116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY - A proposed Johnson County justice center is too badly needed to fall victim to a budget fight, criminal justice officials said Thursday.
“This project is too important,” said Jim McCarragher, an Iowa City attorney who sits on the county's criminal justice coordinating committee. “I'm hoping that clearer heads can prevail and a compromise can be reached.”
He was reacting to a Wednesday night work session of the county's Board of Supervisors in which the supervisors could not agree on how to finance the project and some said planning could come to a halt.
For now, Supervisor Terrence Neuzil is standing against the other four supervisors on how much to seek from voters in a bond referendum that would fund the estimated $48.1 million project, including a new jail and court space. They had planned on putting it on the ballot in November.
The board majority would use about $5 million from its budget, resulting in a $43 million bond. Neuzil initially proposed adding a series of small bond issues not subject to voter approval to bring that number down another few million dollars. When that didn't fly, he suggested cutting future projects to find the money.
The other supervisors rejected that plan too, saying they couldn't guarantee that future boards would agree to make the cuts.
The supervisors have said any dissension could be exploited by opponents and they don't want to give the public a plan that has anything less than their unanimous support.
The majority said it was up to Neuzil to compromise. Otherwise, they said, the project was stalled.
“I think Terrence drew a line in the sand that if he doesn't walk down from, there will be no reason to vote on it,” Supervisor Janelle Rettig said.
Supervisor Sally Stutsman said Wednesday night's meeting reminded her of the political gridlock in Washington, D.C., where she had been earlier that day.
“I thought, ‘Are we getting into that at the local level too?'” she said. “I hope not.”
Like Rettig, she said what happens next depends on whether Neuzil is prepared to make any concessions. She said $43 million was as low as she would go.
Neuzil said he was the one who compromised Wednesday night. He agrees with the $48.1 million project cost and initially sought a bond of $39 million, the amount the county had been zeroed in on until it realized that could not fund an adequate facility. He said he was willing to go up to $40.9 million, putting him $2.1 million shy of the others.
He also said it was “ludicrous” to give up on a project that all the supervisors believe is needed, and he doesn't believe that will happen.
“We are much closer than what it appears,” he said.
The preliminary plan for the justice center calls for a 243-bed jail and six new courtrooms, with space for two additional courtrooms. The current jail has 92 beds, but the county has dozens more inmates than that each day and pays other counties to house them.
Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said by email that Wednesday's meeting was “very disappointing” and the jail has “extreme limitations.”
Carroll Edmondson, court administrator for the 6th Judicial District, which includes Johnson County, said space and security are big issues in the courthouse as well, and the justice center is “sorely needed.”
“I guess it's kind of a wait-and-see game right now,” he said.
The criminal justice coordinating meeting is supposed to meet next week. Neuzil said he planned to bring several suggestions to the meeting and see if they have any support.