County judges, administrators talk to local officials about courthouse and jail expansion projects

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By Robin Racette Griffin - couriereditorial@vineyardpress.biz
	Van Buren County officials made presentations to governmental entities  last month and will conclude this month as they travel through the county to  increase awareness of facility needs of the Paw Paw courthouse and jail, in preparation for the May 2 millage election. Above, Van Buren County Trial Court Administrator Frank Hardester, at right, makes a presentation to the Lawrence Village Council during their meeting Tuesday night.

    PAW PAW - Van Buren Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Dufon presented to the Paw Paw Village Council Monday night an overview of the county courthouse and jail expansion and improvement millage proposal to be put before voters May 2.  He said he and fellow Circuit Judge Kathleen Brickley, as well as other county administrators have been circulating among the county’s township boards, village councils, and others to give local officials the opportunity to ask questions concerning the $35 million proposal.
    Judge Dufon said the county’s judges as a whole support the plan presented by Van Buren County Commissioners, “but I am not here to tell you how to vote.” The proposed project calls for new construction of an enlarged consolidated courthouse facility, a jail addition and renovation, and improvements at the Administration and Land Services Building.  He stressed the greatest need of the project is upgrading security and increasing public safety.
    The historic courthouse, the judge said, served as a circuit court and was designed with one courtroom for one judge. Today, Van Buren County’s court system includes the 36th Circuit Court, with three judges - Brickley, Dufon and David DiStefano;  Probate Court; and the 7th District Court with two judges - Michael McKay at Paw Paw and Arthur Clarke at South Haven.
    Though the courts and their judges are designated to address certain matters, Dufon said the county’s unified court system allows all judges to hear all kinds of cases, if needed, and their staff members are cross-trained in the same way. “We can all do each other’s job,” Dufon told the council.
    Materials he provided to the council noted that the current courthouse and annex do not provide safe environments for jurors or judges; there are no confidential meeting spaces for attorneys and clients; the public shares open spaces with prisoners in transport to the courtroom; restrooms are outdated; some areas are not ADA compliant; and other issues.
    “What seems to be confusing to some is that the jail addition has already been started,” Dufon noted. He explained that commissioners felt the need for greater security there was urgent; so, a loan was arranged to fund that part of the project. If the proposal passes in May, the loan will be paid back with funds from the millage. If it does not pass, the $5 million project will be covered out of the general fund.
    In other business, the council conducted a public hearing to discuss and hear comments on an ordinance establishing a farmer’s market in the village of Paw Paw, and its oversight. The proposed Ordinance 456 as presented “establishes a Farmers Market Board to oversee the operation of  a Paw Paw Farmers Market as a Village Function.”
    After much discussion, including the village’s liability and responsibilities, hold harmless/insurance agreements with vendors, the council returned to regular session, where trustees suggested several revisions to the ordinance and requested it be ready for action at their next meeting.        
 Next week, presentations will be given at the Gobles City Hall, Tuesday, April 18, at 6 p.m., and at Arlington Township Hall on  Wednesday, April 19, at 7 p.m. The last scheduled public tour of the Paw Paw courthouse and jail will be held April 27, at 10 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. Tours begin at the entrance to the courthouse. For more information, contact Richard Godfrey, Chairman, Van Buren County Board of Commissioners, at (269) 657-8200 , ext. 1206.
 

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