IOWA CITY– In the wake of a third failed bond referendum for a proposed justice center to replace the county jail and renovate the historic courthouse, Johnson County supervisors are looking for alternatives.
The board met Tuesday, May 14, for the official canvass of votes and to discuss the next steps to be taken. Board member Rod Sullivan expressed his disappointment with the results.
“I feel like we worked very hard in coming up what we thought was a very good plan,” Sullivan said. The jail committee and the supervisors compromised in the aftermath of the second defeat in November 2012, which led to a slightly scaled-back plan with fewer courtrooms, less glass and a reduction in inmate cells. The changes lowered the cost from around $48 million to about $43 million.
In the Tuesday, May 7, special election however, the measure failed again to receive the necessary 60 percent voter approval. Sullivan said the views of himself and fellow supervisors Janelle Rettig, Terrence Neuzil and Pat Harney were well known, but that supervisor John Etheredge, elected this March, wasn’t in on the years of discussions. Sullivan asked Etheredge for his thoughts on the subject.
“Yes, we need a solution to overcrowding at the jail,” Etheredge replied. He said a lack of judges– two or three fewer than the county’s population is entitled to– was a factor in the backlog of court cases, and, in turn, overcrowding of the jail as inmates sit and wait for their hearings. “But that has been going on for sometime, so for me, I’ve been looking at how we can provide a solution to get those extra courtrooms.” Etheredge said, suggesting then maybe the current jail would have sufficient capacity again. He also acknowledged the need for repairs. “Everyone knows technology could be repaired or replaced over time, so ever since the jail was built, there’s always needed to be something done about technology when it goes bad.”
Etheredge said the problems should have been addressed when the County first lost its judges. He also gave two key reasons he opposed the bond issue.
“One, it was very expensive. Two, I’m looking at a location for Johnson County that is going to be best for the county’s future. And I don’t know that that location (downtown Iowa City) is going to be (the best) because we’re essentially land-locked,” said Etheredge. The University of Iowa would take up land he sees as necessary for a central campus. Under his idea, the county would move offices and facilities out of downtown Iowa City to a centralized location over time. “All county offices in one place,” he said. “A less-expensive place to build, the most accessible to the entire populace, and easy to get to.”
Sullivan and Rettig met Etheredge’s idea with many questions.
“So you’re talking about keeping the courthouse and the jail together, but moving them out of the downtown area?” Sullivan asked.
“Yes, you could,” Etheredge replied. “To me that would be the best route, over time. You do one now, you do the other later. And it’s paid for gradually.”
“You’re talking about this building (Johnson County Administration Building), the courthouse, the jail, HHS (Health and Human Services) and ambulance?” Sullivan asked.
Etheredge said he wasn’t sure about moving the county’s ambulance service because the City of Iowa City would probably prefer to have the ambulances based within the city where the bulk of the calls are. The ambulance service is located at 808 S. Dubuque St.
Rettig asked for clarification. “You’re proposing a central campus, moving the courthouse, jail, administration and Health and Human Services…where?”
“The county Poor Farm,” Etheredge said. It could drive traffic to the county’s historical buildings and would ease the burden on facilities maintenance, he added, since everything would be in one place.
Sullivan asked if he suggested selling all the buildings the county would then be vacating under such a proposal.
“To me, there would have to be a good reason to keep it,” Etheredge responded. “Is there a need for certain structures in downtown Iowa City? If there is a good need, we keep it. If there is not, we sell it.” Sullivan then asked if that included the courthouse, but Etheredge said he doubted anybody would buy it.
“There are grants for historical preservation, the courthouse is already on the historical sites,” Etheredge said, proposing that the building be kept as a museum, or possibly being donated to a historic preservation group.
Sullivan challenged the assertion that Etheredge opposed the bond issue on the grounds it was too expensive, and asked what a reasonable number would be.
“To me, it’s all coming to a head, so there is no ‘reasonable number.’ Everything is just falling right now,” said Etheredge. He reiterated the idea of spreading the cost over 20 years. “Everybody picks up the tab, not just everybody living here right now. We’ve got to be creative in how we solve this problem.”
Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek weighed in.
“I’m struggling a little bit. We’re talking about what to do with the courthouse and the jail, and now you’re talking about selling the administration building, selling the Health and Human Services building, and turning the courthouse into a museum, and moving all this out to Melrose (Avenue), the Poor Farm? Do you have any sort of numbers of what it’s going to take?”
“To me, the ultimate goal would be having a central campus,” said Etheredge. “I’m not saying it’s going to happen, I’m saying if we’re talking about the least impact on the county and it’s citizens, it would be everything located in one area.” Etheredge cited an internal memo circulated to the board of supervisors several years ago which called for such a campus. “It’s not a unique proposal,” he said.
Looking at short term needs, Etheredge proposed spending $5-$10 million to make necessary repairs and upgrades to the current jail and to put up temporary facilities– similar to trailers used by school districts for temporary classrooms– at the courthouse to create space for additional courtrooms and judges. He also suggested taking the existing plans and adjusting them for land at the county farm. Rettig said the proposed justice center plans utilize space in the existing courthouse, therefore a new structure at the farm would necessarily be larger than what the voters had rejected. Sullivan asked Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness to confirm that a similar, earlier plan had an estimated price tag of $72 million.
“Admittedly, that was six years, five years ago, so I can’t imagine what the price would be now,” Lyness said. “I appreciate trying to keep county services together because that was part of the reason for the current proposal, to keep it close to the administration building, to HHS.”
She said the county did a study in 2007 looking at various sites, including the farm along Melrose Avenue. The conclusion was that it was cheaper to stay downtown. “The costs were such that it was far less expensive to use the current courthouse than to start anew.” Lyness also refuted Etheredge’s idea that additional judges would reduce the jail population, although it could speed up juvenile and civil cases, which do not add to the inmate census. “I don’t want people to think that’s going to eliminate housing inmates outside the county,” Lyness said.
Supervisor Neuzil gave a brief history lesson on the defeated 2000 bond referendum that called for a new jail at the Poor Farm site, and one of the top reasons opponents gave for their no votes was the location.
Etheredge defended his position.
“I never said it would solve all of the problems,” he said, but stood by his notion of fewer prisoners having to be housed out-of-county if space were made available for additional judges. “I’m talking about what we need to do in the interim. Right now, nothing’s getting passed, and nothing’s getting done.”
The discussion ran for about three hours, with public comments taken toward the end.
“Obviously the board has no direction at this point,” Rettig said at the meeting’s conclusion. “I have created a list of everything I heard people say, we will begin to get some answers and schedule future space needs meetings.”
However, Rettig said she remained unclear about how the county will address the broader problems of disproportionate minority contact, recidivism and social programs.
Rettig also encouraged concerned citizens to attend the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee (CJCC) meetings. “I guess the message is: to be continued,” she said, and adjourned the meeting.