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Referendum likely this fall, but new jail won’t be on it

IOWA CITY– The dilemma over the Johnson County Jail and Courthouse had the board of supervisors in meetings that at times were contentious late last year. After another failed bond issue last May, which would have built a justice center, combining additional courthouse space with a new jail, the supervisors have continued to battle over a variety of options.
In January they approved the crafting of a schematic design for a courthouse annex, which would be built on the south side of the historic courthouse along Harrison Street. Last Wednesday morning (April 16) the board took a look at the concept as representatives from Neumann Monson Architects and Venture Architects presented a draft plan for a three-story structure with six courtrooms and a secured connection between the annex and the current courthouse.
The estimated total project cost is $30,800,000, which reflects an increase in both construction and “soft” costs from estimates last December. At that time the construction cost was estimated at $20,550,000 and has since risen to approximately $25 million. Included in the increase is demolition of the structure behind the courthouse. Also the architectural firms are looking at an increase in site work cost due to shifting the new structure to the south side, and the estimated $240,000 expense of building an above-ground, enclosed and secure connection between the two buildings.
While some savings were realized in downsizing from eight courtrooms to six, $600,000 ($100,000 per courtroom) will be needed for audio-visual technology. This cost includes equipment such as computer monitors and other technical hardware, wiring and software. The system would also be connected into the state’s courts system. Such technology is used for video conferencing and allows a defendant to face a judge without having to be transported to the courtroom.
“I’m happy to see this,” said board chairman Terrance Neuzil. “Even though that increases the cost, let’s start thinking about a product that is going to meet the needs several years down the road. That is the future of the court system.”
“We’ve learned our lesson about being able to come out with an actual design,” Neuzil said. “At this point we’re looking at more of a concept and the conceptual estimates of what we need in a facility.”
Exploring the concept included clarifying what will and will not be visible, and how it relates to the courthouse aesthetically.
“The general idea,” Neuzil said, “is to try to minimize (the annex) as much as we can, and not take away from the beauty of the existing courthouse.” Neuzil said he preferred to share the design with the public and create a community partnership before paying more associated costs or moving forward with the project.
The architects assured the supervisors that the annex, with only one story visible from the front of the courthouse, would serve as a backdrop for the courthouse.
Supervisor Rod Sullivan spoke of gathering more public input.
“I like the idea of actually having these plans available for the public to look at, and not having anybody do one more thing. Because you’re going to do some kind of concept drawing, and all the aesthetic-ists in Johnson County are going to come out and rail against it, and say why it’s wrong, because it was the wrong color, and they’d never vote for something that color.” Sullivan said. “Quite frankly, I’m just not going play that game.”
Supervisor Janelle Rettig asked about sustainability and LEED certification, and when told it wouldn’t be certified, said she would not vote for a $30 million dollar building that’s not LEED certified.
“I think the voters of this county would tar and feather us,” Rettig said. LEED certification has different levels with varying requirements. A building can meet many of the same requirements without the added expense of certification, the architects explained.
“I just need to know,” Rettig said, “if I’m going to vote for a sustainable building, that I’m going to be adding one percent (to certify to the Silver LEED standard) to the cost. This is the peoples’ republic of Johnson County, and we have a fairly high anticipation of what’s sustainable. It doesn’t just mean extra insulation.”
“You’re building a sustainable building,” Sullivan said. “Its the commissioning cost, for the most part.” It would be LEED-qualified versus LEED-certified, supervisor Pat Harney added.
Rettig reiterated she has no desire to build a structure that is not LEED-certified. “I’m just not, at this dollar amount,” she said. “I won’t vote for a building that’s not LEED-Silver. So, we can just end that discussion now. I might actually campaign against it.”
Rettig justified her ultimatum.
“It’s just about whether or not you have integrity about environmental issues. And I think that’s part of our strategic plan, and if we’re going throw the strategic plan out now, then we should know that today,” Rettig said.
The architects acknowledged they hadn’t done much toward LEED, but have looked into sustainability throughout the design process. They also offered to bring preliminary LEED certification costs to the next meeting.
The supervisors also looked at needed improvements and repairs for the jail, which include upgrading the security and control systems, roof replacement, upgrades to the plumbing system as well as replacing the generator, all at an estimated cost of $3.1 million. Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek asked how the costs increased by roughly one-and-a-half million dollars over last year’s estimates.
At this point, Pulkrabek was told, speculation on the cost of some items, such as the generator– which could theoretically range from $250,000 to $750,000– was the reason for the higher figure. A lengthy discussion ensued weighing courthouse renovations and upgrades, which Harney was in favor of, versus jail improvements. Attempting to strike a balance between the two which could potentially be spread out over several years, avoiding the need to ask the voters for a bond issue, or tacking the jail projects onto the courthous annex ballot. Sullivan made it clear he did not want that.
“The albatross around the courthouse’s neck that is the jail,” Sullivan said. “I feel like I’ve supported what’s logical, twice. So, I’ve been told basically, by a certain number of voters that the most logical thing isn’t going fly. So I’m trying to think differently.”
After further discussion consensus indicated the jail work would not be a ballot issue.
The board had already allocated $1.4 million for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1, for jail improvements. Rettig asked the sheriff about timing and the potential need to move inmates, either partially or completely. Rettig suggested the county could seek hard and fast proposals now and empty the facility so that work could start on or shortly after July 1.
“If we’re going to re-do the control center, then we clear out the whole place,” Pulkrabek said. Rettig suggested doing all of the preliminary work first and saving the control center for last. “Anyway, it’s time to get that moving, now that we’ve made this decision,” Rettig said.
Pulkrabek said a major challenge will involve the continuing inflow of offenders, the need to supervise and monitor them, and ultimately, find a place to send them.
The board will begin individual sub-committee work on these issues with a Wednesday, May 7, meeting at 4:30 p.m. and a Wednesday, May 21, meeting at 9 a.m. to formalize the bond language, review finalized design plans and likely set a date for a referendum.