Voters discuss courthouse construction project with county officials

Photos: StudioOne Creative

PAW PAW - Van Buren County voters had the opportunity last Thursday night to question county officials after listening to a presentation of the proposed courthouse construction plan that has prompted today's special election. Voters will decide a $32 million millage request to fund the project at the polls, open until 8 p.m. About 40 county citizens attended a community forum, co-sponsored by Freshwater Community Church and The Courier-Leader, in the Freshwater  auditorium to join in the conversation.
    Former county commissioner Mike Henry outlined the project, which includes construction of a new 60,000-sq. ft. consolidated courts facility, 12,000-sq. ft. jail addition, and repairs and improvements at the Administration and Land Services building. He also offered some history of the five-year-long process county officials went through to settle on the current proposed plan. Henry was joined on stage by a panel of county administrators available to address citizens’ concerns. Among them were Frank Hardester, Van Buren County Trial Court Administrator; Chad Hunt, Van Buren County Undersheriff; and Jeff Hall, Van Buren County Building and Grounds Department Director.
    As commissioners became aware of security and public safety concerns at the jail, which was built in 1962, and the current courthouse, erected in 1901,  Henry said commissioners ordered a needs assessment of county facilities. “It is our job to anticipate the uncertainties of tomorrow,” Henry said.  This study pointed to the following areas of concern.
    COUNTY JAIL:
    Booking area and holding cells do not accommodate the separation of  different classes of inmates, according to Undersheriff Hunt. The safety of female, mentally challenged, and youth inmates require an enhanced intake area, which is also not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act or national standards, and monitored by outdated technology in secure areas.
    COURTHOUSE:
    Commissioners cited security and public safety as the primary focus of the new courthouse construction option. Information provided in a brochure to forum attendees listed the historic county courthouse and the 1976 Annex as unsafe environments for the public, jurors, judges and their staff, with outdated restrooms and elevators, which do not meet ADA requirements.  The old courthouse is also lacking sufficient hearing rooms and private consultation and meeting spaces.
    The parking lot was deemed to need more spaces, and better lighting and signage.
    (This part of the proposal was contingent on  the former sheriff’s house on the corner of S. Kalamazoo and St. Joseph streets being demolished, and the village of Paw Paw agreeing to abandon one block of St. Joseph Street to allow for construction of the courts consolidation facility.  Both have been arranged, and the county has already purchased four properties on the south side of St. Joseph Street for the expansion, with a fifth about to be secured.)
    At the Administration and Land Services Building, ADA compatibility, security, and flooding problems in basement offices are the targeted concerns.
    Henry said commissioners have put much thought, research, and consideration into this proposal and are confident that it is the right plan to meet the county’s future needs.
    Sid Shank of Paw Paw, representing the Citizens for Responsible Van Buren County Spending, feels the county has spent plenty in the past five years to improve the court’s facilities, even though the overall crime rate is dropping and the population of the county is not growing.
    Former County Clerk Tina Leary echoed her sentiments, noting that the plans for the new facility call for four courtrooms with jury boxes (two with 14-person boxes, two with seven-person boxes) when the county has averaged six jury trials a year.     
    Shank listed $3,340,000 spent on courts improvements since 2012, including the new secure single entrance ($956,000), HVAC upgrades and renovation ($1,064,000) and a new roof ($75,000) at the Annex; improvements at the South Haven District Court ($410,000),  jury management system ($40,000), St. Joseph Street parking lot ($65,000), and the purchase of four properties ($280,000) for a parking lot.  
    Hall noted that several of those items were ongoing maintenance of the buildings that has to be done to keep the buildings safe for public use.
    Shank added to the above costs $450,000 in engineers’ design services for the courthouse construction, including three plans, beginning at $18 million for a 36,000-sq. ft. structure, which grew to an 80,000-sq. ft. facility, then resulted in the current proposal.
    Shank objected to the county publicizing the proposal as an “Improved Public Safety and Public Services Millage,” and asked the panel, “Isn’t it true that public safety millages may only be used for police, fire, and emergency services? I find that misleading.”
    She went on to say that the jail addition included in the millage proposal is already under construction because commissioners passed a resolution in December to finance it from the general fund.  “The jail’s needs have been met with the $5 million in funding already set aside,” she said.
    “Building for the future is a good thing, but the original plan had the needs covered,” Shank said.
    Polls will be open until 8 p.m. today.
    The actual ballot will read:

COUNTY PROPOSAL JAIL AND COURT MILLAGE PROPOSAL

PROPOSAL TO LEVY A MILLAGE TO CONSTRUCT, OPERATE, FURNISH AND EQUIP A JAIL ADDITION AND RENOVATION, A NEW COURT'S
CONSOLIDATION FACILITY AND RENOVATION TO THE ADMINISTRATION AND LAND SERVICES BUILDING IN THE COUNTY OF VAN BUREN

    For the purpose of constructing, operating, furnishing and equipping a jail addition and renovation, a new Court's Consolidation Facility and renovation to the Administration and Land Services Building for Van Buren County, shall the constitutional limitation upon the total amount of taxes which may be assessed in one (1) year upon all property within the County of Van Buren, Michigan, be increased by up to 0.70 mills ($0.70 per $1,000 of taxable value), for a period of twenty (20) years (2017-2036) inclusive?

    If approved and levied in full, this millage will raise an estimated $2,030,000.00 in the first calendar year of the levy based on taxable value.  If approved and levied, in accordance with State law a portion of the revenue collected may be required to be distributed to the Downtown Development Authorities, Tax Increment Finance Authorities, Local Development Financing Authorities and Brownfield Redevelopment Authorities established in the Cities of South Haven, Bangor, Gobles, Hartford as well as Keeler Township, South Haven Charter Township and the Villages of Lawrence, Lawton, Paw Paw and Mattawan.

     The county’s Facebook page offers diagrams and information on the millage proposal at www.facebook.com/vbcomi/ . Other area media coverage on the project is available at: wwmt.com/news/local/van-buren-co-millage-increase-proposal-to-fund-courthouse-renovation and www.mlive.com/news/kalamazoo/index.ssf/2017/04/van_buren_county_courthou... .
 

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The Courier-Leader & Paw Paw Flashes
32280 E. Red Arrow Hwy. • P.O. Box 129
Paw Paw, MI 49079
(269) 657-5080

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