Look around the world, and you’ll find that healthy democracies tend to share four main attributes: They have free and fair elections; they offer universal public education; they hold a high regard for human rights; and they demonstrate deep respect for the rule of law.

Look around these days at downtown Des Moines, however, and “respect” might be the last word that comes to mind in pondering our collective attitude toward the Polk County judicial system.

We believe that can and should change when voters go to the polls on Nov. 5.

Polk voters, by marking “yes” next to the Polk County Public Safety Judicial System Bond referendum Tuesday, will have the chance to authorize the borrowing of up to $81 million for a three-phase building project designed to consolidate Polk’s judicial apparatus, modernize its security and create new uses for two nearly empty buildings. In the process, the measure will create between 800 and 1,000 construction jobs and breathe new life into one of the last remaining dull pockets of a rapidly growing and changing downtown Des Moines.

We need to do this. It’s long overdue, and we may never get a better opportunity.

The work is sorely needed. Thirty years of temporary Band-Aids and an unwillingness to attack space constraints head-on have left Polk County’s 107-year-old courthouse overcrowded and under-secure, with public safety shortcomings that amount to a nightmare waiting to happen.

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.

If the referendum is approved, plans now call for the first two phases of work to be completed within four years, with another four years to complete all the restoration of the existing courthouse.

That schedule will have the added benefit of keeping the courthouse relevant to the downtown Des Moines resurgence that will be going along around it. The downtown Fleming, Des Moines and former Younkers buildings, as well as the Randolph Hotel, all have major renovation projects that are now in some phase of planning or construction. Major work is being considered to the downtown Walnut Street landscape. And several blocks farther to the north, the new Wellmark YMCA is expected to break ground sometime next year.

In short, for many reasons, the timing is right for a courthouse renewal.

The upcoming referendum means Polk County has a chance to tackle decades-old concerns about its courthouse in a cost-efficient way that will both improve public safety and maintain the rapid resurgence we’re seeing downtown. The cost for this will be a property tax bill that increases $1.50 per month on a home assessed at the Polk County average of $158,000. We believe the choice is simple for Polk County voters. It’s a deal that makes sense.
Vote “Yes” on the Polk County Public Safety Judicial System Bond.

Mary Kramer is a former Iowa state senator and senate president who served as U.S. ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean from 2004 to 2006.

Gene Meyer is 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.