The bonds have been sold, and ground may be broken this summer for Douglas County’s controversial $120 million downtown justice center.
But the shouting is far from over.
The County Board and Omaha City Council voted Tuesday to approve the terms of the bond sale. The Omaha-Douglas Public Building Commission agreed last week to sell the bonds to Ameritas Investment Co. and Piper Sandler & Co. The deal is expected to close May 15. The county, city and building commission had previously approved issuing the bonds, but Nebraska law requires approval of the actual terms of such a bond sale.
The sale, at 3.23% interest, provides $114 million for the construction of the project. The County Board previously had committed $6 million to acquire the site, across Harney Street from the Douglas County Courthouse. The project calls for building a courthouse annex, plus a new, smaller juvenile detention center to replace the current Douglas County Youth Center off 42nd Street.
The commission had been about to sell the bonds in July, but a citizen’s lawsuit temporarily halted the sale. By the time the county won the lawsuit, the bond market had dried up because of the coronavirus pandemic.
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The municipal bond market recently improved again, so the building commission sold the bonds April 29 at a slightly higher interest rate than had been negotiated with last year’s buyers, Douglas County Board Chairman Clare Duda said.
Douglas County taxpayers will repay the bonds. The County Board last year passed a property tax increase of 1.5 cents per $100 in valuation to pay for the debt.
Normally, the type of votes that were conducted Tuesday are routine affairs. But acrimony has accompanied every step of this project for more than two years, and Tuesday was no exception.
One week before their contested primaries, three County Board challengers — Asit Goswami, Joe DiCostanzo and Roger Garcia — joined several other people in speaking against the bond sale and the project at the County Board meeting.
Douglas County Board member Mike Boyle, who voted against the project once before ultimately voting for it, said Tuesday that he is now against it again, at least as planned. He said the proposed juvenile detention center would be too small and that alternatives to detention have not materialized.
County Board member Jim Cavanaugh, an opponent of the project from day one, said it was “a bad idea when the economy was booming.”
“It’s a horrible idea now that the bottom has fallen out of the economy,” Cavanaugh said.
County Board member Marc Kraft defended the project.
“People seem to be missing the point that $90 million of this is for a very necessary courthouse,” Kraft said. “It’s absolutely necessary that we expand both the adult courthouse and the juvenile courthouse.”
He said the complex will “create a much safer environment for the children … that are incarcerated and it should speed up the time between the arrest and the time of the release of the child taken into custody.”
Duda said the issues being debated Tuesday had already been voted on multiple times.
In the end, the County Board voted 5-2 to approve the bond sale terms. Duda, Kraft, P.J. Morgan, Chris Rodgers and Mary Ann Borgeson voted yes. Cavanaugh and Boyle voted no. The Omaha City Council passed a similar resolution 7-0 on Tuesday afternoon.
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