By Chris Umscheid
IOWA CITY– It could be back to the drawing table, literally, for some area architects. While the Johnson County Board of Supervisors continues to grapple with how to move forward in addressing courthouse and jail space needs, the possibility of dividing the proposed justice center into two separate projects appears more likely.
The board met Thursday, Oct. 24, for a second work session to ponder options in the wake of the failed bond referendum back in May. Had it passed, voters would have approved a building behind the historic courthouse containing a new jail, sheriff’s office, courtrooms and additional space for other courthouse needs. That proposal, for $43 million, received 54 percent of the vote. However 60 percent was required for passage. A contentious work session on Oct. 14 led to three proposals for further discussion. However, no clear consensus, or even a simple majority was able to be reached, leading to the second session.
Members of the board, with Johnson Count Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek and County Attorney Janet Lyness tossed around the need for more information, possible polling data, the potential for acquiring the General Services Administration (GSA) parking lot to the south of the courthouse, and even possibly looking at the to-be-vacated post office.
Board chairwoman Janelle Rettig was taken aback by the conversation noting the discussion had been going on for 13 years, with numerous consultants and three elections to show for it.
“What more information could you possibly need?” Rettig posed, then asked how they could keep delaying a decision and action while the situation at the courthouse regarding safety and security is a crisis.
“We don’t need the GSA land,” Rettig said referring to the parking lot and the post office. “You’ve consultant-ed this to death.”
”We really are back at trying to get information,” Lyness replied, as county officials thought they had come up with the best idea, but not enough voters went along with it. “I don’t think the public is going to hold it against us to get more information.” Lyness said six more weeks of gathering information– including possibly polling the public for more input– was reasonable.
Rettig held firm, holding up several proposals and studies already conducted.
“I will not tax the taxpayers with a poll on (whether) they want their taxes raised,” Rettig said. “I won’t do it. Find three others (supervisors for a majority). After 13 years, I think the public has expectations.”
Pulkrabek agreed the public has expectations, including the Iowa City police department arresting marijuana smokers and Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) with law enforcement. He advocated for the GSA land, which would avoid creating a land-locked facility, as the jail is now. Having the GSA land would make it easier to expand in the future if necessary.
Sullivan said he did not see an issue with waiting six more weeks for a decision, but he still has little confidence that the GSA will approve a sale or swap for the land. “(If they did,) I’m not sure it changes anything,” Sullivan said. However, he said he was okay with exploring the possibility.
Supervisor Terrance Neuzil suggested the supervisors, Lyness and Polkrabek list their perceived priorities in order to find some commonality.
“There is some energy to support court services,” based on public input, Neuzil said. Compared to considerable opposition to a new jail, there appeared to be little push-back on adding more courthouse space, other than the cost, he added. He proposed addressing the courthouse needs first and then turning to the jail. “Is that the best alternative? No. We know what we wanted to do, now it’s what can we do.” He also favored talking with the GSA.
Supervisor Pat Harney agreed with Neuzil on a courthouse addition behind the existing facility with a jail located on Harrison Street forming a lower-profile l-shaped structure.
Pulkrabek challenged Neuzil’s jail opponents, calling them, a vocal minority.
“One of the most vocal opponents doesn’t even live in Johnson County,” the sheriff said. “I cannot and will not get on-board with any proposal not addressing jail space.” That space includes room for jail alternatives and offender treatment, which Pulkrabek said decreases the number of inmates held, as well as the number of inmates who have to be transported to other jails.
Rettig asked the sheriff if he was, “willing to hold safety and security in the court house hostage (for jail improvements,)” prompting Pulkrabek to state security has improved in the eight years he has been in office, but noted the biggest issue is the inability to screen everybody who enters the building.
Supervisor John Etheredge took a different approach to the discussion, suggesting the same basic proposal as had been on the ballot, but with more of the facility shelled, or roughed-in, to be completed later when some major Tax Increment Financing (TIF) expires, leading to more tax revenue for the county. Sullivan dismissed the notion, saying cutting the project in half would still cost over $20 million, and relying on the increased tax revenue would require at least 15 years to finance the rest of the project. Etheredge said he felt a project in the $30 million price range would have passed, citing cost as a factor for voters. “I’m just looking at this from a dollars stand point,” he said.
“Make it $39 million and Terrance (Neuzil) is about to kiss you,” Rettig joked, recalling Neuzil’s push for a $39 million project prior to the second bond referendum. Pulkrabek agreed with Etheredge that “$39.99 looks better than $40,” a nod to marketing strategy and consumer price points.
Rettig was skeptical that the plan could accommodate jail alternatives and the dollars and space needed for them. “If we don’t address that money, we’ll still have the same problems with the jail.”
Harney agreed with Etheredge, saying a phased project might sell as opposed to building a courthouse annex and then building a jail years later.
Discussion labored on, with ideas ranging from reducing the building from five stories to three, making renovations and repairs to the existing jail house, and asking for new architectural plans. None of the ideas was a slam-dunk for a board majority, though consensus did seem to hover around separating the jail and courthouse issues.
“I put my heart and soul into the last idea,” Pulkrabek said. “I was wrong.”
“No,” Rettig replied. “You were 56 percent right,”
The board will meet again to continue the discussion Wednesday, Nov. 6, at 4:30 p.m. during the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee meeting. The meeting is open to the public.