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Committee’s Goal Is To Encourage County To Refurbish Century-Old Courthouse

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Clay County Courthouse

Both opponents and proponents of the Clay County Commission’s plan to ask voters to approve a $41 million bond issue to finance the construction of a new jail, new law enforcement center and new courthouse have been sharing their opinions on a Facebook group page titled “Save Our Historic Clay County (SD) Courthouse.” An actual group sharing the same name has also been busy with meetings, researching past studies, developing new proposals and running print advertisements urging fellow citizens to vote no on June 8 and to volunteer or donate to their cause.

In mid-March, with local citizens fearing that an upcoming decision by the Clay County Commission could spell the end of the 112-year-old Clay County Courthouse, a Facebook group page was created as a place where those in favor of keeping the historic building could communicate and share information.

Entitled the “Save Our Historic Clay County (SD) Courthouse,” the group proved to be vocal immediately after its creation. Commentary on the page reached a fever pitch less than an hour after the March 30 decision of county commissioners to, in effect, abandon the courthouse and the 30-year-old attached law enforcement center.

At its March 30 meeting, the county commission chose to ask voters to approve a $41 million bond issue that would finance the construction of a new jail, new law enforcement center and new courthouse on an unidentified piece of property in the Vermillion community.

Part of that bond includes funding for tuck pointing the courthouse’s exterior and replacing its roof with the hope of preserving it after its offices would eventually be vacated.

The reaction on the “Save Our Historic Clay County (SD) Courthouse” Facebook page was swift and negative, with several citizens immediately stating they will be voting against the bond issue.

The social media page has since turned into a place where both proponents and opponents of the county commission’s March 30 decision have shared their opinions. Several of the proponents include the commissioners themselves and members of local law enforcement.

Opponents include citizens who have a strong record of being deeply involved in recording and preserving local history. As of this week, the “Save Our Historic Clay County (SD) Courthouse” Facebook group has grown to 300 people. It also has become more than like-minded people on social media.

It has become a formal, physical group made up of people that have begun running print advertisements urging fellow citizens to vote no on June 8 and to volunteer or donate to their cause.

The Plain Talk met this week with group representatives Art Rusch, Pat Gross, Dan Christopherson and Wess Pravecek in the Austin-Whittemore House, the headquarters of the Clay County Historical Society.

“I’m really concerned about this idea that the courts and law enforcement need to be put together,” said Rusch, a retired circuit judge who today serves in the South Dakota Legislature. “Certainly for security and convenience that’s true, but there’s such a problem with the credibility of the courts and law enforcement now and when the courts and law enforcement are stuck together where people can’t differentiate between them, that gets to be a real problem.”

He said he participated in the designing of the courthouse in Yankton.

“In the original plans, there was going to be one entrance for the courts and law enforcement – it was all going to be one big entrance,” Rusch said. “We said, ‘we can’t do that because we can’t have the public perceiving that the courts are just part of law enforcement.”

To stop that perception, the entrance for law enforcement was placed on the south side of the building. The entrance to things court-related is on the building’s west side.

“The credibility of the courts is really important to me,” he said.

Rusch also analyzed a summary report and recommendations prepared by the Clay County Courthouse, Jail, & Law Enforcement Planning Committee, a group formed by the Clay County Commission. The group submitted its recommendations to the county commission on July 2, 2019.

“I know they (the county commission) have been telling people ‘well, we would have had community hearings, gotten input from the community except that COVID got in the way,” he said. “Well, COVID didn’t come until March of 2020. So this was all done long before COVID became a problem.”

The July 2019 recommendations, Rusch added are based on reports from Klein McCarthy Architects of St. Louis Park, Minnesota.

“Klein McCarthy did exhaustive reports … and I don’t agree with everything they recommend, but they studied the space needs of every department, they’ve got detailed analysis of the square footage that’s needed for each department,” he said, “they came up with their own estimates as far as prices and they verified that through CPMI, an independent agency and the numbers they came up with are completely different than the ones that the county is replying on.

“That really concerns us when we don’t know anything about those numbers,” Rusch said, referring to figures compiled in a report from JLG/BWBR Architects, the county’s present architectural firm. He also referred to Dick Strassburg of Tegra Group, also of St. Louis Park, Minnesota, who serves as a consultant to the county commission on the courthouse, jail and law enforcement center project. “We don’t know where they (the numbers) come from, we don’t know how they got those numbers at all.”

He notes that the cost estimates for fixing up the downtown courthouse provided by JLG/BWBR Architects are $20 million more than those provided by Klein McCarthy.

“Klein McCarthy says $36 million; they (JLG/BWBR) are saying $55 million,” Rusch said. “How did they come up with that kind of a difference?”

Rusch added that he posed that question personally to Strassburg, who replied that they were better at coming up with estimated costs.

“That wasn’t really a satisfactory answer to me as far as how they came up with $20 million in the difference in the cost,” he said.

In 2018 the Clay County Commissioners received reports from Klein McCarthy Architects and TLM Correctional Consultants that the Clay County Courthouse, the county jail, and the joint law enforcement facilities were no longer meeting the current needs of the community, nor the facility staff, as well as being inadequate to meet future needs. The same studies concluded that the jail and the joint law enforcement center must be replaced with a modern functional facility that will meet contemporary jail standards and legal guidelines.

