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County justice center plans moving forward slowly

IOWA CITY– Voters in Johnson County should see a proposal for a $39 million bond issue in their voting booth next year. The Board of Supervisors, in conjunction with the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, has signaled their intention to place the long-discussed Justice Center bond on the ballot in either a special election or in November’s general election.
In the meantime, a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) has gone out for pre-schematic and final architectural and engineering design for the first of two construction phases. The final architectural and engineering design portion is contingent on the referendum passing.
A preliminary analysis of space needs was conducted by the County and performed by the Novak Design Group of Cedar Rapids. A 98-page document produced by Novak, and dated January 26 of this year, details the needs of all users of the facility including the Sheriff’s Office, court and court administrators, the County Attorney’s office, storage spaces, and of course, inmate facilities.
In phase I of the project, 108,000 sq. ft. of space would be needed, including 25,000 sq. ft. of renovated space in the current courthouse. An additional 20,000 sq. ft. area would be needed in phase II, which would be constructed some 10 to 15 years after the completion of the first phase. Phase I construction has been estimated to take four to five years.
The County has specified that the total cost of phase I of the project, including renovation of the courthouse, site design, onsite parking and professional fees and contingencies, will not exceed the $39 million limit.
The primary location for the new facility sits adjacent to the existing courthouse between S. Capitol and S. Clinton streets on the north side of E. Harrison. The RFQ notes potential designers may include the right-of-way of Harrison Street, as the county would work with the city to vacate it. A lingering question mark is one of parking space. The county continues to negotiate with the General Services Administration (GSA) for a potential land swap or other arrangement for the use of a parking lot serving the United States Post Office on Clinton Street. There is potential for acquiring space in nearby city-owned parking ramps.
The timeline for applicants is tight, with an August 22 deadline. A selection committee will review the materials with a first round of interviews scheduled for September 28 and 29. Finalists are to be interviewed by the Board of Supervisors on October 6 and 7. The winning firm would then have an April 1, 2012, deadline for delivery of the pre-schematic in order to give voters sufficient time to form an educated opinion in advance of the election.
“I think that, without a doubt any doubt, we’re ready to call the question” said Supervisor Terrence Neuzil, who sits on the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee (including Public Information/Outreach Sub-Committee). Neuzil said he feels the board has “laid-out a pretty good argument that well sell to the community.” He also said the board needs to share their plan with their constituents, listen to the community at-large, and adjust accordingly.
Johnson County tried a similar bond issue in 2000, which was defeated. A two-year study group that included over 30 community members underwent a “grueling and tedious” process to develop a new plan. The recommendation in 2003 was to wait until at least 2008 to put the issue before the voters.
Neuzil explained the delay was based on two factors: incorporating the courthouse, which meant the discussion expanded beyond the out-dated and inadequate jail facilities; and pursuing alternatives to incarceration, especially for mentally ill individuals.
“We were in a good place to look at 2008” Neuzil said. Along the way, he said, former Johnson County Sheriff Bob Carpenter and current Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek “did too good of a job.” As space in the jail became an overcrowding issue, the sheriffs looked for other facilities in which to house inmates. Both men found low-cost cells in other jails, and were so efficient in the process, Neuzil said, it was actually cheaper to house them outside the county than it was to build a new jail. “But,” he said “we knew time would catch up with us.”
In 2008, the Justice Center moved to the back burner as the Joint Emergency Communications Center (JECC) became a priority. In addition, the economic collapse that year, coupled with record flooding, convinced the board to wait on the bond issue. In 2009-2010, the board regrouped and moved forward. The primary location was chosen, and the feasibility study by The Durrant Group was commissioned, along with the Novak study. The goal of both studies was to identify needs, determine the likely cost, and ultimately create a vision for an efficient facility.
The current facility, designed to house 46 inmates, was built in the 1970s.
“On a good football Saturday, we’ll get three times as many,” said Neuzil. He pointed out the hazards to staff and inmates by the older design: its construction creates many blind spots, and jailers and inmates have been injured in altercations. Contemporary designs are based on more open floor plans, allowing staff to better monitor their charges. The new facility will be designed to house up to 254 inmates. The current average inmate population is around 170, which could enable the County to consider housing other county’s inmates on a limited basis.
“It’s up to the voters to decide” Neuzil said. “It’s up to us (the Board of Supervisors) to educate, and it’s up to others to advocate.”
Supervisor Rod Sullivan agreed. “I don’t believe it is our job to ‘sell’ it. It is our job to put forth the best possible plan, then let the people decide. It took too long, but I believe we have done that. Now it is up to the voters,”said Sullivan.