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Court remodel estimate shocks Wadena commissioners

$806,204 — that was the estimate for the remodeling of the court facilities portion of the Wadena County courthouse, submitted last Thursday by BVK Architects, Minneapolis, to the Wadena County board at a special meeting in the courthouse auditorium.

Attending the meeting were four of the five commissioners (Dave Hillukka was absent), three judges, two architects, a construction manager, four court administration staff, the county attorney, the county sheriff, the emergency management services director, the auditor/treasurer, the facilities supervisor and two representatives of the media.

After the stunned silence that followed the announcement of the $806,204 estimate by Architect Bruce Schwartzman, commissioners began to backpedal from their commitment to redo the large and small courtrooms to make them ADA-compliant, e-Court compliant, secure, and convenient for staff, attorneys, judges and the public, citing lack of money and too many other projects.

The remodeling of the courtrooms has been under consideration since 2004. Each time the project has come up, commissioners decided not to go forward with it.

But the three Seventh Judicial District judges in attendance were having none of it this time.

"We have been last to get any attention. Now we were told that we were next on the list. We were told that it is our turn now [to get our project done]," said Judge Sally Robertson.

Jay Carlson, a judge chambered in Becker County but works one day per week in Wadena, said, "I don't think anybody expects you to pay for this out of current revenues. Bonding is the option that most cities, school districts, townships and counties take when they need to get a large capital project done. That's what governments do. And this has to be done. 2015 is the mandated transition to e-court. There are some things we have to have, just to be able to function."

Ann Carrott, Assistant Chief Judge of the Seventh District, who is chambered in Douglas County, agreed.

"All the counties are facing this. Everybody in the district is looking at these issues. It's not just Wadena. We all have to upgrade to e-Court to meet the mandate in 2015. It's expensive, and it has to be done by next year."

The project under consideration includes remodeling of the large and small courtrooms, installing new bathrooms and a new jury room, reconfiguring the two judges' chambers and clerks' spaces, redoing the inmate holding rooms, installation of new electronic equipment for e-court and facilities to make the area ADA-compliant. It involves tearing out and replacing walls, ceilings, plumbing and wiring as well as building new judges' benches and other wood furnishings. It's a big undertaking, but proponents say it would prepare the Wadena district court to function effectively for the next 20 years.

Schwartzman, the commissioners, court staff and judges next discussed whether it would be possible to do the project in phases, starting with the two courtrooms. Commissioner Bill Stearns asked whether the figure of $250,000 would be enough to remodel the courtrooms and install the required electronic equipment in 2014. That would be phase I. The rest of the remodeling and reconfiguring would be postponed until the next fiscal year. Commissioner Jim Hofer suggested it might be spread over three years including 2016.

Schwartzman offered to put together a phase I estimate, including the items that Stearns listed. He will also draft a proposal for continuing architectural services.

Schwartzman estimated that the entire project would take eight months if it were all done at one time beginning with work in May to draft construction documents — a three-month task in itself. If the project is done in phases, it would take a good deal longer.

As the meeting ended on a more hopeful note, commissioners Stearns, Noon and Hofer repeated their commitment to get the project done somehow.

"The court is now number one," Noon said.