Courthouse tops state list

by: HOLLY M. GILL - The county courthouse, built in 1961, is at the top of the state's list for replacement. During the Oregon Legislature's last session, it passed Senate Bill 5506, which allows the state to pay for half the cost of replacing a courthouse deemed unsafe.By acting quickly, the Jefferson County Commission intends to be first in line to have the state pay for half the cost of a new courthouse.

Under Senate Bill 5506, the Oregon Legislature set aside up to $15 million for the 2013-15 biennium to assist in replacement of courthouses with "significant structural defects, including seismic defects, that present actual or potential threats to health and safety."

The funds could only be used for half the cost of court-specific facilities: courtrooms, jury rooms and rooms for prosecutors and attorneys to meet with those they represent. Any space used for the offices of the district attorney and community justice would have to be fully funded by the county.

In 2009, the Jefferson County Courthouse was one of two selected by the state for facilities replacement. The other one on the list, East Multnomah County's, has since been built, which could mean Jefferson County is now at the top of the list.

This week, the chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, who determines which courthouses are eligible, is scheduled to tour the courthouse.

Fortunately, according to Amy Bonkosky, trial court administrator for Jefferson and Crook counties, Jefferson County has been proactively planning for the new facility.

"We're in the best position to go forward now," she told a gathering of county officials at a work session Sept. 11. "Everybody will be competing for those funds."

Bonkosky and Leslie Hara Shick, of HSR Master Planning and Architecture, of Bend, indicated that officials would like to take the county's plan back to the Legislature when it reconvenes in February.

The county work session was scheduled to allow department heads and court officials to provide input on the proposed project.

The county has been actively considering and saving for a new courthouse for several years, but with the state offering up to half, the plan has moved to "the front burner," Commissioner John Hatfield pointed out.

"We can do it quicker and have a little less than what we want," he said.

Originally, when the county had planned court facilities to accommodate the next 20 years, officials had considered an 80,000-square-foot facility, more than four times as large as the current 19,400-square-foot facility, built in 1961.

That number was trimmed to 63,000 by 2011, the last time the county seriously discussed its plans. Today, the county is looking at a facility in the 35,000- to 37,000-square-foot range, which county officials believe would be in their funding range.

Commissioner Mike Ahern, county budget officer, said that the county is currently putting away about $350,000 a year for the project, and wouldn't want to exceed that amount in annual payment on a general obligation bond for its portion of the project.

"I'd rather not build a courthouse than disrupt (the county's) fiscal security," he said.

According to County Administrator Jeff Rasmussen, "If it were 35,000 square feet, and if the state would pay for half, and if the construction costs were about $330 a square foot, the county would be able to pay for it with current cash flow."

The county has put away $2.7 million to be used toward the cost, which would be about $5.75 million, if the state paid half the cost of an $11.5 million courthouse.

The plan became more feasible when the city offered the county the northwest corner of its 4.75-acre property, adjacent to the new Madras City Hall-Police Station on E Street, at no cost.

Concerns wide-ranging

Even though the site was termed "small and constrained," the county expects to have room to build a three-story building with four courtrooms — two to accommodate 12-person juries, and two for six-person juries — and a public elevator.

One of the priorities for the new facility will be to have three separate circulation paths — for prisoners, private and public.

"It's important to have separate access for judges and staff, jurors and the public," said Annette Hillman, Jefferson County Circuit Court judge.

The current layout of the courthouse does not allow for such separation, District Attorney Steve Leriche agreed, which means that jurors and witnesses could have contact in the hallway outside the courtrooms.

"Jurors have, on occasion, had opportunity to hear witnesses speak about the case, and that can result in mistrials, and mistrials are a waste of time and money for everyone," he said.

Attorney Don Reeder, of Madras, urged county officials to plan for growth after the recession, and include private rooms in the courthouse for attorneys to consult with their clients.

"It's embarrassing to talk to someone in the hall," he said.

Leriche expressed concern about the safety of victims and wanted to see the Victims Advocate Office located within the courthouse

"What we have now is aged, and it's not pretty, but it does work," he said. "I hope, as the planning of this gets more precise, we kind of make functionality the key word over glamour."

If the District Attorney's Office is separate from the courthouse, he added, "I think the grand jury room should come with us," to allow them to "meet and greet witnesses and prepare them to testify."

When asked what kind of space his staff would need, Leriche said it would be nice to have an office to meet with police officers, conduct interviews and have access to a computer and printer.

Besides the issue of keeping parties separate in hallways, several people voiced concerns about the restroom situation in the courthouse, where there is only one public restroom on each of the three levels.

With only one restroom available for the public and everyone involved in a trial — judges, prosecutors, victims, defendants, witnesses and jurors — it's impossible to keep everyone separate.

And, if a person needs to use a restroom equipped for people with disabilities, "they need to take the elevator all the way down to the basement," said Rasmussen.

Structural problems

In addition to the problems related to the function of the courthouse, the facility also suffers from significant physical problems, which date back to its construction in 1961.

Retired County Clerk Elaine Henderson, who worked in the sheriff's office when the county moved into the new courthouse in 1961, said there were immediate structural concerns.

While the concrete floors in the basement and on the main floor were supposedly made to certain specifications, they were thin, and the top floor was thinner yet, she said.

"We could tell that when we went over there when they were building it," said Henderson.

When they moved the county's safe in to the main floor, they saw that there were problems with the floor. "They didn't do a good job of putting the concrete down," she said. "We put thin boards down to level it up (under the safe)."

In 1984, the county hired a contractor to put steel beams in to provide additional support for the top floor, she recalled.

The contractor told Henderson, who was then county clerk, that "the steel beams were to stabilize the floor, not to make it so you could have more weight on the floor; I think they've got more weight up there now."

Heating and cooling is also a problem in the courthouse, which is often too warm in the summer and too cool in the winter.

"The heating and cooling units are antiquated," said Leriche. "That's the thing you notice the most on a day-to-day basis."

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