UNION — Despite strong support from Circuit Judge Robert Irons, a proposed $7 million rehabilitation and expansion of the Monroe County Courthouse appears unlikely to gain the county commission’s approval.
“It takes care of everybody’s space needs for the next 20 years,” Irons told commissioners Wednesday, referring to overcrowded conditions in county offices housed inside the historic structure.
The judge noted that the plans presented by Lewisburg architect Jerry Janiga would also potentially allow the county’s Family Court to relocate from a fire department-owned building into the courthouse. That, Irons said, would mean the county could collect more rent from the state Supreme Court of Appeals. He suggested asking the Supreme Court for an estimate of the rent increase if Family Court were to move.
Janiga said he has already obtained informal reviews of the expansion plans from the Supreme Court and from the state Fire Marshal.
“Everybody feels comfortable with the plans,” he said.
But Wednesday’s presentation left county commissioners nearly unanimous in their negative comments after the judge and the architect left the meeting room.
Commissioners Kevin Galford and Kevin Mann were outspoken in their opposition to the project, while commission President Bill Miller urged waiting until County Clerk Donald Evans could be consulted before holding a substantive discussion.
Galford protested that the county has already invested too much money in architectural services.
“We’ve got $100,000 in blueprints here,” he said.
Mann agreed. “No more architects,” he said.
Janiga had told the men that the project could be broken down into two phases, with installation of an elevator and work connected to the general condition of the existing courthouse included in a $5.4 million Phase I outlay. The rest of the project would then be addressed as funds were available.
When the commissioners spoke later in the absence of Janiga and Irons, Miller commented, “If you can come up with almost five-and-a-half million, you can come up with seven million.”
Miller noted that after the initial outlay of funds, the county would begin to see an increase in rental income. But he was as surprised at the figures presented for the project as were his fellow commissioners.
Monroe County’s entire general fund budget for the current fiscal year is only a little over $3 million. Of that amount, just $70,000 is budgeted for maintenance and repairs of county-owned buildings and grounds.
The proposed rehabilitation and expansion project arose in the wake of discovery of a black mold infestation in the courthouse in the spring of 2018. Much of the damage occurred in the second floor circuit courtroom and associated work spaces, including the jury room and the judge’s law library.
Work to eradicate the mold involved stripping the second floor of the courthouse down to the studs, along with less drastic (but nonetheless costly) measures in other areas of the building. In August of last year, commissioners reported that some $200,000 had been spent at that point to restore much of the structure to operational fitness.
But the second floor remains in limbo, as Irons has repeatedly rejected the commission’s proposal to simply restore the courtroom and associated rooms to their pre-gutting layout.
Last year the judge told commissioners he didn’t want to the see the county “spend a lot of money” on restoring the second floor to its old, inefficient layout, leaving court personnel “stuck with all the problems we had before.” He said, “We need to come up with a viable plan and execute that plan.”
The commissioners’ consensus at Wednesday’s meeting, however, was to proceed with the plan Irons had dismissed and await the consequences.
“We can put the courtroom back the way it was, and if the judge slaps an order on us, it’s his baby,” Galford said.
No estimate of the cost of restoring the courthouse's second floor to its pre-mold condition has been made public.
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