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Courthouse annex referendum fails

BY CHRIS HIGGINS | NOVEMBER 05, 2014 5:00 AM

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Johnson County voters did not approve a courthouse expansion, despite a major revision to the proposal compared with previous referenda.

On Tuesday, 56.9 percent of voters, or 26,956 people out of 52,336, voted in favor of the project’s $33.4 million bond referendum.

However, the measure needed a 60 percent supermajority to pass.

Supporters of the expansion said the current 113-year-old courthouse is too cramped and lacks proper security.

“We didn’t really come into this with a Plan B because, the way an election is, you put all your eggs in one basket, and you see what happens,” Johnson County Supervisor Rod Sullivan said. “If it fails, you go back to the drawing board, and so that’s where we’ll be.”

Supervisor Janelle Rettig said there will be “no choice” but to put it on the ballot again.

The local-option sales tax referendum failed as well. Ten percent of the revenue would have gone to funding the annex, which would have allowed the bond to be paid off in around 10 years.

Had the annex been approved but not the tax, the bond would have taken 15-25 years to pay back.

In 2000, voters rejected a proposal for a new jail.

Two previous referenda, one last November and one last May, included both an annex and a new jail, referred to as a “justice center.” Both failed to attain the necessary 60 percent voter approval as well.

The first time, 56 percent of voters approved the referendum. Officials then scaled back the size of the jail and shaved $1.9 million off the cost, and 54 percent of voters were in favor the second time.

This time, the proposal did not include a jail, but those who are in opposition to expansion were critical of space left open for a possible jail connection.

“Because the courthouse annex was labeled with a future jail connection, it was indistinguishable in intent from the justice center,” said Sean Curtin, the Free Johnson County director. “What we’re seeing is a referendum on the failed justice system right here in our county.”

They are also skeptical expansion is needed at all and say sweeping reform needs to come to the overall justice system first.

Curtin said he would like to see changes to the county’s use of a mine-resistant ambush vehicle and treatment of those who engage in alcohol and marijuana use, among other issues.

“This is the third time in two years, and their attitude is completely removed from our democratic principles,” he said. “The idea that you would bring this up for a fifth time since 2000 is absolutely disgusting.”

Supervisor-elect Mike Carberry said there will be a meeting today with the Johnson County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee to determine how to proceed.

“What they need to do is start all over again,” he said. “We need to have the people who oppose, we need to have them sit down at the table and say what they would support.”


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