By Brandi Makuski
The Portage Co. Board of Supervisors on Tuesday will take up a resolution supporting forward movement on a new courthouse facility.
The resolution was drafted as a compromise following an unsuccessful referendum last November, when voters failed to support a $78.5 million new county government facility.
Some in county government say they believe that referendum question included too many details to curry public favor, so the new resolution will only call for support of renovating the existing courthouse building, along with the concept of building a new facility in the downtown area. It intentionally does not address the new building’s layout or cost.
The resolution was based on a recommendation from the county’s Executive/Operations Committee, and later approved by the Space and Properties Committee — the final step before hitting the County Board floor for debate.
“We drafted [the resolution] with no reference to the number of courtrooms, or leaving the one courtroom at the existing building,” said S&P Chairwoman Jeanne Dodge. “We didn’t want the County Board to get into a major debate over costs, or the number of courtrooms, because those are matters for Finance [Committee] and discussions about design, which would come later. That’s a debate that would draw us off the task at hand.”
According to county documents, the new facility would elevate security problems in the existing courthouse building. If approved, the new building would house county offices while the existing courthouse is renovated, after which all of county government would have room to stretch.
But doubt remains as to whether the more simplified resolution could pass muster; and if it does, whether it would actually result in any action.
“I’ve been coming to these meetings for 12 years, along with other judges, and it seems like we keep repeating the same process over and over and over again,” said Portage Co. Circuit Court Judge Thomas Flugaur.
Flugaur said the existing courthouse has serious security flaws for individuals on both sides of the law — but it’s also a recipe for a mistrial.
“The problem is lack of separation,” he said. “If you go to any other courthouse, they separate litigants from the simplest things, like going to the bathroom. The district attorneys are using the same bathrooms as the defendants, the defendants’ families, the jurors…”
Having witnesses, jurors, defendants and their families all sharing the same entrances and hallways is also problematic, he said, because it’s easy to overhear confidential conversations, and jurors could potentially see defendants enter the courthouse in handcuffs and leg irons.
“You can’t have jurors looking at a defendant like he’s already convicted,” Flugaur said. “If they do, the Supreme Court has ruled it’s a mistrial.”
To circumvent that, sheriff’s deputies often have to bring defendants into a courtroom far earlier than a scheduled court appearance to avoid bumping into witnesses or jurors — and sometimes, defendants have to “hide” in a judge’s office before a trial begins, Flugaur said.
“The sheriff’s office goes through unbelievable complex logistical problems to keep defendants who are in custody separate,” Flugaur added. “Sometimes they even drive them from the jail to the courthouse, park under the building and bring them up through the police departments, even though it’s just a across the street.”
The Portage Co. courthouse was built in 1959, and has since undergone several minor renovations but is limited by the building’s layout. The building’s HVAC system is so outdated, according to Mayor Mike Wiza, that some city offices need to run air conditioning units in the winter
But the courthouse isn’t the only building in need of an upgrade. Sheriff Mike Lukas has been hoping for movement on a new jail facility since being elected in 2014 — a cause he rallied during his campaign, he said, with much support in the community.
“We’ve talked the jail to death,” Lukas said. “It’s outdated, it’s not safe for deputies, it’s not safe for inmates…but more than that, we’ve got serious office space issues. We’ve turned every available closet we can into an office for one deputy or another.”
The County Board approved a resolution in 2015 making a new jail a priority for county government, and have commissioned several studies on both buildings. All studies conducted by outside firms outlined the need to space and and safety improvements.
Since the failed referendum last year — the third turned down by voters on a new jail/government building — S&P committee members have had multiple discussions on how to move forward, but have made little headway.
“I’m really torn here,” said County Board Supervisor Jerry Walters. “I think we’ve got the right process, but the wrong piece to start with. If we build the courthouse first, without having a full picture, we aren’t going to be able to explain anything to county residents about how these two buildings tie together.”
Walters added the county was continually spending “a considerable amount on money” shipping inmates to outside counties, and noted that’s a problem the county continues to push off.
“If we built the jail first, at least we could relieve ourselves of obsolescence and safety issues,” he said. “If we had a design on how to add a jail to the courtrooms after that construction was done, then we could continue. I understand the renovation part, I don’t understand us skipping the safety part.”
