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Supervisors still lack conviction on future of jail, courthouse

December meeting brings more discussion without direction

By Chris Umscheid
North Liberty Leader

IOWA CITY– They asked, they received, and they still lack a majority consensus.
At the conclusion of a Nov. 6 work session centered around the question of what to do about the county’s jail and courthouse in the wake of May’s failed bond referendum, a request was made for preliminary designs for two new options. On Wednesday, Dec. 4, those options were laid out in great detail for the Johnson County Board of Supervisors (BOS).
Chairwoman Janelle Rettig opened the session by introducing Dwight Dobberstein with Neumann Monson Architects. Rettig met with Dobberstein shortly before Thanksgiving, and supervisor Pat Harney and Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek had met with Dobberstein as well. Johnson County contracted with Neumann Monson for design work on the proposed project, and cost for their efforts far exceeded the amount contracted.
Rettig expressed her appreciation for the firm’s continued. “(The architects) have absorbed the cost (of the additional designs),” Rettig noted. “I understand that we have been a difficult client.”
Dobberstein turned the presentation over to John Cain of Venture Architects to present two options.
Option one called for a four-story annex on the west side of the existing courthouse property, essentially a justice center minus a floor that would have contained the sheriff’s office. The first two floors would be jail space while the top two would house court services. Cain noted these two stories were identical to the previous design.
The jail space however, presented a challenge.
“We lost the sally port (a secure entrance used to bring in prisoners), the booking area and the food service area,” Cain said, due to the loss of the sheriff’s office. He suggested keeping the sheriff’s office across the street in its current facility, and keeping the current jail in service as well. “We would build only one pod (of cells),” he said, and the remaining space in the jail floors would then be used for the sally port, and booking. “The drawback is that we would have two jails,” Cain said, which would both require staffing. On the plus side, the pod would be flexible enough to house 130 or more inmates with another 48 dorm beds on the second level.
Rettig conceded removing an entire floor was naive on the board’s part, in not realizing they would lose the sally port, booking and food areas. Supervisor Rod Sullivan asked Cain if the food service would be sufficient to serve all inmates in both buildings, making it possible to remove the kitchen from the current jail. Cain gave an emphatic yes.
“The future is that the (current jail) building will be taken off-line,” Cain said.
Nearly two hours later, option one died as it failed to attract any support.
Option two was a courthouse annex consisting of three floors and located “as far to the south as we could without getting into the General Services Administration (GSA) property,” Cain said, because of the public’s concerns about placing a new modern structure next to the historic courthouse. With the annex located on a vacated Harrison Street, it would not impose itself upon the courthouse, Cain said.
An enclosed walkway would connect the structure to the existing courthouse, a distance estimated by Cain of around 50 feet. The main floor would be the upper level with a secure entrance. Two courtrooms and the clerk of courts would be on this level, with four courtrooms on the floor below. The lowest level would contain a conference room. Neuzil asked if there was any room assigned for jail alternative services. The plan contains a variety of multi-use spaces, although none were specific to the alternative programming. Cain said such programs are not typically found in a courthouse.
Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness asked if the plan was still to use three court rooms in the current facility, Rettig said yes, but it depended on the construction plan. The goal was to get to a total of nine courtrooms, Rettig indicated.
“We could immediately use another courtroom, or two,” Lyness pointed out.
Option two met with tentative support throughout the board.
The board and Cain looked at several variations with the structures in different positions, and with different configurations. Cain also floated an idea for a referendum, which would involve building some new jail space while continuing to utilize the existing facility, and building new courtrooms while renovating the current historic structure.
Cain said it could be a way to reach voters, particularly if current facilities could be retained for some period of time and construction could be more gradual.
Cain wrapped up his presentation by suggesting an addition on the south side of the jail with a 70 to 80-bed pod on the ground floor and 140 beds above in a three-story building. An addition on the north side would also be possible, he noted; however, the county would likely need some land currently used by the University of Iowa for parking. An advantage of the plan would be the potential room for jail alternatives
Dobberstein put a rough estimate of $45 million to $49 million for option one; no cost-savings from the last referendum proposal.
“Basically we’re right back where we were, and we’ve lost some space,” said Cain. He estimated $24 million to $26 million for option two, and for an additional $30-$33 million, the county could get all 243 beds contained in the original justice center proposal.
Adding onto the existing jail, Dobberstein said, with one pod on the north side would cost between $13 million and $15 million, while a pod on the south– without the need to acquire land from the University– could cost around $12 million.
The reality of the numbers sank in for Neuzil, who again suggested turning the existing plan for a five-story facility into a three-story, court-services-only structure with a vacant floor. Dobberstein guessed that would be about a $30 million project.
It was also a bit of a told-you-so moment.
“One of the things that we have to get in our minds,” Neuzil said, “is that $45 to $49 million, which is what was (originally) proposed, is out the window. It’s now $53 million to $55 million because of inflation. We gave (voters) the cheapest option. We told them that the price was going to go up,” Neuzil said.
Rettig worked out the math and declared Neuzil correct; allowing for inflation, the figure for what the first justice center proposal would cost now would be just under $53 million, she said.
