With both options in the research and planning process for leasing space at the Deer Creek school and the addition option above the Wadena County Jail, Wadena County commissioners discussed the county’s courtroom expansion to follow COVID-19 guidelines on Oct. 20. The current short-term solution until the end of the year is having trials at Morrison, Todd and Douglas county courthouses as space allows, according to Wadena County attorney Kyra Ladd.

After a recent tour of the Deer Creek school, county engineer Ryan Odden and Ladd presented the pros and cons of the building, including plenty of space, not having to share the space with another organization, the close proximity to the current courtroom, handicap accessibility and a parking lot. The cons are cleaning and sanitizing and providing tables, chairs, a sound system and audio and visual equipment. The lease would likely be for one year.

Ladd said both short and long-term solutions are needed as the Supreme Court and judicial council will not have “traditional” in-person courtroom hearings until a COVID-19 vaccine is “widely and readily available to everyone.” Trials will continue to be conducted with social distancing. There are currently 25 days of trials through December at Morrison and Todd county courthouses, according to Ladd.

“With that in mind, I think the judicial branch has not only (hinted) but has indicated that we are a long ways away from transitioning back to what we would call normal courtroom operations,” Ladd said.

Throughout the process, the county and state will determine who is responsible for providing what elements, such as the speaker system, Internet capabilities and hearing assisted devices. The possible wiring required for a speaker system could also be reused depending on how it is engineered, according to Wadena County IT director Dave Hotchkiss.

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The costs required are a prominent question, especially with the courtroom expansion above the jail as a possibility. Commissioner Jon Kangas is concerned about spending money to set up the Deer Creek school to then return to the courtroom expansion or if using the other counties courtrooms would be a solution. Ladd said the space at other counties is limited and short-term and that the courtroom space at the school would be used.

Commissioner Jim Hofer said the items purchased for any courtroom space should be usable in the remodeled space rather than spending funds unnecessarily. Commissioner Bill Stearns added using existing tables and chairs from storage temporarily might be beneficial since the courtroom remodel items in 2016 required months to arrive.

The addition of the courtroom above the jail has been deemed structurally sufficient with the addition of reinforcements to two columns in the jail, according to the report from Higher Engineering shared by Odden.

In hopes of quickening the design and construction start time, Chad Bormann of BHH Partners has recommended a construction manager as well as using a previous contracted bid to avoid the additional time of a bid process. Contractors like Nor-Son and Hy-Tec Construction have set bids with Sourcewell that could be used; Hy-Tec redid the fairgrounds grandstand in 2013 and the courtroom remodel in 2016, according to Odden.

Odden is uncertain of the costs but said the courtroom remodel in 2016 was “good value” though Kangas said the cost could increase with a previous contracted bid since the bids are for various projects not a specific project. There will be a percent of the total that is unknown, according to commissioner Sheldon Monson.

Stearns and Hofer hope that this time around an elevator from the jail to the courtroom will be added.

Bormann will present at the next commissioners meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 3.

In other actions, the commissioners:

  • Approved an electronic funds transfer policy that delegates Wadena County auditor/treasurer Heather Olson to make payments and adds a number to the EFTs processed by the bank.

  • Heard a Human Services statistics report from Amie Gendron. As of the end of September, the Human Services cash balance is $1,762,940.63, salary and benefits at 66%, overhead administrative costs 60% and program costs 88%. The fund is at 5% under budget.

The commissioners also had two closed sessions to review Wadena County veterans' officer David Anderson and planning and zoning director Deana Malone.