Johnson County Leaders Discuss Possibility of Another Justice Center Vote

By Gregg Hennigan, Reporter

IOWA CITY, Iowa – The proposed Johnson County justice center could go back to voters, although when and in what form is to be determined.

One day after the funding plan for a facility with a new county jail and court space failed to get the necessary backing from voters, supporters met to deliberate next steps for a project that has been discussed for several years.

During a meeting of the county's criminal justice coordinating committee Wednesday, at least four of the five supervisors made clear they'd like to put the issue back on the ballot, possibly as early as next year.

But they disagreed on whether the justice center design should be downsized to try to garner more support.

The measure voted on Tuesday asked for a $46.8 million bond issue to build a justice center with a 243-bed jail, new courtrooms and court-related office space.

It needed 60 percent to pass, and it got 56 percent.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Rod Sullivan cited that majority support while saying that he did not want to see any fundamental changes to the plan.

"This is more popular than most of the things passed yesterday. It just didn't reach this particularly high bar" of 60 percent, he said.

Supervisor Pat Harney also said he didn't want to see major changes.

Supervisor Terrence Neuzil, though, said he did not want to resubmit the same plan that was voted down. He thinks the $48.1 million estimated cost for the justice center played a big role in the defeat.

"I think we're going to have to ... reduce the size and scope of it," he said.

Supervisor Janelle Rettig said she was somewhere in between. She'd support the county paying more for the project up front to reduce the amount bonded and not fully building out the facility at the start.

Opponents of the justice center have cited the cost and disproportionate minority arrest rates in the county.

Several members of the criminal justice coordinating committee said they agreed minority contact with police was a problem. Rettig proposed meeting with city officials from Iowa City, Coralville and North Liberty to talk about it.

By law, a new justice center vote would have to wait at least six months. Several supervisors said they want it back on the ballot as soon as next year.

The various subcommittees of the criminal justice committee are to discuss the issues and report back. Opponents were encouraged to participate.

Martha Hampel , an Iowa City resident and member of an anti-justice center group, said if opponents had organized sooner and were not outspent, the percentage of votes for and against would have been flipped.

"And in six months when this is allowed to be looked at again, we're going to have more people educated," she said.
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