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County selects security option

Finally, after years of discussions and postponements of a decision, the Wadena County Board of Commissioners voted on June 26 to provide security for the courthouse.

The special board meeting was called for the purpose of hearing two new options from architect Tony Stoll, of BHH Partners in Perham, and strategizing on labor negotiations.

After hearing from Stoll and discussing for nearly 90 minutes, the board chose Option E, revised. They asked Stoll to return on Aug. 23 with drawings and more detailed cost estimates. The board is not ready to go out for bids on the security project, because they don't have "hard numbers" from Stoll yet. These "hard numbers" are what they want to receive on Aug. 23.

Stoll has worked with the board for several years, as commissioners studied proposed additions and repairs to the courthouse exterior, but did nothing except remodel interior spaces. He has worked with the board for the last several months as they considered 8 options for security and a Courthouse addition.

Option E, revised, will: (1) move the Law Library into the Commissioners' Room; (2) create two attorney-client conference rooms in the present Commissioners' Room; (3) enlarge and renovate the small courtroom; (4) renovate one judge's chambers; (5) provide a secure one-story entrance addition to the front of the courthouse; (6) design the roof of the addition to support a future second level; (7) and provide metal-detection equipment.

When work on the project begins, commissioners will move their board meetings to the courthouse auditorium or to another room somewhere in Wadena.

Additionally, commissioners agreed to take the elevator upgrades out of the project for now, since upgrades would not be needed for Option E. Commissioner Dave Hillukka suggested such action at the June 5 meeting, and Judge Robertson and Commissioner Bill Stearns brought it up again June 26.

Once the elevator was removed from the proposed rough budget, the project began to look feasible to commissioners.

The motion to approve Option E was preceded by a motion to provide funding for immediate installation of a metal detector and a bailiff's salary to staff it. This was done by the board in response to repeated pleas from Seventh District Judges Sally Ireland Robertson and Jay Carlson, and Chief Judge Peter Irvine, all of whom were in attendance.

Judge Robertson and Judge Carlson hear cases at the Courthouse regularly, and Judge Irvine was chambered there for 25 years.

All three were members of the Courthouse Security Committee that has been meeting since January to decide what to do about courthouse security.

The three judges preferred Option D, which included a two-story entrance addition, but agreed they could accept Option E, a one-story entrance addition, if something were done immediately to provide safety for Courthouse workers

The security measures Todd County has implemented were brought up repeatedly by commissioners and others in the room. Todd County has a metal detector in its new courthouse, and the metal detector is staffed on days that court is in session. Waldahl promoted the idea of Wadena County doing the same thing. He asked the judges - who also hear cases in Todd County - if they felt safe there. He asked Judge Irvine what the procedure was in Becker County, where the judge is chambered. Irvine said security is provided full time at Becker County Courthouse.

Irvine said there is a difference between feeling safe and being safe.

Irvine argued long and hard for immediate action by the board to protect the safety of county residents who have business at the Courthouse, and employees who work there. He said, in part, "Everybody knows this is a problem, and if somebody gets killed while you wait and talk and discuss, Wadena County doesn't have enough money to resolve that."

Eventually, Waldahl made a motion, and Commissioner Rodney Bounds seconded, to immediately provide a metal detector and funding to staff it on court days, like Todd County does. The motion passed unanimously. The metal detector and bailiff - characterized as "a bandaid solution" by Irvine and then repeated by Robertson and Waldahl - will be implemented as soon as possible by Sheriff Mike Carr. It is not a final solution to courthouse security, but will be used now while plans for Option E get refined.

In the other motion, to go forward with Option E, revised, architect Stoll was authorized to proceed to the design phase of the Courthouse security addition project. Commissioners promised to pay him at an hourly rate for the work he has already done, and the work of the design phase which will include engineers, drafters, and other people in his firm, according to a proposal that he will present on July 10 and the board will discuss and then vote on.

The design phase of the project will also include suggestions for replacement of the courthouse's deteriorating windows, since remodeling of the Commissioners' Room, small courtroom and judge's chambers includes opening up the exterior walls of those rooms. Together, those rooms have a dozen windows. The replacement of all the windows was estimated by Stoll at about $208,000, but could be done in two phases: (1) North and east walls first, and (2) south and west walls second. The building is 42 years old and is not energy efficient. New, more efficient windows will eliminate water and air leaks and save on operating costs of the building by reducing the loss of heat in the winter and decreasing the need for cooling in the summer.

The need to replace the courthouse roof was also brought up, and Tony Stoll reminded the board he had provided an estimate of $53,000 in 2008 to do it. But the roof was not included in the motion to go forward with Option E, revised.

Commissioner Bill Stearns reminded those present that the county has saved up $551,000 in its Building Reserve Fund, which can only be used for building or land. "It's not as though we didn't know this day was coming," he said. "We have the money."

All together, the rough estimates for all the work needed on the courthouse, including the windows at $208,000, the roof at $53,200, the new addition of Option E, revised, at $174,300, totaling about $435,500 - within the Building Reserve Fund current total of $551,000. With money on hand, it would not be necessary to bond for the repairs and the addition. The work could be paid for out of existing funds, with no impact on the county property tax levy. Or, as some suggested, it could be done in phases, with some of the windows replaced in 2012, and others replaced in 2013 and 2014.