Johnson County Considers Jail, Courthouse
Johnson County officials, who say they need a new courthouse and jail, are casting a wary eye to the west, where Polk County voters soundly rejected a courthouse project Tuesday.
“It would be good for all of us to be talking to our peers there” to see what worked and what didn’t in the campaign, said Johnson County Board of Supervisors chair Rod Sullivan on the day of the vote. Sullivan was speaking with a group of judges, attorneys, and law enforcement personnel at a Law Day open house at the 107 year old Johnson County Courthouse.
“There’s no private place for attorneys and clients to talk,” said Judge Douglas Russell. “They’re in hallways, sharing sensitive and confidential information. I tell people, one corner of the landing is attorney-client conference room A, and the other corner is conference room B.”
“The court administrator’s office is a former hallway,” said Russell.
The 1977 jail is also having trouble keeping up with demand. “Soon we’re going to be spending $1 million a year housing prisoners out of county,” said Johnson County sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek.
“We’re probably talking in the tens of millions of dollars” for a new courthouse and jail facility, said Russell.
Supervisors are still in the early stages of planning the facilities, and have not settled on a location or locations. One aspect of the decision is whether or not to co-locate the court and jail functions.
“All five supervisors understand that this is a two-pronged issue, both the jail and courthouse,” said Sullivan.
“I don’t the jail and courthouse necessarily need to be connected,” said Russell, “but the most secure way would be one structure. It would be wise to have both in one building, but that will depend on cost.””
“(The old courthouse) can’t be made secure in its present configuration,” said Russell. “100 years ago you didn’t have to be worried about physical security the way you do now.” The building has to maintain two entrances, because the century-old front steps are not wheelchair accessible. ADA compliance is met by keeping a back entryway open. “It met early ADA standards, but may not meet present standards,” said Russell. The separate entryway also contradicts 21st century security standards.
The historic nature of the courthouse complicates planning. “You can’t just take a National Historic Register building and tear it down,” said Russell, suggesting it could be used to house the county attorney and other offices. “And you can’t really put part of the court at a distant location.”
Supervisors were visibly and verbally frustrated by a report last week from the Durrant Group in Des Moines, which was presented three month later than initially scheduled and offered no new site options. “I don't feel like you've done what we asked you to do," Sullivan told consultant Mike Lewis.
Russell prefers a downtown location. “It’s part of the civic fabric, just like a library or city hall.” Other locations mentioned in the Durrant report included the vicinity of the County Administration south of downtown and sites near the county fairgrounds and the old Johnson County poor farm on the outskirts of Iowa City.
“There are a lot of competing hands at the money trough, said supervisor Larry Meyers.
“We’re competing with people who need their potholes filled,” said Russell.
The county is already building a new health and human services building, a joint communication center, and a new secondary roads and paratransit building. Those projects were built out of the existing county budget, but a $20 million conservation bond for land acquisition will face voters this fall.
The jail and courthouse question would also need to go before voters, with a 60 percent supermajority required. Sullivan offered possible election dates of November 2009, 2010 or 2012 at last week’s meeting. Those November dates would all have students in town, and students have been the strongest jail opponents.
One in six students graduating the University leave with a police record, usually related to alcohol. Most of those students don’t spend the night in a cell, but the resulting town-gown tension plays out at the ballot box. A jail bond was overwhelmingly rejected in a vote held with the 2000 presidential election, losing every precinct. The heaviest no percentages, over 80 percent, were in student neighborhoods. In 2007, a student led voter drive defeated a ballot initiative that would have banned people under age 21 from bars.
Russell acknowledges the political difficulty. “I hope I don’t sound like just another special interest group asking for a bigger office,” he said. “We’re trying to serve the public. The court system is about the peaceful resolution of disputes.”
“We’re hearing from more people who want to pay for government a la carte,” said Sullivan. “We hear things like, ‘I’ve never used the ambulance, why do I have to pay.’ It’s starting to cause problems in our society with our ability to provide services.”