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Turnout is small as YM Co. mulls big question

Yellow Medicine County Sheriff Bill Flaten, right, and Court Administrator Cheryl Eckhart, second right, show Granite Falls Mayor Dave Smiglewski the tight quarters in the juror’s room, where it’s impossible to fit all 12 jurors around the table. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

GRANITE FALLS — The public turnout at a series of open house meetings was small, although the question they addressed is big.

Should Yellow Medicine County construct a proposed $8.1 million structure to replace its courthouse in Granite Falls, originally built in 1889 and expanded sometime in the 1950s?

The county hosted the meetings to explain the proposal.  It saw turnouts ranging from four in Canby to 10 in Clarkfield on Monday and 17 in Granite Falls on Tuesday.

The County Board of Commissioners wants to inform the public as the county moves forward with decisions on what do about the building needs, said Peggy Heglund, county administrator, during the open house in Granite Falls.

The county knows it has to do something, she said.

She noted that the existing building is at a point where major upgrades are needed to the basic infrastructure — mechanical and heating systems, safety and handicap accessibility among them — just to keep it open.  

Architect John McNamara, of Wold Architects of Saint Peter, said it would cost an estimated $2.7 million to make the improvements needed to bring the building to current standards.

Yet doing so would not solve the major issues that are driving the proposal for new construction. The aged courthouse lacks the space needed for the services it offers, according to a recent study by Wold Architects.  

And, its interior layout does not allow like or related services to be located together to most efficiently serve the public, noted Heglund.

The building’s age and structure also limits the ability to take advantage of modern technologies.

The building’s shortcomings are the most evident on its upper floor where the courtroom and court services are located. It’s extremely difficult to provide proper security and in most instances impossible to separate opposing parties in court cases, according to Sheriff Bill Flaten and Court Administrator Cheryl Eckhart.

It’s difficult to maintain the integrity of the system. Jurors are often in close proximity to the public. Conference rooms are not soundproof or spacious enough for the parties.

McNamara said the plan being recommended by a county building committee would erect a 40,000-square-foot structure on the courthouse grounds. Once it is complete, the existing 29,872-square-foot 1889 and 1950s-vintage buildings would be razed.

Ground was broken in 2000 on the newest part of the current courthouse complex, an addition that houses Family Services and the Law Enforcement Center. That building would remain and would be attached to the new structure.

The county has the financial resources to take on the project, according to Michelle May, county finance director. Its debt load is among the lowest of counties in the region. It has reserve funds to tap and reduce its overall financing needs.

Bond and construction markets are also very competitive at this time, she and others noted.

The County Board of Commissioners has not taken any action to commit the county to the project. The board has not decided on financing or whether to bring a bond issue to a vote, according to Ron Antony, board chairman.

A proposed timeline for the project aims for a spring bid letting and completion in the autumn of 2015, according to Earl Fuechtmann, of Contegrity Group Inc., Little Falls.

While the small turnout makes it hard to know how the public views the proposal, several county officials said they were pleased with how things went at the open house events. There were good discussions, and comments suggested that those attending left with an understanding of why the county is looking at the proposal.

Tom Cherveny

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

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