Johnson County Justice Center comes up short
54 percent of voters backed the bond issue and 46 percent were against it
IOWA CITY – Three strikes and now the question is whether plans for a Johnson County justice center are out.
Not enough voters in Tuesday’s special election supported a $43.5 million bond issue for a facility that would include a new 195-bed county jail and court space attached to the rear of the existing county courthouse.
County officials said they had no idea what was next after two failed votes in six months, plus the defeat of a jail plan in 2000.
“We’re still faced with the same set of needs,” county Supervisor Rod Sullivan said. “We just have to figure out how to address them.”
He added that it was impossible to say Tuesday night if something like the justice center would be part of discussion moving forward.
Fifty-four percent of voters backed the bond issue and 46 percent were against it, but 60 percent was needed for approval.
The 13,648 votes was a turnout rate of 15.22 percent.
The justice center actually lost ground from November, when 56 percent of voters cast ballots for a slightly larger project that called for a 243-bed jail as part of a $48.1 million facility. Coming that close to the 60 percent supermajority gave county officials the confidence to call for another election as soon as it was legally allowed, albeit for a slightly altered project.
The new version was a $46.2 million building with 195 jail beds and four new courtrooms, plus space for other court functions and the ability to add more beds and courtrooms later.
Opponents, though, continued to spread their message that the plan was too costly, the jail too large, and the county needs to address what they consider high arrest rates in general and the disproportionately high arrest and incarceration rates of racial minorities in particular.
“I hope the county listens to what the people have to say this time … because they didn’t the first time around,” said Aleksey Gurtovoy of Iowa City, one of the leading voices against the justice center.
County officials have said they will investigate minority contact by law enforcement.
For now, the county will continue to send dozens inmates to other counties because there is no room for them in the 92-bed Johnson County Jail. That costs county taxpayers more than $1 million a year.
The county recently revealed that the jail, opened in 1981, would need more than $3 million in repairs if it were to remain in use. That includes $1.6 million for new doors, locks and control mechanisms, which would require the jail to be empty for a couple of months and inmates sent to other county jails.
Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said he still believes in the justice center concept.
“We have dire needs,” he said. “I can’t work for or support something that’s not a joint solution.”
Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Janelle Rettig agreed those needs remain but singled out the 112-year-old courthouse, saying its lack of adequate office space, courtrooms and safety features need to be addressed.
Noting the three electoral losses in the past 13 years, she was not sure what the future held for a new building.
“I think this was the best plan we had,” Rettig said. “I don’t know what you do to bring it back before voters.”
Results are unofficial until the canvass of votes by the Board of Supervisors May 14.
The supervisors plan to meet that same morning to discuss where to go from here on the jail and courthouse.