Council panel OKs $20M in planning expenses for new justice center

An Indianapolis City-County Council committee on Tuesday night unanimously approved a resolution to issue $20 million in notes to pay for planning and design costs associated with building the new criminal justice center.

The proposal, which will still have to be approved by the full City-County Council, would essentially provide a short-term loan—paid back out of eventual bond proceeds that are being used to finance the rest of the project—to fund the construction, design and planning for the three buildings on the site: an assessment and intervention center, a 3,000-bed jail and a courthouse.

Construction on the criminal justice center—the total cost of which is expected to be $571 million—would start early next fall at the site of the former Citizens Energy coke plant on the southeast side.

The $20 million includes a previously approved $2 million that is allowing the bond bank to work on financial aspects of the proposal.

The city’s corporation counsel Andy Mallon said the $571 million price tag of the project is “the high cost we’d be wiling to accept.”

“We hope and, frankly, expect that number to come down as the competitive process for bidding and procurement takes place and drives prices down,” Mallon said. “if it goes over $571 million, frankly, we’re going to have to revise and figure out what the cuts are going to be.”

The money to fund the project will come primarily from savings and already budgeted funds already allotted to the Marion County Sheriff, the Marion County courts and the Marion County clerk’s offices.

Council President Maggie Lewis ended up voting for the plan after signaling earlier in the meeting that she was concerned about spending $20 million on planning costs when “we are not taking care of the people in our building.” Lewis recently unveiled a proposal that would raise the minimum wages of public employees in the city.

“We can do more than one thing at a time,” Lewis said. “We can walk and chew gum. If we’ve got $20 million we can bond for a jail, we’ve got $450,000 to take care of people who are on food stamps in this building.”

Most people who spoke about the proposal did so favorably, but there was some concern from criminal justice reform advocates that the proposal didn’t go far enough to provide increased mental health treatment.

“I’m disappointed in the solution that has been proposed,” said Lane Banister, a member of the No New Jail coalition. “I think we all share a lot of concerns about the mental health crisis in our county and about the people experiencing addiction issues. I’m disappointed that our answer to that is a very expensive new jail.”

Councilman Blake Johnson said he agreed with the group’s concerns but said he was “more troubled by the status quo.”

“What’s happening right now is inhumane and what’s happening right now is a civil rights issue,” Johnson said. “Is it perfect? No. I truly believe this [plan] is aspirational."

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