Supporters say justice center plan shouldn’t be delayed

Representatives of legal, business and labor organizations said the proposed Marion County Criminal Justice Complex is a long-delayed and necessary development that would employ thousands and pump up downtown Indianapolis by vacating outdated jail and court facilities.

Opponents, meanwhile, questioned the need for a facility some described as a boondoggle that increases jail beds at a time when alternatives are preferred. Several said the decision should be made by a referendum rather than a vote of the Indianapolis City-County Council, currently scheduled for April 20.

Backers of the proposed public-private partnership bid awarded to WMB Heartland Partners who spoke at a public hearing Tuesday outnumbered opponents by about a two-to-one margin.

“There is no question about the need for this facility,” said Krieg Devault LLP partner Deborah Daniels, former chairwoman of the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee, which supports the proposal championed by Mayor Greg Ballard. Daniels said discussions about the need for a justice center date to at least 1979.

“The current system simply lacks the ability to create efficiencies,” she said. “I fear a delay will force us to miss this window of opportunity.”

Indianapolis Bar Association Justice Center Task Force chairman John Kautzman agreed. “The need for this is undisputed … and the time is frankly now.

“Don’t kick this can down the road,” Kautzman urged the council’s Justice Center Task Force, which is expected to vote on a recommendation to the City-County Council at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday in Room 118 of the City-County Building.

Kautzman and some others who favor the proposal said they were not expressing an opinion on the preferred financing method proposed under the P3 deal.

Among the opponents were two candidates for Indianapolis mayor who said the decision should be left for the city’s next leader.

“I don’t feel a 35-year, $2 billion debt on homeowners can be tolerated,” said Republican Jocelyn-Tandy Adande. The long-term cost of the proposal in annual payments to develop, build, fund, operate and maintain the facility is estimated at about $1.75 billion.

Adande said the proposal is being put forth while the city is still paying for long-demolished stadiums and while basic needs in the community aren’t being met. She questioned the rush to pass the proposal with little public vetting.

“There is no hurry,” she said. “I’d much rather have a referendum.”

The Ballard administration claims the complex can be built and financed by savings gleaned from efficiencies, but a recent council analysis concluded the proposal was “not the most cost effective way to finance, build, operate and maintain a new justice center facility,” and other approaches could cost a half-billion dollars less.  

Democrat Larry Vaughn told the committee that claims of jobs from the project were overblown and questioned the motives for building the facility on the site of the former General Motors Stamping Plant,  south of Washington Street and west of White River.

“Out of sight, out of mind,” Vaughn said. “This should be stopped in its tracks.”

Other opponents said the center proposal irresponsibly projects greater incarceration rates even as rehabilitation and treatment gain favor and as other states are relaxing marijuana laws. “Let’s help people and quit warehousing them,” said resident Scott Tyler, who has worked in correctional facilities.

But advocates argued the complex would be a job generator and boost the Market East area of downtown Indianapolis when the current jail facilities are vacated.

“The Criminal Justice Center is the kind of infrastructure project that moves great cities forward,” said John Griffin, president of the Central Indiana Building Trades Council. “Two-thousand construction workers will be needed.”

Rick Lewis, national sales manager of Indianapolis-based Willoughby Industries, which manufactures stainless steel plumbing fixtures for correctional facilities, said the "project here represents a ton of work for a company like ours.” He noted about 10 percent of the company’s workforce includes former residents of Liberty Hall, the work-release center near the downtown jail.

Councilman Jeff Miller, who represents the district where the complex would be built, acknowledged the proposal was initially a tough sell for near-westside residents, but he said most now see the potential economic development the facility will spin off in a long-neglected part of the city.

He said downtown will prosper, too, if the project proceeds.

“When the jails are gone,” he said, “that will be prime property to redevelop.”

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