On Tuesday, November 5th, Polk County voters will decide on an $81-million referendum that would alleviate overcrowding and improve safety at the Polk County courthouse.
In 2008, voters turned down a $132 million proposal that involved building a new, eight-story courthouse and turning the existing facility into a museum.
The new proposal involves re-purposing buildings the county already owns which would allow the county to get out of some expensive leases.
The scene isn’t out of the ordinary for a Tuesday afternoon at the Polk County Courthouse as dozens check in for traffic court, attorneys make their way to the upper floors, and accused criminals shuffle through the crowds with their feet shackled.
“This building was built more than 100 years ago. It’s just not safe,” said Judge Mary Pat Gunderson from the 5th District of Iowa.
Judge Gunderson hears cases dealing with everything from child support to domestic disputes.
Tensions are often high.
“Often times we’ll have cases where the victim of domestic abuse sits next to the batterer in the hallway with no protection,” Gunderson told Channel 13 News.
Gunderson supports the new plan.
It would eventually allow family court to move to the first floor of the courthouse where there are more deputies.
Before that happens, Mary Kramer from the group Public Safety for Polk County says some nearby buildings would be re-purposed.
“It is a big improvement over what was attempted a few years ago,” said Kramer.
First, the old Wellmark building would be renovated and turned into the Polk County Annex Justice Center.
Juvenile, traffic, small claims court, and records storage would be moved there.
After that is completed the main jail would be fixed up to host juvenile court.
The final stage of the project would involve renovating the current courthouse which would only be used for civil and family court.
With less traffic at the old building, Judge Gunderson says it would be a safer place for everyone having their day in court.
“I think the people of Polk County and Des Moines deserve not only a beautiful building, but one that’s safe and functional,” said Judge Gunderson.
To pass, the referendum must be approved by 60% of voters.
You wouldn’t see the changes overnight. It could take five to seven years until the final part of the project, the renovation of the Polk County Courthouse to be completed.