Group set to narrow county building options

A new county committee is scheduled to have the rough designs and costs that could allow the group to decide what will be included in a new county facility in downtown Whitehall by March. Kurt Berners of Samuels Group, a consultant hired by the county to guide decision-making on a new building, told the new Building Oversite Committee last Thursday that an initial choice should be whether the new structure will be a jail and sheriff's office, or a criminal justice center that would also include courts.

"Once we get a vision from staff on the building, a rough layout and square footage, we can get numbers on the affect on taxpayers," Berners said. In addition to providing construction concepts, Berners said he would meet with bond advisors for financing options. Cost estimates for a justice center included in a three-year-old space needs study were in the $40 million range. The group is scheduled to meet again on March 16 to perhaps decide the course of the construction. Once decisions are made, Berners said a next step would be to communicate the plan, its costs and rationale to county residents. The idea of combining courts, the district attorney and clerk of courts in a shared structure with the jail and sheriff's office comes in part from the need to improve transporting prisoners. Sheriff Brett Semingson said today's practice of bringing prisoners down public hallways subjects victims, witnesses and the public to potentially difficult interactions with prisoners. To move prisoners to court from a new stand-alone jail could require a covered walkway or tunnel, two costly options. "It's possible that the jail and sheriff's office could match in square footage a second-story court, district attorney and clerk complex," Berners said. Such an arrangement could allow prisoners to be moved by a dedicated elevator to holding cells near court rooms. Also unresolved is the cost of vacating Park Street, which runs between the courthouse and the land bought by the county for a new facility.

Whitehall Mayor Jeff Hauser said the cost to move utilities that likely run beneath the street are unknown and could be high. Chief Deputy Harlan Reinders also said work would have to be done on Whitehall traffic flow if Park Street is closed. Berners said the new structure could be designed to provide infrastructure for expansion without driving up initial costs. He noted, for instance, that cells could initially have one bed and be converted to bunks as the need grows. The county may also want to plan for a second circuit judge, Berners said. County board chairman Tim Zeglin assembled the committee based on a county board mandate in September. He said his vision for the group is to move forward "with a building project that has long been delayed." Zeglin was elected chair of the building committee. "I vowed to follow through on (a new building) and to spend money as wisely as possible while acknowledging that the cheapest alternative is not always the best," Zeglin said. He said the courthouse feels "shabby" after he attended events at Whitehall and Arcadia schools. The county board dictated the composition of the committee, which includes, besides Semingson, Hauser and Zeglin, circuit court judge Rian Radtke, county director and health officer Barb Barczak, Ashley Furniture Industries, Inc. engineer Nate Tabbert and Department of Corrections inspector Brad Hoover. The group plans on posting agendas, minutes and reports on the county's website.

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