re disrespecting the history of our city. They’re wanting to demolish something that’s really important that we didn’t even know we had.”
He and other project detractors question placing a juvenile detention facility and justice center so close to the county’s adult prison.
Cavanaugh, who calls the planned center “a cellblock,” said, “It’s the wrong place to put children. Putting them downtown within close proximity of the adult jail is exactly the wrong message we want to send these children.”
Critics say the project would impose a chilling effect on the area’s redevelopment.
“They’re wanting to do the wrong thing with the site by putting in things with uses that would degrade the value of neighboring properties,” Perrin said.
“It doesn’t make any sense why we would put a detention center in an already very fragile part of downtown,” Smith said.
Backers claim the project will revitalize the Flatiron District, though they don’t say how.
Lost in all of this, some assert, is what youth and parents say they want and need. Project advocates contend their actions are in the best interests of kids and families. Others call for more input from parents with youth in the system.
“It’s disturbing that the people most affected by this have the least voice,” Smith said.
“We have gotten so comfortable excluding the voice of parents that we proceed as a matter of course now without getting them involved,” Stennis-Williams said. “There needs to be a direct effort to reach out to parents. We have to meet them where they’re at to intentionally get them involved in this conversation.
“We have not done a good job of getting them engaged. We’ve become comfortable speaking for parents using all these different surrogates. I’d like to have it come from a closer experience than from people looking at it from a policy standpoint. These families and kids are suffering. There are things we can do, that we can fix that we’re not putting proper attention on because we’re still arguing on issues that have nothing to do with what’s best.”
She wishes Perrin’s building fight never entered the fray.
“I think the effort to locate the center downtown and the fight to preserve the building standing in its way has become a polarizing situation keeping the parties from talking to each other. Instead, they’re talking at each other,” she said. “When you get engaged in that argument you lose sight of the kids and they need to be our foremost purpose.”
Smith is alternately a realist and idealist when projecting the outcome of this fight.
“The pessimist in me says the county is going to bulldoze their way through this first part of their plan, which is a real estate acquisition, and then maybe involve people in a meaningful way in the conversation about the actual design and programming of the facility. So the first part may be a loss. But the second part may highlight the fact people want engagement and explanation in the process.
“The optimist in me holds out hope the city, the mayor, the planning department, the city council will step in early enough in this process to prevent the demolition of the Perrin building and force some meaningful change in the way this process is planned out.”
Cavanaugh believes all is not lost.
“I think you’ve seen movement by some of my colleagues. Commissioner Boyle is now on board with stop eminent domain, right-size the project and put it on the ballot. I think others on the board are taking another look at this to maybe open it up to the robust public discussion that it needs.
“This is going to be a big issue going forward obviously because there’s so much money involved, and it’s now gotten people’s interest.”
Meanwhile, Borgeson, Gray and Co. are confident their plan will prevail in the end, with or without a vote of confidence or approval from the public.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com