In November 2019, the county commissioners appointed the citizens’ planning committee to review the McCarthy and TLM reports and make a recommendation regarding the future of the facility.

The facility planning committee issued a Request For Proposals (RFP) to solicit bids from architectural firms and CMAR companies interested in working on the project. It received 23 proposals that were reviewed and discussed.

The committee recommended the hiring of JLG/BWBR Architects and the Beckenhauer Construction Company to be the CMAR firm to the county commissioners which they approved. The county commissioners also contracted the services of Strassburg to assist with managing the project.

In October 2019, under the direction of county commission, Auditor Carri Crum sent out a document to solicit statements of interest from firms interested in providing professional services for the construction of a new Clay County Courthouse/Joint Law Enforcement Safety Center in Vermillion.

“This is what they sent out,” Rusch said, holding a copy of the document, “asking for bids (for professional services) on a new building. That was the only thing they were looking at was a new building.”

The document states “the new building will include space for the Clay County governmental offices and courts, a 44-bed jail, and a joint law enforcement center to house the offices of the county sheriff and the city police department.”

“We don’t have any explanation of how they (JLG/BWBR Architects) came up with this $55 million total, but Klein McCarthy says fixing up the present courthouse is the cheapest thing that they could do and that’s why they recommended fixing up the courthouse rather than building something completely new,” Rusch said.

The Klein McCarthy architectural recommendations from its March 2018 report note that “Both the Courthouse and Public Safety Center are in relatively good condition for the age and types of buildings. The Jail, however, is missing a lot of modern standards and security features and is not at the same quality level when compared to the rest of the County buildings.”

The firm also suggested that many of its recommendations needed to be done immediately, while others could be done in the short term and in the long term so that the county could use that prioritization method to begin current and future budgeting of work so the buildings are maintained and don’t fall into disrepair.

Among the immediate needs Klein McCarthy’s report recognizes is the complete remodel, expansion and/or relocation of the county jail to allow for proper space, ADA compliance and other clearances for both inmates and staff.

The report also lists immediate architectural needs that the county should repair in both the courthouse and the public safety center, followed by intermediate needs that should be completed in a three to five year period and finally long term needs that should be tackled in both buildings over a five to 10 year time span.

It likewise makes recommendations for needed improvements to the courthouse’s and law enforcement center’s mechanical system and electrical/security electronics system.

Rusch said he and others interested in saving the courthouse find it frustrating that the county commission is telling the public that they chose the cheapest alternative “when we don’t think they did.”

“One of the things that attracted me to this issue is there is so much good data in the Klein McCarthy report that makes sense, especially the end recommendation, which is to go where we thought we should be, which is the courthouse,” Pat Gross said.

Klein McCarthy Cost Estimates

Rusch and other members of the Save Our Historic Clay County (SD) Courthouse committee have reviewed the data and cost estimates included in the Klein McCarthy study of the courthouse. In its July 31, 2018 report, the architectural firm recommended that the county remodel the existing courthouse and add on to it at its current location as that would utilize the existing courthouse at the least cost.

Klein McCarthy estimated that building a Remote Government Center would cost $49 million. It estimated that expansion of the downtown historic courthouse could be done for $36 million. Rusch and other committee members note that the architectural firm supports these estimates with detailed breakdowns describing how the figures were derived.

The committee’s analysis of the Klein McCarthy study also notes the firm obtained building cost estimates from Cost Planning & Management International, Inc. (CPMI), which is a national cost estimating firm familiar with construction in the Midwest.

CPMI estimates the cost of remodeling the courthouse and expanding at the present location as $35 million in July 2018. It calculated that building a new courthouse at a remote site at $43 million plus the cost of 15 acres of land on which to construct the building.

In comparison, JLG/BWBR estimates that renovating the courthouse, adding a new jail, law enforcement center and courts and demolishing the existing public law enforcement center would cost $54 million over a four year construction timeline. Similar courthouse renovation over a three-year construction timeline with the building of a new jail, law enforcement center and courts on a new site would cost an estimated $55 million, according to the firm.

JLG/BWBR’s $41 million plan that the county commission is asking voters to accept calls for the construction of a new jail, law enforcement center, courts and government services on a new site. The existing public safety center will remain as will the courthouse, which will receive a new roof and new tuck pointing and cleaning of exterior stone.

This plan calls for land acquisition on which to construct the new building, adding that the existing courthouse and public safety center can be repurposed or sold.

The Klein McCarthy report points out something the Save The Courthouse committee readily accepts: The 100+ old building is not suited well for any other purposes and would have very little value for a new owner other than gaining property in the downtown area.

The architects’ report states, “With the Courthouse divided up by stairs, lobbies, large public spaces/corridors and vaults with thick structural bearing walls, it is so segmented that in many cases the departments have no adjacent space they could even grow into and have sought space across corridors and on other levels for offices, support rooms and long term storage that may not need to be accessed daily.

“This Courthouse layout makes the building very ill-suited for most large departments as contiguous space is not always available,” the report states.


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