Despite reports describing Teton County Courthouse conditions as “alarming,” elected officials are reluctant to ask voters for tax dollars to renovate the building due to the price tag.
Estimates for a remodel hover around $36 million while building a new courthouse could cost $60 million.
“The courthouse improvements may be too much for us to bite off at this point,” Teton County Commissioner Luther Propst said at last week’s Joint Information Meeting.
Likewise, town Councilor Arne Jorgensen said, “we are getting ahead of ourselves on the courthouse improvements.”
Others endorsed renovations but want more information before fully committing.
“We are going to have to do something on the courthouse improvements and need to have more discussions around that,” Board of County Commissioners Chairwoman Natalia Macker said.
Commissioner Mark Newcomb stressed the project’s importance despite the cost.
“It’s sticker shock for folks up here, but we should take a serious look at it,” he said. “It shouldn’t be off the list in any sense of sticker shock reaction.”
The specific purpose excise tax, or SPET, allows voters to decide whether to fund a given project by approving an optional 1% sales tax. With an election coming up in November, councilors and commissioners must decide by June 17 what goes on the ballot.
Comparatively, some of the other SPET items have far more support (see cover story).
“I know it’s a hard sell,” Teton County Facilities Maintenance Manager Paul Cote said. “But this is about basic county function. Courts, law enforcement and dispatch are some of our core functions and some of the county’s most important functions.”
The Teton County Courthouse, at 180 S. King St., was built in 1964 and hasn’t had any major renovations since 1997.
It’s not earthquake sound or Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant, recent analyses show. And it’s half the size it should be.
“The space analysis showed we should have a 64,000 square foot facility,” Cote said in an interview on Tuesday with the News&Guide.
The existing Teton County Courthouse is 30,000 square feet. It includes two courtrooms, clerks’ offices, judges’ chambers, jury rooms, small conference rooms, the Teton County and Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, two elevators and restrooms.
“I can see how our citizens are challenged by the facility that we have,” Cote said. “ADA requirements are changing all the time.”
The elevators are too small for a person in a wheelchair to enter, turn around and press a button, Cote said, so they have to enter, have a bailiff press the floor button and then they have to exit on the second floor by backing out in their wheelchair.
“There is no way to make the existing elevators bigger,” Cote said. “They’re in concrete shafts.”
The hallways leading to the restrooms are also too narrow, he said, and the jury boxes are not ADA friendly.
“That just seems fundamentally wrong,” Commissioner Newcomb said.
Aside from space issues, security experts did a walk-through and revealed safety problems that Cote called “alarming.”
“We have a screening station and armed bailiffs and there are a number of security systems that they have upgraded over the years,” Cote said. “But there is still a lot that needs to be done.”
Planning officials say it’s time to consider upgrades before it’s too late.
The studies are not being made public because of security concerns, but Commissioner Newcomb said at a courthouse security committee meeting a few weeks ago that he gained insight into the worries of the people who work out of that building every day.
“I was able to hear the judges speak about things that really concern them,” Newcomb told the News&Guide. “The basic chain of events that would need to take place for someone to do a bad deed is alarmingly short. And the world of potential threats has radically changed.”
The courthouse project is by far the most expensive item being considered for the SPET ballot.
Cote said the courthouse security committee, which is made up of judges, clerks, elected officials and planning officials, has come up with three options.
“The first option is maintaining the status quo as much as possible,” Cote said. “It meets the needs of security and ADA but only in the most minimal sense.”
That option would cost $5.2 million, he said, but it’s not the plan he endorses.
The second option — at a cost of $36 million — includes major renovations of the courthouse building.
The dispatch center would move under that roof and an enclosed walkway would be added for safer transportation of inmates from the jail to the courtrooms.
But Cote believes option three, the $60 million proposal, is the way to go.
“I like that option best because it solves more than one problem,” he said. “I like single solutions that solve multiple issues.”
That proposal includes tearing down the Clifford P. Hansen Federal Courthouse and the general services building at Simpson and Willow.
Officials would repurpose the current courthouse building into a general offices building and build a new 64,000- square-foot, three-story courthouse next to the jail at Simpson and Willow.
That plan also includes adding a third courtroom, a bigger dispatch center and an area where emergency officials could operate an incident command center.
“One of the nice things about that is it puts all three courtrooms behind the same security wall,” Cote said.
If none of the concepts are funded through SPET, Cote isn’t sure where the money will come from.
An alternative idea is exploring state and federal grants. Cote said it would likely take several grants to fund the needed upgrades.
“This can has been kicked down the road before,” Cote said. “But we can’t kick the can forever. The day of reckoning will come.”