Proposed new jail for Johnson County could run $80 million

By Paul D. Bowker
Posted 6/4/24


Conceptual designs for a new Johnson County jail, which would cost nearly $80 million, were presented to the Johnson County Board of Supervisors at its May 29 work session.

The …

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Proposed new jail for Johnson County could run $80 million



Conceptual designs for a new Johnson County jail, which would cost nearly $80 million, were presented to the Johnson County Board of Supervisors at its May 29 work session.

The designs and a presentation focusing on assessment needs were presented to the Board by Michael Lewis and Mark Allen of Shive-Hattery, an architectural firm that has an Iowa City office.

The proposal of a new jail complex included plans for more than 100,000 square feet on 15 to 20 acres of land. Based on construction bids going out in Fiscal Year 2025, the estimated cost would be $79.7 million, according to Shive-Hattery.

Problems with the current jail, which was built more than 40 years ago, has led to talk of transferring Johnson County prisoners to other counties in case a dangerous situation actually causes the building to be closed.

Last August, engineers from Iowa City-based Axiom Consultants assessed the condition of the building and detailed a number of repairs needed immediately. Among those is a roof replacement, along with notable cracks and deficiencies in exterior and interior brickwork and walls. A monitoring system has been installed.

The jail opened in 1981 with 50 full-time employees in the sheriff’s department; that number has nearly doubled and so has the need for beds and cells.

The county has budgeted $300,000 in repairs in FY25, and $600,000 per year after that.

Supervisor V Fixmer-Oraiz criticized the process for the planning of a new jail, saying there was little involvement outside the county sheriff’s office and architects, and that a final report had not yet been given to the Board. Lewis said he expected the report to be completed within 10 days.

“It seems a little backward that we don’t have a task force,” Fixmer-Oraiz said.

Fixmer-Oraiz questioned the construction of a building that could accommodate up to 240 prisoners when recent statistics show crime has decreased.

“We’re not going to divert ourselves out of violent crime,” Sheriff Brad Kunkel said. “The reality of the world sometimes is that people commit violent crimes against each other.”

“We continue to work hard all the time on diversions, on alternatives,” he added.

Fixmer-Oraiz stressed the need for more public input and more investment in community infrastructure so that crime can fall.

“This is directly tied to where we’re at now,” they said. “We have an opportunity to create something.

“I’m not saying that we shouldn’t build a new jail. I understand that the one we have now is failing.”

Supervisor Chair Rod Sullivan said the needs assessment and conceptual plans is merely a beginning.

“We can do anything we want here,” Sullivan said. “This is the decision of three of us. We can do anything we want. I’m very committed to getting the feedback.”

Per a suggestion from Supervisor Jon Green, the Board chose to wait for a final report from Shive-Hattery and then discuss the jail again at a work session planned for June 26.

Compensation Board

The Board voted informally to continue the existence of a Compensation Board. A new state code has given all 99 counties the option of eliminating those boards.

The Johnson County Compensation Board, which consists of unpaid appointees, makes annual recommendations to the Board of Supervisors in terms of pay increases for elected officers, including the sheriff, auditor, attorney and supervisors.

The absence of a Compensation Board would result in a county’s Board of Supervisors making all those salary recommendations and decisions themselves without any outside advice.

“We’ve had such a variety of people and perspectives,” said County Recorder Kim Painter, whose salary is one of those set by the Compensation Board and Supervisors. “We’ve had people who are retired and on a fixed income. We’ve had agricultural rural folks. We’ve had entrepreneurs, attorneys, university professors. All kinds of individuals have chosen to accept service on the Compensation Board and I think it’s done the county a lot of credit.”

“I feel very strongly that the boundaries and the structure of the code are in place for a reason,” Kunkel said. “The Comp meeting is a public meeting from the get-go, and then it is followed up by a public meeting where you all vote on it.”

“We have nothing to gain by taking that away from the public,” Kunkel added. “It’s a check and balance on the power of the Board of Supervisors. And again, I think that’s a good thing.”

Supervisor Lisa Green-Douglass said she was “really frustrated about the constraints that the Compensation Board has” and that “grandstanding” by some Supervisors can stand in the way of pay increases.

“I have a really hard time going to the 600 people that work here and saying, ‘Yeah, I know you’re getting 2.75 (% raise), I’m getting 5,’” Supervisor Chair Rod Sullivan said. “I can’t stand that, frankly. I think, as elected officials, you’re supposed to lead. To me, I would always take less money than the people who are doing the hard work.

“I think board members in Johnson County are a little overpaid,” Sullivan said. “I’ve felt that way for awhile. That’s just how I feel. It’s not a grandstanding thing.”

All five Supervisors agreed to keep the Compensation Board active in Johnson County.

Affordable Housing

At its May 30 formal session, the Board set a public hearing for 5:30 p.m. June 13 for a 2024 Municipal Housing General Obligation Loan that would clear the way for up to $2.25 million to be used issuing bonds for properties that would be utilized for affordable housing.

The Board also approved the 2023 Affordable Housing Report and the recommendations to pursue affordable housing projects.

Board Actions

The Board approved the FY24 budget spring amendment. The amendment includes more than $680,000 in additional unbudgeted expenditures and more than $6 million in additional revenue.

The Board approved the Maintenance and Capital Improvement plan for Fiscal Year 2025 through 2029.

The Board approved an ordinance that authorizes Johnson County Ambulance Services to bill for services and unpaid amounts from patients.

Next meeting: The Board’s next formal session is at 9 a.m. June 6.

Johnson County, Board of Supervisors, Compensation Board, Johnson County jail