Johnson County talking jail, courthouse projects to start 2014

New proposal will consider separate facilities to complement existing building

Gregg Hennigan
Published: January 1 2014 | 7:05 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 1:31 am in
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Johnson County’s supervisors will ring in the new year by taking a different approach to an old problem.

At its meeting Thursday, the Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on a handful of items related to space and safety issues at the county jail and courthouse.

The action ultimately could lead to a public vote on jail and courthouse projects in November 2014. Voters twice in recent months rejected funding proposals for a single justice center with jail and court space, but what the county is now considering is separate facilities to supplement the existing buildings.

“Now that we (county leaders) have kind of come to a consensus, it gets us all moving on two projects utilizing our existing jail and existing courthouse but letting our voters determine whether they are supportive of both projects or one project,” said Terrence Neuzil, who is to become chairman of the Board of Supervisors Thursday.

The board is to vote on four related motions:

  • Seeking what is known as a pre-schematic design for a courthouse annex. The general idea, which could change, is for a building connected to the courthouse to the south with up to six courtrooms costing no more than $25.5 million.

  • Seeking a pre-schematic design for a 100-bed jail annex east of the existing 92-bed jail where the county owns land, with the two buildings possibly connected by a skywalk above Capitol Street. It would cost no more than $24 million.

  • Amending its contract with Venture Architects and Neumann Monson Architects, which worked on the justice center project, to have them prepare the design plans.

  • Getting ballot language ready for a referendum, which Neuzil said likely would be in November. The jail and courthouse projects would appear as separate items on ballots and voters could choose both, one or the other or neither.

Representatives from Johnson County and the criminal justice community have for years said the jail and courthouse are outdated, too small and have security problems.

A bond referendum to pay for a new jail failed in 2000. After county leaders spent several years on the justice center concept, bond votes in November 2012 and May 2013 failed to get the 60 percent approval needed to pass.

Those projects called for a 243-bed and 195-bed jail, respectively, along with a few new courtrooms, at cost of less than $50 million.

The jail has been more controversial. Opponents criticized the size of the proposed jails, the number of people arrested and the disproportionately high arrest and incarceration rates of minorities.

This fall, the five supervisors, the county attorney and the sheriff have debated whether to focus on the courthouse needs and possibly separate the projects.

Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek and Supervisor Pat Harney said they would not back a proposal that does not address the jail. Pulkrabek was out of the state Tuesday and unavailable for comment.

Harney said he and the sheriff still believe separate facilities are less efficient than a justice center, and he wonders how the public will vote when two projects are on one ballot. But he said he won’t stand in the way of voters having their say.

“Where I’m coming from on the whole thing, and it’s no secret, is the jail,” said Harney, a retired police officer. “We’ve got to do it and, we’ve got to do it right.”

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