Courthouse future still on hold

Two years ago, Brown County residents answered surveys asking what should be done about the Brown County Courthouse.

Little has happened since.

Starting this week, budget hearings for 2017 will plan out how to spend the county’s money in the next year and make plans for beyond.

Julie Winn, president of the Brown County League of Women Voters, said her group wants to keep the courthouse discussion at the forefront.

Roads, fire protection and other concerns are often going to take precedence, especially with the amount of money any serious renovation or replacement would take, she said.

However, the county can’t lose sight of the importance not just of safety but of the building itself.

“The courthouse is on the historic register,” Winn said. “It’s a treasure, and it deserves our best.”

More money

In January 2015, county commissioner Diana Biddle made good on an election promise to establish a one-year freeze on new capital projects, including major building work.

When that moratorium expired earlier this year, there was little conversation about the security and space concerns that have plagued the 142-year-old courthouse.

The majority of survey respondents in 2014 preferred “emergency” fixes to make the courthouse complaint with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Other options were to add onto it or build a new courthouse elsewhere.

The county’s cumulative capital development fund was originally intended to pay for renovating or replacing the courthouse, former county commissioner Darrell Kent said at a commissioners meeting in October 2014.

It held more than $400,000 in 2014; in 2011, it had $500,000. It takes in about $200,000 in property tax revenue each year.

“I thought that, in five years, we’d have the money to redo the courthouse,” Kent said.

Now, the fund is currently used to pay for maintenance of other buildings. It has also been used for computer and networking needs and salaries.

For 2016, the county budgeted $50,000 for the courthouse.

Another $50,000 is set aside for courthouse security in 2016; however, needs related to the Daniel Messel murder trial could deplete some of that, Biddle said.

It is possible that some concerns related to ADA compliance could be fixed with the first $50,000, but Biddle doesn’t know how far it would stretch.

For example, the exit signs in the courthouse lack Braille. Getting compliant signs would cost about $100 per sign, Biddle said.

The entire courthouse parking lot is also too steep to meet ADA, and there are grade and accessibility concerns with sidewalks and the brick walk areas. Replacing one section of the bricks on the east side would cost around $1,500, she said.

Cost estimates from 2013 — which showed all compliance issues with parking and sidewalks costing $250 — were either underestimated or are outdated, Biddle said.

In other areas, it might be difficult to meet compliance while maintaining the historical nature of the exterior, Biddle said.

She doesn’t know if it would be possible to create a entrance with an electronically activated door without substantially changing the outside of the brick building.

County council member David Critser said if the county built an addition to the courthouse or a new courthouse, the council could then justify a permanent tax increase to cover the costs of increased utilities and additional security.

How much that would be isn’t known yet.

Keep it safe

Security at the courthouse is the biggest concern, Critser said.

Brown Circuit Judge Judith Stewart said the top two things she wants for the courthouse are a secure entrance for defendants and a way to ensure weapons aren’t brought into the courtroom.

A secure entrance means a sally port — essentially a secured garage where inmates could be loaded and unloaded from police vehicles and enter the courtroom without passing through public hallways.

There is a metal detector at the entrance to the courtroom. However, there is no one to permanently staff it, Stewart said.

It is staffed during high-profile cases, but her concern is over everyday cases such as custody or mental competency hearings.

County commissioner Dave Anderson recalled an incident in another county when he was Brown County sheriff, when a man interrupted a divorce proceeding with gunfire.

“My big concern right now, it has been for a while, is security,” Anderson said. “We should have a security detail there five days a week, 8 to 4.”

Important now?

Building a new courthouse elsewhere or creating an addition to the current one also have been discussed.

Public support for either option has been limited because of cost and the increased taxes needed to pay for it.

Biddle favors building onto the courthouse in a way that matches the historical character of the building.

But she also would like to look into moving some crowded county offices into other nearby buildings.

The current prosecutor’s office needs to be torn down, she said.

She would like to see the county clerk’s office and probation offices more separate from the prosecutor’s office. As it is now, offenders could cross paths with their victims in the courthouse parking lot.

Jim Schultz served on committees that explored options in 2013. He still favors building a new courthouse and finding a historically relevant use for the current building.

Land next to the current law enforcement building — which houses the jail — would be suited to a new courthouse, Schultz said.

Building an addition to the current courthouse would not resolve parking problems, and increasing security could leave people standing out in the weather waiting to enter, he said.

However, Schultz doesn’t see fixing the courthouse as the most pressing need, given the county’s limited funds.

The county missed a golden opportunity by not addressing the courthouse under previous plans, said county commissioner Joe Wray.

