Vote yes on Polk County Public Measure A

Local elections take place across Iowa today. Polls opened at 7 am and will be open until 8 pm. If you have an absentee ballot, don't put it in the mail today: hand-deliver it to your county auditor's office, or it won't count.

The mayoral and city council elections in Coralville have drawn national attention because of spending by Americans for Prosperity, a Koch brothers operation. John Deeth has posted about the Coralville and Iowa City contests, particularly Iowa City's vote on repealing an ordinance that prohibits 19- and 20-year-olds from hanging out in bars.

The at-large Des Moines City Council race between Skip Moore and Chris Diebel has turned into the most divisive local election I can remember for Democrats here. Later today I have a post coming on that campaign.

Polk County residents will vote today on Public Measure A, a Public Safety & Judicial System Bond to fund courthouse renovations and other improvements. After the jump I've posted a few reasons to vote yes on this ballot measure.

UPDATE: The bond passed by 67 percent to 33 percent according to unofficial returns. 60 percent was needed for passage.

Public Safety for Polk County has been campaigning for approval of this initiative primarily through direct mail and social media. Their Facebook page is here. Details on the renovations plans, project costs, and a timeline for work to be completed are on the Public Safety for Polk County website. Longtime Bleeding Heartland user Mark Langgin is running the "yes" campaign.

I supported the effort to pass a $132 million bond for improving Polk County court facilities in April 2008. Voters rejected that initiative by a large margin of 56.7 percent to 43.3 percent. (A 60 percent yes vote was needed for passage.) The latest plan has a much lower price tag.

Voters in Polk County on Tuesday will decide whether to approve an $81 million bond issue to pay for renovating and updating judicial buildings, including the courthouse, Criminal Court Annex (former Polk County Jail) and Polk County Justice Center Annex (former Wellmark building). [...]

If the plan is approved, the courthouse would house the county's civil and family courts. Criminal courts would move to the renovated former jail. The traffic, small claims and juvenile courts would be housed in the former Wellmark building.

The work would be done in four phases, with completion expected in 2021.

The plan would cost the owner of a $150,000 house about $17.42 more in property taxes annually.

In 2008, opponents of the Polk County bond issue campaigned against the court funding measure, with robocalls and a website, among other tactics. In contrast, this year I am not aware of any organized campaign specifically against Public Measure A.

Public Safety for Polk County has sent out a half-dozen or so direct mail pieces, all including this message in bold type:

The measure will cost the average homeowner $1.50 per month. That's a small price to pay to ensure fairness and keep our families safe.

Several mailings have focused on safety and security problems at the Polk County Courthouse, which was built in 1906. For instance,

Current facilities let criminals mingle with the public- including children and families awaiting family or civil court proceedings, and even victims or witnesses of crimes.

The current court system mixes juvenile offenders with hardened adult criminals - forcing them to share holding areas, courtrooms and other facilities. It's not safe - and it's not right.

Women who work with domestic violence victims have told me that the current arrangement at the courthouse sometimes forces victims to encounter their assailants in the hallways. KCCI TV's Eric Hanson reported on October 29,

An example of why changes are needed happened Tuesday morning as court attendants sounded an alarm.

Deputies ran up four flights of stairs to resolve the situation. They said they believe it wouldn't have happened if the courthouse separated suspects and their victims.

"People are invested emotionally in the outcome of what occurs here. And as a result, tensions run high throughout the building," said Judge Mary Pat Gunderson. She pushed the alarm button on Tuesday morning located under her court bench.

"We've had occasion where people have gotten into literally altercations where we thought people were going to go over that railing and land on the first floor," said Doug Phillips of the Polk County Sheriff's Department.

I know some liberals who have been annoyed by the "law and order" messaging on the "yes" side. One of the direct mail pieces that went out included large print calling for a yes vote to "Help Law Enforcement and Prosecutors Build Airtight Cases." The other side of the card explained how the renovations will "keep criminals off the street," "enhance prosecution of criminal cases," and reduce the chance of "criminals getting off on technicalities." Another direct-mail piece used similar language: "We can't risk letting criminals go free on technicalities." Shouldn't we support a fair, balanced criminal justice system without stacking the deck for prosecutors?

