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Johnson County officials reach agreement on Justice Center bond

BY BETH BRATSOS | MARCH 08, 2012 6:30 AM

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The Johnson County Justice Center is back on.

Last week, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors appeared to be at an impasse over how to fund a years-old plan to build more jail cells and courtrooms.

On Wednesday, however, county officials reconciled their differences, settling on asking voters to bond $46.8 million of the estimated $48.1 million project.

Still, some supervisors were wary of binding future boards to the financial commitments.

The figure takes into account the $1.3 million in reserve funds the supervisors plan to use as a down payment for the project. The county currently has just over $5 million in savings, but dipping too far into that account might hurt the county's financial outlook.

"I'm afraid if we went away from our [cash-reserve] policy, it would raise a red flag to our bonding authorities," said Supervisor Rod Sullivan.

Supervisor Terrence Neuzil said the supervisors should know by June or July the likelihood of being able to lower the cost of the project even further.

"If we're only allowed to use [$1.3 million] at his point, that could at least be a place-holder for now," he said.

Other board members also set forth their ideas on how to fund the project. While Supervisor Sally Stutsman proposed cutting back certain areas of the budget, Supervisor Janelle Rettig voiced concern over the size and scope of the project, suggesting the total cost be significantly reduced.

"I think that is the awkward part," Rettig said. "Trying to tie the hands of another board. We only know and can only control what we have at this moment, and that's the budget."

Most of the supervisors did agree, however, that their intent and commitment to the project should be made clear: If the existing jail is sold, the dollars would be applied toward the Justice Center and not on another project.

When discussing whether to put the issue on the November ballot, Stutsman said she didn't know if she was prepared to decide. But Rettig, Neuzil, and Harney said they are ready to put it on the general election ballot and think it's time for voters to have a say.

"We will put it in front of 75,000 to 80,000 members of our community and let them decide," said Neuzil. "We couldn't ask for a bigger election. If that's what it takes to have the residents decide, I'd like to have them decide sooner rather than later."

Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said his main concern is being able to effectively reach and inform the public about the project in such a short period of time.

"We only have [a few] months to go to the public," he said. "It could be very difficult to get the information out to 70,000 to 80,000 citizens. But I don't think it would benefit anyone to put it on hold again."

City Councilor Connie Champion, who has also served on the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee for many years, said she said is glad to see the supervisors come together and move forward in a decision on the bond referendum after a few meetings that threatened to put Justice Center discussion on hold.

A final vote on whether to put the bond referendum on the November ballot will take place in early April.


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