IOWA CITY — At the same time Johnson County is nearing an agreement to enter a million-dollar lease for more space for its court officers, the state is telling the judiciary branch it must cut millions from its budget before June 30.
Johnson County supervisors on Thursday held a public hearing about its planned lease of a floor in the nearby MidWestOne Bank building, a move that would secure space for the badly cramped county attorney’s office and free up room in the courthouse for one or two courtrooms.
Republicans in the state Senate last week said Iowa budget must be cut by $53 million this fiscal year, including $4.83 million from the judicial branch. A state Judiciary Branch supervisor said that level of cut, midway through the fiscal year, would force layoffs and the closing of 30 county clerk and court offices.
“We’re not happy about that,” Supervisor Mike Carberry said Thursday. “They continue to make cuts in all sorts of areas that we would not agree with here in Johnson County.”
The lease for the fourth floor of the MidWestOne Bank building at 500 S. Clinton St. would last seven years, with cumulative rent totaling $1,126,839. The lease includes the option of three three-year extensions as well as some fees and build-out costs for the space.
The supervisors are hoping to sign the lease in early March.
More space for the courthouse and the county attorney’s office has been a long time coming. Past bond referendums to fund new county facilities have failed to reach the required 60 percent supermajority.
Carberry said moving the county attorney’s office out of the courthouse, built in 1901, “will start a really good set of dominoes falling.”
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“This is the first step,” he said. “Get the county attorney’s office out of the courthouse, start renovating the existing courthouse, add as many courtrooms to that as possible.”
County officials envision the move as a temporary fix to the county’s space problems.
In a few years, Carberry said, he imagines going back to voters to seek a more permanent fix for the county’s jail and courtroom space problems.
Johnson County has a backlog of both civil and criminal cases, he added.
Ryan Maas, an assistant county attorney who presented the proposed lease at the supervisors’ meeting, said in an email that Johnson County has been authorized an additional judge, but its courthouse doesn’t have the courtroom or office space for an additional judge.
“People deserve their day in court, and they deserve their day in court in a timely manner,” he said. “And just with our space problems, we’re just not able to do that.
“This move will position Johnson County to receive an additional judicial officer, if and when there’s a funding and resourcing decision at the state level,” Maas said.
The Gazette has reported the Iowa judicial system has 11 vacant judgeships and 115 open “essential” positions. It employs 182 fewer people than a year ago.
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