The agency hired to study the future of Brown County court operations wants to make two things clear:
No. 1: The people need to drive this project, and;
No. 2: Whatever it ends up being, it needs to be something taxpayers can afford.
“I can’t stress this enough: The solution at the end of the day can’t be that we’re going to build this huge facility that’s going to meet the community’s needs for 50-plus years, but we can’t afford it,” said DLZ principal architect Eric Ratts, speaking before a large group of court and jail employees and public officials Jan. 9.
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“That doesn’t mean that we’re not dreaming and coming up with all the things we would ever need. We need to do that, and then we need to put it in perspective of the overall budget of what the county would be able to afford for a project.”
DLZ was hired in November to conduct a comprehensive study of space, staffing and operations associated with the court, projected out to what the needs will be in 2040.
This is the first step toward making possible changes to the way Brown Circuit Court has been operating, in the same building in downtown Nashville since 1874.
In addition to the courtroom and offices currently in the courthouse, DLZ plans to look at the needs and challenges that related offices are facing, such as the prosecutor’s office, Community Corrections and the county clerk. Public defenders and the Guardian ad Litem program have no office spaces in county buildings. One public defender meets clients at McDonald’s, county commissioner Diana Biddle said.
Ratts said this first step — information gathering — is the most important part.
Though DLZ has been involved in courthouse projects in 58 of Indiana’s 92 counties, it’s not coming into this study with preconceived notions of what the outcome will be, he said. The DLZ team needs to know what the community wants, he said.
“Some of you may have strong ideas, and we need to hear those,” he told the room.
Once the team has defined the scope of the work, the budget and the schedule and generated awareness of why the project is needed, then they’ll “build consensus with the community about what the costs are,” Ratts said.
The community was presented with one plan to add onto the historic courthouse in 2013. It did not move forward because residents mounted a successful remonstrance against it.
That plan would have cost property taxpayers up to $8.25 million over the life of the bond. It was conceived by an architect who was hired by a former board of county commissioners, with the input of court and county employees. But not even all of the commissioners at that time were clear on what the plan was trying to accomplish, and it did not gain broad public support.
Since that plan failed, two different local courthouse committees have been convened, and the League of Women Voters commissioned a study about space needs and courthouse preservation.
The current courthouse committee will not be dissolved until after DLZ has formed a possible plan.
“The more people you can have in unison generating that awareness, the more successful you’re going to be,” Ratts told the group.
Why the work
One of the options that past and current courthouse committees have considered is building a new annex building to house some court or county office functions. It hasn’t been decided which offices would go in which building, where such a building would go, or if one is actually needed.
That’s the work that DLZ will now pick up. It’s being called the Justice Center Feasibility Study.
Justice centers are a concept that other counties are moving to, Biddle said. “It would bring all services under one roof, like a one-stop-shop kind of thing.”
Other counties in Indiana and neighboring states have built stand-alone annex buildings instead — as Brown County did in 1991 — or have built additions to their historic courthouses.
“What do we need to do? Do we need it? What’s the cost benefit? Can we afford it? What’s the cost to fix the problems we have and keep doing things the way we’re doing, versus putting up a new facility?” Biddle asked. “We don’t know.”
The primary reason that changes are needed here is security, Biddle and other county officials said.
The current Brown County Courthouse has three entrances and none of them are manned. “People can come and go wherever they want,” bailiff Andy Reed said. In the past, the courthouse bathrooms were a popular stop for tourists because they were the only public bathrooms on Main Street, he said.
There are security cameras at the doors, which Reed can watch if he is at his desk, but he said he is rarely at his desk.
Signs on the entrances tell visitors not to bring weapons in, but that doesn’t stop people; Reed said three were found the previous week.
There is a walk-through metal detector outside the courtroom entrance, but nobody is paid to run it every day. And having it outside the upstairs courtroom does nothing for the county clerk and probation staff who work downstairs, said Judge Judith Stewart.
“We have a wonderful courthouse, but it’s unsafe for the people working there, and it has been for a number of years,” said county commissioner Dave Anderson, a former sheriff. “… I keep thinking some nutcase is going to come in and start shooting, and it would take a little while for people to respond.”
