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Green County considers new courthouse

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Photo Courtesy of The Monroe Times

Green County is ready to update its courthouse, but as the old song says, who knows where or when?

The aesthetically appealing courthouse located in downtown Monroe has been around for 115 years and Mayor Ron Marsh hopes it will last another century, but judicial needs have outgrown the historical landmark’s walls.

“The county has been approved for a second judge and in my mind, the construction of a new justice center is planning not only for the present, but the future,” Marsh said in an interview.

Is the Future Now?

A joint county committee convened on Aug. 7 to discuss several previously suggested site plans for a new courthouse system.

Proposals for a downtown structure near the current courthouse have been discussed, as has a plan to build next to the Green County Sheriff’s Department, located outside the central commercial area in Monroe.

“Right now, I think the main concern is determining costs involved,” said Marsh, who presented a trio of downtown proposals at a July 24 meeting. At the Aug. 7 meeting, he offered a fourth proposal involving the downtown area.

“If there is a major disparity between construction costs for the downtown and jail plans, I would imagine the more cost-effective plan would be looked at,” he said.

Venture Architects, a Milwaukee-based firm hired to assess construction costs is expected to report to the county committee at the Sept. 6 meeting. At that time, the County Board will proceed with discussion of the most viable option.

Green County Sheriff Randy Roderick also did not expect an overwhelming gap based on information he received, but did suggest that there could be additional costs of up to a million dollars to build downtown because of money needed for demolition or to purchase land from the city.

“It’s really premature to assume anything, but the question of whether to build in a rural or more urban area will need to be answered,” Roderick told the Wisconsin Law Journal. “I would imagine it would be more expensive to build downtown because there are lots that need to be purchased or leveled. The land next to the jail is already owned by the county.”

Building Blocks

Aside from financial comparisons, benefits to building at either location have been addressed. Commercial considerations, as well as convenience dealing with criminal defendants, are two topics of discussion.

“I don’t have a particular preference where the justice center will be built, so long as security updates are made should construction occur downtown,” Roderick said. “Any building would be an improvement on the current one in that regard.”

Roderick specifically mentioned holding cells within the center along with elevators exclusively available for transport of inmates and a secure underground garage as necessary additions.

The current courthouse has one elevator installed only 10 years ago and shared by both the public and prisoners and an outdoor drop-off for inmates.

“It’s a little scary,” said Green County Circuit Court Judge James R. Beer. “Inmates are dropped off in the parking lot, walked halfway around the courthouse in shackles and cuffs to the elevator, which is located at the handicapped entrance.”

Roderick also noted the consolidation of inmate transport if the center was built directly next to the jail, noting that fewer road deputies and detectives would be necessary.

“In some cases transporting criminals from the current courthouse to the jail can take up to an hour if we have to wait,” said Roderick who estimated that about 180 inmates had been transferred through the first six months of 2006. “If the new center were next to the jail, resources and time could be saved.”

Marsh was concerned with what resources may be lost if the center is built near the jail. Specifically, he questioned the economic ramifications involved for the community.

“The courts generate a significant number of people who spend time downtown on a monthly basis,” Marsh said. “A percentage of those who come downtown will certainly spend money there.”

Marsh also noted the added impact a new center would have on property values in the area.

A petition circulated by members of the Citizens for a Downtown Courthouse has gained more than 800 signatures in support of keeping the courts a central part of the city.

Out with the old, in with the new

Wherever the new center is constructed, the purpose will remain the same, to provide additional space and updated security.

Sixth District Chief Judge Michael N. Now-akowski is in charge of ensuring the judicial center plans meet Supreme Court specifications. The endorsement will likely guarantee the approval for a second judgeship in the county, he said during an interview.

Green County applied for a second circuit court judge, but must provide a courthouse with a second jury-ready courtroom in order to have the Director of State Courts insert the recommendation into a judicial bill.

“Green County is certain
ly in line for a second judge and according to the information I have seen, it is the second most underjudged county of the 72 in the state,” said Nowakowski, who was involved in developing Dane County’s new judicial center which opened this year.

Despite the fact that no new county judgeships have been granted since 1998, Nowakowski felt “confident” that should Green County meet the Supreme Court standards for the center, an approval is eminent.

“Depending on the timetable, the county could have a new judge by 2008,” stated Nowakowski.

The new center is expected to house the clerk of courts, district attorney’s office and court commissioner’s office, among other departments. An additional non-jury ready courtroom is also planned, should a third judge be added in the future.

“The current courthouse could not accommodate the necessary changes and without them, the county would likely be denied the second judge,” said Beer, who noted that current overcrowding has forced some personnel to establish offices in old safes and vaults. “Our initial thought was to alter the old courthouse, but it just wasn’t structurally sound so everyone involved agreed that was not an option.”

All parties also agreed that the old courthouse would continue to house government workers including the county clerk, register of deeds, zoning offices and tourism staff.

“The old courthouse is an icon in itself and the centerpiece of the county,” said Beer.

Jack Zemlicka can be reached by email.

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