City, county discuss sharing facility

(Source: “City, county discuss sharing facility,” Press Citizen, 1 October 2013, by Josh O’Leary)

With proposals for a new county justice center twice nixed by voters, Johnson County and Iowa City officials are now floating the idea of a shared law enforcement facility.

Iowa City Manager Tom Markus said the possibility of addressing the police department’s space needs, which the current City Hall offices would be hard-pressed to meet in the long run, by sharing a facility with the county sheriff’s office “has merit.”

“We have had that discussion internally among staff, and I think there’s general support for that kind of concept,” Markus said Tuesday at a work session hosted by the Johnson County Board of Supervisors to collect input from government officials in the wake of the justice center defeat.

While there were few specifics offered at the meeting about how such a joint facility would operate or be funded, county officials agreed with Markus that it was an idea worth further discussion. The Iowa City Police Department currently operates out of City Hall on East Washington Street, while the sheriff’s office and county jail sit less than a mile away on South Capitol Street.

“Everything is up in the air right now, and this has to be on the table, too,” county supervisor Terrence Neuzil said.

For years, the county has been seeking a solution to the crowding in its county jail and aging courthouse, but in May, for the second time in six months, residents voted down a justice center bond referendum, this time a $43.5 million proposal.

The Iowa City Police Department has its own space issues. Police Chief Sam Hargadine said officers currently are housed in a space in the back of City Hall that in many ways “was never really built to be a police department.” There’s no garage space, for instance, to service police vehicles, and crime evidence such as drugs and weapons are stored at another location, the chief said.

“It really needs to be secure in a police department, and presently it’s not,” Hargadine said.

Iowa code allows for the establishment of joint county and city buildings in the county seat — which in Johnson County’s case is Iowa City — if the two entities incorporate an authority overseen by a commission. Space within the facility could then be leased out to the various jurisdictions by the authority.

Board of Supervisors chairwoman Janelle Rettig pointed to Scott County, which has a jail facility owned by a public safety authority in partnership with the city of Davenport. Rettig said because criminals know no boundaries, “a synergy of combined detective forces” might make sense for the police department and sheriff’s office.

Such a facility wouldn’t be Johnson County and Iowa City’s first joint endeavor. The Joint Emergency Communications Center, which combined the communication systems used by the Iowa City Police Department and the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office under one roof, opened in 2010. Budget problems and other controversies plagued JECC’s first year or so, but officials on Monday agreed that it was now on stable footing.

Markus said similar regional approaches that result in savings and efficiency were worth considering.

“I would encourage you to keep that in the mix as we look forward to what the next steps are,” Markus said.

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