Dodge said the biggest concern right now is that the county is once again starting at zero, and it may be the last chance to make something happen.
“I don’t want to say this is the last kick at the cat, but we need to give it one more shot and give people an alternative,” she said. “I’m reminded the second [of three] referendum was for a courthouse only — so we’ve been around this block before, as well.”
Lukas said while cost isn’t part of the conversation yet — it should be.
“I don’t think we’re thinking about the cost of staffing two buildings,” he said. “The jail has always been my priority, to include the safety and security of inmates and staff. You can say it’s a priority, but that can all change if we can a whole new board in here. I have concerns on this whole process, really.”
The County Board meets on Tuesday, April 18 at 5 PM in the courthouse, 1516 Church Street.
APPROVAL OF EXECUTIVE/OPERATIONS RECOMMENDATIONS TO SPACE & PROPERTIES
CONCERNING THE FUTURE GOVERNMENT FACILITY BUILDING
WHEREAS, Portage County recognizes the deficiencies of the Portage County Courthouse, Law
Enforcement Center, and Courthouse Annex Buildings, having studied the subject through many years of comprehensive space studies, including: DLR Group Study (2003-2004), Goldman & Associates Study (2005-2006), and Venture Architects Study (2008-2009); and
WHEREAS, the Space & Properties Committee requested guidance in a December 28, 2016, memo to
the Executive/Operations Committee on future steps of planning for a Portage County Government Facility building; and
WHEREAS, the Executive/Operations Committee met and discussed the project at three meetings:
January 24th, March 1st and March 22nd; and
WHEREAS, the Executive/Operations Committee made recommendations to the Space & Properties
Committee in a March 23, 2017, memo on the future of the Government Facility building; and
WHEREAS, the Space & Properties Committee is advancing the recommendation of the
Executive/Operations Committee with this resolution through the County Board in order to proceed with planning that is supported; and
WHEREAS, with the input from the Executive/Operations Committee, the Space & Properties
Committee recommends the new Government Facility building will be built downtown Stevens Point, adjacent to existing County buildings on property owned by Portage County; and
WHEREAS, a new courthouse, to meet our present and future needs will be built adjacent to the
existing Portage County Annex Building and must be constructed with the ability to expand in the future; and
WHEREAS, after completion of the new courthouse, offices in 1516 Church Street will be moved to the new courthouse, non-court related offices will be temporarily located at another County building and 1516 Church Street (current Courthouse) will be renovated; and
WHEREAS, details around City Offices located at 15 15 Strongs are yet to be determined, however,
County Staff will continue to work with City Staff to reach an agreement that is beneficial for both parties; and
WHEREAS, the needs of a new jail structure will be determined at a future date, thus continuing a longterm inmate housing contract with other counties; and
WHEREAS, the recommendation from the Executive/Operations Committee to contract with an
Owner’s Representative to coordinate the project and pursuant to Resolution No. 16-92-94, a “Project
Manager/Engineer on all major remodeling/building projects would ensure that Portage County’s needs are addressed” and is to be used for all projects in excess of $250,000.00; and
WHEREAS, this resolution does not commit funds to the Government Facility Building, but reflects the Board of Supervisors opinion around continuing on the path outlined above and will be used to determine a financing plan for the project.
FISCAL NOTE: There are no additional fiscal obligations for the County immediately associated with
this resolution, nor does this resolution appropriate funds. This is a sense of the board resolution
establishing if the Space & Properties Committee should continue with planning a new Government
Facility building as recommended by the Executive/Operations Committee. The Government Facility
building does not need Finance Committee approval until such time the County determines a financing
plan and issues debt to finance the project or appropriates funds for the project.
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the Portage County Board of Supervisors does hereby
endorse the Spaces & Properties Committee moving forward with a new Government Facility building to meet the County’s present and future needs being constructed downtown Stevens Point, adjacent to the existing Portage County Annex Building, with the ability to expand in the future; non-court related offices will be relocated to another County building, while a renovation of 1516 Church Street is completed, and jail needs will be determined at a future date while a long-term inmate-housing contract is continued. This resolution is also a commitment to continue moving forward to meet other long-term space needs for the County, it does not preclude development of addition physical space Strategic Planning.