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.

In a span of fewer than five minutes during its regular meeting Tuesday morning, the Clay County Commission gave final approval to a recommendation it heard approximately a month ago.

It agreed that efforts should be begin to construct a new government services center to replace the aging Clay County Courthouse and the newer Public Safety Center which is attached to the courthouse.

That recommendation comes from the Clay County Courthouse, Jail, & Law Enforcement Facility Planning Committee, which 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 courthouse and the newer Public Safety Center which is attached to the courthouse.

Shortly after Bob Fuller, the president of the planning committee, sat down at the county commission’s table in the courthouse to answer any questions. Commissioner Leo Powell made a motion to accept the committee’s recommendation. That motion was quickly seconded and the motion received unanimous approval.

There was no talk Tuesday of how much the new government services center may cost, where it may be located or what funding options may be used to pay for its construction.

Those and several other issues, including gathering further input from courthouse employees and from the public, are items that will receive attention from the planning committee as work on this project continues.

“Our committee stands ready to get this project moving forward,” Fuller said.

Fuller noted that County Commissioner Mike Manning had asked him, during one of the last times he met with that government body, to gather input from people who work in the courthouse.

“I followed up on that and we’ve got some meetings scheduled,” Fuller said.

“I can’t take credit; one of the employees actually brought it to my attention,” Manning said. Those meetings will be held with one county department Aug. 15, and remaining county department heads on Aug. 22 and Aug. 23 in the county commission’s meeting room in the courthouse basement.

“I’m hoping that we can get a few of the committee members here, as well,” Fuller said. “I don’t have all of the answers.”

“Thank you. Now the work begins,” County Commission Chairman Travis Mockler told Fuller. Other commissioners asked Fuller to pass along their thanks to committee members, which have been meeting since January. In that time, the committee has studied a thorough 2018 review of the courthouse, county jail and public safety center by the firm of Klein McCarthy Architects.

The March 2018 report from Klein McCarthy also includes a Facility Assessment & Population Study of the Clay County Jail conducted by TLM Correctional Consultants dated January, 2018.

The committee received instructions in January of this year from the 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.

The thoroughness of the committee’s work is evidenced by a thick three-ring binder full of various documents and several other files and paper Fuller brought to Tuesday’s meeting.

In an interview with the Plain Talk following his appearance at the county commission meeting, Fuller said he’s formulated a list of several steps the facility planning committee must now take as their work continues. He was reluctant to share the list because committee members hadn’t seen it yet and he first wanted to share it with them.

He noted that the items on his list will have to be prioritized and that some may ask how long it will take to complete the various items he’s included.

“That’s an impossible question to answer,” Fuller said.

A time-consuming process that awaits the committee, he said, is deciding where to locate the new government services center. Once the committee identifies possible locations, it will have to determine if the costs involved in preparing each site makes it a preferential location.

“It may need preparation work, it might need utilities run to it, there might be a street that has to be built -- there are just all kinds of things that need to be done once you select a site,” he said.

One of the first things the committee may formally do is request proposals, Fuller said.

“What we had initially thought was (from) architectural firms, but I had a committee member, John Walker, suggest that we might want to take a look at design/build,” Fuller said. “With the design/build concept, you hire something like a construction management company. If we hire one of those, they would then work with an architect, so instead of an architect controlling all of the construction and design and everything, we have a construction management firm and an architect.

“There are certain advantages to either one of those options,” he said, “but I want the committee to take a look at both options and see how they want to proceed. I’m pleased that John Walker mentioned this. It’s an idea that I want to have the committee discuss.”

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.

He noted that the comments received from former circuit judge and now District 17 State Sen. Art Rusch were invaluable.

“We spent about two hours with Art, given his history of knowing courthouses in South Dakota,” Fuller said.

Committee members, he said, also closely reviewed all of the architectural reports that were completed in the previous year.

“Our tour of the courthouse was really an eye-opener,” Fuller said. “You start getting into the bones of that thing, down in the cellar and the storage areas. It’s 112 years old and it shows it.”

Top Recommendation

During the county commission’s July 9 meeting, Fuller presented the committee’s top recommendation:   a new government services center should be built in Vermillion.

The commission chose to wait until August to take final action on that recommendation and in that month’s time, hold additional meetings with the facility planning committee.

A written report submitted to the county commission by the committee in July states, “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 contrast to the Klein McCarthy Architects recommendation, the local committee would not raze the current courthouse structure but would favor redirecting the current building to other uses.  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.

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

That recommendation is the most favored of four options identified by the firm of Klein McCarthy Architects. The TLM study also concludes the Clay County Jail is “unable to be renovated or expanded in a way that addresses all current deficiencies.”

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,” Fuller told commissioners last month. “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.”

Option RG calls for relocating or building 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. 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 another option, known as 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.

Last month, Fuller directed the commissioners to the above wording as he talked about the lengthy discussion the committee had at a prior meeting concerning that option.

He has expressed opposition to the RJ option.

“That would take a tremendous amount of money,” he told the Plain Talk Tuesday. “And the county then has two buildings to manage. It just makes sense, I think, and the committee with its recommendation is agreeable -- it just makes sense to put everything in one building.

“The other issue that really drove this committee,” Fuller added, “is future expansion. Yes, you could fix up the current courthouse and spend a lot of money doing it. That’s a Band-Aid, because what happens in 50 years or 100 years? One of the key issues, I think, for a site selection will be room for expansion.”

The committee indicated in July that it would explore the option of perhaps remodeling or expanding an existing building in Vermillion to be the new home of the government services center.

Committee member John Walker noted in July that there may be no suitable existing buildings to serve those needs, but he felt such options should be explored on the public’s behalf so that citizens can be assured that the committee has fully explored all alternatives as the process continues.

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.

Fuller said last month that 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.”

Members of the Courthouse, Jail and Law Enforcement Facility Planning Committee, besides Fuller, are: Marty Gilbertson, Greg Huckabee, Meghan McCauley, John Walker, Steven Waller and Nate Welch. Non-voting members are Clay County Auditor Carri Crum, Clay County Sheriff Andy Howe and Vermillion Police Chief Matt Betzen.

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