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Start with the courthouse

Sun, Jul 2nd, 2000
Posted in

Monday, July 3, 2000

Start with the courthouse. That's my advice to the soon-to-be appointed Facilities Evaluation and Planning Committee that was created by the county board last Tuesday. The evaluation of the shops and other facilities can wait.

Study what to do with the courthouse and make a recommendation. Then let's see if the commissioners have the political where-with-all to come up with a plan and implement it.

Should we remodel the courthouse?

The county board has known since November '99 what needs to be done to update the courthouse. That's when architect David Kane of Kane & Johnson Architects of Rochester briefed the board on the costs for courthouse remodeling.

1. The mechanical plant (heating and air) is on its last leg and could go down any day. Cost $534,200 to $746,600.

2. The electrical system needs to be replaced in its entirety. Cost $303,500 to $331,500.

3. The courthouse needs an elevator so as to comply with the American with Disabilities Act. Cost $150,000.

4. In order to do any construction asbestos needs to be recovered. Cost $129,100.

5. Offices need to be reconfigured. Cost ($20sf at 20,200sf) $404,000.

6. Windows need replacing. Cost $152,000.

Add another $75,000 for structural modifications and the total cost to remodel the courthouse ranges from $1,747,800 to $1,988,200, but that doesn't include the courtroom. Each year that something isn't done the price to do the job goes up another 4% for inflation ($80,000).

One downside to remodelling is the disruption that would be caused by construction, which was one of the reasons given for building the new county office building in north Preston.

As of now, the county board has agreed in principle to go ahead with building the elevator and taking out the asbestos. They have the cash to do this. But in order to carry out any kind of significant remodeling the county would have to bond for the money. This would require a referendum by the voters.

The courthouse is 53 years old. But Kane says that the building, with its "double-loaded corridor", is still an efficient use of space. And acccording to the architect, at $50 per square foot to remodel, the price is cost-effective.

"If all of the modifications are made, the use-ful life of the building starts over," Kane told the board back in November. "The basic building is sound."

So far, no real action has been taken. Even the elevator project is on hold until they decide how much of the asbestos mitigation to do.

Scrap the courthouse and create a county campus?

"At what point does it become more costly to remodel than it does to start over?" Commissioner Gary Peterson questioned Kane back in November. While Kane said that it made sense to remodel, Peterson's question still surfaces from time to time, especially since the new county office building opened this past Autumn.

With the opening of the new building, county services have already been decentralized. So, why not build a new courthouse up near the jail and the new county building and create a county services campus?

This unofficial plan is making the rounds with some thinkers.

1. Build a new courthouse. The 26,320 square foot new county office building was built for a little over $2 million, approximately the same amount it would cost to remodel the old one. At $90 per square foot it is more costly to build new than to re-model, but the campus approach brings all of the county's ser-vices back to one centralized area again.

2. In order to find the space to build on the north side of Preston, the highway shop would probably have to be moved to another site. But with some aspects of the Resource Recovery Center becoming privatized, some space may become available that could possibly be used by the highway department.

One of the downsides to this plan is the economic impact of moving the courthouse from Preston's downtown and having to move the highway department. However, on the plus side there would be little or no disruption in county services during construction.

What about the courts?

At some point in time, the county is going to have to address the security needs of its court system. Witness rooms and jury rooms need to be created and overall security needs to be updated.

In order to do this at the present courthouse, additional space may need to be added on. If you go with the campus plan, a new courtroom could be built that is attached in some way to the Fillmore County Jail. In this way, security issues associated with the courts can be dealt with and the jail could be updated at the same time.

It took the county board nearly ten years to make a decision on what to do about the county's space needs. For good or bad, the new county office building is the outcome of that process.

But back then the board had the luxury of paying cash to do what it wanted. Now, it will have to be able to convince the citizens of the county that their plan makes sense and ask them to fork up the dough.

After the courthouse debate of the past few years, the public has to be a little bit leery of whether the county board knows what it is doing.

That's why the Facilities Evaluation and Planning Committee is a good idea. The county board needs some fresh thinking - remember that four of five commissioners were around for the last protracted debate.

Let's start with the courthouse before the mechanical plant goes.

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