Johnson County May Ask Voters for Courthouse Facility

By Gregg Hennigan, Reporter

The Johnson County Courthouse on Friday, August 23, 2013. (MARK CARLSON/KCRG-THE GAZETTE)

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By Aaron Hepker

IOWA CITY, Iowa - What to do with jail and courthouse needs is a question that has divided Johnson County voters the past year. Now it has done with same with county leaders.

The answer favored by a split Johnson County Board of Supervisors appears to be to focus on the courthouse problems first. And one supervisor spoke favorably Thursday of putting a proposal for a courthouse annex before voters in just a few months.

“I think that’s a realistic way to move things forward and that could be back before voters in the next three to four months,” Supervisor Terrence Neuzil said at a work session attended by the five supervisors and the county sheriff and attorney.

Supervisor Pat Harney and Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek were opposed, saying they wanted to explore more options and would not support any plan that did not tackle both the courthouse and jail needs.

No decisions were made Thursday, and the conversation will continue with the county’s criminal justice coordinating committee at a meeting early next month.

County officials and members of the criminal justice community have for years voiced concerns about overcrowding and safety at the jail and courthouse. They thought the solution was a justice center, which would have a new jail and court space in one facility.

But voters a year ago and again this past May rejected funding proposals for a justice center. Much of the opposition was focused on the jail and reasons people are arrested.

Neuzil and supervisors Rod Sullivan and Janelle Rettig said Thursday they were convinced a building for court services next to the current courthouse could get the necessary 60 percent support from voters.

Many details would need to be worked out, but the idea of a three-story building costing less than $30 million was discussed. The justice center projects would have cost between $45 million and $50 million.

Even the three supervisors who want to look at the courthouse expansion first said something with the jail eventually must be done, but it is not as pressing a concern.

Pulkrabek said he understood the project must be scaled back from what went before voters, but he said he would oppose anything that does not address both jail and courthouse needs.

Sullivan said he thought the elected officials were having a tough time coming to an agreement because they already put what they thought were the best projects forward and could not get voter approval.

“Nobody likes to do something less well, but that’s what we’re faced with, I think,” he said.

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