Johnson County to Bring Justice Center Back to Ballot

[Source: “Johnson County to Bring Justice Center Back to Ballot,” KGAN-TV CBS 2 Iowa, 3 January 2013]

IOWA CITY, IA (CBS2/FOX28) — Johnson County is planning to bring the vote for a new justice center back to the ballot, but this time, with a smaller price tag.

The Johnson County Board of Supervisors is tentatively planning a special election for the issue in May, and the price tag voters would see on the referendum is $43.5 million, nearly $5 million less than what appeared on the ballot last November.

The price reduction is due largely in part to a major reworking of the plan for the justice center, and a larger down payment from the board itself.

The new jail and courthouse is a project that has been in works for more than a decade, and has rejected by voters twice. But now, the vote is more crucial than ever, Johnson County Supervisor Board Chair Janelle Rettig said.

“We can’t bury it another 10 years and come back again. We’re at a breaking point. Something has to give,” Rettig said.

The special election could cost anywhere from $44,000 upwards, Rettig said, but without it, the price tag on the project will increase dramatically because of inflation.

In order to make the issue more palatable to voters, who criticized the cost and large size of the proposed jail, the county cut the number of beds it had originally wanted from 243 to 195. To accommodate future growth, the plan includes the option to shell out more dormitory space and two extra courtrooms, said Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek.

“So, what we’ve come back to is a project that we all agree would match the needs of the county on the day we open,” Rettig said.

The needs of the county are so great, Rettig said, that the board has decided to put other infrastructure projects — such as, building repairs and expansions to emergency response — on hold. That’s in favor of the board providing a larger down payment on the justice center. The board will increase it’s former $1.3 million down payment to $2.7 million, in an effort to ease the burden on taxpayers down the road, Rettig said.

For Pulkrabek, that’s a big sign of commitment.

“I think everyone has compromised a little bit, including myself and the county attorney,” Pulkrabek said.

Pulkrabek said he still doesn’t think the 195 beds will last through the next decade, when the county is expected to grow by 30,000 people. He said he respects the concerns of taxpayers, and hopes they will respect his concern for public safety.

“I think it would be irresponsible of an elected official to not plan for the future, somewhat. This gives us a little bit of wiggle room when it opens, capacity-wise, at least, I hope so,” Pulkrabek said.

While cost was one criticism, another was the disproportionate number of black people incarcerated compared to other races. Rettig said it is an issue she plans to take up with local city police officers, but, she said, that issue does not negate the need for a safer, larger jail and courthouse.

The earliest a special election could take place is May 7. The board will decide on the exact date in about a month, Rettig said.

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