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Voters to decide whether to fund courthouse annex

BY CHRIS HIGGINS | OCTOBER 31, 2014 5:00 AM

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After two failures, a referendum Nov. 4 could expand the courthouse should voters approve it.

Voters will be asked to decide whether to move forward with a $33.4 million bond to fund a new courthouse annex, $2.6 million more than when it was originally proposed in May.

The three-floor, 69,167-square-foot facility would be dug into the hill the current Johnson County Courthouse sits on and would include six new courtrooms, increased security, and additional meeting space for officials, lawyers, and clients.

Should the local-option sales tax, a separate ballot item, pass Nov. 4, 10 percent of the revenue would go toward the bond. Johnson County Supervisor Rod Sullivan said that would allow the county to pay off the bond in about 10 years instead of the usual 15 to 20.

“We’ll just pay it off the way we would [normally],” he said.

Supporters say the 113-year-old courthouse is cramped, outdated, and in dire need of an upgrade.

“The population in the caseloads has just outstripped the space, and so we obviously, and we definitely, need more courtrooms to deal with the backlog of cases that we have right now,” said Patrick Grady, chief judge for the 6th Judicial District, which includes Johnson County.

Alongside security concerns with the current building, Grady especially noted special issues.

“Certainly if you go to the courthouse on a Friday or a Monday, which are probably the heaviest-traffic days, you see there’s just a lot of people milling around,” he said. “Attorneys don’t have the proper space to talk with their clients, and sometimes people on opposite sides end up in a little too cozy situation out in the hallway.”

In the November 2013 election and a special March election of this year, referenda to fund a joint annex and county jail expansion, or “justice center,” failed to gain 60 percent supermajorities.

Although support was over 50 percent each time, it decreased in the second election.

The bonds would have cost $48.1 million and $46.2 million, respectively. The second contained a scaled-back jail.

Officials opted to snip the jail from the proposal this time, but detractors of the courthouse annex say that is not enough.

“We’d like to see reform happening in the way that police treat community members, students, marginalized people in society,” said UI senior Matthew Evans, a board member of Free Johnson County, an organization in opposition to the expansion. “We’d like to see that happen before the same people that are committing these atrocities get their $33.4 million birthday present.”

Those in opposition are critical of the plan leaving open space for a possible new jail connection.
They are also skeptical about whether there is true need for additional space, as well as the price reduction — around $13 million sans jail.

“Basically, we don’t support a $33.4 million waste of taxpayer money when the project could be made much, much cheaper than that,” Evans said.


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