Sales-tax vote could affect new jail plans

BY SCOTT MILLER | MAY 05, 2009 7:30 AM

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The laundry room at the Johnson County Jail is small.

Smaller than a dorm room. More crowded than the Pedestrian Mall at bar close. And more frequently used than Port-a-Potties on a football Saturday.

Essentially, the laundry room is like everything else in the facility — cramped.

That’s what happens when a jail built for 46 in 1981 is asked to house up to 92 inmates on a daily basis.

But that’s only part of ongoing issue of jail overcrowding in Johnson County.

For years, Johnson County leaders have called for a new Justice Center to be the top public-infrastructure project in the area, but if voters pass today’s local-option sales tax — which proposes a penny increase to fund flood-mitigation projects — the jail’s problems could go unsolved for the next several years.

If the tax increase is approved, local residents will not want to foot the bill for yet another county project, officials said.

“I think the only way currently that we can pay for a Justice Center is [through] a bond referendum,” Johnson County Supervisor Sally Stutsman said. “People are not going to be supportive of an additional tax if the local-option sales tax passes.”

Leaders cite the safety problems associated with having such an overcrowded — and what officials describe as an antiquated — facility, combined with the financial burden of sending excess prisoners to Marshall County six times a week, as reasons for a new Justice Center.

As of May 4, Johnson County was responsible for 160 prisoners — including 86 being held in house, 71 in Marshalltown, two juveniles in Cedar County, and one at Iowa Medical and Classification Center receiving treatment.

“Having a new facility is an opportunity not to see those dollars go out of Johnson County,” said Terrence Neuzil, the head of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors. He said there are safety concerns of hosting too many inmates in the “inadequate” facility.

These alleged inadequacies are noted by officials upon arriving on the jail’s second floor.

Concrete walls greet visitors instead of clear, safety glass such as the ones in what officials label a more modern jail — they point to the one in Story County as an example — and the walls prevent deputies from seeing what’s happening inside of cells without the use of a peephole.

“They have [the] cell units kind of in a pod-type arrangement,” Capt. Dave Wagner, the jail’s administrator, said about the more modern facilities. “You can see directly in … You can see a guy slam the phone down if he’s [angry] about a phone call he got and deal with it.”

As Wagner spoke, he stood next to a maximum-security, eight-cell block, where 16 of Johnson County’s most violent offenders reside. He couldn’t see any of them without widening a crease in the blinds with his hands.

Justice Center plans and history

The proposed Justice Center, which would cost an estimated $60 million to $75 million, would house the county jail and courthouse in one building, merging three buildings via skywalks, including the present jail, which would become administrative offices; the current courthouse; and the new proposed facility.

At present, the jail is located at 511 S. Capitol St., with the courthouse right up the hill at 417 S. Clinton St. Neuzil says the proposed Justice Center, which would take at least two years to build, would be centered on the two current structures in a blockwide space occupied by a parking lot and several houses.

The Johnson County Board of Supervisors has purchased three houses on that property and hopes to obtain the rest of the land in the next six months, Neuzil said.

Whether the local-option sales tax passes today, he and other supervisors know they will eventually need taxpayer money to fund a new facility.

In November 2000, the county put a bond referendum on the ballot in hopes of expanding the current jail. Voters defeated the referendum, with 65 percent of them against it.

Following that, the state jail inspector mandated that Johnson County pay for the transportation and housing of its excess prisoners, forcing supervisors to include the estimated $1.2 million in their budget.

“Sooner or later, if the economy continues like it is, I think we’ll be paying for salary increases, health benefits, and jail transportation,” Stutsman said. “That’s just going to be the biggest part of our budget.”

But for some, the county’s financial obligation isn’t enough reason to fund a new justice center.

Since the 2000 referendum failed, Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said he and others have been fighting the public sentiment that the jail is overcrowded simply because too many intoxicated college students are getting arrested.

“It’s clearly not the case,” he said. “Drunk college kids may get arrested, [but] the people who are plugging up the jail are the people that have committed very serious crimes,” including assaults, burglary, robbery, murder, and attempted murder, among others.

And responding to the contention that Iowa City police are simply arresting too many people, Pulkrabek said Johnson County, the fourth-largest county in the state, shouldn’t have the 15th-largest capacity for a jail.

“You’re talking about a county that has not kept up, public-safety-wise, with the growth that the rest of the county has enjoyed,” he said.

Looking ahead

Outside the current jail, a light illuminates when deputies are busy processing inmates. Police officers bringing people to the facility are required to wait until the light flickers off before escorting the accused inside.

On the weekends, when it shines most frequently, this light is the outside world’s only indication that the jail is overcrowded.

“Ideally, [I’d like to open a new justice center open] tomorrow morning,” Neuzil said. “But I think that realistically, particularly with this sales-tax issue, I’d be surprised to see us opening doors anytime [in] the next five years.”

In the meantime, the county will continue to pay to ship prisoners to Marshalltown, deputies will keep dealing with an outdated jail layout, Wagner will still have to fiddle with the blinds to peer into the maximum-security cell block, and that laundry room will remain cramped.

“I don’t know where it’s all going to go,” he said. “We [have to deal with it]; we don’t have a choice. I can’t put my light on out front and say ‘CLOSED.’ ”

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