A courthouse divided: Disagreement over $41 million bond in Clay County

KELOLAND.com Original

VERMILLION, SD (KELO) — As the residents of Clay County contemplate their upcoming vote on whether to grant funding to the county for a $41 million bond issue to build a new courthouse, jail and public safety center, one segment of the community is speaking out in opposition to the plan. They say there is a better way forward.

The bond issue will face a county-wide vote on June 8, and proponents of the new project, such as planning committee chairman Bob Fuller and Clay County Sheriff Andy Howe, say that when it comes to the current courthouse and jail, issues of age and size make a new facility the most viable option.

In early April, Howe gave KELOLAND News a tour of the jail and courthouse facilities, pointing out problems with age, space, accessibility and structure.

View the full tour here:

However, opponents of the bond issue such as former Judge and Vermillion resident Arthur Rusch say that is just not the case. Rusch had his office in the Clay County courthouse for over 30 years, serving as the Clay County State’s Attorney and as a Circuit Judge. He is also the author of a book about all of South Dakota’s county courthouses.

These opponents, acting under the banner of the ‘Save Our Historic Courthouse’ committee, issued a statement Tuesday in which group member Patrick Gross outlines out their core complaints.

Gross writes in the release that the committee, “hopes to educate the voting public on their concerns in an effort to defeat the bond issue and expand the discussion on solutions to courthouse issues.”

Among the issues the committee cites is “uncertainty over the future of the courthouse, a lack of protections should it be abandoned, project cost inconsistencies, the need to build a new law enforcement and jail facility on or off the current site, as well as the need for a strategic plan on restoring and preserving the existing historic courthouse.”

Read the full release here:

While the County and the Historic Courthouse committee clearly have different opinions on how the plans for a future facility should progress, everybody understands that something needs to be done.

The common ground found between the two groups goes deeper than just acknowledgment that something must be done to improve the courthouse. Rusch and Sheriff Howe are on opposite sides of the bond issue, but having both worked in the facility for a number of years, each of them highlights security as an area requiring improvement.

Core to the conflict are issues of preservation and cost. This has been a process that has spanned a number of years, with the county commissioners in 2018 hiring an architectural firm, Klein McCarthy out of Minnesota, to survey the building and provide recommendations.

Klein McCarthy was not retained by the county to continue the project, but their initial project estimates have been the subject of some of the opposition to the current bond issue.

According to documents from 2018, Klein McCarthy did provide an estimate for an expansion of the downtown location at $35.6 million dollars.

Klein McCarthy estimate from 2018

See the full 2018 report here:

However, Dick Strassburg, partner and consultant for TEGRA Group, the real estate consulting firm that was hired by the county, told KELOLAND News this in an email:

Simply stated, architects are not qualified to provide accurate cost estimates…they can design it but can’t build it. After 35 years in the industry, I’ve learned to only rely on contractors with recent similar project type experience to provide accurate cost estimates.

Dick Strassburg, TEGRA Group

Strassburg has been the main consultant on the project, and TEGRA was also involved in the recent Minnehaha County jail expansion.

In terms of the decision making process, Strassburg says TEGRA Group is a neutral party and did not come into the process favoring any particular outcome.

Strassburg says updating the courthouse would hold a lot of challenges. Initially, he says, they came up with a scheme that would renovate the existing building and add onto the building at the existing site. This however became much less appealing, says Strassburg, when they saw the cost, which comes in at $54 million.

This same site alternative seems to be the preference for those opposing the bond issue, despite the disagreements over cost.

According to Strassburg, this option would include the closure of the street to the north of the courthouse, the re-routing of multiple utilities existing beneath it and also the acquisition of properties surrounding the city-owned property to the north. If cost is not an issue to the community, however, he says this would also be a perfectly adequate option.

Existing site expansion option

Next, says Strassburg, they looked at the idea of renovating the courthouse and building a new jail off-site, an option that they also found to be overly expensive, coming in this time at an estimated $55 million.

New and existing site option

Finally, says Strassburg, they decided to look at starting from scratch, rebuilding a full set of new facilities in another location. This, he says, the $41 million option, appears to be the cheapest option.

The county has yet to disclose the potential locations for a new facility, with those involved only telling KELOLAND News that options are being considered and that no official site will be announced until the bond issue is passed. This in itself is another issue for those who are opposed.

Another point of division is disagreement on the size of the jail needed by the community. We asked Sheriff Howe about his concern for the quality of life of the inmates in the jail. Putting it simply, he told us “they’re people, and they have rights.”

While part of the plans for a new facility are in fact a larger jail, opponents of the project say this new proposal is too large.

Rusch contends that there are real questions about the size of the facility needed. “That’s been one of the big issues we’ve debated in the legislature,” he said. “What’s the effect going to be of the decriminalization of marijuana? Is that going to mean we have fewer prisoners?”

“As a judge,” Rusch said, “I would rather see people being rehabilitated and given another opportunity rather than trying to lock people up.” What he would hate to see, he says, is the county filling up the jail just because they have the space.

More prevalent than disagreements over size, location or even cost however, seems to be concern for the future of the courthouse. Built in 1912, the courthouse is undeniably a fixture of the Vermillion community, as well as an important part of Clay County’s history. On the importance of its preservation, there seems to be no dispute.

The fear by many is that without a set purpose or declared protections, the historic courthouse, if vacated, might fall into disrepair and wind up being demolished. This, says Rusch, is exactly the fate that has befallen two other historic buildings in the region: the historic courthouses in Yankton and Elk Point, which have both been demolished. The current lack of a viable plan for the building has done little to allay his fears.

Those in favor of the bond say that the current facility is swiftly becoming unusable and is putting the county at risk of legal liability. They say action in the form of approving the bond must be taken.

Those opposed say that the current plan is too expensive, will raise property taxes and will put the historic courthouse at risk. They say voters should reject the bond and force the county back to the negotiating table.

Whatever the fate of the courthouse, a decision will need to be made, and on June 8, that choice will lie in the hands of Clay County’s voters.

A full look at the county’s documentation of the process can be found here.

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