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Officials debate over best plan for ambulances and affordable housing

BY ALYSSA GUZMAN | OCTOBER 08, 2014 5:00 AM

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As a way to hopefully save money, Johnson County officials may move forward with a private developer to expand the county’s ambulance and medical examiner facilities while also providing low-cost housing.

Terrence Neuzil, the chairman of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors, said there is barely any room for the ambulances, which is why it’s important to move forward with the plan.

Currently, the Ambulance Service is in a 3,600-square-foot facility at 808 S. Dubuque St., where it has been located since 1988.

“We have been in the process for over five years to build a brand new medical-examiner and ambulance facility,” Neuzil said.

During this process, some new ideas have arisen.

“Rather than simply building a building estimated at around $3 million, I suggested that Johnson County put out a request for proposals for a public/private partnership on the parcel,” Johnson County Supervisor Rod Sullivan wrote in an email.

Sullivan said he believes partnering with a private developer is beneficial because it would not only provide more room for Johnson County ambulances but also make low-cost housing in Johnson County feasible.

The only downfall of partnering with a private developer is that the plans for the facilities may be delayed.

“It’ll definitely delay the process, [but] I think you have to say, ‘Well, at what cost?’ We have to get something done to address the ambulance situation, but we can do that and do more,” Sullivan said. “I’m not satisfied with doing the minimum. I want to do a good job.”

However, because ambulances are a priority, some officials believe it is unnecessary to work with a private developer in order to also incorporate affordable housing into the plan. Partnering with a private developer would delay plans in motion.

There will be a meeting today to discuss possible options to further the plan, which officials believe needs to start moving in order to break ground for the project sometime before July 2015.

“We have to be responsible to the fact that we barely have room for our ambulances,” Neuzil said. “We want to move forward with this. We’ve all been on board with this and to delay this project much further would be disappointing. To lob a new idea does complicate things quite a bit but I’m trying to keep an open mind.”

Neuzil said Johnson County is a strong supporter of affordable housing, but getting the project done without further delays would be ideal, and focusing on housing may delay the process of the necessary ambulance renovations.

County Supervisor Pat Harney said he does not believe the county belongs in the rental business, rather, he said he believes the county should focus on providing services — such as ambulance services — to their taxpayers.

“To me personally, I just think we don’t need to get into that,” he said. “I think from that position maybe we should just sell our property for development.”

Jeff Davidson, the city’s economic-development administrator, said he thinks partnering with a private developer would be a great idea because it’s worked well in the past.

“Here in Iowa City, we’ve had a number of private partnerships that have really turned out well as far as projects that we’ve done,” he said. “The most notable ones we’ve done have been parking facilities. The county is talking about doing something similar with the Ambulance Service.”

Today, the request for proposals will be discussed at the meeting. Officials will decide if it needs to be changed or if it’s ready to send out to begin the next steps of the process.

“The county is still trying to decide exactly what it wants to do,” Davidson said.


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