OLIVET — After running into roadblocks, the Hutchinson County Commission is moving forward with plans for a new courthouse — but at none of the previously considered sites.
The new building will replace the 1881 facility, the state’s oldest courthouse still in use. The building received additions in 1888, 1934, 1967 and 1975. The middle section, which includes the courtroom, contains two stories. The east and west wings contain one story.
The plans for the new courthouse call for a 22,000-square-foot facility, all on one level. The project would cost an estimated $4.5 million, depending on bids.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the commissioners decided to purchase of private property in Block 1, located west of the current courthouse. By pursuing Block 1, Hutchinson County can move forward with certainty and with less expense than other locations, according to Auditor Diane Murtha.
"Block 1 is within the city limits of Olivet, so there’s no problem there," she told the Press & Dakotan. "We would like to get started this spring. Our construction manager has estimated 14 months to complete it, so we’re looking at moving into the building next year."
Murtha emphasized that no final decisions have been made and no contracts have been signed.
In addition, the commissioners will hold an informational meeting at the courthouse sometime this month. The meeting would be taped and offered to local access channels in Parkston, Tripp, Menno and Freeman for broadcast.
The date for the public meeting remained to be determined, Murtha told the Press & Dakotan. Before scheduling the meeting, she was seeking to contact construction project manager Jim Weber with Puetz Construction of Mitchell.
The commissioners agreed Tuesday that such a meeting was needed to correct the misinformation surrounding the project.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Olivet resident Josh Hora told the commissioners that opponents are seeking to put the proposed courthouse on the ballot. "I’ve seen a petition going around, that you (commissioners) need to take this (courthouse) to a vote, no matter what," he said.
The commissioners and Murtha said they had heard about circulation of a petition in different parts of Hutchinson County, from convenience stores to a basketball game. However, they don’t know what the petition says, what it seeks or how many people are signing it.
In the meantime, county officials are moving forward with the courthouse project.
Tuesday’s choice of Block 1 emerged after problems arose with other locations.
The first option, a property exchange between Hutchinson County and the Town of Olivet, was forced on hold. A group of 10 Olivet residents, opposed to the land swap, submitted a petition referring the town’s decision to a public vote. (The town has 63 residents.) The status of the county-town deal would remain in doubt until Olivet voters held a special election in April. In addition, soil tests showed extensive problems with the Olivet ball field.
A second option calls for buying land from current property owners in Block 2, directly west of the current courthouse. However, property owners have given selling prices creating a much higher price tag than desired by county officials. In addition, time would be needed to negotiate and finalize any sales and to raze and clear out current structures.
The third option, tearing down and rebuilding on the current courthouse site, would dislocate county workers and court proceedings for months. Those activities could be moved to pods in Olivet and elsewhere, but county officials found the pods too expensive and most offered for sale rather than a lease or temporary use.
"By buying Block 1, we can keep the current courthouse property," Murtha said.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the commission rescinded its resolution for a land exchange with the Town of Olivet. The swap involved the current courthouse site and the town’s ballfield two blocks to the east.
In turn, the Olivet town board has scheduled a special meeting at 7 p.m. Monday to rescind its resolution for the land exchange. The meeting will be held in the conference room of the courthouse.
After rescinding its resolution, the Olivet town board could cancel its referendum election on the land exchange. However, the town may still face an April election if candidates file for office.
During Tuesday’s county commission meeting, Hora noted the projected $3.5 million for remodeling "seems awful steep."
However, county officials noted problems such as handicapped accessibility, inadequate space, lack of security measures, mold, structural issues and wiring.
Jim Weber with Puetz Construction figured $186 per square foot to remodel the two existing wings, including a 10 percent contingency factor. The estimate did not include asbestos abatement costs or any temporary facilities for staff during the abatement process and remodel portion.
"The major point of discussion was that, for a range of 15-25 percent more, you could build new space versus trying to remodel the two old wings of the courthouse," Weber said in an email.
The new facility’s 22,000 square feet would include garage space, particularly for the sheriff’s department, Hoff said. The space could house vehicles and provide safer prisoner transport.
Hora asked about the project’s financing, preferring an opt-out rather than borrowing, "The government should never have to pay interest," he said.
In anticipation of a new courthouse, the county has set up a construction fund which currently contains $2.7 million, Murtha said. The remainder of the project funding would be borrowed, seeking an interest rate of 3 percent, she said.
Commissioner Jerome Hoff, a former Hutchinson County auditor, said a number of people believe the commissioners will raise taxes to cover the courthouse project.
State’s Attorney Glenn Roth advised on whether the project requires a public vote.
"If you pay it all at once, and jack up taxes, then it needs to go to a vote," he said. "But if continue the way you’re taking it, then you don’t need a vote."
Commissioner Steve Friesen said he welcomed questions and felt the commission was on the right path.
"We feel that we’re spending the county’s money wisely," he said. "It’s a challenge, but we feel that we’re at a point where something needs to be done."
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