The last time elected officials proposed a new courthouse and jail in Monroe County, taxpayers rose up in what one local leader called “the recall massacre” of 2009.
“This was right in the heart of the Great Recession,” Monroe County Circuit Judge David Rice said. “The stock market had crashed. People were losing jobs. They didn’t know if this was the start of 1929 all over again.
“And here was the county spending $26 million. People were scared to death.”
Eight County Board members lost their seats after a coalition of taxpayers organized to stop the project, which would have replaced the 115-year-old courthouse and a jail so outdated that state and federal authorities agree it has far exceeded its expiration date.
Now, the proposal is back on the table. This time around, project organizers, even the man who led the recall effort, say they do not foresee a similar backlash.
Still, county officials said they are proceeding with caution, careful to keep the project within its recently approved $25 million budget and mindful that building anything, let alone an entire justice center, is a hard sell.
County leaders and taxpayers nearly 15 years ago first discussed building a new jail to revamp the justice center in downtown Sparta. Based on a 1930s design, the Monroe County Jail was obsolete almost since it was built in the 1960s.
“It filled up the day it opened,” Monroe County Sheriff Pete Quirin said. “It looks like something from ‘The Green Mile.’ It’s all run on a system of cranks and cables.
“The showers leak. The ceilings leak. Occasionally, water drips down into Judge Rice’s courtroom, into my investigations office. It’s a constant problem with mold and trying to keep the place clean.”
For years, the 56-bed jail has not been big enough to accommodate the county’s 110 to 120 inmates. So the county contracts with Vernon and Juneau counties, paying about $600,000 each year to house inmates in the neighboring counties and another $100,000 per year to transport inmates to and from court hearings.
Cost almost always was the source of conflict when it came to replacing the jail. County officials said those costs ballooned as the debate wore on, largely because the courthouse that so many had hoped would last a few more years began to have problems.
As the first county building to have electric lights, the courthouse was a technological marvel when it was built in 1895.
But, Rice said, “It was built in the era of horse and buggy. … It doesn’t work anymore.”
The building’s two original courtrooms — one large room for circuit court and a smaller room for county court — were rebuilt. The large room was made into a courtroom, jury room and offices. Another courtroom was built in the old County Board room.
When Rice joined the judicial staff in 2010, adding a third branch of court, he and his staff members were relegated to the basement.
A second-floor hallway was closed off to make a more unified space for clerks, who make daily treks to the dilapidated fourth floor, which has been closed because of structural problems but is still used to store files.
“We have bats and we have birds up there,” Court Clerk Shirley Chapiewsky said. “It’s not good.”
By the time County Board members originally approved up to $30 million for a new courthouse and jail, few people disagreed that a new justice complex was needed, even if they weren’t quite ready to pay for it.
“I had been a holdout,” said Bruce Humphrey, a board member who now serves as County Board chairman.
But after the board spent years debating and falling one vote short to approve the project, Humphrey ended the deadlock, and the project seemed poised to proceed.
Then the economy collapsed.
Taxpayers balked at the price tag, and many also objected to the location, favoring a downtown site over the board’s plan to build on county-owned land on the outskirts of Sparta, about two miles from downtown.
It was that climate that led to the recall in 2009, said Dennis Clinard, chairman of the Monroe County Taxpayers Relief Committee, which led the effort against the County Board members.
That recall was enough to kill the project until late last year, when County Board members approved $5 million from the general fund and $20 million from bonds to build a 180-bed jail and a 100,000-square-foot courthouse. The current courthouse is about 15,000 square feet.
Land still has to be purchased. Architectural plans have not been completed. Cost still is a concern.
But, Clinard said, he doubts taxpayers will fight it as they did with the recall.
“It’s a different situation now,” he said, citing an estimated $20 million surplus, compared to the $3 million reserve available in 2008. “We’re going to be able to do this now under the levy limits and still do what needs to be done for the county.”