Councilor says votes not there yet for new criminal justice center

The location of the proposed center.
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The city's proposed criminal justice center is now in the hands of the City-County Council with an uncertain future.

While a bipartisan panel appointed to review the plan voted 4-1 to send it to the council, Council President Maggie Lewis said Thursday, "at this point, if I had to do a head count I do not believe the votes are there to pass."

Lewis said there are still too many questions about the project, to be built, operated and maintained through a public/private partnership with  WMB Heartland Partners. The overall cost is projected at $1.75 billion over the 35-year term.

"I know my colleagues are still concerned about the financing and if there's another way to do this," Lewis said.

She said Democrat mayoral candidate Joe Hogsett's comments Wednesday also "got my colleagues attention."

Hogsett urged the county to put the project on hold after a Democratic consultant projected a nearly $38 million shortfall over the first nine years of the contract.

Lewis said, "At times I feel like I don't even know what questions to ask because things continue to change, the numbers continue to change. We're now hearing from stakeholders that they do not agree on the numbers and assumptions being made, so we'll continue to dig deeper and find out more information."

Some councilors are also miffed to learn that two of the losing bidders are getting $750,000 each for putting together those bids, which the mayor balked at.

He said councilors who signed the Memo of Understanding knew about the fees and said they're standard practice on large state and federal projects

"If you want to get quality partners, you have to get quality people to come in and bid on a huge project," Ballard said. "You can't have them waste a half million dollars on bids they're not going to get."

The contract with WMB expires May 18th, but closing takes 30 days, meaning the council needs to vote at their April 20th meeting.

If not, the city would have to re-bid and risk higher interest rates.

The mayor, who's invested considerable time and energy getting the project done, was clearly frustrated Thursday.

"We're not doing this for us, we're doing this for the city," said Mayor Greg Ballard. "We're paying over $50 million for this system right now, the building, the sheriff's department, transportation and on and on. You can pay that amount on an inefficient, unsafe system or you can pay a little less on a safe, efficient system in the justice center which is now 30 years late. You're already going to pay it and it's only going to get worse. Trust me, they all know that."

Republican Jeff Miller represents the district near the old GM stamping plant where the justice complex is supposed to go. Miller thinks it's good for the city and good for the area.

He noted the city has pledged to invest in infrastructure improvements as part of the project.

"It's revitalization and we need to do more of that no matter what the project is," he said.

Asked how the vote might shake down, Miller said, "I have no idea. I only know that if we get it before the committee and full council will get fair hearing and that's what I want."

One thing is certain, as the vote nears, (a council committee takes it up next Tuesday) councilors are getting pressure from all sides - paid lobbyists, the unions hoping for jobs, mayoral candidates Hogsett and Republican Chuck Brewer as well as the public.

Lewis said, "We're getting tons of emails and tons of calls. A lot is being done behind scenes."

IndyCan is one of the groups turning up the heat. It's working with residents who live near the site.

Pastor Mel Jackson, one of the group's founding members, said, "We want the council to stop the project until there are better answers and clear answers."

IndyCan planned a meeting and rally Thursday evening as they continuing calling and emailing councilors with their concerns.