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Courthouse annex ready for vote

By Chris Umscheid
Solon Economist

IOWA CITY– Voters in Johnson County will decide in November whether or not to approve a $30,800,000 bond referendum for a courthouse annex.
The Johnson County Board of Supervisors gave tentative approval for the floor plans of the proposed three-story structure in a meeting Wednesday, May 8, with Neumann Monson Architects and Venture Architects as well as County Attorney Janet Lyness and Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek. The board gave an overview of the facility later that afternoon in a meeting with the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee.
If approved, the building would be located 60 feet away from the historic courthouse, built into the hill on the south side and occupying Harrison Street, which the City of Iowa City would vacate.
“We are in the process of working on (vacating) with the city,” Supervisor Janelle Rettig said, adding that attorneys from both entities were putting together a formal agreement. She also said she hoped the city would pass a resolution to vacate the street upon successful passage of the bond issue. “We’ve been told that (the city would) multiple times. We just want to get something formal,” she said.
The top (third) floor will be at ground level to the courthouse and will have the main entrance with security screening. Also on the floor will be the Clerk of Courts, two courtrooms, judges’ chambers and an outdoor terrace. An enclosed walkway will connect the annex to the courthouse.
The middle (second) floor will contain four courtrooms, conference rooms and additional judges’ chambers. “Every courtroom has meeting rooms at the entryway,” Rettig said. Also, holding cells for inmates will also be located between the courtrooms, “…where the inmates would be held off (from) the main traffic pattern,” she added.
The bottom (first) floor, on ground level with Capitol Street, will contain a sally port (secure, controlled entryway for bringing inmates into and out of the annex), inmate holding cells and a secure elevator separate from the public. Also, 4,000 square feet of storage space for the Clerk of Courts is provided as well as room for the mechanical (heating/air conditioning and ventilation) equipment. Rettig emphasized the public would be limited to the second and third floors.
“There are lots of things built into this that will increase safety and security,” Supervisor Pat Harney pointed out. Among the concerns with the current courthouse are a lack of separation between inmates, courthouse staff and the public.
As for the current courthouse, built between 1899 and 1901, plans are to re-utilize it, Rettig indicated. For now the county attorney’s office would remain in the building and there is the potential for additional office space for magistrates. At least three courtrooms would be re-purposed, Rettig said, depending on staffing. The current main entrance would be closed to the public with access only from the annex.
Previous proposals for a five-story justice center to combine the courthouse annex and a new jailhouse met with opposition for a variety of reasons, including the visual contrast between a highly modern structure and the historic courthouse. The board has been mindful of that concern in drafting a new proposal for the courthouse annex.
“Looking from the east, only one story will be visible,” Rettig emphasized. The annex will also be set back 40-feet from Clinton Street creating what she called a community space.
The annex is being designed so that future expansion would be possible with a second structure behind it on property currently owned by the General Services Administration (GSA) of the federal government. Rettig told the audience negotiations with the feds continues, and she sees no problem with acquiring the land at some point, if needed.
Lyness noted the exterior of the annex has not been discussed at this point and said there would be a series of public meetings through the summer to gain input on what the building should look like. The board expects to make a final decision in September.
Andy Johnson, executive assistant to the board, said a $30,800,000 bond issue would raise taxes on property owners to the tune of $34-$35 per year on $100,000 of taxable valuation.
“That’s assuming a lot of things,” Johnson said.
The bond issue would not include funds for repairs and replacement work needed at the county jail. Harney said other funding sources would be utilized separate from the bond for the approximately $3,500,000 in, immediate repairs that are needed now to keep it functional. Expansion is not in the plans, however replacing doors, locks, the control system and surveillance cameras are.
“There’s a little under $1.5 million budgeted for jail repairs and improvements in the Fiscal Year 2015 budget, which starts July 1,” Rettig said. Repairs and improvements to plumbing, floors and walls would also likely be done while the jail is evacuated for parts of the project. Rettig said the projects would be put out for bid with an anticipated start in November. The jail also needs a roof replacement and a new generator. Those projects would be budgeted for in subsequent years.
Language for the bond referendum ballot is in-progress, and the board anticipates reviewing it at a Thursday, May 15, informal meeting with approval to follow at the Thursday, May 22, formal meeting.