Johnson County Justice Center Vote Comes Up Short

By Gregg Hennigan, Reporter

Johnson County voters are being asked to approve a smaller bond issue for a scaled-down justice center. The updated plans include a lower jail capacity and fewer courtrooms, as well as aesthetic changes and a larger contribution of county funds.

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By Aaron Hepker

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Voters failed Tuesday to provide enough support for a bond issue for a Johnson County criminal justice center.

54 percent of voters backed the $43.5 million bond issue and 46 were against it in a special election, but 60 percent was needed for approval.

The outcome follows the rejection of a slightly larger justice center proposal last November and for a jail in 2000.

The bond issue on the ballot Tuesday was for a $46.2 million justice center. It would have had 195 jail beds and four new courtrooms, plus space for other court functions and the ability to add more beds and courtrooms later.

The November proposal, which called for a 243-bed jail as part of a $48.1 million facility, was supported by 56 percent of voters. 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 with a slightly altered project.

Opponents, though, continued to spread their message that the plan was too costly, the jail too large and the county needs to address the disproportionately high arrest and incarceration rates of racial minorities in the community.

For now, the status quo will remain. That means the county will continue to send dozens inmates to other counties because there is not enough 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.

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 needs.

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