The voters of Clay County have an opportunity on June 8 to address a serious community challenge – the future of our county government and public safety offices. Over two years ago, Clay County Board of Commissioners appointed seven county citizens with very different perspectives to examine the operational issues surrounding the Clay County Courthouse, Jail, and Law Enforcement Facility. Since our first meeting early in 2019, we have seen our county office workers desks located in storage vaults and noted the deteriorating electrical, plumbing, and mechanical systems, some of which cannot be repaired or even replaced without tremendous expense.
We have seen the incredible problems of the current jail. We have seen the personal air horns being provided to each county employee to serve as the fire alarm system. We have seen and smelled the moldy walls and carpets, seen the collapsing/deteriorating walls, electronics protected from dripping pipes by tarps, the jury room too small to comfortably seat 12, the jury box that is challenging to get in and out of, and hundreds of other problems.
After numerous meetings, visits to several regional courthouses, sheriffs and police departments, and jails, the Committee recommended a new facility be built and the current Courthouse/Public Safety Center be repurposed. In addition, the Committee asked the commissioners to hire a consultant and architects experienced in similar projects to help us review our process and decision, to make sure it was the best decision for our county, and to provide current estimates for how to address these problems. Our work has been previously presented in Plain Talk.
In the end, we still recommended new construction of the Courthouse and Public Safety Center operations at different site within the City of Vermillion. Based on new renovation and construction pricing obtained by the consultant and architects following a more complete review of the facility and operations, our recommended option is estimated to cost $41 million. It was the least expensive option and addressed all the needs of the Courthouse and Public Safety Center operations for decades to come. The 7-member Committee’s recommendation was unanimous. The Board subsequently adopted our Committee’s recommendation, also unanimous.
Why do we need a new facility?
Constructed in the early 1900s and expanded in the 1980s, the Courthouse and Public Safety Center have deteriorated. (Please see the Clay County website for a visual tour. It is a must see!) An initial Klein McCarthy study provided 13 pages of needed improvements in the current facilities. Since that report, the facilities overall have declined at an increasingly rapid rate. Each repair leads to another problem to the point that the county is challenged finding contractors that will even provide routine repairs to the systems.
While the Committee and commissioners have not recommended tearing down the courthouse, the cost of renovation is astronomical. Ten million dollars is needed just to renovate the building. An additional $3 million is needed for the addition of elevators and rest rooms to meet minimal ADA requirements. The need to address electrical, plumbing, mechanical and communication services and perform asbestos and HazMat mitigation makes a phased or nuanced renovation impractical and would further increase the renovation cost.
During renovation, all courthouse offices and functions will need to be relocated off-site costing an additional $3 million over a 2 ½ - 3-year period. The sad reality is the total $16 million project will not satisfy any of the existing space needs. We will have the same space problems we have now and no room to grow.
To address the space needs, new construction onsite of a jail, public safety center, courtrooms and court services offices can be done. This option will require an additional $38 million beyond the $16 million courthouse renovation for a total cost of $54 million. Staying entirely onsite will cost $13 million more than building all new at a new location. This ‘extra’ expense represents half of the projected school bond Vermillion will be approving soon.
Building offsite a new combined Jail, Public Safety Center and Courtrooms/Court Services and renovating the Courthouse for county services will cost approximately $55 million. This is $1 million more that building onsite and $14 million more than building all new.
Doing nothing is not an option. We know that if we do not build a new jail that meets current building code and safety requirements, then we likely close our present jail and house and transport prisoners elsewhere. We either build our own jail or we pay for some other county’s jail to house our inmates, assuming such space can be found in the future. The projected cost of housing our prisoners elsewhere is the same if not more than we will pay for the $41 million 30-year bond we will be voting for on June 8. It makes practical sense to build our own facility.
The suggestion that we simply build a new jail and address the other problems later does not address the gravity and scope of the deterioration that is happening. Building a separate jail from the other functions will result in greater ongoing expenses related to transportation of prisoners. The present court facilities are in use 4-5 days a week. Transportation of prisoners is no small expense. This may require more sheriff officers and vehicles. In addition, transportation of prisoners poses public and officer safety issues. Accidents and escapes happen. It is not an option to build a future around.
All things considered, you can readily see why the Committee and commissioners selected the new facilities at a new site option for the lowest estimated cost of $41 million. It costs less and addresses our needs for decades to come.
What to do? Again, a new facility serving all the needs could be built offsite for $41 million that would provide for the needs of Clay County for decades. The existing Courthouse and Public Safety Center would remain and can be repurposed. In a demonstration of their intent not to abandon and neglect the existing building, the Commissioners’ have already authorized bat mitigation, a new roof, and cleaning, tuckpointing and caulking the exterior to preserve the building for repurposing. They have also set aside up to $1 million for possible use in repurposing the buildings.
Why now? Beyond what has already been stated, why should we vote to approve a bond to fund a $41 million project at this time? The need to address the building and space deficiencies of the jail, public safety center and county courthouse offices is urgent. Yes, it should have been undertaken ten years ago. Now is the time to act. The cost of public bonds is at an all-time low and, together with construction costs, are expected to increase in the future. Simply put, waiting will cost a lot more and the need to move forward now is incredible.
In closing, the clarion call to leave our jail, public safety center, courtrooms and court services and government services offices better than we found them is being made now. It is time to move forward and pass our $41 million low interest bond that will testify we are leaving this facility better than we found it.
Greg Huckabee & Steve Waller
Members, Clay County Courthouse, Jail, and Law Enforcement Facility Planning Committee