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Published: Sunday, 8/29/2010

Project to ease space crunch at Defiance County courthouse

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
The $2.5 million addition under construction at the historic jail will allow the treasurer, auditor, and recorder to move out of the courthouse. The $2.5 million addition under construction at the historic jail will allow the treasurer, auditor, and recorder to move out of the courthouse.
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DEFIANCE - For years, Defiance County has struggled to squeeze its courts and other government offices into a courthouse that was built in 1876.

When voters in 2006 rejected a sales-tax increase that would have been used to raze the old building and construct a new county office building, commissioners went back to the drawing board.

After kicking around options that did not require raising taxes, the county is embarking on the first phase of a long-term plan to create more space for the courts.

A $2.5 million addition is being built onto the historic jail and sheriff's residence behind the courthouse that will allow the treasurer, auditor, and recorder to move out of the courthouse. It is being financed primarily through low-interest bonds issued through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, said County Administrator Laura Howell.

When the project is completed in February, the courthouse will be occupied solely by the common pleas, juvenile, and probate courts along with the county's clerk of courts. Although the building is in desperate need of technology, security, and accessibility updates, that work is for a later date, she said.

"When funding is available, the board of commissioners plans to address the Defiance County courthouse," Ms. Howell said.

The new Defiance Municipal Court building on Perry Street will include large and small courtrooms and a holding cell for prisoners brought to court. The new Defiance Municipal Court building on Perry Street will include large and small courtrooms and a holding cell for prisoners brought to court.
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The current construction project, which involves renovating about a third of the original 1870s jail and building a three-story addition, is not the only one keeping construction workers busy in town.

Just a few blocks away, workers are putting the finishing touches on a new $5.3 million Defiance Municipal Court that is scheduled to open next month. City officials said that too is a long-needed improvement.

"Where we're at now used to be the city building," said Julie Fitzenrider, clerk of courts for the Municipal Court. "The offices are all divided, and we don't really have a courtroom. In most courtrooms, the counsel tables are side by side; in our courtroom, the counsel tables are one in front of the other."

The clerk's office is split into two - small claims and civil cases are handled in one spot, traffic and criminal are in another.

"People are standing shoulder to shoulder at the counter I currently have," Ms. Fitzenrider said. "You can't hear, and it's just really hard to conduct business."

It was another construction project in town - a new central elementary school - that freed up property next to City Hall for the new court.

City Administrator Jeff Leonard said the city purchased the former Slocum Elementary on Perry Street and tore it down to build the new court, which will feature a large and a small courtroom, a sally port (a secure enclosure designed with two doors which should never be opened simultaneously) and holding cell for prisoners brought to court, an eight-window counter in the clerk's office, a drive-through window, offices for the assistant city law director, and the probation department.

"It's probably been in the works about eight years," Mr. Leonard said of the sleek new, one-story court building. "City Hall looks like an office building; it doesn't really look like City Hall, but I think the court and this building will dovetail nicely because of the pavement and the way we set up the landscaping."

The city plans to pay off the new court with a combination of capital improvement funds and special project funds from the municipal court that are derived from court costs collected on cases filed there.

Ms. Fitzenrider said the court plans to close Sept. 24 to make the move to the new Municipal Court, which will reopen Sept. 27. An open house for the public is planned for 1 to 3 p.m. on Oct. 31.

Another vacated elementary school - the 1940s era Spencer Elementary on the city's north side - is finding new life as a senior center for county residents. A $2.1 million renovation is to be completed at that building Sept. 10, Ms. Howell said.

The former gym and auditorium will be used as an activity center for large gatherings; the cafeteria will be used for senior citizen meals, and the library will be used as a library and computer center. The project is being financed with funds from Defiance County Senior Services, a $297,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development, donations, and fund-raising by the Senior Services auxiliary.

Ms. Howell said the community seems excited about the new senior center.

"We have received many thanks from citizens because the elementary school has been part of our community for so long, and it was kept instead of being demolished," she said.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:

jfeehan@theblade.com

or 419-724-6129.



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