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Special review panel advances Indy justice center plan

April 9, 2015

Indianapolis City-County Council Democrats are getting nearer to their most difficult vote of the election year, as their own adviser tells them that a new criminal justice facility – however it’s built – could cost the city more money than expected down the road.

Council Chief Financial Officer Bart Brown said he believes there won’t be sufficient savings from the consolidation of current facilities, as promised by Mayor Greg Ballard, to cover annual payments to the city’s preferred vendor, WMB Heartland Justice Partners. Brown has recommended that the council consider a more traditional design-build contract rather than the public-private agreement with WMB.

“It may not be enough revenue in either case,” Brown said Wednesday after a special review board, the Marion County Justice Complex Board, voted 4-1 in favor of WMB’s proposal.

That vote only increased pressure on the council, as two of three Democrats on the board said they couldn’t determine whether the 35-year, $1.6 billion deal with WMB is indeed budget-neutral.

“I’m going to vote ‘yes’ so the city council puts up a vote on this project,” said Joanne Sanders, a council appointee and former Democratic minority leader on the council.

The mayor’s proposal also has support from an elected Democrat, Marion County Sheriff John Layton. Marion Superior judges, both Democrats and Republicans, have participated in the planning process.

Eva Talley-Sanders, chief deputy sheriff and Layton’s appointee on the review board, also voted "yes." She said WMB’s proposal represents the “most significant opportunity to address the albatross that has plagued the sheriff’s office since the 1970s.” But whether it’s fiscally sound will be hashed out in council committees and floor debate, she said. “I deeply respect our councilors.”

The lone "no" vote on the review board, former Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathy Davis, said budget-neutrality is the most important factor. Otherwise, she said WMB’s proposal was “beautiful.”

“It solves a lot of problems,” Davis said. “It’s very enticing.”

Now that the board has OK’d WMB as the preferred vendor, the council Rules and Public Policy Committee is scheduled to vote April 14 whether to accept a long-term agreement with the company, which would finance, design, build, operate and maintain a new jail and courthouse. The full council is scheduled to vote on the plan April 20.

The Democrats hold their council majority by one vote, and passing on the deal with WMB could allow Republicans to accuse them of obstructionism. A preview of that back-and-forth was available Wednesday after Democratic mayoral candidate Joe Hogsett came out in favor of delaying the justice center.

Ballard, a Republican who is not seeking re-election after two terms, promptly accused him of playing politics.

“Today is a perfect example of why we’re 30 years late in building a modern justice facility,” Ballard said in a written statement. "My administration and our bipartisan stakeholder partners approached the justice center in a way that stripped political influence and patronage out of the process. We were determined to solve this public safety dilemma without burdening taxpayers and without passing along a legacy problem to a future mayor, and we have delivered a proposal that accomplishes both. Our taxpayers and our criminal justice agencies deserve better than a delay that would be far more expensive, just for the sake of politics."

Doing nothing isn’t necessarily the easy option. Ballard’s administration argues that the existing Jail 1 will need $35 million in repairs in 2016, and a new jail could be needed by 2035 at a cost of $514 million.

Brown said a third solution, which is gaining momentum with council members and judges, is to build only a jail. Combined with video conferencing for court appearances, he said that could still resolve the current system's inefficiencies in transporting arrestees and inmates.

Ballard’s team disagrees. Mayoral deputy David Rosenberg cited Layton’s opinion that an entire courts-jail complex is needed.

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