Recommendation Received

The Clay County Commission received a recommendation at its Tuesday meeting calling for the construction of a new government services center in Vermillion to replace the Clay County Courthouse, the county jail and the Public Safety Center shared by city and county law enforcement. The proposal comes from the Clay County Courthouse, Jail, & Law Enforcement Facility Planning Committee, which has been studying options that may better serve the public than the existing facilities.

The Clay County Courthouse, Jail, & Law Enforcement Facility Planning Committee has been working since last January, when it received instructions from the Clay County Commission, to study possible solutions to problems that have arisen within the aging Clay County Courthouse and the newer Public Safety Center which is attached to the courthouse.

Tuesday morning, at its regular meeting at the courthouse, the commissioners received the committee’s top recommendation:  a new government services center should be built in Vermillion.

The county commission also agreed, after approximately a 30 minute discussion with Bob Fuller and other members of the planning committee, to hold a more thorough meeting with the facility planning committee.

“I think we should meet together,” County Commission Chairman Travis Mockler said, referring to the commission and the facility committee. “We can try to hammer out a direction to go.”

According to a written report submitted to the county commission by the committee, “This option vacates the Courthouse and Public Safety Center and relocates all government services to a remote site and then razes the downtown facility to reuse the site for future needs or sells the facility for other development.”

In the report, this suggestion is known as Option RG – Remote Site – Government Services Center.

That recommendation is the most favored of four options that have been identified by the firm of Klein McCarthy Architects, which conducted a review of the courthouse, jail and public safety center in 2018. It issued two reports: Study for Facility Programming and Master Planning dated March 13, 2018, and July 31, 2018.  The March report from Klein McCarthy also included a Facility Assessment & Population Study of the Clay County Jail conducted by TLM Correctional Consultants dated January, 2018.

The three options identified by Klein McCarthy Architects that don’t rate as high with the local planning committee are:

Option D – Downtown Courthouse Expansion. 

“This option keeps all of the current government services downtown by expanding and remodeling the Courthouse and Public Safety Center.”

Option R - Remote Site – Law Enforcement Center

“This option relocates the Jail and Law Enforcement agencies to a remote site and provides a building expansion and remodeling of the Courthouse and Public Safety Center.”

Option RJ – Remote Site – Justice Center

“This option relocates the Jail, Law Enforcement agencies, Courts, and court support functions to a remote site and provides a remodeling of the Courthouse and Public Safety Center for government service.”

According to the report, the courthouse committee has chosen not to recommend Option D or Option R, noting that with the courthouse located next to residential and commercial areas, both options severely limit any possible future expansion of the building and/or its grounds. 

“I see that your first proposal is to move everything to one spot. The second one is to tentatively move part of it and leave part of it here?” Commissioner Micheal Manning asked Bob Fuller of the planning committee, who presented the committee’s recommendations to the commission Tuesday morning.

“The second one from the architect’s report recommended that the main governmental services stay in this building (the courthouse) which obviously would require some upgrading and then build a second justice center facility,” Fuller said, referring to Option RJ. “As we pointed out in the recommendation report, the architects flat out said the jail is not worth the money to try to fix up or remodel or whatever you want to call it.”

He added that the second option would mean the county would have to operate two buildings at two separate sites.

“There are some downsides to having two buildings and I think the committee recognized that,” Fuller said. “The optimum situation would be building that housed everything. One of the big issues with two separate facilities is you have two buildings to take care of.”

Commissioner Richard Hammond asked if Option RG would leave the county’s courtrooms in the present-day courthouse.

“No, because the intent, and for purposes of discussion, let’s call it the justice center, one of the objectives of a unified justice system building was to put not only the jail there and the law enforcement offices, the state’s attorney office, the clerk of courts – any function in this building (the current courthouse) that’s directly related to the activities that are related to law enforcement,” Fuller said. “We want to avoid the shuffling back and forth, if you will, of people, of inmates, that kind of thing.”

