County ponders next move after justice center defeat

[Source: “County ponders next move after justice center defeat,” Press Citizen, 14 May 2013, by Lee Hermiston]

Now what?

That’s been the question facing the Johnson County Board of Supervisors for a week now. Last week, the $43.5 million bond referendum that would have funded the $46.2 million justice center received 54 percent of support from 13,651 voters, 4 percent shy of the supermajority needed for adoption. It marked the second time in six months the justice center had failed to meet that threshold.

On Tuesday, the board, along with Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek and county attorney Janet Lyness — and about 20 community members — met for the first time since the election to try to get a sense of how they would move forward.

Following the justice center’s defeat in November, the county quickly put a slightly cheaper version of the justice center back on the ballot. After nearly four hours of discussion on Tuesday, the board of supervisors seems ready to listen to just about any proposal.

“What I was envisioning today is everyone throws ideas out,” said board member Terrence Neuzil. “Over the next several weeks, months, we prioritize those…That’s what I think you have to do.”

The proposed justice center, which would be built directly behind the Johnson County Courthouse on Clinton Street, would house a 195-bed jail, four new courtrooms, and meeting space and office space for the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office and Johnson County Clerk of Court. Supporters say the facility would address crowding at the Johnson County Jail and space, safety and security issues at the courthouse.

Justice center opposition said the 195-bed was too large and argued it would lead to more arrests. Many opponents also said they were concerned about the disproportionate number of minorities in jail and the growth of the county’s incarceration rate.

County supervisor John Etheredge said he would like to see the jail and courthouse – as two separate buildings – built west of Iowa City at the Johnson County Poor Farm off Melrose Avenue. Ultimately, Etheredge said he’d like to see the county establish a “campus” there with all of the county buildings in one location.

“To me, that’d be the best route,” Etheredge said, noting that a central location would be more accessible for all of the county’s residents. “It’s not a unique proposal, it’s been done before.”

Etheredge said he’d also like to see more judges allocated to Johnson County, which he said could be done by putting up temporary trailers at the courthouse to use as office space – similar to the temporary classrooms used by the Iowa City Community School District. He would also turn the existing courthouse into a museum when a new courthouse was completed.

His proposal, however, was met with a great deal of scrutiny, particularly from supervisors Janelle Rettig and Rod Sullivan who questioned the cost of building a standalone structure, rather than relying on the existing courthouse. They estimated a standalone structure would cost approximately $55 million.

The entire board seemed to agree that something needs to be done at the Johnson County Jail.

Currently, the jail’s locking system and control center are on their last legs and facilities manager Eldon Slaughter has identified other necessary repairs that will need to be made in the next five to 10 years. He has estimated those costs at $4 million, including the cost of housing all of the county’s inmates out of the county for a period ranging from 60 days to a year.

When costs start approaching those levels, Slaughter said a more drastic approach might be prudent.

“You might as well gut it and start over,” he said.

But, Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek warned that overhauling the jail could trigger jail inspectors to hold the jail to current guidelines, rather than the ones that have been grandfathered in and allow for double-bunking in the cells.

“We’d lose some capacity,” Pulkrabek said.

Another jail idea posed by Pat Harney was to send the county’s most high-risk inmates out of county to a better facility. That would mean spending more each year housing inmates out of the county, but would mean less stringent security measures at the jail.

One idea that seemed to have some traction was building an annex onto the south side of the courthouse. The annex would create a secure entrance that is also compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The annex could also have more space for additional courtrooms.

Pulkrabek was concerned, however, that would mean completely doing away with the justice center concept. Retting said a south annex was something the county considered adding to the jail at a later date after the justice center was complete, were it approved by voters.

“You could be building what is wing two first and leave space for the original (justice center proposal) there,” she said.

Other ideas include renting office space for the county attorney’s office and turning their space into courtrooms and renting space at the post office across the street. Social Security Administration has vacated office space in that building and the post office is rumored to be leaving though the Iowa City Postmaster said that is not the case.

The meeting was attended by several justice center opponents who admitted the county is facing problems related to the jail and courthouse, but said they’ve disagreed with the county’s approach thus far. Opponents said Tuesday they were pleased with what they were hearing from the supervisors.

“I want to thank you guys for starting over from scratch,” said Martha Hampel. “I hope that’s what we’re doing. We definitely need to start from scratch and start to think outside of this justice center.”

Rettig said many meetings are to come and for now, they’ll start collecting information on the various proposals so they can consider them more closely.

“Obviously, the board has no direction at this point,” she said. “We’ll begin to get some answers and schedule future space needs meetings… The message is: to be continued.”

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