New proposal, not enough changed for justice center


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Johnson County officials have resurrected a proposal to build a new Johnson County justice center — the project would include a new county jail and major renovations to the Courthouse — after the plan’s first version was not approved by enough voters in November 2012.

The bond referendum to approve $46.8 million in tax dollars to pay for the center was supported by 56 percent of Johnson County voters on Nov. 2, 2012, short of the 60 percent supermajority necessary for the county to move forward with the project.

The original proposal drew criticism from the Daily Iowan Editorial Board in the run-up to the November election on the grounds that the project was unnecessarily expensive, given the existence of comparatively low-cost solutions to the most-pressing problems facing Johnson County’s current criminal-justice infrastructure — overcrowding in the jail, insufficient space in the Courthouse, and insufficient security in both buildings.

It is for these same reasons that the Editorial Board draws criticism for the new proposed plan — not enough was cut and the new proposal is still unnecessarily expensive. 

At a total cost of $48.1 million, the original plan would have included a new 243-bed jail and Sheriff’s Office, six new courtrooms, and major security upgrades in the Courthouse, among other renovations. The new plan put forward by the county Board of Supervisors is notable only for its striking similarity to the original.

The new plan reduces the number of jail beds to 195 from 243, reduces the number of new courtrooms to four from six, eliminates the building’s glass façade, and puts the county on the hook for an additional $1.4 million.

All told, these changes reduce the total cost of the proposed project by only $1.9 million from $48.1 million to $46.2 million; when the new proposal comes to a vote, the bond referendum will have been reduced by $3.3 million from $46.8 million to $43.5 million.

County officials hope to put the new funding proposal up for a vote in May. Their rationale for such a speedy turnaround is outlined explicitly in the updated draft proposal. In addition to record-low interest rates that make borrowing money for major projects extremely cheap, the county wants to make sure that the issue stays “fresh” for voters.

“A significant amount of effort was put into public education and outreach resulting in support of 56 percent of voters last November,” the draft proposal says. “That information is forgotten or loses ‘freshness’ the longer another vote is delayed.”

The similarity of the new justice center to the old, coupled with the county’s desire to bring the new proposal to a vote as quickly as possible seems to point to a rather unfortunate truth about the project. The county does not appear to be interested in a give-and-take scenario in which public concerns are heard and then accommodated; instead, the county’s goal appears to be to get the justice center plan approved at all costs.

We urge the supervisors to show more deference to the democratic system and revise their new justice-center proposal rather than attempt to sneak it by an unwilling public.

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