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Wadena Board ok's court remodel project

After more than 10 years of discussing, delaying, getting architect plans, rejecting those plans, hemming, hawing, etc., on June 10 the Wadena County board finally approved a plan to remodel county courtrooms and bring them up to current Minnesota court standards.

The plan, fashioned by BKV Group Architect Bruce Schwartzman of Minneapolis, is a scaled-down version of the original plan. Through debate and discussion, commissioners and Schwartzman, assisted by Seventh Judicial District judges and county staff, whittled down the original estimate of over $1 million to the final estimate of $454,345.

The remodeling project will be paid for from current funds over two years — 2014 and 2015 — and should be completed by one year from now, June 2015, if all goes well. No bonding will be required.

The focus of the remodeling project is the county's "large courtroom", which will undergo a complete makeover in size, layout, technology, lighting, ADA compliance, furnishings, security, and flooring.

The "small courtroom" will be used for court business while the "large courtroom" is demolished and rebuilt. After the "large courtroom" is completed, court business will move back into it, while the "small courtroom" is remodeled.

If one or more cases come up during the remodeling project that require jury trials, they may be held in New York Mills, in an Otter Tail County court facility, which will be made available to Wadena County if needed.

In addition to the makeovers of the two courtrooms, the project will include new jury bathrooms that meet ADA standards, new ADA-compliant entry ramps, an additional office for court services staff, and reconfigured space for court clerks and court reporters.

The scaled-down plan eliminates several features previously regarded as necessary: an elevator to bring inmates from the jail to the courtroom, revision of inmate holding cell spaces, new bathrooms for the judges' chambers to meet ADA standards, additional storage space for court documents, a glass security wall for the courthouse lobby, and other items.

To reach their decision to go ahead with the project, commissioners discussed funding options and all the other projects waiting to be done in county buildings. The turning point seemed to come when commissioners realized that the county would be receiving about $100,000 from the sale of the former Sebeka American Legion property. Those funds, when delivered to the county's general fund, could be combined with loan paybacks from the social services fund, and reserve funds set aside for building projects, to make the total of $454,345 estimated cost for the court remodel.

Board Chair Bill Stearns began the final countdown to the vote with his comment, "We need the court system done right. The board has spent time over the years wrestling with space issues.... I think it can be done [now]."

Commissioner Jim Hofer agreed. He said, "Well over half of this amount is already in next year's budget. [The project] affects two years' fund balances [not just this year's]. ... We started at $1.1M. I think we've whittled it [down] as far as we can whittle it. With the help of [the construction management company], we've seen a lot of savings."

Commissioner Ron Noon said, "We have the money in place. Now's the time to do it."

The vote to hire BKV Group to proceed with the project was unanimous.

The next step is for BKV Group to create design development documents over the next five weeks, present them to the board for review in mid-July, and then move ahead with creation of construction developments by Sept. 5. These will be reviewed and then prepared for bidding. Bidding is expected to take place during the month of October, with contracts awarded at the end of October. Construction would begin in November and be completed in May. Since the remodeling work is inside the building, the winter season will not interfere with or delay the work.

Judge Sally Robertson, who has been present at every meeting regarding the court remodeling project over the past 10 years, applauded commissioners for finally making the decision to proceed with the project. She has been the most vocal proponent of upgrading the court facilities, which were built in the 1960s and no longer meet the needs of the modern court.

"Thank you. I'm so happy that you've made this decision. I so appreciate your work and struggle, and on behalf of Judge John Scherer and Judge Ann Carrott [the chief judge and assistant chief judge of the Seventh Judicial District], thank you," she said.

In other business, the board:

• Approved a new six-month contract with Morris Electronics for information technology services.

• Approved the recruiting process to hire an Information Technology Systems Analyst.

• Heard a presentation from Lori Wheelwright and Lynn Nesland on the new Father's Resource Program offered by Mahube-Otwa.

• Approved school nursing contracts for 2014-2015.

• Heard a presentation from BHH Architects for remodeling of the Wensman Building or construction of an addition to the courthouse to provide additional office space, with estimated costs ranging from $1 to $1.4 million.

• Approved funding for two low-income individual septic system replacement grants.