In April 2013, the commissioners approved a $6.5 million plan to renovate and expand the courthouse, but voters gathered enough signatures against it to block that plan for at least a year. It would have been paid for by a tax increase.

Any temporary fix that does not contribute to a future permanent solution would be throwing money away, he said.

Whatever the solution, the most important thing is including the public in the discussion, Stewart said.

“This is the county’s courthouse,” she said. “And the public, to the extent they have any thoughts on that matter, I would hope they’d be given the opportunity to express those thoughts.”

Timeline of the courthouse

1837: County Agent Banner Brummett lets a contract to build a log courthouse at Main and Van Buren streets as well as a log jail.

1853-1855: A two-story brick courthouse is built.

1873-1874: After fire destroys the first brick courthouse, the current courthouse is built on that foundation.

1924: The sheriff’s residence next door to the courthouse is rebuilt after a fire. Three cells are attached to the back.

1939: An addition is built onto the courthouse that includes restrooms and a steel vault for county records on the first floor and office space for the court on the second floor.

1962: A yellow brick addition is built on to the sheriff’s residence/jail adjacent to the courthouse.

1978: A second yellow brick addition is built on to the sheriff’s residence/jail.

1983: The Brown County Courthouse Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It includes the courthouse and grounds, the log community building and the log jail.

Early 1990s: The basement of the yellow brick jail adjacent to the courthouse is renovated to include offices for jail staff.

1991: The County Office Building is built at Locust Lane and Gould Street.

1992: Miller Architects of Nashville renovates the courthouse, adding stairs and an elevator, redesigning the first-floor office spaces for the county clerk and probation departments, and moving other county offices to the new County Office Building.

1998: The jail has failed its last five state inspections because of no hot water, no working toilets and inmates sleeping on the floor and in hallways.

2000: Voters and property owners remonstrate against building a new jail/Law Enforcement Center.

2001: County commissioners pull the plug on new jail plans. One week later, an inmate files suit about a bunk bed falling on him, and it becomes a class-action lawsuit.

2003: The county settles the suit and moves forward with new jail construction.

2005: Inmates and staff move into the Law Enforcement Center, and the old jail is abandoned.

March 2010: Miller Architects provides for free to the county a space needs evaluation of county offices, drawings and a rough cost estimate for a 16,800-square-foot courthouse addition: $5 million.

December 2010: The old jail is torn down and a grassy lot and a few parking spaces are left in its place.

2011: The county budget contains $500,000 in the cumulative capital fund for a future courthouse addition.

October 2011: The commissioners contract with Burt Perdue of Architectural Design Studio to perform an energy audit of the courthouse. Over time, it morphs into a courthouse renovation plan.

April 2013: The county commissioners approve the ADS plan to rehabilitate and expand the courthouse to accommodate the circuit court, clerk’s office, prosecutor’s office and probation department. Over the life of the loan, the 33,871-square-foot building project could cost up to $8.25 million, but the commissioners and council resolve to cap the cost at $6.5 million, including financing costs during construction and architectural and engineering fees. It would be paid back over 15 years by a tax increase.

May 2013: Twice the number of people sign a petition against the courthouse plan than needed, which forces a remonstrance.

September 2013: Voters and property owners defeat the plan by an 8-to-1 margin. Among their concerns were total cost, total county debt and the need for more public input.

October 2013: Elected officials and volunteers form a fact-finding committee to begin gathering answers to questions raised during the remonstrance process. Discussions are facilitated by the League of Women Voters of Brown County and Brown County Community Foundation.

March 2014: The league and BCCF host a second community forum to update the public on the answers they’ve gathered so far and ask for direction. They present rough cost comparisons between renovating and adding onto the historic courthouse versus building a new courthouse at the Law Enforcement Center site. They decide more study is needed on space needs and finances.

July 2014: The League and BCCF hire Historic Preservation and Heritage Consulting LLC to review the history and significance of the courthouse, summarize the three options currently available, interview officials about space needs, and look into reuse and preservation opportunities for the historic building.

Aug. 14, 2014: About 75 people attend a presentation by James Glass and share reactions.

Sept. 3, 2014: Two hundred seven Brown Countians respond to a League survey about the courthouse. Of those, 126 favored only emergency fixes, 52 favored building a new courthouse next the the Law Enforcement Center, and 24 favored rehabbing and expanding the current courthouse.

January 2014: County commissioner Diana Biddle fulfills a campaign promise to institute a one-year freeze on all major capital projects.

2016: Money budgeted for courthouse work, including security, totals about $100,000.

Sources: Historic Preservation and Heritage Consulting LLC and Brown County Democrat archives

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Ben Kibbey is a Brown County transplant from the cornfields of central Ohio. He covers county government, business, outdoors, sports and general news.