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Courthouse addition on hold until fall

The "courts" addition to the north side of the Becker County Courthouse has been put on hold for a while because of higher-than-anticipated construction bids.

The county board on Tuesday rejected all four courthouse bids, opting instead to redesign the project to save money, then re-bid it this fall.

The county received bids "that came in around $200 per square foot," said County Administrator Brian Berg. The county had hoped to get the job done for about $135 per square foot, but soaring costs for construction material and fuel led to higher bids.

"Building costs have really gone up in the last year, year and a half," Berg said, with copper prices soaring and more building materials being shipped overseas to fuel construction booms in China and India.

Also contributing to the high bids was the fact that there were few subcontractors bidding for work from the general contractors, Berg said. In some cases only one subcontractor bid.

Now the county's Space Needs Committee will go back to the drawing board and look for ways to save money. "It will be a modification, not a full redesign," said Berg.

Some ideas include a smaller than full-sized basement, and a redesign of the three-story atrium between the courthouse and new addition -- making it only two stories and eliminating some natural lighting, perhaps, Berg said.

As designed, the atrium is expensive because of fire-suppression material required because the space is between two buildings, Berg said.

"Realistically, we're trying to cut back to have it (the new addition) come in between $150 and $160 per square foot," Berg said.

The project was envisioned as a 27,000 square foot addition, with a total price tag of $7 million, including a parking ramp.

But as designed the 39,000-square-foot addition will be more expensive, Berg said.

"If this is going to be built, the project budget will have to be increased as well," he said. "We will continually look at how this will be funded ... I said from Day 1 we'd have to look at a combination of reserves and bonding. The decision has not been made, but if we are to go ahead with this project, some kind of bonding mechanism will have to be put in place."

The county has been paying about $500,000 a year to pay off bonds on the medium- and maximum-security jail that makes up the southern addition to the courthouse. That debt will be paid off this year, making $500,000 available annually without increasing property taxes, Berg noted.

On the other hand, that money could go to reduce property taxes, or to make up for soaring road construction costs, Berg said.

The county's only bonding debt for next year is for the Sunnyside Nursing Home renovation project, and that is being paid from nursing home revenues.

"One option is to put it (the courthouse addition) off and let somebody else worry about it down the road," Berg said. "Doing nothing is always an option, but we need to keep up with our infrastructure."

At some point in the next 10 years or so the highway department will need new facilities -- and having to bond for both that and a courthouse addition at the same time could put the county in a financial bind. It would be better to spread the improvements out, Berg said.

"The last (bond payment for the jail) will be made this year," berg said. "It's a pretty nice position to be in -- not too many counties can say that."

As currently designed, the addition will have four levels, including the basement, and will provide new courtrooms, administrative offices and storage, and meeting rooms for jurors, attorneys, witnesses and defendants.

It is designed to provide a secure environment and to separate inmates from other players in the court system.

About three-fourths of the basement will be given over to three large areas: the law library an administrative storage area, and a mechanical room.

There will be three basement elevators: one for judges and other court personnel, and two for inmates -- connected by a secure corridor.

In order to keep inmates separated from everyone else, they will be brought from the jail along a 1,364 square foot walkway attached to the eastern side of the second floor, and take a new elevator to the "master" courtroom on the first floor, where arraignments will be held.

If they are to use one of two smaller courtrooms on the second floor, they will take the first elevator to the basement, go through a secure basement corridor, then go up another new elevator to the second floor.

The first floor will be roughly divided between an open work area for court administration staff, and the master courtroom.

The secure master courtroom will have offices for a judge and court reporter, storage rooms, an employee bathroom, two holding cells and a prisoner visitation room as well as secure transfer rooms and hallways.

There will be public restrooms, and a 400-square-foot waiting area.

A secure public entrance on the west side of the building will be on this floor, and visitors will be able to see the wide Veterans Memorial Hall, which will be open to the top of the new addition.

The second floor will have twin courtrooms with jury boxes, each courtroom with several meeting rooms, jury deliberation rooms, and offices and bathrooms for judges and court personnel.

Each will have large lobby waiting areas, and there will be public restrooms and a corner conference room.

Between the courtrooms will be a secure area for prisoners, including inmate holding cells and a secure attorney-client meeting room. One courtroom will have a media room with a two-way mirror.

The third floor will be roughly divided in half between the county attorney's office -- with conference rooms, private offices, work stations, a break room and bathroom and storage areas -- and a jury assembly area.

The area is designed to convert easily into a fourth courtroom if necessary in the future.

The addition itself will also be designed to support an additional floor if needed.

The addition should take care of the county's court needs for the next 40 to 50 years, Berg said in an earlier interview.