Vote on $114 Million Could Bring Juvenile Detention Downtown

The Omaha-Douglas Public Building Commission (PBC) is set to vote on whether to award the requested amount of $114 million dollars in revenue bonds to Douglas County for their proposed justice center. The commission will meet at 8:15 am, Thursday, May 23.

Notice of the meeting was published May 16 in The Daily Record, but an agenda has yet to be release for public review. The Douglas County Clerk’s office said in an email they believe “that the Building Commission will vote on the $114 million bond issue at this meeting.”

The county board’s request for revenue bonds to finance the justice center project has been a yearlong effort. Douglas County Commissioners Mary Ann Borgesen, Clare Duda, Marc Kraft, PJ Morgan, and Chris Rodgers have been the project’s ardent supporters.

On Thursday, January 24, the PBC rejected a $120 million bond request by the county. That price and bond issuance were to fund the construction of a courthouse annex, to be co-located with a juvenile detention center downtown.

Currently, an average of about 81 juvenile offenders are housed at Douglas County Youth Center at 1301 S 41st Street, Omaha, next to the county hospital.

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NEW ASK, SAME PLAN

The plan to construct the justice center downtown reflects a one-stop model where everything for juvenile detention is located together; that is judges, prosecutors, public defenders, county officials, and other relevant services for the care of charged youths.

Commissioners attempted to circumvent controversy by moving construction plans to the MUD property, after a failed attempt to acquire adjacent property through eminent domain. The purchase by the county totaled over $6 million.

Commissioner Mike Boyle has offered that the county should spend $20,000 for an alternative proposal. Boyle also sits on the PBC, but his term is up in June. Even though he has dissented in the past, Boyle now comments at board meetings that the county might be under-building for a proposed 50-year facility, and he highlights the county’s efforts to provide more mental health services and formalize those arrangements with local providers.

A mother who had a juvenile in the justice system is not convinced that the Commissioners’ plan is a solution. Latosha Bolton, who works at a North Omaha public cafeteria, said, “The community is not well informed about the meetings, and the justice system.” She explained that a lot of contact with judges are arranged ahead of time, but that co-location makes sense to her. “The kids need to get to their destination in one place. More programs for the kids need to be provided, no locking them up. Kids’ minds are not fully developed.”

The Omaha-World Herald reports that county officials are underway with producing a trauma-informed experience, “Law enforcement officers, school representatives and mental health officials in Douglas County are following a nationwide trend by creating a threat assessment group that aims to connect troubled youths to services and keep community members aware of ongoing security concerns.”

Few concerns have been addressed or sufficiently explained, according to opponents. Commissioner James Cavanaugh is a vocal dissenter and recently presented a different option for the juvenile center at North High School. He was joined by Senators Justin Wayne and  Ernie Chambers, both placed the wellbeing of racial-minority youths at the center of concern.

Roger Garcia, member on the Metropolitan Community College Board of Governors, attended the meeting and after said, “Community allies are pushing for an alternative proposal that would still renovate our current youth detention campus for over $30 million less and would go through a vote of the people.” Garcia criticized the county’s use of a non-profit to manage development, an arrangement that he believes would not go through a competitive bidding process. “Let's continue pushing for a solution that focuses first on what's best for our children, is completely transparent, and authorized by the public, and is cost effective!” said Garcia.

A vote on the $114 million ask may happen after public comments. Members on the Public Building Commission:

Representing Douglas County are Mike Boyle, Clare Duda.

Representing Omaha are Brinker Harding, Aimee Melton.

Representing the Community is John Christensen, chairman.

Watch a live stream of the meeting on Facebook @noiseomaha.


Luis E. Jimenez