President’s Message: December/January 2016
Help us maintain the positive momentum on the Courthouse
If you are like me, it is incredibly exciting to see visible progress being made on the Justice Center (the former Wellmark/JC Penny building), which is targeted to house juvenile, traffic, and small claims court for Polk County. The Justice Center, which is Phase II of the five-phase courthouse construction project (restoration of the exterior of the historic Courthouse was Phase I), is currently scheduled to be completed in April 2016. The priority now is to make sure that the Justice Center has the furniture and equipment necessary to fully open for business upon completion.
Under Iowa Law, the counties are responsible for providing the physical facilities to house court functions. Polk County and it citizens have done their part by approving an $81 million bond referendum to fund the construction/remodeling of the Justice Center, the Criminal Court Building (retrofitting the former jail), and the historic Courthouse. As noted above, Phase II of that project is well under way. Under Iowa law (Iowa Code sections 602.1302 and 602.11101, to be exact), the State of Iowa is responsible for providing funding to the judicial branch to allow it to purchase the furnishings, supplies and equipment necessary for the judicial officers and staff to effectively operate within the buildings supplied by the County. That is where we need your help.
The Polk County Bar Association is actively working with judicial branch officers and staff to educate the Legislature and Governor on the importance of the State providing the funding necessary to furnish/equip all of the county courthouses, including the new facilities being completed in Polk County. In the past 10 years, the judicial branch has expended $3.1 million to pay for furniture and equipment in 41 different counties. In the past, these funds have been set aside by the judicial branch from its annual appropriations approved by the State Legislature. The cost to furnish and equip the Polk County facilities (approximately $9.6 million) will, however, far exceed what the judicial branch can absorb in its annual appropriation from the general fund. As such, the judicial branch is asking the State to meet the State’s statutory obligation to provide the furnishings/equipment for the Polk County complex through separate, one-time appropriations. This request went unanswered last legislative session, and we need your help to make sure that doesn’t happen again this year.
To date, our judicial officers and staff have had productive meetings with Governor Branstad and local legislators, all of whom have voiced support for the judicial branch’s appropriation request. Support for the appropriation request has also been garnered from the Iowa State Bar Association, the Iowa State Association of Counties, the Iowa Judges Association, and the Greater Des Moines Partnership. To foster this positive momentum, we also need your help. Please reach out to your legislators, and ask your friends and colleagues across the state to do the same, and explain to the legislators the importance of supporting this appropriation request. Here are some important reasons to support this request:
- This is not just a Polk County issue; this is a statewide issue. Indeed, the funding is provided to the state judicial branch, not the County. Although the immediate need is in Polk County, next time the need may arise in Linn County, Scott County, Pottawattamie County, Woodbury County, etc. Every county should be able to make necessary improvements to its courthouse to ensure that justice can be safely and efficiently administered knowing that the Legislature will fulfill its legal obligation to properly furnish and equip the upgraded facilities.
- The Polk County Courthouse is by far the busiest and most overcrowded courthouse in Iowa (25,000 people utilize the 109 year-old Courthouse per month), and the improvements to the Polk County Courthouse facilities are absolutely necessary to provide a safe, secure, and efficient space to administer justice – not only for Polk County residents, but also for individuals from across the State who are involved in litigation that must be brought in the Capitol City.
- The County and its citizens overwhelmingly approved the Courthouse project (67% voting in favor) with the unequivocal expectation that the State would provide the equipment and furnishings necessary for judicial officers and staff to administer justice in the new facilities. Any further delay in funding for the equipment/furnishings has the potential to disrupt the carefully timed sequencing of the construction phases.
- Any existing furnishings/equipment that are still useful and will physically fit within the new space will be utilized in the new facilities. The new furnishings/equipment being selected for the project are modest and most are similar, if not identical, to furnishings/equipment utilized in other courthouse remodeling projects across the state.
- The requested appropriations are one-time (as opposed to on-going) expenditures that can be funded from existing State infrastructure/equipment/technology funds.
Thank you for supporting this project and for any help you can provide in getting this message out to legislators across the State. Contact information for individual legislators can be found at: https://www.legis.iowa.gov/legislators/find
If you have any questions on this issue, please feel free to contact me or any of my colleagues on the PCBA Board of Directors. Finally, I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to wish you and yours a happy holiday season and a wonderful, healthy, and productive new year!