TIFFIN– Johnson County voters will decide on Nov. 6 whether or not to approve a $46.8 million bond issue to be used for the construction of a new justice center adjacent to the county courthouse in Iowa City.
The Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee (CJCC), with the blessings of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors, has been trying to raise awareness for their cause, hosting tours of the current jail facility and courthouse to show first-hand safety, security and space issues.
An independent group, “Yes for Justice,” has taken up the call to action and mobilized its own awareness campaign. According to a flyer, Yes for Justice is “a group of local concerned citizens supporting a sensible solution to the critical challenges facing our local justice system.”
Jim McCarragher, a member of the group and ardent supporter of the new justice center, gave a presentation to the Tiffin City Council at its Aug. 8 meeting in the Springmier Community Library. Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek also was in attendance to answer any questions about the current or proposed facility. Pulkrabek is also listed as a supporter of a yes vote on the group’s flyer.
McCarragher opened with a historical perspective, noting the current courthouse was built in 1901. “Safety was not much of a concern back then. But, our society has changed,” he said. He listed a variety of risks present in the current structure, ranging from criminals in close proximity to jurors and the general public, to the potential for trouble to break out due to tension between parties in any of a number of legal proceedings.
“You should be searched upon entering the courthouse,” McCarragher said, noting that currently there is no screening, no metal detectors, and a variety of ways to enter the building virtually unnoticed. Although sheriff’s deputies are assigned to the courthouse, McCarragher sees having the sheriff’s office in the same building– included in the design for the new facility– as a deterrent to trouble, and a means to a much quicker response if anything does occur.
He also illuminated other safety risks in the historic facility such as a lack of a fire sprinkler system, difficulty in rapidly evacuating the building, and Americans with Disability Act (ADA) deficiencies.
The troubles continue in the Clerk of Courts’ Office, where potentially ill-tempered people paying fines are up close and personal with office staff. McCarragher continued listing issues of safety and security, highlighted the lack of storage space for the offices’ files, and noted compensatory measures such as using a loft over an old garage behind the courthouse.
“You go up these rickety stairs,” he said, “and you know, this isn’t a good place to be.”
If the bond is approved, McCarragher assured the council and audience, “You will be searched (before going into the new facility).” A secured and separate elevator will transport inmates so they do not have to be present in public hallways. If something goes awry and a prisoner breaks free, the sheriff’s office is only a floor or two away for a quick response and resolution.
The new facility will meet all ADA requirements, have sprinklers that comply with code and provide adequate space for all concerned. The new justice center will be able to be expanded in the future if necessary, which McCarragher says was a serious deficiency in the planning process for the current jail.
Sheriff Pulkrabek touted the benefits of the five-level facility, with floors two and three occupied by the jail. A pod layout would put the jail staff in the center of the cell blocks, allowing them to easily see inside the cells, and allowing for the same amount of staff in the current facility to monitor even more guests of the county. The current jail was built for 46 inmates, then modified to house 92. However, the number of prisoners needing a cell continues to increase, necessitating shipping some off to other counties, often at a cost.
“Our infrastructure is inadequate for 92,” Pulkrabek said, because areas like the kitchen and meeting rooms have either stayed the same or shrunk in response to the need for more room for inmates.
Pulkrabek defended the plan to build a nearly 250-bed facility while inmate counts are in the 100s because the county hopes to get 10-20 years out of the facility. With expansion, Pulkrabek said they could double the size and use it for 50 years.
“We believe we can open and manage with the same number of staff. Our operations will be more efficient, which means we can see more with less, and there will be less movement of prisoners.”
Two additional deputies would need to be hired to supplement the courthouse staff, which currently has two on shift, to handle the searches on people entering the facility.
Pulkrabek reminded the audience the original cost estimate was above $70 million and has been whittled down to the current $48 million. Money provided by the board of supervisors knocked the bond issue down to the $46.8 figure in the ballot language. “We can’t go any smaller,” Pulkrabek said emphatically.
“We have an opportunity,” McCarragher said, “to save money, to keep money in Johnson County, to take advantage of low interest rates (on the bonds). The time to build is now.”
If the bond issue passes in the November, the property levy would be around $24.50 per $100,000 of assessed value per year for 20 years, or roughly $2.50 per month.
McCarragher urged the council to support the measure, reminding them 60 percent approval is needed to pass it. He also urged them to spread the word.
Tours of the jail are available by calling Capt. David Wagner at 319-356-6025. There are still openings for September and October. A virtual tour is also available on the sheriff’s department website at www.johnson-county.com/dept_sheriff.aspx?id=2287 .