Back to the drawing board?

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 13, 2001

The county courthouse.

Tuesday, March 13, 2001

The county courthouse. Some are sick of hearing about it, but it could be the biggest county capital expenditure in our lifetimes.

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Three boards of commissioners have been talking about it for more than five years, and many say they are no further today than they were when they started.

And each year, changing construction costs further inflate the expense of whatever solution is finally reached. Inaction could be costing taxpayers a million dollars a year, county officials have said.

But there are signs of renewed action. On Smith’s recommendation, the board hired a facilitator in February to give their discussions direction and help them break the courthouse debate into manageable parts.

It is a modest start, and fundamental decisions still need to be made, but commissioners say they are committed to making some decisions this time around.

&uot;I think if you give us six months, this group is going to figure something out,&uot; said freshman commissioner Mark Behrends. &uot;It’s dragged out, the public is tired of it, it’s time to make some decisions.&uot;

The Problem:

Discussion of courthouse renovations began in the mid 1990s and got serious in 1996, said County Administrator Gene Smith.

&uot;They were driven initially by recognizing that we didn’t have suitable court facilities,&uot; Smith said.

Court staff told the board there were a number of features missing from court areas that would be considered standard in modern facilities. There was no interviewing space, or way of separating victims, witnesses, and defendants, they said. There was virtually no security system, or holding facilities for jail inmates who were to attend hearings.

In January, 1997, the board commissioned a space-utilization study of county facilities from Boarman, Kroos, Pfister, Vogel and Associates(BKPV). The survey, completed a few months later, indicated that the county buildings did not have enough space, did not use existing space efficiently, lacked adequate security and were not compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements. Jack Boarman, president of BKPV and Associates, told the commissioners the facilities were deficient in a variety of areas, including safety, security and function.

The board asked Boarman do develop facility redesign options. BKPV conceived four original redesign options, which were later expanded to nine – ranging from minimal renovations of existing structures to complete rebuilding.

In February, 1997, the board formed a citizens committee composed of five people from each district, co-chaired by Bill Leland and Karen Smed, to study the issue and make a recommendation to the board.

The recommendation:

After a year examining the problems, plans and facilities in other counties, the advisory committee unanimously agreed on a scheme that preserved the 1888 building, demolished the 1954 building and replaced it with one building on the east side of the current structure. The scheme was developed by the committee using elements they liked from BKPV’s different plans, Smed said.

They presented their recommendation, called &uot;Plan 10,&uot; to the board of commissioners in August, 1998.

Then-County Board Chairman Brain Jordahl said he was surprised by the recommendation. He thought a minimal plan would come from the taxpayer’s group. The extent of work they recommended was a testament to how inadequate the facilities were, he said.

&uot;After they got here and took tours of the courthouse … they came to the conclusion that ‘Yeah, you have problems here,’&uot; he said, adding that most of the problems were in the 1954 building.

After the committee made its recommendation, the board spent nearly a year arguing about funding, property, and how many plans to bring before the public.

Demolition or renovation of the 1954 building was a major stumbling block, Smith said.

&uot;You’ve got a 10-month gap where they’re arguing about what to do,&uot; he said.

The public debate:

More than a year after the citizen’s committee made their recommendation, the board took plan 10 to the people in the form of five public meetings, hoping the taxpayers would give them a clear mandate.

They didn’t.

Some people spoke out against any building project, Smith said. Others said they trusted elected officials to determine the necessary course. The rest of those attending the meetings took every possible position in between.

&uot;There was no overwhelming consensus from the public meetings either,&uot; Smith said.

Commissioner Mark Behrends attended a meeting, and was disappointed at how few people showed.

&uot;Everyone had an opinion, you would hear it at breakfast in the morning, but no one would show up to the meeting to get informed,&uot; Behrends said.

The Verdict:

The quagmire of courthouse discussion has taken its toll on commissioners, constituents and county employees. Every year, construction costs go up and original study data becomes less reliable. The delay is likely to cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

&uot;My experience has been that it’s not unusual to take four or five years for a project to develop,&uot; Smith said. &uot;But this project has been under consideration for about five years and only now does there appear to be any kind of end in sight.&uot;

Five years of board discussion and public input have yielded no conclusions. The board is not only still debating fundamental issues of spending, funding and renovation, they are still increasing their options and asking for more information. New commissioners are again being briefed on the issue and its history, and the board struggles for organization in its decision-making.

&uot;We talk about one-stop-shopping and utilizing other facilities in one breath,&uot; Smith said.

The courthouse issue has dragged on so long because the board has never been able to establish a majority opinion on any front, Smith said. Commissioners have been devoted to their pet plans: former commissioner Keith Porter refused to consider anything less than building a new facility; Belshan was wooed by the idea of a court facility across Pearl Street.

&uot;I don’t know if they ever took any time off (from discussing the courthouse issue), but they never reached any conclusions,&uot; Smith said.

Unable to coordinate their own ideas, the board asked the public for direction, but failed to act on the citizen’s advisory committee’s recommendation. They looked to their constituents for answers, but received mixed messages from taxpayers who were not as familiar with poblems and solutions as those who had studied the issue.

Funding and referendum issues haven’t been resolved, or even changed much through the different compositions of the board because the argument has never been well-defined, Smith said. Public opinion has been fragmented and negative because the board has been unable to convince taxpayers of the inadequacies of facilities so that they get over the sticker shock of renovation costs.

&uot;It’s always been up in the air,&uot; he said.

The Future:

With three new commissioners, and two with only two years of experience in the issue, it is a whole new ball game, said facilitator Roger Steinberg, University of Minnesota Extension educator.

The board is covering old ground – reading documents from BKVP, discussing the citizen’s advisory recommendation from Leland and Smed – but they are also dealing with new issues like jail space, and possible grant or public funding for renovating the 1888 building.

&uot;It seems to me you are, I hate to use the words, starting over again,&uot; Steinberg said.