Recently the Save Our Historic Courthouse/Friends of the Court group(s) presented the outline of an alternative plan of how to build a new jail, law enforcement center, and county services. Their goal is to retain the current courthouse structure as a part of County government. This goal will come with a pretty stiff price of millions more beyond the $41 million requested by the Board of County Commissioners for a new facility at a new Vermillion site.

The alternative plan presented thus far sounds quite similar to the failed proposal made by Commissioner Betty Smith at the March 30, 2021 Clay County Board of County Commissioner’s meeting. The failed proposal was for a $55 million dollar bond.

It was replaced by the $41 million bond proposal that passed unanimously by the Clay County Board of Commissioners. The $41 million bond proposal will be voted on June 8, 2021.

The first step of the Save our Historic Courthouse plan recommends replacing the roof, and doing needed tuckpointing and bat mitigation. These are already being done.

The remaining steps of the Save our Historic Courthouse’s alternative plan propose building a new law enforcement center and jail, preferably immediately north of the current courthouse, renovating the current public safety center; then relocating some courthouse operations to the renovated space followed by renovating the courthouse in phases. They anticipate cost savings from not having to pay to relocate courthouse services during the courthouse renovation, and will use the vacated and renovated Public Safety Center to address some of the space needs of the offices that will remain in their Courthouse plan.

The cost of relocating all Courthouse operations to a remote location during the Courthouse renovations has been projected to be approximately $3 million. Interestingly, the Jail, Law Enforcement Center and Courthouse Facility committee did consider renovation costs of the Public Safety Center. Renovation of the Public Safety Center to an office complex is projected to be between $3 and 4 million, more that would be saved by avoiding the relocation. While the renovation of the Public Safety Center will provide additional space, the space is not necessarily located where it is needed. For example, space in the Public Safety Center will not provide the additional space needed for the two courtrooms mentioned in the Klein McCarthy report (Facility Study, Appendix page 5).

This additional space may not serve the needs of other departments housed in the Courthouse. Indeed, the Klein McCarthy report states “This Courthouse Layout makes the building very ill-suited for most large departments as contiguous space is not always available” (Facility Evaluation, page 111). For example, Court services are spread out on three floors of the current Courthouse. The additional space will not resolve the too small jury box and poorly positioned jury restroom. Unless the courthouse itself is expanded, it seems the courtrooms and court services would not be appropriately centralized.

The additional space would not resolve the safety problems associated with the current Courthouse. For example, the safety problems associated with in-custody transportation of defendants to the courtrooms. In-custody transportation to and from court hearings will continue to be done using public elevators and hallways, a potential safety concern. The current Courthouse has three entrances, and potentially more with a renovated Public Safety Center space. Each door represents an entrance/exit for persons intent on doing harm or an escape route for a prisoner.

This Save Our Historic Courthouse Committee’s alternative plan will leave some problems on the table that will need to be addressed in the future and at potential additional expense. The planned design of the $41 million facility will address all these items.

The alternative plan also calls for physically separating the new Law Enforcement Center and Jail facility from the current courthouse building. Separation of the Law Enforcement Center from Courtroom/Court Services and County Services will increase response time in an emergency. It will further increase the complexity and risk associated with in-custody defendant transportation to the Courthouse.

The new Law Enforcement Center and Jail would be built north of the courthouse and require more property acquisition north of National Street. Also, the City would need to agree to closing National Street north of the Courthouse and the fiber optic cabling under that street relocated at the expense of the project.

In a related article in the PlainTalk, the Friends of the Court emphasize the potential benefit of separating the Courts from Law Enforcement as another benefit provided by the Save Our Historic Courthouse group’s alternative plan.

During the Jail, Law Enforcement Center, and Courthouse Facility Committee’s tour of regional facilities, we saw several examples of how separation of Courts and Law Enforcement can be done very well in a single building. The Dickinson County Courthouse in Iowa did this separation in a single building extraordinarily well. Within moments of entering, you clearly see the distinctive and separate areas of county offices to your right, law enforcement and jail to your left, and Courts/Court Services on the second floor. We can design our new facility to provide this visual separation as well.

There is an important advantage to having jail and court in one building and that relates to prisoner transport. In the current Courthouse and what appears to be the case in the alternative plan, in-custody defendants enter and leave the building for court appearances using public hallways and elevators. This creates potential safety and security issue and potential escape situations. It creates the potential for a victim or their supporters to be uncomfortably or dangerously close to the defendant. In a single building design, a secure path for in custody defendant transportation can be included. The defendant never enters a public space until they enter the courtroom itself. This not only avoids dangerous escape attempts; it provides a clearer assurance of safety for the victim and their supporter they will not unexpectedly encounter the defendant within the courthouse.

Regarding the issue of how big a jail to build that is to be considered in the Alternative Plan, the Clay County Board of Commissioners’ plan is to build for Clay County’s current and future needs. Building a smaller jail would save money in construction, but will cost money over time if too small a jail is built. Boarding Clay County inmates in regional jails is expensive. For boarding in April 2020, Clay County will pay $10,000 to Minnehaha and Union Counties. That was for 3-4 inmates per day. Sheriff Howe expects those numbers to go up as Clay County is experiencing an increase in average daily jail population as we emerge from COVID.

Housing prisoners outside of Clay County costs not only room and board but also transportation to and from the remote jail. Transportation of prisoners includes risk to the transporting officer, escape attempts, risks to the public associated with escapes, and accidents, and risks to the prisoner(s). Nationally, about one prisoner transportation event occurs each day, with 12% of these resulting in injury to the officer and the prisoner and sometimes a fatality. (https://www.corrections1.com/products/vehicle-equipment/prisoner-transport/articles/prisoner-transports-officer-safety-liability-issues-iAmg2mWlQcmOoJh8/).

In the Plain Talk article, the Save Our Historic Courthouse Committee proposed to renovate the Courthouse in phases. This will lengthen the time needed for renovation and will increase costs. In addition, given the structure of the current Courthouse, working conditions during this phased construction would be extremely challenging. The Courtroom functions would probably be relocated for the duration of the Courthouse operations, and expense that will need to be considered.

The argument that the legalization of marijuana will greatly reduce our jail population is simply not true. Clay County Sheriff Andy Howe estimates that in the past year there have been 29 individuals booked on possession of marijuana. Six spent more than one night in jail and five of them were there on additional charges. The legalization of marijuana will have a very small impact on our jail population.

When considering alternative plans for the new Jail, Law Enforcement Center, Courthouse and County Services facility, be attentive to what is being proposed. It is relatively easy to reduce cost by ‘shrinking’ space or reducing jail capacity. These changes often are presented as minor program cuts. Do so, and you may find the County spending more money or even seeking a new bond for renovation/expansion. I have been involved in construction and renovations on the USD campus where I have heard such claims made and approved only to see future monies spent to restore the “minor” changes. The bond for $41 million will build the facility we need today and will serve our County’s needs for decades to come.

Please vote in support of the Bond on June 8. The $41 million bond will fund the construction of a new Jail, Law Enforcement Center, and Court and County services building in Vermillion. It is the lowest cost option possible that truly meets the needs of Clay County now and for decades to come.

Respectfully submitted,

Steven Waller

Member, Jail, Law Enforcement Center and Courthouse Facility Committee

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