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Yellow Medicine County wants public input on possible $8M courthouse renovation

GRANITE FALLS – The Yellow Medicine County Board of Commissioners will be hosting a series of public information meetings in October to get feedback on a possible $8 million project to replace a portion of its aged courthouse to meet the needs of the court system as well as other county offices located there.

The commissioners at their meeting Tuesday agreed to bring the proposal to the public after meeting with representatives of the Eighth Judicial District, as well as financial advisers who outlined options for financing the project.

Security worries, the inability to separate jurors and others from opposing parties in litigation, and the challenges of using modern technology in a building constructed in 1889 are among the issues facing the judicial district, which operates courts in 13 different counties.

“Of all the 13, this is the one that could use the help the most. We could use help here,’’ said Judge Don Spilseth, chief justice for the district.

Spilseth and Judge Dwayne Knutsen, who is chambered in Granite Falls, emphasized that the district sees the need to maintain a judge in Granite Falls based on the level of activity. They also told the commissioners that while they cannot make any guarantees, they do not see any movement toward regionalization on the part of the state court system. There are legal issues of equal access and equal treatment that would require legislative changes if regionalization were to happen. Spilseth said that in the 10 years he has been part of the state’s judicial council, not once has the topic of regionalization come to the table.

The two judges and Tim Ostby, court administrator for the district, told the commissioners that the need for improvements is based largely on the dramatic changes the court system itself has seen in the last couple of decades. The volume of criminal cases coming to the courts has grown significantly, as has the severity level of the offenses. The court is also seeing many more contentious family and civil cases where security and safety are significant concerns as well.

Cases involving controlled substance abuse, domestic violence, criminal sexual conduct, as well as issues concerning the custody and safety of children have all increased. ‘’All those social problems end up here,’” Judge Knutsen said of the increased caseload being seen in courts today.

County Commissioner Louis Sherlin, of Canby, said he was concerned about the possibility that the county could invest in a new building, only to have regionalization remove the court.

While the judges indicated they did not expect that to happen, County Administrator Peggy Heglund noted that the county would not want to make itself the “obvious choice’’ for closure by not addressing the concerns being outlined.

“The decision of whether or not you are going to have a viable justice system in your local community rests with you, more than I believe it rests with outsiders,’’ said Judge Knutsen. “Politics are local. It all starts at home. You folks have to make the initial decision of what you want.’’

Wold Architects, of St. Peter, previously outlined four options for addressing the courthouse needs. No decisions have been made, but the option that is the focus of discussion involves replacing the 1889 and 1970s addition to the courthouse with a new structure. It would provide a total of 46,896 square feet of space, or 17,024 square feet more than now available in the areas.

Along with the court system, the new structure would hold the corrections or restorative justice program, public health, veterans services, county attorney, and computer services.

The county Social Services offices, Sheriff’s Office, jail, and Granite Falls Police Department are located in an adjoining structure built nearly 10 years ago and would remain there, with only minor changes proposed for that part of the building.

The county could buy down the costs of financing the project by tapping a portion of its reserve funds, now totaling over $11 million.

Board Chairman Ron Antony, of Canby, noted during discussions that the commissioners are struggling with the issue of what size reserve should be maintained, and what amount of debt the county would accept.

Financial consultants Bruce Kimmel and Nick Anhut of Ehlers and Associates outlined options to finance an $8 million project based on tapping $2 million of the reserves and refinancing the remaining debt for the newest part of the building that includes the jail and social services. Depending on the options, the tax impact could range from 1.7 percent to 2.5 percent.

The commissioners indicated that they wanted the opportunity to explain the options to the public and hear the response before making any decision. “It’s time to put it out to the public and let them make the decision,’’ said Commissioner Gary Johnson, of Clarkfield.

Tom Cherveny

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

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