Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Jail Forum Liveblog

Jail Forum Liveblog

"You're liveblogging THIS?" Tom Carsner asks. "Depends on if anyone says anything interesting," I reply.

"This" is a County Supervisors forum on "Feasibility Study/Needs Assessment for Comparison of Locations and Site Selection of a proposed Johnson County Justice Center." A "justice center" is a new jail, with some additional courthouse space.

This is the third time they've done this forum, but this is the first one a significant number of people have showed up at (a couple dozen civilians). The first two, in North Liberty and Coralville, were sparsely attended.

Mike Lewis, the jail consultant from the Durrant Group, is armed with photos on posterboards of four site options. Basically, they sum up as Near The Courthouse and Out In The Country.
Lewis is reviewing the details, but we're looking at two basic designs: a more vertical setup for the midtown sites and a more horizontal layout at the outlying sites.

In more detail:

  • RIGHT next to the current jail and courthouse. The big issue here is they would need the Federal Building parking lot, which the Post Office doesn't really want to give up.

    "We've projected a need of 10 to 12 courtrooms," says Lewis. Some of those wuld be in the old courthouse, a 1901 historic landmark. This site would have 240 beds and require 16 new staff positions. Theprojected cost is $61-66 million, $700,000 cheaper than the others. BUT that cost does not include land acquisition.

  • Site two is a little further south, near the Administration Building and the still under construction Health and Human Services building. More vertical movement is needed, which would require five more staff that the Courthouse and the highest staff needs of the four sites. "This plan would look at abandoning, or perhaps not utilizing is a better word, the existing courthouse and jail," says Lewis. Cost would be $70-76.5 million.

  • The third proposal is at the old County Farm, on west Melrose Avenue. This was the proposed site in 2000, when a jail referendum lost overwhelmingly.

    "In all these solutions we've planned for proper court holding areas," says Lewis. The 1901 courthouse does not have holding cells.

    The price tag here is $61.9-67.7 million. Land cost is not a factor, as the county already owns the site. But the site includes the old county Poor Farm, one of the few such facilities that has been preserved. "There are some historic concerns with that," acknowledges Lewis, which is an understatement; supervisor Terrence Neuzil has said he would oppose this site, and voted (unsuccessfully) against siting a Joint Communication Center at the location.

    The county Bar Association has also expressed a preference for a mid-town site, near most of the criminal law offices.

  • The last site is south of the Fairgrounds, with a similar layout and cost as the farm and an added $300,000 land cost. "There's an added cost with the need to transport people," said Lewis.

    Carsner asks about the value of the current downtown jail site. Lewis says the estimates include renovation costs but not land value. "What would be the tradeoff between selling off the present site and putting that money into the proposed building?" asks Carsner. "Can you get more bang for the buck selling it?" "That's an excellent question and I think there will be an answer," said Lewis. Eventually he points to the $5 million price tag difference between the two downtown sites. "The number that's been thrown around is $2 to $5 million," says Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek. The other consultant says the plan at the courthouse site is flexible enough to either include or exclude the old jail.

    "I'm a businessman and I've got to compete with the county, the city, and the schools for land," says Dave Hemingway. "The primary thing we should look at is the value of the land we're destroying," he said, unhappy that the productivity of the land wasn't considered. "Downtown is the most expensive land in the city. We've got to cut back, we've got to do more with less. This is gold-plated, this is way more than we need."

    "There's nothing we can do to change the state's jail design standards without going to the higher elected officials," said Pulkrabek. "They have the ability to close operations, which they did in Washington County." Johnson County has been shipping prisoners out of county to meet compliance.

    Carol DeProsse, a leading 2000 jail opponent, asks about library facilities; Lewis said it's dealt with through a book storage room and deliver. Library director Kara Logsden says the Iowa City library and jail are working together now to get materials to inmates.

    Terry Dahms asks about the specifics of inmate segregation -- women vs. men, juveniles, dangerous individuals, etc. Lewis says details that specific won't be finalized until a site is chosen and if a referendum passes. "It's not that far along yet, but it's far enough along to provide cost estimates."

    Caroline Dieterle, another 2000 opponent, asks "Can you give us some idea about the increase in the overall cost of operations?" Lewis says 60 percent of the cost is staffing, and the various options need at least 16 more staff, costing over $1 million a year.

    "This fiscal year we're poised to spend more than a million just on rent" for housing prisoners elsewhere, says Pulkrabek.

    Bob Welsh asks how likely it is the county can get the federal lot. "I think it's possible, but it is complex," acknowledges Lewis. The University of Iowa is also expanding near the old courthouse. "Site One is the most complex in terms of land acquisition."

    Dahms asks about splitting the project in order to make it "more palatable" to the taxpayer. Lewis said it is possible, but prior meetings with officials have led toward a "justice center" concept. "We have not made any decisions yet, we're just taking public comment," says board chair Rod Sullivan.

    Lewis estimates design and construction time at almost three years, after a vote of approval. No vote has been scheduled. A bond issue would require a 60 percent yes vote.

    Supervisors Pat Harney and Sally Stutsman have mentioned a sales tax at past meetings. That would only take a 50 percent vote, but Johnson County has voted against local option sales taxes twice and has a historic hostility on the "regressivity" issue. Johnson was one of the last two counties to approve the local option school infrastructure tax.
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