No firm plans yet for Justice Center

BY KATIE HEINE | APRIL 07, 2011 7:20 AM

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It’s been 10 years, but members of the committee planning a potential criminal justice center in Johnson County still haven’t decided exactly what they want.

They know they need a new facility to replace the overcrowded jail and an aging courthouse — ideally close to the current courthouse and with other amenities. But what else would be included — and how much it would cost — remainsnebulous.

Members of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee met Wednesday to discuss the next steps in their efforts to expand the existing jail and courthouse.

“It makes no sense to continue this project unless we narrow the project to a sustainable level,” said Supervisor Janelle Rettig.

The biggest controversy at the hour-and-a-half long, often heated, meeting focused on the eventual price tag.

By “sustainable level,” Rettig said, she means “a level people were willing to accept.” She said she had a “political gut instinct” telling her taxpayers would rebel against the potential $55 million cost.

But members could not come to a consensus on what price range is appropriate. Some expressed interest in polling taxpayers to gauge how much they would be willing and able to pay. Others said the committee needs to specify their needs and wants of the facility to show people what they would be paying for.

“People don’t want a tax,” said Jim McCarragher, an Iowa City attorney and committee member. “They need a concrete idea so they understand what they’re funding.”

Many members agreed prioritizing their needs is important in order to move forward. Once their needs are established, the committee said formulating costs will be easier to determine.

“As a taxpayer, I’m not going to make a decision in the abstract,” said committee member John Stratton.

Recent progress on the center includes purchasing properties near the current jail and courthouse necessary for expansion.

Iowa City City Councilor Connie Champion recommended the committee aim for a $30 million project. Though she said she would support a higher figure, she was doubtful anything more would be supported by taxpayers.

Rettig acknowledged Champion’s recommendation, saying the most expensive project she can remember on which the public spent such a large sum of money included a $40 million school referendum.

Taxpayers have strongly supported schools, libraries, parks, and conservation projects in the past, she said.

“Voters are clear on how they want their government to spend their money,” Rettig said.

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