Butler County has $1 million in new projects possible with CARES Act money, including courtroom moves

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Butler County uses multiple courtrooms as part of its Common Pleas Court.

The Butler County commissioners are considering spending about $1 million on four projects designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, including courtroom reconfiguration and touchless restrooms.

County Administrator Judi Boyko said it will cost an estimated $200,000 each to fully automate the parking garage that the commissioners have called “Stone Age,” install touchless faucets and toilets in four county buildings and combine two smaller visiting judge courtrooms. Switching to a touchless time card system would cost about $400,000.

There is still unallocated money from the $18.7 million the county received in coronavirus relief funding, and Boyko said she wants to get these projects in the pipeline. These projects are separate from the $4 million the commissioners earmarked in general fund budget for capital improvements.

The commissioners weren’t as enthusiastic about combining the two courtrooms, at least not yet.

“I think it would be a wasted opportunity if we didn’t look at the whole picture right now,” Commissioner Don Dixon said. “I don’t want to go and tear out a courtroom and figure out we’re a courtroom short.”

He said he would rather until a complete facility plan is finished before moving on courtroom changes.

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Commissioner Cindy Carpenter said “we’re on the downhill side of the virus” and she isn’t sure creating a larger courtroom will be necessary. She added the county might eventually need to add a Common Pleas Court judge in the future as the population continues to grow.

“Off the top of my head I would lean towards keeping a courtroom in case we come up with another use for a courtroom,” Carpenter said. “Because once we take it out it’s going to be almost impossible to put it back in.”

Dixon suggested it might make sense to move the Probate Court from the Historic Courthouse to the Government Services Center to get most of the Common Pleas judges under one roof, which could preclude eliminating a courtroom. Commissioner T.C. Rogers said he doesn’t favor that option.

“If the judges determine a need we normally go along with them within reason,” Rogers said. “But when you’re talking about what to do with the old courthouse, that’s just another layer or element of circumstances that we have to address. It’s not just combining two courtrooms into one, there’s a lot of issues obviously.”

Common Pleas Court Administrator Wayne Gilkison told the Journal-News the two visiting judge courts do not allow much social distancing, but the coronavirus isn’t the only reason the judges wanted to combine the courtrooms.

He said there are many occasions when they could use a large courtroom such as civil trials when there are multiple parties and it would be good to have a secure place for potential jurors and grand jurors to be “staged” before selection begins. Currently they gather in a room on the first floor of the GSC.

There is a large ceremonial courtroom behind the commissioners’ meeting chamber, but it isn’t functional for trials since the Domestic Relations Court took over the area where the judge’s chambers, staff offices and jury room were housed.

“There’s a lot purposes we feel we need a larger courtroom for, aside from the coronavirus,” Gilkison said. “The coronavirus obviously there’s some serious concerns citizens have coming into the courthouse or anywhere, having to sit really close to people.”

The commissioners must approve the other projects as well. The parking garage has been on their to-do list for years. The commissioners dubbed the five-story, 623-space garage a “Stone Age” garage back in 2015 and asked staff to start work on fully automating the structure. It currently operates as a cash-only, pay-at-the-gate facility. Plans stalled when old cost estimates went as high as $400,000.

“It’s been a while since the staff here prior to me coming got quotes, so we need to refresh those documents and make sure they are still applicable and they are still relevant, technology changes,” Boyko told the Journal-News. “So we will be embarking on that sometime this year.”

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