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A small lobby outside the courtroom in Yellow Medicine County where litigants from opposing sides wait presents security issues, District Judge Dwayne Knutsen told members of the Yellow Medicine County Board of Commissioners and others during a tour Tuesday of the court facilities in Granite Falls. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

Yellow Medicine County, Minn., mulling major project at aged courthouse

News Willmar,Minnesota 56201 http://www.wctrib.com/sites/default/files/styles/square_300/public/fieldimages/37/0827/082813.n.wct.ymboard0024.jpg?itok=UuZSsWbq
West Central Tribune
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Yellow Medicine County, Minn., mulling major project at aged courthouse
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

GRANITE FALLS — Black mold is a chronic problem in the offices for Countryside Public Health, where tight quarters in the basement of the Yellow Medicine County Courthouse make it virtually impossible to provide privacy for clients and there is no running water to have a sink in the only examination room, according to Liz Auch, Countryside director.

A lack of space places opposing litigants together in cramped quarters outside of the third-floor courtroom while they wait for the start of court. Security is almost impossible to provide outside the courtroom itself, according to District Judge Dwayne Knutsen.

The difficulty in separating jurors from those involved in a case has led to one recent mistrial. There is so little privacy that the bailiff can’t help but hear the discussions of jurors.

And a few blocks away in leased space, the county attorney struggles with similar security and space issues. The assistant county attorney’s office is so small “it’s more or less like a broom closet,” said Yellow Medicine County Attorney Keith Helgeson.

These are just a sampling of the issues that Yellow Medicine County is looking to address, possibly through an estimated $8,872,000 project to replace its aged courthouse in Granite Falls.

Architects with Wold Architects of St. Peter presented recommendations for addressing the space needs they identified during a nine-month process that included working with a core committee of county elected and appointed officials. Joel Dunning and John McNamara with Wold outlined five possible options to the County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday. It followed a tour of the courthouse and presentations by the affected department heads.

There is a need to expand the courthouse by 17,024 square feet, from 29,872 to 46,896 square feet to provide the space needed, meet security and technology needs, and make it possible to cluster related services as desired. The architects recommend providing that space by erecting a new building on the site, and razing the 1970s addition and original 1889 courthouse building now housing the affected departments. They include the district court system, probation, public health, veterans service, computer services, and the county attorney.

The sheriff’s office, jail, and Granite Falls Police Department are located in an adjoining structure built nearly 10 years ago, and would remain in the facility with some changes, based on the current recommendations.

The option that would best address the issues would cost an estimated $10,068,000. A reduced version of the option could achieve most of the goals for the estimated $8.8 million cost, according to the architects.

Less costly options to remodel the existing facility would not solve the issues needing to be addressed, and the county would be facing costly repairs as 1970s-vintage mechanical, plumbing and electrical systems need to be replaced in upcoming years, they explained.

The county is in a strong enough financial position to bond for any of the options under discussion, according to Michelle May, finance director. The county could reduce its financing needs by using up to $4 million from $12.5 million in existing reserves.

The major share of the new space would address the needs of the justice system. “We’ve had these discussions. We want to maintain these services and this is part of that,” said County Administrator Peggy Heglund.

The county is a couple of months away from moving other offices into a newly acquired building now being remodeled in downtown Granite Falls. Commissioners Gary Johnson and Louis Sherlin expressed concerns that the county is still facing costly space needs despite the acquisition of the building. “What’s changed so drastically that we need another 17,000 square feet,” said Johnson in expressing his concern.

Board Chairman Ron Antony urged continued discussions on what option to pursue. He raised the question of whether the existing facility could continue to serve the county for another 20 years. He also pointed out that the timing to address the county’s issues appears right. The county is in a strong financial position when interest rates are favorable and the construction market is competitive.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335
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