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Voting begins today for amended justice-center proposal

BY BRENT GRIFFITHS | MAY 07, 2013 5:00 AM

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Johnson County voters will revisit the ongoing issue of courthouse and jail improvements when they return to the polls today to cast their ballots in a special election.

With turnout projected to be much smaller than the first proposal’s appearance on the November 2012 ballot, neither side can call which path today’s voters will choose for the proposed justice center’s $43.5 million bond referendum.

“I am guardedly optimistic and realize that turnout is going to be really low,” said Donald Baxter, the founder of the Facebook group Oppose the Johnson County Jail (“justice center”). “Again, this is one of those elections in which very few people vote, and those who do vote are firmly in favor of [the justice center] or against it.”

Baxter’s feelings are shared among people on all sides of the amended proposal — as activists and officials struggle to glean what the vote will bring.

Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert did have some predictions for voter turnout based on the roughly 3,800 who voted early in the election that is expected to cost “in the upper range of $70,000.”

“We’re really hoping to reach within the 14,000 voter total,” he said. “We have already seen a much higher turnout than the March special election.”

Regardless of turnout, the county has amended the original proposal after it received 56 percent of the vote in the general election in November 2012 — falling 4 percentage points short of the required 60 percent needed for passage.

Specifically, the amended proposal includes 195 jail beds instead of 243, four courtrooms instead of six, and $325,000 less in exterior design changes and other “soft” costs, coupled with $2.7 million in county funding. In spite of changes, those against the justice center believe their underlying concerns have not been addressed.

“They made some cosmetic and superficial changes, basically in hopes the lower voter turnout will be in their favor,” said Aleksey Gurtovoy, a local activist and cofounder of stopbigbrother.org.

“What should have happened was county officials would have gone back to the drawing board [after November] and change the plans to address some of the major issues.”

Baxter characterizes the amended proposal as “the same proposal with a different curtain — a stone wall versus glass.” He further feels the proposal is too big for the size of Johnson County.

One Johnson County official said he believes the county has done a good job educating voters about the need for the justice center, and now “it’s in the hands of the citizens.”

“We want to address safety, security, and space for employees and this is the right time and opportunity to do that,” county Supervisor Terrence Neuzil said. “Especially with interest rates that are historically low, we need to lock those rates in right now.”

County prosecutor Janet Lyness and Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek agree with Neuzil’s assessment and believe the proposal will allow for a more secure Courthouse and jail. Pulkrabek said one of the main issues is the county paying other counties to house overflow prisoners.

“The bottom line is that our tax dollars are going out of the county, and we save our tax dollars and have a safe and secure Courthouse,” Pulkrabek said.

Neither side has a definite plan on how to handle the possible outcome of today’s vote, but Neuzil said supervisors would move forward as soon as possible to have architects draw up final plans for the center. However, if voters fail to approve the measure for a second time he believes there’s room for some “soul searching.”

“If [voters] don’t like the plan, then we’re obviously going to have to do some soul searching and look at some significant changes for any proposal, if there is any in the next couple of years,” he said. “I’m not sure at this point [what else we can do]. This issue has been in front of people for 12-plus years, and I’m not sure how much more explanation they need.”


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