Expanding Douglas County’s courtroom spaces could cost up to $127 million and require a tax increase, county leaders hear
photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World File Photo
Updated at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 27, 2023.
Making Douglas County’s courtrooms and law enforcement facilities more spacious could come with a price tag of as much as $127 million, and the county will have to move quickly — and possibly even raise taxes — in order to get the job done.
That was the message county commissioners got at a work session last Wednesday, where architect Jeff Lane from TreanorHL laid out some preliminary design plans for upgrading the Douglas County Judicial and Law Enforcement Center. He presented five options for the center, each of which would add one new courtroom and leave open the possibility of adding two more in the future.
As the Journal-World previously reported, Lane told the commission in May that the county’s courtrooms were much smaller than typical courtrooms in other jurisdictions, and it might need to nearly double the amount of “useable square footage” inside the facility — from 75,500 square feet to almost 134,000 square feet — to keep up. What wasn’t clear at the time was what that new space might look like, what impact the project might have on court proceedings and what it might cost. But in Wednesday’s discussion with county leaders, some answers began to take shape:
• It could be anything from a renovation project and a new wing, to the creation of an extra floor atop the current building, to the construction of a new court facility and the demolition of the current building.
• It would possibly cause delays and headaches in the court system during construction.
• And even the more affordable options for the project could cost just under $100 million. The cost of the most expensive options could be up to $127 million, according to the preliminary estimates from the construction manager for the project, JE Dunn Construction.
“None of these projects are going to be fun; easy options continue to elude us,” County Administrator Sarah Plinsky said on Wednesday.
And because of the rising price of building projects, county leaders won’t have much time to pick one of those hard options.
“It sounds from what JE Dunn is telling us is that every minute we sit here the price goes up,” Commission Chair Patrick Kelly said. “So we need to move quickly.”
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Complicating matters is the fact that only two of the five versions of the project fit well in the county’s current financial situation — and the less expensive one of those would significantly disrupt the county’s ability to hold trials and other court proceedings during construction.
According to the plans presented by TreanorHL and the cost estimates from JE Dunn, one of these designs would stack a third floor on top of the existing Judicial and Law Enforcement Center building and would cost about $95 million to $100 million. The other one would cost $100 million to $112 million and would add on a new 70,000-square-foot wing.
Lane told commissioners that TreanorHL “batted around” whether the idea of the third floor was even worth presenting to commissioners. Structural engineers had determined that it was possible, he said, but it would come with a hidden cost: workplace disruptions for judges, attorneys and the other people who use the facility on a daily basis.
“It’s very complicated from the perspective of being able to do work within this building at the same time that we’re adding a floor to the building,” he said.
Plinsky said Wednesday she had “significant concerns” about that option, and Chief Judge James McCabria, who was also at the meeting, emphasized that any restrictions on how and when courtrooms can be used could create delays in proceedings.
“If we don’t have the ability to schedule a jury trial in our courtroom when that need arises, and we start sharing and splitting and stacking, that is inherently creating delay,” McCabria said Wednesday. “And that delay impacts people.”
McCabria did say that he thought any of the options would be an upgrade in security and workplace efficiency over the current facility, which was designed in the 1970s.
But Plinsky specifically cautioned against the third-floor option, because while it might look less expensive on paper, it would end up costing more than the estimate if the county had to relocate some of its court services during construction.
“That (option) will have costs related to relocation of services that are not in that (projected) number, and I think they will be substantial,” Plinsky said. She also said that the process of adding a third floor could affect emergency services technology and HVAC systems that are located on the building’s roof.
Adding a new wing looked more appealing to Commissioner Karen Willey. She said that that option “sort of” fits within the county’s finances and it wouldn’t disrupt the courts as much, and that it had her “attention from the start.”
“And it gives us a great deal of flexibility for the future as we plan,” she said.
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Flexibility is also the key word right now, because the county is keeping its options open at this point in the process. The commissioners said Wednesday they’re only ruling out two of the five options — one that would build a whole new courthouse next to the current structure, where its south parking lot currently is, and another that would build a new structure and completely demolish the old building. The former could cost as much as $127 million, according to the estimates from JE Dunn, and the latter could cost up to $121 million.
“I don’t want (TreanorHL) to spend any more time on something we don’t have any appetite for at this point,” Kelly said. He said he was “not comfortable” with the option that builds a separate courthouse, “just looking at the dollar signs attached to it.”
Commissioner Shannon Reid was OK with striking two of the options, saying that “we’re still a little bit at the surface level of this conversation, so I think keeping three options on the table is a reasonable place to begin.”
But as far as how much the county would spend, the commission wasn’t willing to limit itself to just what it can currently afford. Plinsky said that “we’ve raised taxes in the past for projects,” and that even though her office had been working on “strong financial stewardship,” the project could take a significant chunk out of the county’s funds for capital improvement projects.
The magic number she pointed to was $72 million, which has to do with the sales tax fund that the county uses for capital improvement projects. The fund currently has about $13 million in it, and based off its expected revenue stream, the county could issue up to $60 million in debt. That would give the county $72 million for a big capital project like this.
“If (the financial need for the project is) above $72 million, we’re going to have to talk about other sources of revenue,” she said.
But Kelly said that in case the county needed to raise taxes to do the project right, it shouldn’t be taking the option off the table.
“I understand that we don’t want to raise taxes and (should) stay within our limits, but I also don’t want that to hold us back at this moment of thinking about this project, to make sure we have a really good courtroom,” he said.
Right now, the timeline for the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center renovations isn’t clear. The presentation at Wednesday’s work session was just intended to inform the commissioners about the project, and they took no formal action related to it at the meeting.
Editor’s note: This story was corrected to address the source of $72 million the county could use on a courthouse project without raising taxes.