Johnson County officials halt years-old plans for $48M Justice Center


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Plans to build a Johnson County Justice Center — a project that has been on the county wish list for well over a decade — appear to be at an impasse.

The Johnson County Board of Supervisors discussed plans for the estimated $48.1 million building at a meeting Wednesday night, but the discussion grew heated over how much the county should bond to build the facility, ending with supervisors deciding to nix the plan for now.

"Things are on hold," Supervisor Janelle Rettig said. "We've already spent consultant money on this, but it sounds like we're just at an impasse, and there's no point in spending more money or more time on this."

Most of the supervisors supported paying for the facility — which would house a new jail and six new courtrooms — entirely with bond dollars and savings. But Supervisor Terrence Neuzil called on the county to cut operating expenses to put a "down payment" on the jail.

"I think there's an expectation that we're going to sacrifice," Neuzil said during the meeting.

"Over the next couple years, I think we can find a couple million dollars, and if you don't think we can do that, that is foolish."

However, Neuzil couldn't point to any specific areas he'd cut out of the county budget in order to help pay for the jail.

"I know how we fuss up here for $50,000 or $25,000," Supervisor Sally Stutsman said. "To take a $2 million cut over two years is going to be some pretty deep cuts,"

If the supervisors couldn't find cuts this year, Rettig said, they can't force future supervisors to find cuts to pay for the jail.

"What you just said is some other board will make the decision because you're too cowardly to make the decision right now," Rettig told Neuzil during the meeting.

Supervisors accused Neuzil of playing politics to earn support from constituents. They said they don't want to move forward without support from all five supervisors because the dissenting member might use his push for a a lower tax burden as campaign fodder.

"That's a good camp slogan, but frankly, it's a bunch of BS," Supervisor Rod Sullivan said.

The bond referendum was expected to appear on Johnson County ballots this coming November, but supervisors now say they don't expect that to happen.

And the county has already committed more than $100,000 in planning for the project. This past December, for instance, the county hired Neumann Monson Architects to do a pre-schematic design for the center for $98,000. That's in addition to deals with at least two other consulting firms.

County officials have been pushing for more jail and courthouse space for years. The jail is well over its 92-bed capacity, and the county routinely spends more than $2,000 each day to send inmates to nearby counties' jails. In 2000, Johnson County voters rejected a bond referendum to build a new jail.

Meanwhile, at the Courthouse, officials complain that a lack of courtroom space means pushing back hearings and trials. And keeping suspects awaiting trial longer exacerbates the jail overcrowding.

Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek, one of the biggest proponents of the project, was not at the meeting, but he told The Daily Iowan the move was "very disappointing."

"My staff and I still have a job to do regardless of what the supervisors decide, and we will do it to the best of our ability," Pulkrabek wrote in an email Wednesday night.

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