The political reality is that if Public Measure A goes down, it will be because of conservative votes. Many Republicans have a knee-jerk reaction against any bond initiative, because they oppose public spending on infrastructure. Leaders of the Republican Party of Iowa have urged supporters to vote against all local spending initiatives on "Tax Hike Tuesday." Other conservatives would use a no vote on Public Measure A to settle scores for what they view as bad decisions by some Polk County Democratic officials.

Polk County Republican Supervisor E.J. Giovanetti supports the plan, and Public Safety for Polk County has recruited several prominent Republicans to advocate for the cause. Former GOP State Senator and Ambassador Mary Kramer co-authored an editorial for the Des Moines Business Record with Gene Meyer, president of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, the former mayor of West Des Moines and the former commissioner of the Iowa Department of Public Safety. Excerpt:

Roughly 500,000 visitors a year now pass through the courthouse, which was designed to function with four courtrooms in 1906 but which now contains 28, counting the ones that have been shoehorned into off-site locations. Families severely stressed by conflict or victimized by crime are routinely forced by courthouse space constraints to share crowded hallways with hardened criminals. Emotionally volatile people frequently must sit within eyesight of the very person who prompted their stress, while both sides wait for an overworked judge.

Polk County's court workers handled 84 percent more filings in 2012 than they did in 1991, and last year was not a record year. A study released in February by the National Center for State Courts concluded that Polk County needs five more judges than it currently has and by 2030 will need 11 more on top of that to keep pace with the expected new court activity generated by a swelling county population. There currently is no place to put any new judges.

We have some really good people who work in the courthouse who are trying hard to deliver justice. But it diminishes us as a society somehow if we don't see the value in making sure that they have the facilities they need to guarantee that all our citizens are well-served. The Nov. 5 referendum calls for moving the staff of Polk County Attorney John Sarcone, all juvenile court functions, small claims cases, traffic cases and clerk of court storage into a vacant office building north of the courthouse that the county recently obtained via a land swap with Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield. Combined, moving those agencies is projected to ultimately save the county more than $582,000 a year by avoiding the rent on currently leased office space.

Phase Two involves revamping the old downtown Polk County Jail into a criminal courts annex and creating 13 criminal courtrooms in a facility that would be vastly more secure than the current courthouse. The final phase would mean restoring the existing courthouse into a lower-security place for handing wills and guardianships and for trying civil lawsuits.

We believe the Nov. 5 proposal to be much improved from a $127 million plan that voters rejected in 2008. That plan, which called for a new courts building to be constructed south of the existing courthouse, was rejected partly because of the price and partly because voters wanted more reuse of existing buildings.

Thanks to exhaustive work by judges, architects and the Polk County supervisors, the current plan is both less expensive and more efficient. If we reject it, the problems will not go away and they most certainly will not become any cheaper to resolve.

Construction costs won't be lower years from now, and Polk County's population will continue to increase, putting more strain on our local courts. Time to deal with this problem.

  • law and order

    How can you conclude costs for a courthouse will not fall in the future when in this case the cost fell $50 million?

    A thorough analysis of the cost must include a discussion of who is being prosecuted for what, and how costs can be reduced and safety can be improved through changes in the legal process, instead of just assuming the physical infrastructure has to be changed to accommodate the current process.

    • the cost is lower because they changed the plan

      instead of constructing an eight-story annex building south of the existing courthouse, they're renovating two existing buildings. It's accomplishing the same goal (more court space) but from an entirely different angle.

    • yes

      $50 million saved.

      • but not because construction costs are lower

        only because they're using existing buildings, which may be a better solution.

        There's not going to be some magic plan in the future that's $50 million cheaper than this one.

        • May be a better solution?

          Maybe you should read up on both plans and decide whether you think this plan, or the one which cost $50 million more than this plan, is the better solution.

          • the other plan is off the table

            There's no point comparing it to this one. The choice today is this plan or continuing to do nothing with a facility that has needed major renovations for decades.

          • I actually liked this plan more

            It uses existing buildings instead of adding to downtown Des Moines's excess stock of office space. It's less eexpensive.

            The first was rejected so it's not relevant at this point.

            I'm sure that if you wanted to, you could probably find ways to cut $5M off by making the final product of the renovations bare bones. But large-scale commercial construction and renovation simply isn't going to be cheap.

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