Letter to the editor: A case for the Justice Center

“I wish more people had attended the open forum hosted by the Vote No folks on April 23rd. It reinforced my belief that we all have the County’s best interests at heart; we just differ in our solutions.”

Is the proposed Johnson County Justice Center a monument to excess or exactly what we need? Let’s start with what we can all agree on.

One-third of the project cost is for a new jail. The current jail is double-bunked with 92 beds and does not meet state minimum standards. Current inmate averages are north of 150 per day, with peaks near 200. Excess prisoners are farmed out to neighboring counties’ jails at a cost of over $1 million per year.

Even the Vote No contingent agrees that the current courthouse and jail are sadly outdated and undersized, and must be remodeled or supplemented.

I wish more people had attended the open forum hosted by the Vote No folks on April 23rd. It reinforced my belief that we all have the County’s best interests at heart; we just differ in our solutions.

One of the presenters (referring to the other four presenters) acknowledged that “it’s obvious we are not all on the same page” regarding how to best address our current facilities’ shortcomings. At another point he held up his hand with thumb and forefinger almost touching and said he was “this close” himself to voting for the proposal.

This points up the irreconcilable problem plaguing the Vote No bloc; there is no consensus on what to do if the bond issue fails. One faction will vote no to anything that will raise property taxes, period. Another will vote no to any proposal as long as minority contact/racial incarceration disparities exist and/or people continue to be arrested for victimless crimes. Another wants to bid out the jail services to private commercial providers, and others want a scaled-down facility (choose one) located away from/attached to the Old Courthouse.

What are the chances that any proposal will please a 60% supermajority of them?

At some point, practical considerations must trump ideological concerns and I submit that we are already well past that point. That’s not to say that ideological concerns are unimportant.

Being on the Yes for Justice Committee has given me the opportunity to rub shoulders with the County Attorney’s office, the Sheriff’s office and many of the county employees that staff the current courthouse and jail. They are as concerned (if not more so) as any of us about reducing the number of people incarcerated for any reason, although most of those reasons cannot be influenced at the county level.

I can almost hear the scoffing of the conspiracy theorists who believe that Johnson County is a Police State bent on arresting and jailing as many people as possible (particularly University of Iowa students), and I find this distressing. They feel that our local elected officials and law enforcement agencies simply cannot be trusted to do the right thing. With all due respect, this feeling is–with very few exceptions–wrong.

As for the timing, it’s a great time for a bond issue because borrowing costs continue to be at historic lows. Construction costs are anticipated to increase by 2.3% in 2013 (Kiplinger/ENR), which means that a year’s delay in a project this size will probably cost taxpayers over $1 million.

You probably learned recently that the County has been sitting on at least $1.5 million of deferred maintenance items in the jail and courthouse, expecting that something would have been approved by now. An approved plan with a fixed completion date would minimize those costs.

One last point. If the bond issue on May 7 fails, that won’t be the end of it. It can’t be. Our current facilities fall far short of being able to accommodate even our existing needs, let alone our projected needs for the next 20 or 30 years.

The proposal would be back for another vote soon, probably with only minor changes (again) because the great majority of people who are the most knowledgeable about this issue are convinced that we are on the right track. It’s at least 60% of the rest of us who need to be similarly persuaded, and that was very nearly achieved last November on a slightly more expensive proposal.

I have no data to support this, but I honestly feel that more than a supermajority of people who have taken the time to inform themselves about the Justice Center (especially the revised plan) are in favor of it. But that’s not the same thing as prevailing at the polls.

Both sides have done all they can – If you live anywhere in Johnson County it’s now your turn. It would be a shame if another low turnout skews the outcome. It doesn’t matter which side you are on; please get out and vote!

Dave Parsons is a native Iowa Citian, University of Iowa graduate and CFO at the business he co-owns on the Coralville Strip.