“This is our fourth (justice center-specific) discussion. A lot of ideas have been thrown out. Can we find consensus in any way, shape or form?” Rettig asked after nearly an hour. “It’s a matter of whether or not anyone’s prepared to go to the voters without seven people who can hold their nose and either be out there for it, or not be against it.” The supervisors hope to have the support of both Lyness and Pulkrabek in any proposal put before the voters.
“It’s so challenging to get everyone together. I don’t think coming back to the public with a jail is the best idea,” Sullivan said, suggesting instead a courthouse annex. “I think that’s the price range we’re looking at and it seems to me, more acceptable to the public.”
Neuzil and Sullivan found common ground for a court services annex and jail expansion as two separate votes on the future ballot.
Sheriff Pulkrabek still had reservations.
“I don’t think I can commit on these. I’ve said I won’t support anything that doesn’t, somehow, address some of the jail problems. Even if it does, I don’t know if I can support without us looking at the staffing,” Pulkrabek said. In prior referendums, the number of personnel needed was well known, whereas there were many unknowns in the two new scenarios. “Without having some idea what we’re going to do staffing-wise, I just can’t jump on board. Sorry.”
Lyness said she wants to talk to others using the court system, but stated her preference for an annex on the south side as opposed to the west, citing the inconvenience and long walk for people accessing the facility.
“We did put the best options and the cheapest options before the voters last year,” Lyness said, “and they defeated it. I don’t feel like we have to make this decision in the next two months and have it on the ballot as soon as possible.”
Rettig said if it’s not on a ballot in 2014, she was done discussing it, pointing to potential cost increases and the need to move on to other projects in the county. “We’ve been talking about this for 13 years. I don’t know how much longer we can talk,” Rettig said.
Neuzil, Pulkrabek and Lyness indicated they wished to wait long enough to determine if the GSA land would be available to the county, and to see if an agreement could be reached. However, Neuzil said he didn’t want to pass up an opportunity to move forward while waiting on the GSA land.
“You have enough votes on this board of supervisors to move forward,” Neuzil said.
Sullivan saw the GSA land and the jail proposals as obstacles to passing a bond referendum.
“I think if you come back to the public with a jail, you’re just beating them over the head,” said Sullivan. “I think we ought to come back with what’s possible, on land we own.”
Harney told the group the GSA is waiting on on the county, and that executive assistant Andy Johnson was going to schedule a meeting with GSA representatives. Since the full board would be involved, the meeting would be open to the public and media.
Harney said he is ready to build some form of courthouse annex behind the current building, and, build a new jail at the County Poor Farm later. Neuzil acknowledged such an idea would provide some flexibility.
Supervisor John Etheredge returned to his earlier idea of utilizing the Poor Farm, disliking the cost of excavation of the hill on the current courthouse property. “But again, no one else is there,” Etheredge said. Etheredge said he preferred Neuzil’s option or option two, but said the GSA land should be acquired for future expansion. “In 20 years we’re going to be moving somewhere else if we don’t get that land,” Etheredge said.
When Rettig asked Etheredge what he would be willing to put on a ballot regarding jail space, Etheredge said he was unclear at this time, in part due to Pulkrabek’s stance. “Until I can hear from Lonny what it’s going to take to do any of these plans, I really want to reserve judgment,” Etheredge said.
Rettig said she would like option two with a jail expansion on the south side of the current jail, putting both projects on the ballot separately. “And I want something to go to the voters in 2014,” she added.
Harney insisted on addressing the jail as well.
“If we do nothing (regarding the jail) we’re saying we don’t care about the people in there,” Harney said. “We’ve tried alternatives, we said we want to do all these programs, but what we’ve heard from the public is they don’t care. I cannot turn my back on the people in the jail.”
During public comments, county resident Terry Dahms asked about using the post office, which is potentially closing, for court space. Lyness said it would be a lengthy process to acquire the structure from the government, whereas the GSA parking lot would involve a land swap for the parking spaces and is a much easier process.
Lyness said meetings began with federal government officials almost immediately after talks with the City of Iowa City about closing the post office facility. “They (GSA) were pretty blunt they were not interested in selling that building.” Harney said purchasing the post office would be a five- to seven-year process.”
Rettig noted Lyness had also inquired about leasing space, but requirements were so numerous and restrictive, Lyness advised against signing the contract.
Judge Douglas Russell attended the meeting and accused the board of failing to live up to its obligations regarding the court and belittling the concerns of those who work in the courthouse, including air quality, falling ceilings and other physical and environmental issues.
“The voters just don’t agree with you,” Rettig told the judge. “We can’t provide you the space without the voters’ approval. I don’t need you lecturing me about what can’t get passed. I have no power to provide you with what you want.”
Harney acknowledged the judge’s concerns and listed a number of things the county has done in an attempt to rectify them.
Sullivan said he had no intention of belittling the courthouse staffs’ concerns.
“I think we’re all on the same team,” Sullivan said. “Tempers flare and we get frustrated because this really stinks. The public really has not done what the public should’ve done with this, and there’s really nothing we can do about it except come back with another proposal.”
It was the same non-conclusion that has been the end of on-going discussions since the bond issue failed. Sullivan said he believed all five supervisors would support putting a courthouse annex on a ballot, but details still escaped consensus, as did how to approach jail space.
“My God. Good Lord people,” a frustrated Sullivan said. “I’ve got about one more meeting in me because it’s just a waste of everybody’s time. We need to make a decision, and if it’s 3-2 among the supervisors, or 4-3 among the seven of us, whatever it is…let’s just decide.”
At least one more meeting is likely to be scheduled for early January.