Council Democrats raise concerns about $408M justice center plan

Location of the proposed justice center

City-County Council Democrats are commissioning an independent study on the proposed criminal justice center, much to the frustration of the mayor's office and Republicans.

While Democrats agree the county needs a new jail and criminal courthouse, they say they're wary of the way the mayor wants to finance it.

Democratic councilor Angie Mansfield said, "We believe it's important to have an independent analysis...we have to be able to afford this going forward."

Under the mayor's plan, Paris-based WMB Heartland Justice Partners would enter into a P3 or Public-Private Partnership to finance the project. (WMB was the winning bid from three finalists.)

WMB would build the $408 million justice center, then cover maintenance and operations with the city paying an annual service fee $46.8 million over 35 years.

The mayor's office maintains that's at least $3.3 million a year cheaper than the city could do it on its own and at no cost to taxpayers.

"If there's nothing to hide, I would think they would want to shine as much might on this as possible," Mansfield said.

Deputy Mayor Adam Collins questioned the need and timing.

"We think the city's been going through an exhaustive process the last year and a half," he said. "I'm curious as to why they're spending additional money to look at this when the city has done robust analyses over 18 months of this very project."

Democratic Councilor Monroe Gray said, "What we're saying is if this is such a great thing, then why not have a second opinion?"

But the Democrats' study comes as the mayor's office warns of a deadline. They say to lock in the deal, the city needs to close on everything by May 19, a process that takes 30 days. That means the council has to sign off by mid-April at the latest.

"Of course, I'm concerned if the vote is moved back...We want to discuss and talk about the numbers in a public forum and explain why they're correct," Adams said. "The only thing in jeopardy is the saving for taxpayers. We have a deal that is $3 million below what we would be spending today and it's crept up to $6 million" since the bid came in.

Mansfield and Gray said while they didn't expect the study to take more than a month, they weren't overly concerned about the time line.

Referring to the deal's "expiration date," Gray said, "One of the issues they're using as a pressure point is the date and the cost of the money going up, but what if we do this now and find out the money is going down? Or this wasn't a good deal for the citizens?"

Mansfield said, "With something this costly, we should not be fast-tracking anything, because it's going to affect us for decades. If it's a good idea and has solid fiscal evidence behind it, then fine... but I think we need to do our due diligence."

Democrats will pay Umbaugh Financial $15,000 from the council budget to do the analysis, while Mansfield said they didn't need Republican approval to do so, Council Minority Leader Michael McQuillen said he was unaware of the study and "frustrated by it."

"This has been like a 17-18 month process. It's been transparent. We've included them in all of this... and then they don't include us in this decision to waste taxpayer money for another my opinion, it's a last resort delay tactic," McQuillen said.


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