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Council committee shoots down plan for justice center

April 15, 2015 | Indianapolis Business Journal | Link to Article

Mayor Greg Ballard's $1.6 billion justice center project suffered what could be a fatal blow in an Indianapolis City-County Council committee Tuesday night.

After several Democrats on the Rules and Public Policy Committee took fervent stands against the project, Republican council Minority Leader Michael McQuillen asked the committee to at least pass the proposal to the full council without a recommendation. His motion was voted down on a party-line basis, 6-2, and the committee adjourned shortly afterward.

The plan could still be saved Monday by the City-County Council if a simple majority of the council votes to bring the proposal back to the floor. Republicans are trying to drum up enough votes to make that happen.

The rules committee spent more than an hour Tuesday hearing competing arguments about whether the project would be revenue-neutral, as Ballard's administration has promised. But the votes were not favorable from the start. Democrats John Barth and Angela Mansfield both expressed philosophical differences with the concept of the public-private agreement. Barth said it was “cynical” of the administration to assume that the city couldn't find a way to build a new jail and courthouse without shifting the risk to the private sector.

“Look out here,” he said, pointing to the council chambers, which were packed with members of the grassroots Indianapolis Congregation Action Network, or IndyCAN, a religious group that opposes the project. “You have all these folks who want to be involved.”
 
The hearing also drew justice-center supporters from labor unions, who would benefit from the estimated 2,200 construction jobs, and lawyers.

Democratic council member Joe Simpson was so eager to take a stand that he attended the meeting and sat with the committee, though he's not a member. Before committee members even began questioning the Ballard administration's team, Simpson read a multi-page statement.

“This proposal relies entirely on political promises by elected official who don't have to make good on them,” he said. Ballard is not seeking a third term, and Democratic Sheriff John Layton is limited to two terms, the second of which expires at the end of 2018.

Democrat Pam Hickman reiterated the skepticism of council Chief Financial Officer Bart Brown that the sheriff can reduce arestees' medical expenses, one of the sources of savings that would go toward annual payments on the new facility.

“I do not want to raise taxes for this project,” Hickman said after the committee voted down McQuillen's motion. “I do not think it should leave this committee.”