Before ultimately seeking $41 million to construct a new buildings that would house courts, county offices, a new jail and a new law enforcement center by asking the public to approve their issuance in the upcoming June election, a still undecided Clay County Commission asked for public input at its meeting Tuesday morning.
It received comments from several people who have been involved in a recent campaign to make sure the century-old Clay Courthouse remains the seat of county government. A Facebook page entitled “Save Our Historic Clay County (SD) Courthouse was launched last month to advocate for the continued use of the courthouse. Since Tuesday, that page has collected comments primarily from citizens opposed to the County Commission’s ultimate decision.
“Everyone that I have talked to, I haven’t had a single person say abandon the courthouse or build all new elsewhere,” Dan Christopherson told commissioners. “The option that seems to work for most people that I’ve talked to is to build a new jail and law enforcement center -- that is needed. It makes the most sense to have it nearby or on the property here. That’s handier for the law enforcement people.
“But, moving the offices out the courthouse in order to then remodel the building has a big price tag -- $3.6 million to move the people out, remodel the building, and then move them back in over a period of two or three years,” he said.
Christopherson said that money would be better spent by remodeling the law enforcement center and moving some of the county offices over there while the courthouse is being remodeled.
“And please fix the roof and do it soon. That would be a real sign of commitment to save this building,” he said, adding that he realizes the commissioners have a tough job to do, but should remember to compromise when making a decision.
“It has now become a priority to many of us following the process leading to this meeting,” Tom Sorensen told the County Commission, “that we, the voting taxpaying people, somehow receive some assurance that all other wishes, hopes, plans aside, do you commissioners favor keeping this important building in Clay County’s rich history? Please provide an answer at some point before the election.”
“I think the courthouse needs to stay. It’s part of our heritage, part of our history here in Vermillion,” Susanne Skyrm said. She mentioned other unique, older and historical buildings in the community. “These things are singular; they don’t build things like this anymore and the courthouse is an example of something, I think, that’s going to be around for a long time.”
She suggested that a new jail and new law enforcement center be constructed to the north of the courthouse.
“This isn’t us against you,” Wess Pravecek told commissioners. “This is a matter of let’s work together and make sure we accomplish something and not battle each other. That’s not what we want to do.”
She suggested that ultimately the bond election be held a year from now instead of in June to make sure voters are well informed.
“I think the bottom line is making sure the voters here are well informed because no matter what we do, it’s going to be a chunk of money,” Pravecek said. She feared, she said, that a decision to build everything new would receive a no vote, bringing the issue back to square one.
“My hope is that we can find a good compromise and all work together because we just want to make this work for Clay County,” she said.
“You don’t realize the value of the structure you have here,” Jim Stone told the commission, referring to the courthouse. “They don’t build them like this anymore and if you go into other countries, especially Europe, there are buildings that are 300, 400, 500 years old -- and they’re still using them. I don’t understand why you want to move out of this building.”
Jerry Wilson told the commission he was shocked to see the proposed size of the new additions. “That not only seems extravagant to me, but I really question the need for such a massive increase in square footage,” he said.
Wilson urged the commission to stabilize the courthouse with a new roof, build a new jail on county property nearby and then move into the present law enforcement center while the rest of the construction takes place.
“I think this is something that we could all get behind and be able to pass this (bond issue) in a vote,” Wilson said, adding that he hopes the present courthouse is maintained and preserved and that a structure more modest than those shown in plans be built while the present public safety is used as both temporary and ultimately permanent office space to meet county government’s needs.
State’s Attorney Alexis Tracy told commissioners that doing nothing would cost the public more long-term and is not what’s best for the county. She added she would support any decision that is ultimately made.
“What I will tell you, in my professional capacity as a steward of taxpayer money and in my individual capacity as a taxpayer, my personal belief is that we unquestionably go with the $41 million option,” Tracy said. “The reason for that is that we have other needs in our community that are facing us with schools and when we look at an additional $15 million which actually amounts to $18 million when we look at relocation expenses, I simply as a taxpayer don’t think that is a good expense of taxpayer resources.”
She said the only reason to do that is an emotional attachment to a structure “that I just personally do not possess to that tune of $18 million. If that’s what you choose to do, I support it because it addresses the need.
“But I would ask you to consider the more cost-effective option,” Tracy said.