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EDITORIAL: Justice center critics must follow through

April 18, 2015

Opponents of the controversial justice complex proposal pushed by Mayor Greg Ballard might have killed the project when the City-County Council’s Rules and Public Policy Committee voted against it April 14, but that victory shouldn’t be confused with solving the problem. The city is still burdened with inefficient, unsafe jails and courtrooms.

City leaders have been struggling with what to do about Marion County’s outdated justice facilities since at least the late 1970s. In spite of Band-Aid fixes over the decades, courts and jails are at capacity and are becoming more expensive to maintain. The scattered site network of facilities doesn’t lend itself to efficient operation and at various times over the years hasn’t reliably separated the public from those being tried.

Ballard’s plan called for the $1.6 billion justice center complex to be built by a private consortium on part of the former General Motors stamping plant site west of downtown. The developer, WMB Heartland Justice Partners, was chosen to design, build, finance, operate and maintain the complex of jail and court buildings for 35 years in exchange for annual payments from the city, which would own the complex.

The WMB proposal, and the process that produced it, provided plenty of red meat for naysayers. For starters, WMB was chosen in a closed-door procurement process. The public only saw the winning bid after it had been selected. Once details of the bid were shared, a council analysis concluded that the WMB plan was more expensive than if the city built the complex itself.

And critics doubted Ballard’s claim that efficiencies built into the complex would save enough money to fund the city’s annual payments without raising taxes. Democrats who lined up against the project said only a city-led development without a private-sector partner could keep a tax increase off the table. We’re skeptical on both fronts.

Even the location of the project was controversial. When the city first pitched building the complex on land it owned near Indianapolis International Airport, the blowback over the distance from downtown was strong enough to cause the city to reconsider. Ultimately, it chose the old GM site, which is closer to downtown but not close enough to satisfy those who fear that moving courts, jails and ancillary activities will sap economic activity from the heart of the city.

No matter what one thinks of the Ballard administration’s proposal, this much is certain: The mayor and his team tried to meet head-on the challenge of building new justice facilities, something Ballard’s predecessors failed to do.

If Ballard’s plan can’t recover from the committee defeat, the question of what happens next should be pressed in the upcoming campaign. That will keep pressure on the next mayor to find a solution to a problem that’s been allowed to fester for far too long.•

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