The high price of juvenile justice – Part 3

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.”

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