IOWA CITY– The ballot measure for a new $46.8 million justice center in Johnson County was shot down last Tuesday, Nov. 6.
With a total count of 35,403 to 28,202, (unofficial until Wednesday’s canvass) a majority of the county’s 75,463 voters said yes, but the measure required 60 percent of the total vote to pass. It only received 56 percent.
Johnson County supervisor Terrence Neuzil said there were obviously things about the proposal that residents didn’t like, but its narrow defeat indicates there is still momentum to address the issue.
“Voting it down does not make the problems go away,” Neuzil said.
Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said falling just short of the required supermajority indicates many people understand the need.
“That means there is still a bunch of education to do out there before we try again,” Pulkrabek said.
Opponents of the new jail will be beefing up their efforts at education as well, said Martha Hampel, co-organizer of the political action group Vote NO on New Jail.
“Johnson County residents do not want a new jail and courthouse combination for many reasons,” Hampel said, noting the political action committee Yes for Justice reported nearly $35,000 in donations and expenditures, while Vote NO reported less than $1,500 and campaigned for just over a month. “If there had not been such a difference in money reported and time spent campaigning, we would have crushed the proposed jail and courthouse combination by much more than four percent.”
Another try seems likely, so both sides will be fortifying their arguments in the months to come.
Neuzil said there were two main concerns he heard in the days leading up to the Nov. 6 election.
“The biggest road block I heard about– and anticipated back in February and March when we were fighting over it– was the price tag. So we whittled it down from $70 million to $54 million, and then fought like cats and dogs to get it to $48.1 million, which we all agreed to.”
The supervisors voted to contribute $1.3 million out of the county’s reserve funds, but Neuzil believed, and stated publicly, that it wasn’t enough.
“I think if we had reduced the size and scope, and also invested a little more from the county, we would have gotten the 60 percent,” he said.
Pulkrabek is not convinced there is much downsizing that can be done.
“It will be hard for me to support it being scaled back, because in my opinion we scaled it back already to a project that was a need and no longer a want,” Pulkrabek said. “I don’t think we have to go back to the drawing board but if we do, that will mean the board of supervisors will have to pay the architects another chunk of money. They (the architects) have already met the requirement that was in their contract.”
Neuzil said the second most prevalent concern was the number of beds in the proposed new jail.
“There was an objection to building that many cells. We came up with $48.1 million in part because we were trying to resolve the (overcrowding) issue for the next 15 or 20 years. If you want to resolve the problem in a community that is growing this fast, and you project the costs out that far, it will cost more up front,” said Neuzil.
Now, Neuzil said, the supervisors and the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee (CJCC) will have to talk about ways to bring costs down; that may mean looking at a shorter-term solution.
“I am trying to convince the (other) supervisors that we can’t ask for everything we want to get residents to vote for it. We have to look at more immediate needs,” Neuzil said.
Reducing the bed count from 243 to between 180 to 200, downsizing the courtroom plans and examining other efficiencies in soft costs– “like do you need all new desks or can you use the old ones?” he posed– the budget could be squeezed a little tighter.
The supervisors commence their discussion of belt-tightening at a work session Tuesday, Nov. 13 (subsequent to the publication of this newspaper).
Neuzil proposed three ideas to trim down: lowering the bond request, investing more county dollars, and reducing the number of cell beds.
“If we do those three, and at same time do a better job of educating residents, help them understand what the price tag really is, why we are locating it where we are, and starting to address fringe issues like racial inequities in the system. If we do all that, I think we are going to have something out before the public very soon.”
Soon enough, he believes, to get it on another ballot shortly after the required waiting period of six months. “But I’m not interested in putting out the same proposal,” Neuzil qualified.
According to Hampel, there is not much chance even a scaled-back proposal would produce a favorable outcome in a new vote.
“Nearly all of us are opposed to building anything at the proposed location, other than perhaps a modest courthouse extension of our historical courthouse matching the beautiful building’s design,” said Hampel. “We understand there are accessibility issues and agree they must be addressed.”
Some in Hampel’s group would support keeping the current jail and constructing a new satellite jail in a location more convenient to other parts of Johnson County, she added, and she agreed with Neuzil’s perception that fewer beds is more acceptable.
“However, before building a new jail, many of us believe overcrowding can be addressed by simply making changes in policing procedures,” Hampel said. “Unfortunately, Sheriff Pulkrabek claims he has no control over the policing procedures of individual police departments, which makes some of us wonder why jail overcrowding is being addressed on a county level rather than on a city-by-city basis,” Hampel said.
Regardless of who is doing the arresting, though, Pulkrabek and his officers are the ones who are currently dealing with the overcrowded facility.
“The citizens can expect business as usual out of our office,” said Pulkrabek. “We will continue to have a presence at the courthouse, yet not have screening, and continue to ship inmates out of the county as needed at a tune of $1 million or more a year. It means we still have no room for additional jail alternatives other than what is already in place.”
The CJCC will continue to meet the first Wednesday of each month at 4:30 p.m., and the meetings are open to the public. Information from those meetings can be accessed on the county’s website at johnson-county.com.
In addition to stepped-up education efforts from the Vote NO camp, Hampel said she expects opponents to attend upcoming CJCC meetings and communicate with its members to work on other ways to resolve jail overcrowding. Information on their organization can be found at votenonewjail.org.