It seems that the Jefferson County Board of Supervisors is being asked to look into a crystal ball as it tries to predict what county governmental offices will look like in the future.
Supervisors are facing many questions, such as how many additional people will be working for the county in 20 or more years, or even if all staff will need office space in the center of the county seat. The pandemic has taught society that it is possible for some jobs to be performed from home.
At this time in its decision-making process about possible courthouse expansion and renovation, basic, driving financial factors in the project are heating, ventilation, and air conditioning needs, as well as mechanical, electrical, plumbing and other infrastructure updates. These would make up approximately $17 million of the total $35 million project.
Tentative plans for a courthouse renovation have been quietly taking place for much of 2020 and the first half of 2021, with courthouse staff working with consultants, and the buildings and grounds and finance committees, on various concepts.
Supervisors have been receiving occasional presentations from Potter Lawson Inc. architects of Madison and Maas Brothers Construction of Watertown on options for updating the courthouse to make it more convenient for staff and the public, as well as safer and more secure. The building also needs upgrades to meet current fire protection, Americans with Disabilities Act and Department of Corrections standards.
Plans, as proposed by Potter Lawson, call for three additions to each corner of the courthouse, with the exception of the southeast corner, while keeping the main entrance where it is on the east side of the building, facing the parking lot.
As part of the three additions, as well as a new elevator on the west side of the building for use by county judges, the Management Information Systems facility, located across South Center Avenue from the courthouse, would occupy the proposed addition to the northwest corner of the current building. The existing MIS facility would be razed, and in its place, 37 parking spaces would be created.
Other areas of the courthouse’s floor plan would be streamlined, with departments with common services, such as administration, human resources and the corporation counsel relocated, so they would be grouped together on the same floor. Another consolidation mentioned by Potter Lawson would be a grouping of the treasurer, register of deeds and surveyor offices.
The clerk of courts office would be relocated from its current spot on the south end of the building’s first floor to the northwest, first floor portion of the facility — roughly where the current administrator’s office and former west side, main courthouse entrance are situated. This would make it one of the first offices a visitor would see upon entry to the courthouse. Planners deem that office to be one of the most frequently used by the public and therefore, want it to be prominently placed.
The county board room, in the northwest corner of the second floor, would remain where it is, with mobile walls installed, allowing it to be used as conference space when it is not serving, infrequently, as the venue for meetings of supervisors and jury selection. The podium of the large room, where the county board chairman and corporation counsel preside, would be relocated from its east position to the north end.
The emergency management department would be moved to the southwest corner of the first floor of the complex, to be closer to the sheriff’s department. This would also allow the office to have a south-facing door to the outside that would open to the public for easier access.
The plans include options for sheriff’s department and jail expansion, and increased efficiencies in those departments.
Planners said that, by 2030, it's likely that the courthouse will need the additional 35,000 square feet of space that the proposed, full renovation project would provide. This would bring the complex to a total of approximately 150,000 square feet.
The county’s four court branches would remain on the south end of the complex, but one would be enlarged, per a state supreme court recommendation. This would allow it to function as a “ceremonial courtroom,” where larger trials and events, such as the swearing-in of judges, could be held.
According to Potter Lawson, there has been considerable collaboration and thought that has gone into the floor planning of the proposed renovated facility. It’s representatives said the staff of the county did a great job of collaborating with experts on the floor plan.
Jared Ramthun of Potter Lawson said much of the courthouse’s infrastructure dates to the 1960s, “So now is a good time to invest in some upgrades.”
Experts said if the county were to build an entirely new courthouse at a different location, that facility would cost an estimated $75 million.
If the project moves forward, planners said it would be done in phases over approximately 2.5 years. A goal would be to get the building enclosed before winter of 2021-22. Jefferson County Administrator Ben Wehmeier said another goal would be to have the facility completed by 2024.
Planners said the project could be done as just a remodeling and reconfiguration of the courthouse portion — excluding the newer sheriff’s department and jail that dates to the early 1990s — if necessary.
Representatives of Maas Brothers said that, although they can’t see into the future, it appears that construction prices should be relatively favorable in the next two or three years, so the county could get a good deal in what they called “a construction buyer’s market.”
Funding for the project would be conducted through borrowing programs that are being developed by Ehlers Public Finance Advisors.
“Once it is determined if a project would move forward, as well as the scope of the project, work would primarily be financed by general obligations bonds,” Jefferson County Administrator Ben Wehmeier said. “Based on a proposed schedule and draw schedule, the financing would be structured over multiple years. This would maximize the potential for bank-qualified bonds to reduce the cost of debt.”
Full renovations would likely keep the building functional for the next 30-50 years.
Wehmeier said the next steps in the process will be for the various committees involved, as well as the board, to determine if the county should move forward with the project, modify it, or not do it at all.