The report submitted to the county commission states:

“The architect report has 13 pages of remodeling recommendations for the courthouse and Public Safety Center which is a strong indicator of the multiple problems inherent in Options D and R.   Making the courthouse building and the Public Safety Center (including the county jail) compliant with the American Disability Act would be very expensive.

The TLM study also concludes the Clay County Jail is “unable to be renovated or expanded in a way that addresses all current deficiencies.” 

Regarding Options R and RJ, the cost of building a new jail and law enforcement facility on a separate site plus the cost of the expansion or remodeling of the courthouse and the Public Safety Center becomes enormously expensive. Those expenses go well beyond the initial estimates provided by Klein McCarthy.  In addition there would be the added recurring expense of transporting inmates between the courthouse and the remote jail.

The committee is recommending Option RG that would relocate or build a new Government Center. The Government Center would house all the operations of the current Courthouse (county offices and court services) and Public Safety Center/Jail operations. In contrast to the Klein McCarthy Architects recommendation RG, this committee would not raze the current courthouse structure but would favor redirecting the current building to other use.  This would eliminate the project cost of remodeling the facilities and reduce any disruption of building operations to those associated with relocation to the new operational spaces.

This option would also give the governmental offices the ability to plan for future needs – especially for the jail and Public Safety Center and this was identified as a very positive aspect of Option RG.  The ability to design a facility that provides for future needs of our community was an important consideration in the Committee’s deliberations.

Option RG (Remote Government Center”) will require some important and critical decisions such as how to pay for a remote government center; the location of a new building and possibly having to buy land and preparing it for construction; the loss of a downtown location; hiring an architect to design the building; gaining cooperation from the City of Vermillion; and many other decisions.  What becomes of the current courthouse will be an important consideration as well.

The Committee reluctantly sees Option RJ as a possible alternative to the preferred RG (Government Center) option.  Option RJ involves relocating Court Services, Police and Sheriff’s offices, and jail to a remote “Justice Center”. This option would retain County Services in a remodeled Courthouse/Public Safety Center structure.  The separation of County Services from the Justice Center has security/safety implications and expensive remodeling and upgrading of the existing buildings.”

Fuller directed the commissioners to the fourth paragraph above as he talked about the lengthy discussion the committee had at its last meeting concerning that option.

“We added a word there that was very rare in the architect’s reports,” he said, “and that was ‘relocate.’ Relocate implies to an existing building if it’s possible. We want to look at all the options. If you’re decision is to proceed with this and go with the recommendation, the committee is ready, willing and able to continue this process and keep this thing going.

“If the decision is for another building, we need to look at where it would, we’d need to hire an architect which would cost some money, we’d need to hold public hearings, I’d imagine, especially with the City of Vermillion,” Fuller said. “There are just a lot of things that would have to be done before you even get to the point of wanting to break ground.”

Committee member John Walker said there may be existing buildings in Vermillion that could be remodeled to serve as a new government services center.

“We want to have that as an option,” he said. “We may have an architect tell us that’s not going to work. At least we brought it forward. When we have public meetings, people are likely going to bring up the PM building and say ‘did you look at that?’

Walker said the committee members intend to give a ‘yes’ answer to that question and to tell the public that they have fully explored alternatives as this process continues.

“We really want to expand and make sure we cover all of our bases,” Walker said. “The next step is to have some more firms come and say ‘here’s what we can do for you for this amount of money’ because there are plenty of firms out there.”

“Is there a possibility of some buildings in Vermillion that could be remodeled?” Manning asked.

Walker mentioned the PM building once again.

“I really want to look at that. Its location is across the (Highway 50) bypass – is that a problem for the city? Matt (Police Chief Matt Betzen) is on the committee. It might be, it might not be … I really want to look at that,” he said. “It’s a great big building. There’s room for expansion in the back. Maybe that’s where you put the jail. There’s plenty of land in the back.”

