Future of courthouse being studied — again

It’s been nearly three years since Brown County residents decided, through a survey, to make no major, immediate changes to the historic courthouse.

A new committee has begun studying what the next steps could be.

Committee members’ plan is to give the options that were proposed in 2014 another look and put them back before the public in an open forum, after updating some data.

The leading options that historian James Glass presented back then were constructing an addition to the 1874 building that’s large enough to accommodate court functions, the prosecutor’s office, county clerk’s office and probation department; or building a new court building at the Law Enforcement Center on State Road 46 East.

The third option — only make immediate changes to handicap access, security and possibly energy efficiency — was the option county residents chose through the survey.

Since then, the cumulative fund that past commissioners intended to go toward major courthouse work has been directed to cover other expenses, and little was set aside in the 2016 or 2017 budgets for the courthouse.

The needs were identified several years ago. They included inadequate space in the courthouse and other county offices that are housed in separate buildings; poor security; noncompliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act; poor energy efficiency in the building; not enough public restrooms downtown; and inadequate parking.

In addition to those topics, this new committee also plans to look into what Brown Circuit Court’s needs will be in years to come, including the amount of cases being heard; population projections for the next several decades; and digitizing records versus retaining originals to determine how much storage space will be needed.

Another aspect they may study is the experience of other Indiana counties when they moved out of their historic courthouses or built annexes.

Part of the new committee’s first meeting was spent getting members up to speed about what happened with the 2012 courthouse remodeling project, which residents overwhelmingly rejected with a remonstrance.

The commissioners at the time — John Kennard, Mary Fouch and Darrell Kent — proposed building a 25,000-square-foot addition onto the back of the courthouse where the old jail and sheriff’s residence used to be. It’s a grassy lot now.

The plan was announced in August 2012; a local architect, Burt Perdue, had been working on a study since that February. That study started out as an energy audit of the courthouse building but morphed into a complete reenvisioning of the courthouse unbeknownst to at least one commissioner, Kent. At first, he refused to pay the bill for the study, saying he didn’t know what it was about until he read it in the newspaper.

Initially, the commissioners’ courthouse plan was to cost $4 million. It was to be financed by a property tax increase, a refinancing of the Law Enforcement Center and/or money in the county’s cumulative capital development fund.

Kent and Fouch were replaced on the board of commissioners in 2013 by Joe Wray and Dave Anderson.

That year, the commissioners and council made moves to get a $6.5 million bond to build and furnish the courthouse addition. It was to be paid off over 15 years by a property tax increase of about 6 cents per $100 of assessed property value.

Taxpayers stopped the project for a year by gathering signatures through a remonstrance. The final count was 1,457 against, 182 in favor.

Some of the reasons people gave for why they were against the project were the cost; the speed at which the project progressed without much public input; lack of knowledge about what it included; the large size of the addition; the disruption it would cause to courthouse business; and concern about what would happen to the historic courthouse if court functions were moved out.

County commissioner Diana Biddle told committee members at the June meeting that Indiana Historic Landmarks hadn’t taken any formal position about the county adding onto the courthouse, but they strongly suggested it not do so.

Bob Shook, a retired attorney and president of the Brown County Historical Society, encouraged the group to talk to people in other counties who have had to face this choice before — and not just judges and prosecutors, but the public.

“When you take the courthouse out of the heart of your community, is it like taking all of your retail shops downtown and building a Walmart?” he asked.

The group doesn’t yet have a firm timeline for when they’re going to have a community conversation about the options, but the judge election at the end of 2018 might force change.

“If we get a new judge, all that judge has to do is to issue a decree to the county commissioners that says, ‘You will fund two security officers; we will have a secure building,’ and that’s a stroke of a pen, and we have to comply,” Biddle said.

“And that would not be a bad stroke of a pen, to me,” said Anderson, a former sheriff, who’s brought up the security concerns several times in the past.

Who, when and where

On the committee: Diana Biddle, Dave Anderson, Bob Shook, Darren Byrd, Jim Schultz (chairman), Russ Herndon, Pam Raider, Brenda Badger, Clint Studebaker, Linda Bauer, Melissa Stinson

Meetings: 5 p.m. on third Thursdays at the County Office Building, Salmon Room

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Sara Clifford has been raising a family in Brown County since 2005 and leading the Brown County Democrat since late 2009. In addition to editor, she is the beat reporter for town government and writes columns, features and general news stories.