What’s next for the Clay County courthouse and jail

KELOLAND.com Original

This story has been updated with comments from Vermillion resident, former judge and ‘Save Our Historic Courthouse’ committee member Art Rusch.

VERMILLION, S.D. (KELO) — Clay County Sheriff Andy Howe is focused on looking forward after a bond vote to authorize the building of a new county facility failed to pass a vote of the county’s residents.

“We’ll just move forward and continue on with our operation of the jail as best as we can.”

Sheriff Andy Howe

The bond failed to pass with a vote of 766 in favor to 1,544 opposed. If passed, the $41 million bond issue would have set in process the construction of as new off-site courthouse, jail and public safety center. The current courthouse and jail are over a century old, with the jail itself being built 103 years ago, while the public safety center attached to the jail was built in the 1980s.

Clay County residents, especially those living in Vermillion, were divided over the issue, and over the fate of the historic courthouse which sits along the city’s Main Street. While all wanted the courthouse to be preserved, the disagreements laid in the cost and usage of the facility.

With the funding to build new facilities not secured, the facility must now continue on while other options are explored. The jail, however, will not be continuing in the same way as before.

This is because the Clay County jail will be transitioning to a hold-over facility. This means the jail will only serve as a short-term facility, holding inmates for no longer than 72-hours. Howe says that for some inmates, those in for less than 72-hours, this will not be a problem. If they need to be held longer, however, the county will now be moving them to a jail in another county.

One silver lining mentioned by Howe is that emptying the cells of longer-term inmates will allow for space to do much needed maintenance which can prolong the life of the jail, but he cautions that this is not necessarily an improvement.

“It’s not a better jail now because it’s empty. It’s just a matter of how long we’re holding people in those conditions, and I think on a very short-term that nobody’s being denied anything and so I think that we can continue to hold people for a short term here. Then we’ll move our inmates to other jails.”

Sheriff Andy Howe

While Howe hopes that a new bond issue for another alternative can be brought within the next few months, he also acknowledges another potential speedbump on the horizon. “To complicate matters, the school board is continuing on with their bond issue that will be voted on this fall,” he says. “It’s in the County Commission’s hands at this point — the voters will have to understand that both projects are important and both projects need to be funded.”

Beyond the issues in the jail, problems in the courthouse as a whole will also need to be addressed. Such issues with the facility include security concerns, lack of workspace, ADA accessibility and structural faults, as well as water leakage, technological limitations and a bat infestation.

One short-term solution Howe says the County might pursue is the relocation of some offices from the courthouse to other locations around town. This has already been seen in the city, where the driver license examiner, which was previously housed in the courthouse basement, vacated following flooding and currently resides across town along Cherry Street.

“You might see that happen to extend the life of the courthouse,” Howe said. “That may or may not be a bad thing. It depends on the cost and whether or not the citizens are well served by that.”

Though plans for a full new facility have been cut short, maintenance to the building that had already been planned will still be carried out. “The County Commission is pursuing work on the courthouse — they’re going to do tuck-pointing, they’re going to do a new roof — they recently spent considerable money replacing the wall that surrounds the courthouse grounds,” Howe said.

KELOLAND News also spoke with former judge and current Vermillion resident Arthur Rusch. Rusch is a member of the ‘Save Our Historic Courthouse’ committee, a group formed to oppose the bond issue.

Rusch and other members of the group were opposed to the new facility on the grounds that it was too costly, and that it would leave the historic courthouse unused. Speaking about the bond vote, he says its failure makes it clear that the community shares those concerns.

“I think this was a real clear demonstration that the community wants to preserve our historic courthouse.”

Art Rusch

Rusch goes on to state that he hopes the County Commission will move in that direction. While he was against the bond vote for new courthouse, jail and public safety center, Rusch says he’s not against every element of the plan. “Our committee never opposed the idea of needing a new jail — as long as it’s reasonably sized and reasonably priced.”

Before going forward with a plan for a new jail however, Rusch says he would like to see a corrections consultant brought in. He would also like the City Council to be more involved.

Rusch’s main priority, however, is preservation.

“We hope to see the county moving forward with preserving the historic building. You know, Old Main is one of our key things in Vermillion at the university, and they did a beautiful job of restoring that. We think that a restored courthouse is equally as important,” Rusch said.

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