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Fraccas in Johnson County: Residents divided over Courthouse expansion, local option sales tax


Johnson County Courthouse
This November, voters will once again weigh in on a proposed courthouse expansion. — photo by Adam Burke

A few heated federal races and the impending Iowa caucuses have earned the lion’s share of media attention as this November’s elections grow closer, but politicos here in Iowa City also will sound off on a handful of important local contests this fall. Here’s a look at a few of the down-ballot items in the Nov. 4 election.

Courthouse bond referendum

For the third time in two years, voters will weigh in on a proposal to fund expansion of Johnson County’s justice facilities. This time around, the county is asking voters to sign off on borrowing $33 million to build an annex adjacent to the historic South Clinton Street courthouse. The proposal calls for a three-story building to house the clerk of court’s office, courtrooms and storage space.

The latest pitch from the Johnson County Board of Supervisors comes after voters twice narrowly rejected plans for a much larger “justice center,” a $40-million-plus project that would have housed courtroom spaces as well as hundreds of jail beds. The November 2012 and May 2013 referendums both had support from most voters, but fell short of the 60 percent needed to approve bond borrowing. The second proposal was scaled back somewhat from the first, but the “no” side improved its position—inching up from 44 to 46 percent.

All of this comes more than a decade after the county first tried to expand its jail capacity back in 2000.

Supporters of those projects say our aging courthouse and jail aren’t fit for a community Johnson County’s size, leaving the county to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to house prisoners elsewhere, as well as clogging up the system due to a lack of courtroom space. They also say the courthouse, more than 100 years old, has weak security, leaving open the possibility of attacks on witnesses, judges and other personnel.

This time around, the plan doesn’t include a jail, which seemed during the 2012 and 2013 campaigns to be a more controversial venture than courthouse expansion. Critics highlighted a slew of criminal justice issues in their opposition to jail expansion—disproportionate minority incarceration, the huge rate of pre-trial subjects being locked up and local department’s enforcement of drug prohibition laws.

The left-right coalition that organized the campaigns against the last two justice center referendums is split on this November’s ballot measure. Some are prepared to support the courthouse, sharing county leaders’ concerns about failing infrastructure and employee safety. Others, though, say the courthouse project is too costly, unneeded or a sneaky precursor to a beefed up jail.

Local activist Sean Curtin, who leads the reform groups Free Johnson County and ICPDWatch, is one of the community members vocally opposing the courthouse referendum. For one, he says he’s not sure the renovations and extra space are necessary. But he also says he’s concerned because a floor plan rendering of the proposed building refers to a future connection to a new jail.

Supporters don’t deny they might try to build more jail cells eventually—they’ve been trying to do it for more than a decade, after all. But they say the items should be dealt with separately—when a proposal to borrow money for a new jail comes along, voters will get their say.

“My response to that would be, we can’t do it without the voters. There’s no way to stealthily go about this without people knowing,” Johnson County Supervisor Rod Sullivan said.

Curtin, though, says the issues are one and the same.

“The political class wants everything they propose to be debated on their terms, but that’s not how democracy works,” Curtin said.

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Sales tax referendum

Johnson County is in sparse company as one of only a few areas in the state without a local option sales tax in place.

Local voters approved a local tax after the 2008 flood to cover the cost of some recovery projects. Since that tax expired last year, however, Iowa City Council members are pushing for voters to reinstate the one-percent tax.

State law dictates that the whole county must entertain the referendum and that contiguous communities—Iowa City, Coralville, North Liberty, University Heights and Tiffin in this case—are treated as a single voting bloc. The six other communities and unincorporated Johnson County, meanwhile, will each vote the tax up or down independently. If any or all of the communities approve the tax, the revenue is pooled and distributed to the participating municipalities according to a state-mandated formula—75 percent based on population and 25 percent based on tax dollars collected.

That last bit is a big hang-up for some Coralville residents in particular. The Coralridge Mall and other business hubs in Coralville mean the town’s commerce outweighs its population. In other words, plenty of sales tax would be collected in Coralville, but because it’s much smaller than Iowa City, a disproportionately low cut of the revenue would end up back in Coralville.

Each community has put forth ballot language for how their sales tax revenue would be used. Iowa City’s plan includes 10 percent for affordable housing support, 40 percent for property tax relief and 50 percent for infrastructure projects. The property tax portion is meant to curb the effects of last year’s statewide property tax reform package, which reduced tax rates on apartment buildings, potentially costing rental-heavy Iowa City millions in coming years. Coralville would designate its revenue for “any lawful purpose.” North Liberty would split it between streets, utilities and parks. And Johnson County would use the revenue for roads and courthouse expansion.

County and state office

Three candidates are competing for two seats on the Johnson County Board of Supervisors. Incumbent Democrat Janelle Rettig is seeking her second full term, in addition to serving one partial term. Incumbent Republican John Etheredge is looking for his second win after he won a special election last year to replace Sally Stutsman, who left for a seat in the Iowa House. The challenger, Democrat Mike Carberry, is making his second attempt at a Board of Supervisors seat after he lost the Democratic nomination leading up to last year’s special election.

There are also two contested legislative races covering parts of Johnson County.

In House District 73 (Cedar County, a sliver of Muscatine County, and an easterly chunk of Johnson County), first-term Iowa Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, faces a challenge from West Branch Democrat David Johnson.

And in Senate District 39 (Keokuk County, most of Washington County and the southern and western portions of Johnson County), Iowa Sen. Sandy Greiner, R-Keota, is retiring, leaving a wide open opportunity in a district with nearly equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans. Democrat Kevin Kinney of Oxford faces Republican Michael Moore of Washington.

Adam B Sullivan is an activist and freelance journalist living in Iowa City.


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