Costly Courthouses

<I>Elane Dickenson/Chieftain</I><BR>Wallowa County's courthouse needs more than $11 million in repairs and upgrades, a state panel says.

Wallowa County has reason to be proud of its handsome, historic courthouse, which will soon celebrate its 100th birthday.

However, as much as residents love its stately stone face and handcrafted banisters, the old gal has some serious problems - over $11 million worth, in fact.

A recent Oregon Court Facilities Assessment evaluated 48 buildings used for court purposes throughout the state, with criteria ranging from plumbing, power systems and seismic safety to security, information technology and provisions for persons with disabilities.

The Wallowa County Courthouse ranked a dismal 47 out of 48, with only the only court facility more in need of help located in neighboring Union County.

Out of a rating system that ranges from 1 (excessive upgrade required) to 5 (meets intent), Wallowa County's seat of power averaged 2.6, just about halfway between "significant upgrade needed" and "moderate upgrade needed."

In the estimated project cost to upgrade all the courthouse deficiencies, the Wallowa County Courthouse ranked 30 out of 48 with a price tag of $11,197,734.

The good news is that there is apparently no expectation that improvements and upgrades - totaling $820 million around the state - will be mandated, at least any time soon.

"We're not real sure what they are going to require us to do," said Wallowa County Commissioner Dan DeBoie, who attended an Association of Oregon Counties meeting in Salem with about 40 other county commissioners from around the state to talk over the courthouse problem. One of the members of the interim committee in charge of the assessment, a state legislator, said it might take 20 years to complete the recommended projects.

DeBoie said at the meeting there was one presentation about possible creative financing options to pay for upgrading the court facilities ranging from local improvement districts to more frivolous solutions, such as selling naming rights to a courthouse."

Of all the courthouses in the state, Wallowa County was the very lowest in its ADA (American Disability Act) rating, which was 1.6 and would cost $1,549,647 to correct.

A few years ago, Wallowa County built a ramp so that people in wheelchairs could navigate to the main floor on the east entrance of the courthouse, but there is no handicapped access to the second floor where the courtroom, board of commissioners, circuit court and district attorney offices are all located.

"I consider access by handicapped persons our biggest problem," said Mike Hayward, chairman of the Wallowa County Board of Commissioners, about the report.

DeBoie agrees, noting that adding an elevator that serves all four floors of the courthouse, has been top on the county's wish list for the building for a number of the years. "In the past, people have sometimes been carried up the stairs to the courtroom," he said.

The courthouse rated even worse with a 1 rating - the very lowest possible - in a number of other criteria: heating and ventilation, in-custody defendant area, seismic safety, air conditioning, plumbing, lighting system, power system, fire sprinkler system, fire alarm system and area for non-statutory judicial.

The courthouse's highest ratings was the courtroom audio/video system, which rated 5. The system was installed within the last two years, and was the only category with a $0 amount needed, according to the report. Also rating high were security and public safety, 4.1, which still carried a $374,935 price tag to improve; and building support services, 4.

DeBoie said that the county recently received a breakdown on the $11 million project cost to the county, and feels that much of it is too expensive.

For example, he said,"It seems that many of the security standards that the court system wants to have in place is significantly higher and more expensive than the county feels it needs. He pointed to a number of examples: $204,445 for a controlled vehicle sallyport for transporting prisoners; controlled loading dock access, $227,234; and separate litigation areas for high-volume cases, $327,216.

"I would have a priority list that would be different from theirs. If they want us to do everything, we just can't afford it," DeBoie said. He noted that there is not even enough room in the present courthouse to house both the county government and the court facilities and meet the standard the state wants.

The court facilities report, which was commissioned by the Oregon Legislature and released in September 2008, identified more than $820 million in upgrades and renovations needed throughout the state.

Oregon HB 2331 Sec. 18, passed in 2007, directed the creation of Interim Committee on Courts Facilities to evaluate the status of the state's court facilities, make recommendations on standards for reasonable and sufficient court facilities, make recommendations on the cost of meeting these standards, and developing a proposal ensuring needed improvements are made.

The released assessment report covers only the status evaluation and cost recommendations part of the legislative directive.

The report notes that the diverse structures range in size from 8,900 to 569,000 square feet, in type from renovated hospital (Union County) to recently built courthouse and in age from two to 120 years.

The overall rating ranged from 2.04 (Union County) to 4.66, with an average of 3.50. Ten out of the 48 buildings exceeded an overall rating of 4.0, which puts them in the "meets criteria" range. Twenty-nine facilities fell in the 3.00 to 3.99 and nine in the 2.00 to 2.99 range, and these court buildings fall within the "does not meet" category.

In 2008, the estimated total costs to upgrade all of the assessed facilities to the adopted guidelines totaled $843,452,047. The highest is Multnomah County Courthouse at $209,933,611, the lowest is the Deschutes County Courthouse at $1,296,624. The average cost is approximately $17,570,000 with the median at roughly $12,400,000. If Multnomah County Courthouse is removed from the analysis, the average drops over $4 million to roughly $13,480,00.

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