Johnson County Takes Action on Jail, Courthouse Projects

By Gregg Hennigan, Reporter

Downtown Iowa City and Johnson County Courthouse on Saturday, April 9, 2011. (Cliff Jette/SourceMedia Group)

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By Aaron Hepker

IOWA CITY, Iowa - The question of what to do about space and security issues at the Johnson County jail and courthouse may be going to voters for the third time in two years.

And like the public in those previous two votes, the county’s supervisors are divided on the answer.

The Board of Supervisors Thursday approved four motions that could set the stage for a vote on separate jail and courthouse projects this year.

The votes do not lock the supervisors into any plan, but they were done with an eye toward sending projects to voters this year, with board Chairman Terrence Neuzil saying this week that a November election was most likely.

The board voted to seek preliminary designs for a courthouse annex and a jail annex, to negotiate terms with architecture firms to perform that work and to make preparations for a bond referendum to go to voters to fund the projects.

Janelle Rettig voted against the motions on the jail annex and election work. In doing so, she alluded to electoral defeats for a jail in 2000 and for a justice center with a new jail and court space in a single building in November 2012 and May 2013.

Much of the opposition to the justice center focused on the jail.

“I think the voters have weighed in on the jail three times now,” Rettig said, “and a hundred beds and a brand-new building is not what I was interested in. I’m interested in remodeling the current jail and adding on to it.”

Supervisors Pat Harney and Rod Sullivan didn’t give their full endorsements of the jail annex. But Sullivan said they needed to get the design plan to answer questions about what to do.

Harney said the preliminary proposal of 100 jail beds in a building across the street from the current 92-bed jail would not adequately meet the long-term needs of the county.

“I don’t like this,” he said. “I think we are actually negligent in what we have to do with the jail and the prisoners.”

The current thinking for the courthouse annex is to have up to six courtrooms in a building to the south of the courthouse.

The existing courthouse and jail are overcrowded and officials say each has security problems.

The motions say the estimated costs could not exceed $25.5 million for the courthouse annex and $24 million for the jail facility.

The board voted to negotiate amending its contract with Venture Architects and Neumann Monson Architects, which worked on the justice center project, to have them prepare the design plans. The fees for that work are to be determined.

The board is interested in having the jail and courthouse projects as separate items on the same ballot.

Neuzil said plans for the projects and the election could change based on the information provided in the design process.

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