[Source: “Johnson Co. Supervisors Discuss Needs for Courthouse & Jail,” KCRG, 14 May 2013, by Hayley Bruce]
IOWA CITY, Iowa — The Johnson County Board of Supervisors is going back to the drawing board to fix immediate safety and security needs at the jail and courthouse after a $43.5 million bond issue for the justice center failed, for the second time, last week.
During a work session Tuesday morning, the board discussed alternative options, which included replacing boilers at the courthouse, addressing an ongoing moisture problem, securing the entrance and create an entryway for wheelchair users that is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act at the courthouse. There was also discussion of adding courtrooms and chambers that would allow the county to hire additional judges to help alleviate backlogged civil and juvenile cases.
As for the jail, supervisors discussed the immediate need to fix the jail’s locking system and control center — which could cost between $1.6 and $2 million — and could require inmates to be moved out of the jail during construction.
John Etheredge, the newest member to the board, suggested an alternative plan in which the county jail, courthouse and health and human services building be moved out to a central location at the the Johnson County Poor Farm on the edge of Iowa City. Etheredge said the court house could then be turned into a museum with state grant funding, and the other county property could be sold for roughly $8 million to put towards construction of a new jail, courthouse, and health and human services building over the next 10 years.
In the mean time, he suggested the county look into using trailers on site at the courthouse for to create room for extra office space, and pay for the minimum security upgrades at the jail. He also suggested that adding three judges at the court house would help solve the backlogging problem and free space at the jail, to which Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness disagreed.
Supervisor Janelle Rettig said that plan could end up being more expensive, as it would require the county to build a new courthouse — rather than using the one that already exists. Supervisor Terry Neuzil also questioned whether the board would be able to get public approval for the project, because earlier discussions regarding the Justice Center indicated that most residents wanted the courthouse and jail to remain downtown.
“I’m not saying it’s going to fix everything, but it would help,” Etheredge said, adding that he thinks spreading out the cost of a new courthouse and jail over a period of 10 years would make voters more willing to fund the project. “I’m just putting stuff out there because right now nothing is getting passed and nothing is getting done.”
The board also briefly discussed how to address an issue with disproportionate minority contact with police, and will likely try to organize a future meeting between experts and police, city, and school board officials to determine what options are available.
At the end of the meeting, the board determined they need to gather more information on costs to determine whether it would be possible, and logical to rent out empty space near the courthouse, or raze houses across the street from the jail to create room for storage and additional office space in the form of trailers for the courthouse. They also plan to look into what a minor addition onto the courthouse would cost, and whether it would be possible to begin holding only minimum security inmates at the jail — shipping the rest out to other facilities.
Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek expressed concern over whether a small courthouse addition would make the future for a justice center impossible.
“Are we writing off completely ever having the jail and the courthouse together?,” Pulkrabek said, addressing a possible addition to the courthouse. “Does that make it so we get past the point of no return where we can never come back and have a consolidated justice center?”
During public comment, county residents said that they understood that the jail and courthouse had safety and security issues that needed to be addressed, adding they would be willing to help come up with a solution, so long as the county addressed issues with minority disparities in inmates, the increased incarceration rate, and agreed to try to lower the costs. One commenter also said a change in policing policies, by not jailing non-violent offenders, throughout the county would likely help to eliminate overcrowding at the jail.
Overall, Supervisors were most concerned with making millions of dollars in investments to put a Band-aid on problems that will require more money long-term.
“At some point, it comes down to do you spend $2 million, when your needs are $25 million?,” said Supervisor Rod Sullivan. “I just don’t know.”