City estimate: $500 million price tag for criminal justice center

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After months of hedging, the mayor's office is now going on record with what it expects a new criminal justice center to cost.

Monday afternoon, Deputy Mayor Adam Collins said, "we estimated from the very beginning this facility would cost $500 million."

Collins shared that number as he talked about the three private development teams hoping to get the project. That project calls for a large facility housing criminal courts, jails and the prosecutor's office on the site of the old GM stamping plant just southwest of downtown.

A private firm would build, maintain and operate the complex, leasing it back to the city.

Bids for the project were due Friday, which Collins characterized as "enormous."

Asked why administration waited to release the estimated cost, Adams said, "the reason we kept quiet is we didn't want to prejudice the market and allow (the bidders) to think how much we were willing to spend on a particular facility."

He noted the bids came "significantly under that construction cap" but wouldn't say by how much. Nor would he share any other details other than the maximum the city could afford to lease the facility.

He said the "top number" is roughly $50 million a year or $1.75 billion over the life of the 35-year contract.

But Collins also acknowledged that number could climb higher.

"There's a possibility, not based on performance but based upon cost of living or something like that over a 30-year period," he said.

Asked how much more could it go up? "That depends specifically on the bid so that will part of the evaluation process we go through," he said.

Even so, Collins said leasing a facility would be cheaper than the city building one itself.

"We're confident that whichever bidder we choose will provide the taxpayer with a significant cost savings above and beyond our own estimates," he said.

Not everyone is convinced.

Democratic Councilor Angie Mansfield thinks the justice center is "being rushed through" and questions the final price tag.

"I'm very concerned because this administration over and over again has underestimated costs and I'm very concerned this project is going to be like all the others they've done where the costs end up rising above and beyond," Mansfield said.

She was one those upset when learning the mayor's office had signed off on $12.5 million contracts related to the project beginning last fall. They included legal, consulting and engineering contracts.

While the mayor's office responded by saying the winning bidder would reimburse the city, Mansfield argues "they entered into those contracts without appropriations."

Mansfield and others will have the chance to weigh in in the coming months.

Collins said teams of stakeholders have begun reviewing the bids and will continue to do so over the next several weeks.

He said the plan is name the preferred developer by December 23, with the proposal going to the City County Council and Public Safety Board in January.

If approved, groundbreaking would occur in the fall of 2015.