Yellow Medicine County appears to be getting ready to make what could approach or exceed $1 million in facility renovations and purchases, but like a pile of fall leaves tossed towards the heavens much at the YMC courthouse appears to be up in the air.
On Tuesday, commissioners began their regularly scheduled morning board meeting listening to YMC Judge Dwayne Knutsen, Court Administrator Cheryl Eckhardt and Seventh and Eighth Judicial District Administrator Tim Ostby discuss courthouse safety deficiencies that could be alleviated with facility renovations. But the meeting would end with board expressing a desire to throttle down the renovation initiative based on unknowns associated with the upcoming elections and potential job vacancies involving positions held by County Attorney Keith Helgeson and Administrator Ryan Krosch.
In September, the county signed a $450,000 purchase agreement for the 8,000 square foot Fagen Engineering building located at 180 8th Ave. just off of main street Granite Falls. According to Krosch, the purchase would serve to rid the county of a long-running need of additional space.
Should the sale go through as planned, Krosch said the intention is to move all Finance and Administration and Property and Public Service offices over to the Fagen Engineering building, while the County Attorney offices would be moved into the courthouse alongside Family Services, Law Enforcement and the Court, which all work together with frequency.
In effect the move would create a government center separate from the courthouse where the public would go for services relating to land records, property assessment, taxation, elections, vital statistics and licenses other than drivers and motor vehicles.
Beyond the purchase of the building, the county would be faced with additional expense associated with the renovation of the engineering building and the courthouse.
In September, Krosch estimated that building improvements, such as the addition of an elevator, might approach $250,000 to $350,000 at the engineering building while updates at the courthouse would hover around $100,000. The latter number could potentially jump considerably, however, if the county went along with facility renovation suggestions that were made by Judge Dwayne Knutsen and his counterparts.
Safety a concern
"We all realize that our primary concern is to maintain public confidence in our judicial system," said Knutsen, who noted that at present facilities of the Yellow Medicine County Courthouse erode this confidence because of an environment that is inadequate in terms of safety, technology provisions and juror amenities.
Knutsen commented that the court system has seen a dramatic increase over the years in the number of criminal cases that are brought to the court.
"There are a lot more violent crimes, chemical use, mental illness and family law cases where people are not represented by attorneys and where emotions are raw," he said. "Not so much locally, but nationwide there has been a dramatic increase in violence in courthouses."
Page 2 of 3 - The YMC judge cited a case involving the death of a child in Renville as an example where, even with extra precautions, security measures broke down and a brawl ensued between the defendant and individuals in attendance for the proceedings.
Much of the problem has to do with a lack of space. Knutsen explained that defendants are not able to be separated from other parties with the current facilities which heightens the chance of conflict.
Also of concern are cramped quarters for jurors, which he said seemed inappropriate given the fact that they were foregoing time and often money to partake in the judicial process. Plus, they too were insufficiently separated from other parties which increased the chance for a mistrial––as was the case during a recent court proceeding where advocates of a defendant came into the proximity of jurors and potentially influenced decision making.
Lastly, it was noted that as the judicial system moves more into the electronic realm, renovations could incorporate aspects that would make courthouse more technologically friendly.
Aside from taking away spectator space it was said that there appeared to be very little opportunity for needed improvements to take place on the second floor of the courthouse, where the main courtroom and associated offices are located. For this reason, it was proposed that the county consider relocating courthouse facilities onto the first floor and the county attorney's and restorative justice offices upstairs.
"The present reorganization provides an opportunity to do courthouse redesign that would benefit from having the courts on the main floor," said YMC County Attorney Helgeson. "The top floor would be sufficient to house County Attorney and Restorative Justice offices."
Up in the air
As county commissioners and administration prepare to make these financially significant decisions the possibility of a new county board, county attorney and administrator brings additional intrigue to the situation.
Come November, there will be a new Granite Falls commissioner filling the vacant seat of the late Dick Wambecke as well as the potential for two new board members, should the contested seats held by Greg Renneke and Louis Sherlin go to challengers.
Meanwhile, County Attorney Helgeson may be "Judge Helgeson" come the end of the year should he be chosen to fill one of two vacant judgeships in Chippewa and Meeker counties. At present, Helgeson is one of four finalist being considered for the two posts.
As for Krosch, it was reported by the Mankato Free Press on Tuesday that the YMC administrator is being considered as one of three finalist to fill the role of Nicollet County administrator, which is housed in St. Peter.
According to Krosch, it is the only position he has applied for and if it were offered it would not necessarily mean he would accept the post. He said that he is happy in YMC, but also noted that he has family in the Mankato area.
Page 3 of 3 - A discussion at the close of the meeting broached these topics, with commissioners Gary Johnson, Sherlin and Renneke expressing a desire not to move too far along with the renovation given the uncertainty of leadership in the county in the months ahead.
Johnson noted that he did not want to see a repeat of the situation in 2008 and 2009 when the county paid approximately $80,000 for architectural design services for a courthouse addition that ultimately went nowhere when commissioners elected to hold back on major expenditures when the economy went south.
In the end, the board decided that it would move ahead cautiously, submitting a Request For Proposals for architects and a space analysis, which would determine possible courses of actions at both the courthouse and the new government center building. When those renovations take place and what they might entail would then be up to board and administration, whatever its makeup proves to be after potential changes in the weeks and month ahead.
"I think we need time to just think about everything," said Renneke. "We want to make sure we do the right thing."