By Chris Umscheid
North Liberty Leader
IOWA CITY– A Johnson County Board of Supervisors work session on Monday, Oct. 14, was meant to determine the next steps toward finding a courthouse and jail proposal voters would approve.
Instead of consensus there was conflict, and after more than three hours of discussion, the five members decided to step back and try again at a later date.
The session was a sort of post mortem on the latest failed bond issue vote for a justice center, which would have combined a new jail and sheriff’s office with additional courtrooms and space for a variety of court-related needs. While a majority of voters approved the $43 million project in the May 7 election, the required 60 percent super majority was not reached. In the aftermath of the defeat, nine public meetings were held around the county as the supervisors tried to figure out what went wrong as well as what went right.
Andy Johnson, Executive Assistant to the Johnson County Board of Supervisors, took the results of those meetings– along with a survey on the county’s website, handwritten responses and emails– and created a multi-faceted questionnaire for the supervisors, Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness and Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek. Johnson facilitated the afternoon meeting and reviewed such topics as what they considered to be positives from the bond proposal, any negatives associated with it, external factors which may or may not have influenced the election results, and a summation of what they feel the public understands about the courthouse and jail situations. Perceptions and misconceptions were also addressed.
The positive features of the proposal, the group felt, were having the jail and courthouse connected, separation of prisoners from the public, a more efficient jail design utilizing pods and more space for alternatives such as treatment programs.
Supervisor Rod Sullivan added, “better working conditions for the staff,” and supervisor Janelle Rettig added, “it planned for the future.” Supervisor Pat Harney lamented the fact that while a majority approved the measure, “it just wasn’t 60 percent,” Harney said.
Sheriff Pulkrabek said the design change would have an impact on inmate behavior leading to a reduction in inmate-on-inmate assaults and sexual assaults due to better and constant monitoring.
Things that were viewed in a negative light, for some, included the actual design and aesthetics of the project, the $43 million price tag that was deemed too expensive, and the downtown location and distance from other communities. Some also felt there was not enough space for jail alternatives.
Rettig clarified the last point. “The actual quote,” she said, “was no space for alternatives.”
A number of external factors which either positively or negatively affected peoples’ support, or the lack thereof, were also examined. Preservation of the courthouse as a historic landmark was seen as a positive, as was an understanding of the need for improved security in the facility. Tours of the courthouse and jail were also seen as positive factors before the election. Sullivan expanded on the courthouse’s historic status, saying some people just do not realize what being listed on the National Historical Registry means.
“It does not mean it has to be restored,” Sullivan said. noting the county could tear it down, but has no desire to do so. To date, no nonprofit groups have come forward with any wish to take over the building as a historic site, Sullivan noted, and no private ventures have come forward with any business ventures either. “Nobody wants it,” Sullivan said, “but for its historical significance.”
Among negative external factors swaying voters was the economic recession, which drew a rebuke from Rettig.
“(The state and local economy) couldn’t possibly get better,” Rettig said, citing record revenues for the state and comparatively low unemployment numbers. But Sullivan said individual perceptions of the economy vary widely.
Ongoing discussion and debate over perceived disproportionate minority arrests and incarceration was also seen as a negative external factor, as was the media-highlighted “spork” breaking incident, where a Johnson County inmate was charged for destroying a combination spoon and fork utensil. The report drew broad ridicule. “Law enforcement can’t pick and choose what laws to enforce,” Pulkrabek said.
Tax Increment Financing (TIF) and legislative issues were seen by Rettig as a negative external factor.
“The county has done too good of a job” discussing issues and the county’s finances, and educating the public in these matters, Rettig said, leading to a perception that a bond and subsequent tax increase weren’t necessary for the project.
“People feel they are over-taxed,” Pulkrabek said.
Sullivan called it a fool’s errand to try and understand what voters did or didn’t understand. “God only knows,” he said, why people were supportive or opposed. He added he had heard wrong information being put out by both supporters and opponents, further muddying the waters. And then there were those Harney spoke with who said they favored the proposal but simply didn’t vote.
Looking to the future and a potential for another bond referendum in the future, Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert gave a brief overview of available election dates, and how long they would have to wait to try again if another defeat occurred. Weipert acknowledged voter fatigue from so many general, special and school elections in a year could work against them.
Later in the session Johnson put up a list of possible solutions the board could pursue, ranging from keeping the same design and trying for another vote to focusing on one piece; addressing courthouse needs and applying band aid fixes to the jail, or even going for a separate vote on the jail and courthouse projects. Etheredge’s combined county services campus at the historic poor farm was listed as an option, as was obtaining polling data to further determine what the voters will and will not go for. Eventually, the supervisors, Lyness and Pulkrabek lobbied for their top three choices of seven options for reviving, revising or scrapping the proposal, and ways to approach a new bond referendum.
Sullivan asked Etheredge for his input, as the young Republican sat silently through the lengthy and testy discussion. “We’re sitting here spinning our wheels and getting our rear’s hurt,” Etheredge said, before echoing Pulkrabek’s desire for more polling data.
That provoked a response from Rettig, who decried the cost of a poll and statistical errors inherent in polling data. “It’s a complete waste of the taxpayer’s money,” she said, but “if three of you want it, vote on it tomorrow (at the regular board meeting).”
Etheredge said he wanted a poll to pin down a location for a proposed courthouse annex as well as a price point the public would tolerate, and whether the public wanted one facility or was willing to go with two. “Does anybody other than John and Lonny want a poll?” Rettig asked. and got no response. “Good,” she said. “We’re done talking about polling.”
Tensions continued to boil as the supervisors haggled over focusing on an annex while putting off the jail until later. Neuzil, who made it clear he would only go for a court annex if jail improvements were included, stressed the need for immediate work on the jail to improve safety and security for the staff. Rettig felt next year’s budget could address those improvements. Harney said he doesn’t want to dump more money into the jail and was ready to make it minimum security and ship all other inmates to other facilities.
Sullivan appealed to Etheredge to join in a majority pushing for a courthouse annex, since courthouse needs and costs of improvements are well-defined.
“We know the maximum (cost) it’ll be. It’ll be that or less,” Sullivan said. Etheredge stood his ground, saying he wanted a firm size and location.
That wasn’t the answer Rettig was looking for.
“Three want to do nothing. We don’t have a majority on anything,” Rettig concluded.
The board will hold another work session 1:15 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 24, in one more attempt to find a consensus on the future direction of the project.