Stewart also wants a secure entrance for inmates. Now, adults and juveniles who are facing charges must use the same entrance and same hallways and bathrooms that the general public uses. That not only could be a security risk, but it’s a perception problem as well, said Stewart and jail commander Tony Sciscoe.
“When we have a jury trial … we have to orchestrate back and forth to get that individual in the courthouse without been seen in our custody, and that’s huge,” Sciscoe said.
The jury space also has been a longtime concern, Stewart said. When there’s a 12-person jury, there’s not enough room for them all to sit in the deliberation room. If they have to use the restroom during deliberations, they must come into the court offices to do so, she said. During a recent jury trial, a non-juror accidentally walked into the deliberation room, Brown County Prosecutor Ted Adams said.
The court offices also aren’t accessible to a wheelchair, Stewart said. Jurors can be moved elsewhere if one of them needs wheelchair access, but there is no solution yet if a person using a wheelchair were to be hired as a court employee, she said.
The county clerk’s office downstairs also has a space crunch, Biddle and Brown County Clerk Brenda Woods said. No more than two visitors can stand at the counter at a time, and there’s no space to conduct absentee voting in that office.
There’s also no place to store election equipment; it has to be stored in the basement of the jail a mile across town. That storage room also houses files that clerk staff have to access fairly often, Woods said.
The prosecutor’s office, in a former Army barracks across the parking lot from the courthouse, is well past its lifespan, Biddle and Adams said. It contains mold, the floor is falling through and its conference room is being used as a lunch room, storage room and an office for interns.
Stewart said it’s true that Brown Circuit Court has been seeing an increase in cases due to drugs, but other courts around the state are dealing with that as well. The main issue in terms of future space needs is that digital technology — which was supposed to limit the need for storage space — is creating more and more work, and more people are needed to do it, she said.
Ratts and DLZ project manager Scott Carnegie showed the group examples of how DLZ has melded historic buildings with modern additions and reduced multiple entrances to one secure one.
It’s unclear, though, what outdoor changes, such as a building addition, could made to the Brown County Courthouse without affecting its status on the National Register of Historic Places. Biddle said she had been told the building’s footprint couldn’t be altered.
In 2013, a local courthouse committee started researching where a new annex building could go. One of the sites identified was the land next to the Brown County Law Enforcement Center on State Road 46 East.
The pros were that it’s already county-owned and that it’s right next door to the jail.
There also are cons, which county employees brought up in the DLZ meeting.
Even though it’s technically not in the floodplain, Sheriff Scott Southerland said he’s seen that land under 10 to 12 feet of water twice in the past 12 years.
Stewart wondered if the public would infer anything from the court and jail being next-door neighbors. “I don’t want it to look like the court and the jail are part of the same function. We aren’t,” she said. “… And most people who come into the court are not there on criminal matters; they’re there on civil matters.”
Adams said he didn’t know if people would make that connection, since the jail is labeled “Brown County Law Enforcement Center” and not “jail,” and doesn’t look like a jail.
Speakers also brought up the emotional connection to the historic courthouse. They wondered if moving court functions out of it would be like taking the heart of out downtown.
The room came to no consensus on that question.
Adams said court staff and visitors still would probably go downtown to eat lunch, so local restaurants wouldn’t suffer.
The downtown business community might be improved if parking spots weren’t taken up by court employees and jurors, he said.
“I’m not sure that the people who come to Nashville that drive our economy know what’s in that building or care what’s in it,” said county commissioner Jerry Pittman.
Thirteen years ago, the county built the new jail a mile outside downtown when it had been connected to the courthouse. The old yellow-brick jail was demolished in 2010. “I don’t think anybody’s missed it. I don’t think it had an effect on the economy of Nashville,” Pittman said. He predicted that the courthouse “could be filled right back up with county needs” if court functions were moved out if it.
DLZ’s study will include projections of what constructing a new building would cost, as well as what it would cost to alter the current courthouse to fit any new function. One suggestion from the audience was to use it for additional public meeting spaces.
The next step is to set up meetings with user groups, such as people who work in the courthouse and the Law Enforcement Center, and others, Ratts said.
Anderson also suggested holding public forums in places around the county to gather more input.
Ratts described the plans that DLZ will be creating as “a living document” or a “recipe” to guide a future decision.
“We’re not talking about a building that is a strip center. … We need to look at this as a generational building and not a temporary fix,” Ratts said.