Johnson County officials debate for minimal jail repairs in the next few years

BY MICHELLE KIM | MAY 15, 2013 5:00 AM

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A little more than a week after voters nixed a proposed justice center, plans to address Johnson County’s judicial, security, and space needs appear to be moving forward.

But although the Board of Supervisors discussed the immediate needs for improvements to the jail, Courthouse, and Administration Building during a Tuesday morning meeting, the supervisors could not reach a consensus.

Supervisor Terrence Neuzil said the fate of the $43.5 million bond referendum, which failed to garner a 60 percent supermajority, doesn’t signify the end to capital projects.

He floated a budget between $1 million and $3 million in upgrades to the three county facilities and said he is not in favor of bringing the issue back to local voters in March 2014.

“People voted No twice, and I think at some point down the road, that’s an option, but right now, my job is to look at the safety of the public,” he said. “I think it’s going to take a lot more time planning to start over.”

Iterating previous comparisons to a Band-Aid, Neuzil said comprehensive upgrades would include making the Courthouse ADA compliant and improving the jail’s current lock system and control center.

Although he said in the long-term, the county spent a lot of money in existing facilities, he said a preliminary outline of an alternative remains unknown.

County officials have previously told the DI that at least $1.56 million would be required to modernize the jail’s control-center.

For Supervisor John Etheredge, a more radical approach may be needed. Favoring the complete relocation of county facilities, he said a new rural location is ideal in order to alleviate current congestion downtown.

“The ultimate goal is to have everything located in one area,” Etheredge said. “Maybe we donate the Courthouse to the state …”

Because Etheredge’s cost estimates were unavailable Tuesday, Supervisor Chairwoman Janelle Rettig, questioned the legitimacy of his proposal.

Supervisor Pat Harney said he believes building additions may still be favorable, with construction of extra courtroom space as a potential.

Despite the handful of alternatives, he said future discussion dates regarding facility upgrades, like the justice center, remain unknown.

Sean Curtis, the field director of Vote No New Jail, confronted the county officials during the meeting, bringing up expensive capital investment costs relating to the former justice-center proposal as a deterrent.

“People think it’s too much money, and they want to see criminal policies addressed,” Curtis said.

“People were upset that we voted on something that was essentially the same project, a jail-Courthouse combination for around $50 million. It was voted down a few months ago, and it was brought back up. So a lot of people felt their votes were thrown in the trash can.”

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