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Officials Tout Need for Johnson County Justice Center

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IOWA CITY, Iowa - No one spoke against a proposed Johnson County criminal justice center at a forum Monday, but that does not mean opposition does not exist.

Iowa City resident Howard Hensch, for instance, said he's heard a number of people comment on the estimated $48.1 million cost of the facility.

"That's the main thing" on people's minds, the 80-year-old said.

He spoke at the conclusion of an hour-long forum sponsored by Johnson County AARP. About 20 people attended, counting a few county officials, and it was taped to be broadcast on City Channel 4.

Voters will decide Nov. 6 whether to approve a bond issue of up to $46.8 million to go toward the construction of the justice center. The county would cover the other $1.3 million out of its budget.

The five-level, 153,800-square-foot building would go up behind the existing county courthouse, 417 S. Clinton St., Iowa City. It would include a 243-bed jail, Sheriff's Office headquarters, six more courtrooms, a new Clerk of Court office and other court-related space. The courthouse, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, would continue to be used.

County officials and representatives from the legal community argue the current jail and courthouse are unsafe and do not have enough space. The county pays to house overflow inmates elsewhere and the jail's rectangular design does not allow for easy monitoring. The courthouse lacks a secure entrance and court officials say there is a great need for more courtrooms and storage and office space.

There is no organization or person advocating strongly against the justice center. Yet, questions have been raised about the project -- many of them, as Hensch noted, regarding the cost.

It will require affirmative votes from 60 percent of voters to approve the bond issue. A bond issue for a jail failed in 2000, with 65 percent of voters opposed.

County Supervisor Pat Harney acknowledged 60 percent is a "large number."

But, he said: "Personally I think it has a very good chance of passing. The needs are well shown."

County Attorney Janet Lyness and Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek attempted to make that case again Monday. The AARP sought opposing views on the panel, but the one person who responded could not attend the afternoon forum.

Lyness said the question she hears most from the public is on the cost of the facility. She noted that a firm a few years ago originally put the price for a justice center at $70 million.

In 2008, an architectural firm studied four possible sites for a justice center and concluded they would cost between $61.2 million to $76.5 million.

Pulkrabek said that while the 243-bed jail would be much bigger than the current 92-bed facility, it could operate at almost the same staffing level because the design would allow for more efficient monitoring of inmates.

The current jail has one staff member for every 2.3 inmates, he said. That ratio would be one for every 5.5 to 8.5 inmates in the new jail, he said.

A nurse would need to be hired, and the courthouse would require two more deputies to operate a secure entrance that includes a metal detector, something the courthouse lacks now.

Johnson County spent more than $1 million last fiscal year to house excess inmates in other jails. Pulkrabek said that money would easily pay for the new hires at the justice center.

"We're talking about a larger, more efficient building, and the operational expenses are going to have a minimal impact," he said.

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