Walker said the committee’s goal is for the new facility to not be “land-locked” so that it can be expanded in the future if needed.

The committee began its work earlier this year by taking an in-depth tour of the Clay County Courthouse to learn of its condition as well as space and staffing needs. It also met with District 17 State Sen. Art Rusch of Vermillion to discuss his book County Capitols –The Courthouses of South Dakota. The committee noted in its report that his information was invaluable.

During its first six months of activity the committee has held eight meetings and visited seven communities. According to its report to the Clay County Commission, the committee toured courthouses and jails in Le Mars, Iowa, Orange City, Iowa, Yankton, Pender, Nebraska, Spirit Lake, Iowa, and Worthington, Minnesota. Chief Betzen and Sheriff Andy Howe visited the jail in Deadwood.

The committee also met with representatives of the W.H. Over Museum to discuss any interest they may have in occupying the Clay County Courthouse should it become available.

“My thing with looking around at every asset that’s available – if you can buy something that you can remodel that will fit, that saves a lot of money on the front end,” said committee member Marty Gilbertson. “I didn’t like the idea that we have to build brand new. I just thought, personally, and I think everybody agreed at the last meeting to look at everything and not just at building a brand new building.

“We do have some ideas for some buildings, but you guys will be directing on what to do next,” he told commissioners.

The lack of ability to expand the courthouse, which was completed in the spring of 1913, and is currently surrounded by residential and commercial properties, is one of the reasons the committee is recommending a government services center at a different site, Fuller said.

“One problem with these (architect’s) reports that I personally had was that throughout these reports, the architect only discusses future needs 10 to 20 years out,” he said. “That’s too short. We need to look way beyond that. I hope that if we get into a different facility, we look 50 years from now, 100 years from now, and how is it going to be able to serve the community after we’re gone.”

“I really like the remote government center,” Commissioner Leo Powell said. “When you look at the number of offices that we’d be leaving behind, it doesn’t look like it would take that much more space to take them along. I understand why you went with RJ; I really think we should abandon the courthouse because if we have to start to remodel it … we’re going to rack up a lot of money there, too.”

The building’s design, he added, doesn’t serve as a detriment to the remodeling process.

“But the courthouse just isn’t big enough to accommodate law enforcement,” Powell said. “If law enforcement and judicial is going to move out there (to a new site) you might just as well take the rest.”

Fuller said the county would have several options to consider should it choose to move its offices out of the courthouse to a different facility.

“We met with some representatives of the (W.H. Over) museum and that meeting was quite positive about the possibility of the museum coming in here,” he said. “At the same time, I think if you really want to sell this building for other purposes because an empty building is going to deteriorate pretty quickly. I think you would have a window of three to five years to find another occupant for this building, but I think it has a lot of potential.

“Yes, it would cost a lot to upgrade this building to fit the needs of the current occupants,” Fuller said, “but someone else coming in may not need all those upgrades.”

The suggestion of razing the courthouse is wording offered by the architect in the RG option.

“Our committee is adamant about not razing this building. It has too much historical significance for this community,” he said. “I think if you folks decide we’re going to go with the first recommendation and build a new building or maybe possibly relocate, we don’t want this building razed. We want to keep it.”

Fuller said a concern to keep in mind when looking at existing buildings is “there may be people already in there that want to stay there. There’s a long term lease on that building out there (referring to the PM building) and if that lease needs to be broken, somebody is going to pay for it.”

Manning noted that paying to break the lease on an existing building may still be less expensive that building new.

“That’s a possibility,” Fuller said. “The other issue of that, if I were on the VCDC (Vermillion Chamber and Development Company) board is what that would do for our ability to attract new companies to come into town if they knew they were going to be over here for a short period of time and then all of a sudden they were going to be yanked and put over there. That might tear into the credibility of their recruiting efforts – that’s just my opinion.”

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