Johnson County plans for May vote on smaller justice center project

Previous version garnered 56 percent of the vote in November, needed 60 percent to pass

Updated renderings of the proposed Johnson County Justice Center. (Nuemann Monson)
Updated renderings of the proposed Johnson County Justice Center. (Nuemann Monson)

IOWA CITY – Johnson County plans to take a scaled-down version of a criminal justice center to voters in May.

The county supervisors on Wednesday said they tentatively are planning on seeking a $43.5 million bond issue to pay for a $46.2 million project on May 7. Those numbers are down from a $46.8 million bond and a $48.1 million project that failed to win voter approval in November.

The changes are an attempt to get the necessary voter support for a project that’s been discussed for a decade. The previous version of the justice center garnered 56 percent of the vote in November, but it needed 60 percent to pass.

“I think we’ve come up with the best idea we can,” Supervisor Pat Harney said.

The justice center would include a new county jail and court space to address space and security concerns at the existing jail and courthouse.

Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Janelle Rettig stressed that the plan discussed Wednesday, at the county’s criminal justice coordinating committee meeting, was just a draft, but one officials had spent several hours considering.

The cost savings would come in four areas:

  • Reducing the number of jail beds from 243 to 195 by not building two dormitory housing areas. More beds could be added in the future as space is needed. Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek endorsed the proposal. “I can live with the 195 knowing that if we opened today, we would be well under that capacity,” he said. In the first two weeks of December, the average daily inmate population approached 150. The current jail has 92 beds, and the county pays to house overflow inmates elsewhere.

  • Building four new courtrooms instead of six, with space to add four more as needed.

  • Adding more masonry to the exterior of the new building rather than the mostly glass façade that drew some complaints on aesthetic grounds.

  • Having the county put $2.7 million toward construction costs from its budget, up from $1.3 million.

The Board of Supervisors still must formally set a May 7 special election date. By law, the election must occur at least six months after the last one. Rettig said holding a vote in May would, among other things, put the issue back on the ballot while it is fresh in people’s minds.“Fifty-six percent of the voters said yes, and we wanted to honor their direction to the county,” she said.

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