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Failed referendum leaves county supervisors scratching their heads,

IOWA CITY- For the third time, Johnson County voters rejected a bond issue that would have funded the construction of an annex to the existing courthouse.
In the Nov. 4 election, the $33.4 million project received a majority approval at 57 percent; however a super majority of 60 percent was required.
The day after the election, frustrated supervisors met with the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee (CJCC) for some guidance on what to do next.
The primary concerns centered around providing a secure entrance to the historic structure, as well as addressing accessibility issues. Board chairman Terrance Neuzil said approximately $275,000 worth of immediate needs for the courthouse were identified in the last budget cycle. Of that, $260,000 has been earmarked in the current budget for such projects as reconfiguring jury boxes for handicapped access; tuck pointing the garage behind the courthouse that contains the boilers for the heating system as well as records storage; and making improvements to steps and sidewalks and addressing drainage issues.
On the subject of security Neuzil asked what would be the minimum to make the building secure; specifically, how to stop potential weaponry from getting into thebuilding. Had the bond issue passed, the annex would have provided a secured entrance and separate entries and passageways for offenders and the public.
Neuzil said the supervisors directed the county’s facilities manager to ask an architect to look at options to create a secure entrance, including a temporary, mobile home-style building outside the courthouse.
“I think I said it three times– there’s a chance we could have a mobile home sitting outside our courthouse,” Neuzil said. It was a question of how much voters were willing to spend, he said, if they wanted a temporary, quick-fix, or something more permanent while the board is limited by the funds available. “But, the residents have spoken. Even though a majority of them said yes, that’s just not how this works. So, if that’s what it takes to create a secure entrance way…”
Neuzil expressed frustration with Governor Terry Branstad and the state legislature for what he said prevented county governments from providing “safe and secure facilities for what is primarily state work. It’s frustrating they don’t give us very many options to be able to address that.” Neuzil suggested working with local legislators to find a way to generate more revenue. The courthouse will continue to be a subject of discussion for months, as the supervisors are coming into a new budget cycle now. Raising taxes or cutting services were options on the table, he said.
Supervisor Janelle Rettig said even with a new entryway, the building itself would still not be safe, but merely secure. Inmates, law enforcement officers, witnesses, jurors, victims and their families would all still occupy the same hallways and restrooms. While a controlled entryway would allow screening, she said, “I don’t think anybody should actually think that that’s safe. People are capable of harming someone without a shotgun.”
During the comments portion of the meeting, supervisor-elect Mike Carberry suggested going with a temporary fix, “the bigger and the uglier these temporary buildings can be, and if we can put them on the east side, and really piss people off, that might generate a little more discussion.” He also called for reopening conversations with the opposition. “Start all over, think outside the box.”
Neuzil told Carberry they did meet with the opposition, which led to pulling the proposed jail expansion off the last referendum.
“There’s folks, quite frankly, that believe the board of supervisors has the authority to change federal and state laws,” Neuzil said. “And, I think that we need to do a basic– I’m going call it second grade, maybe third grade– government lesson with some of these folks. Maybe we can explain that’s not how it works.”
Carberry also drew heated remarks from Rettig after he said he’d spoken with former County Attorney Pat White about the bond initiative. Rettig took issue with White, citing the hundreds of hours she’d spent in meetings over the past five years regarding the justice center, jail and courthouse discussions, but White had never attended a single meeting.
“I find it outrageous for Pat White, who as a former county attorney worked in that building, to fail to come to any meetings for five years, failed to offer one single opinion, and then sit there and think that all of a sudden, he’s going to be the savior of it. I’ll just tell you that I’m glad that Pat White isn’t the attorney of this county. Janet Lyness has more leadership in her pinkie than Pat White ever had on anything.”
Local attorney and CJCC member Jim McCarragher expressed disappointment with the election results.
“It’s sad to see that our community doesn’t take the interest in safety and security,” said McCarragher. He urged the board to safety issues. “Whatever you do (to increase security), do it outside.”
“Everything is on the table,” Neuzil replied.
Supervisor Pat Harney suggested the board look outside the box and possibly work jointly with cities on upgrading facilities. Neuzil noted that approach would still require 50 percent voter approval.
“You can get 50 percent,” Harney replied. “I don’t think you’re ever going to get 60 percent. Every individual has a different reason (for voting no), and the biggest reason I’ve heard is they don’t want any additional taxes. I think we’re in a situation where you have a certain number (of residents) that can’t afford it. They really can’t.” Harney said Scott County consolidated its law enforcement agencies into a combined facility, and it’s working well.
Iowa Code allows counties and cities to enter into a joint authority, similar to a 28E agreement and resembling the Joint Emergency Communications Center (JECC) arrangement. If a joint authority could be created for a law enforcement center, it would only require 50 percent of voters to approve the measure. But, he added, getting some of the cities on board would be, “a monumental task.”
The board is having a joint meeting with the Iowa City Council on Thursday, Dec. 11, and Neuzil said a joint facility would be part of the discussion.