Teri Finneman, Published July 21 2008
Cass looks to address space woes
Department heads in Cass County government say their space needs have outgrown the courthouse, making it difficult to work efficiently.
- The county receives a notice each year from fire inspection about files in the state’s attorney’s office being stacked too close to the ceiling, said County Administrator Bonnie Johnson.
But the department has used “every square inch” of its file room and is out of space.
- Some Social Services employees have to share offices due to lack of space, resulting in workers needing to find someplace else to go when an office mate has a confidential meeting with a client.
- Employees refer to inmate holding as the “dog kennel” or “dog pound” because it’s a small caged area in the courthouse basement.
- State’s attorney externs sometimes need to sit side by side and a foot apart in the cramped file room because there is nowhere else for them to work.
The courthouse is a “wonderful, historic, well-maintained building,” said State’s Attorney Birch Burdick. The issue is having sufficient space for people to do a good job, he said.
Cass County is lucky that it’s growing; that isn’t the case everywhere in North Dakota, he said.
“But with growth comes the need to accommodate that growth and the services we provide to the community,” Burdick said.
To address the space crunch, the Cass County Building Committee has hired a consultant to study the county’s needs and a proposed west addition to the courthouse.
It’s been more than 20 years since the last courthouse expansion, Johnson said. A north addition was built in 1981, with a south addition built in 1986.
The county has $8.6 million in its building fund, where probate funding is allocated. The county doesn’t expect to ask taxpayers to contribute more to a new addition, Johnson said.
“As I understand our board’s goal, I understand that they want to be fiscally responsible and use the money that we have available,” she said.
This leaves two options: constructing the shell of the addition and finishing it as more funds become available, or constructing a smaller addition with plans to add on to that in the future, Johnson said.
Her goal is for architects to design a plan this winter and to break ground on an addition next year.
Johnson doesn’t know of a county department that isn’t feeling a space crunch. However, she thinks these are the three top priorities that need to be addressed:
- Inmate holding. Creating a new secure area to hold and drop off inmates that keeps them separate from the public.
Vehicles are now parked outside and inmates are walked into the building. They then walk through public hallways to get to courtrooms, Johnson said.
A solution is to create a space where vehicles can drive into a sally port, and inmates are dropped off at a designated elevator that moves them to inmate holding. Inmates would then go into courtrooms through a back door.
“The No. 1 goal of this project is to keep witnesses safe, to keep jury members safe, to keep the public safe,” Johnson said.
- Relocating information technology. Computers and phone equipment are in the basement of the courthouse, which isn’t ideal in a city that experiences flooding, Johnson said.
The county needs space that’s properly ventilated, heated and configured for server rooms, telephone rooms and wiring.
Wiring to the Cass County Annex is under the road, so anytime the road is ripped up, the county has disruptions in service, Johnson said.
A skyway is proposed between the annex and the courthouse addition, not only for pedestrian safety, but to run wires through there instead.
- Maintenance. The county lost its maintenance headquarters when the old jail was torn down.
Right now, much of the county’s mechanical equipment is not contained in the building, which has led to problems.
A loading dock area is also needed so supplies aren’t going through the main door of the courthouse with the rest of the public, Johnson said.
Other preliminary plans include underground parking for the county and sheriff’s vehicles that now sit outside in all weather conditions.
In the meantime, the Building Committee is trying to address some space issues now by rearranging a few departments.
A proposal being considered is to move Veterans Services out of the Cass County Annex to make more room for Social Services.
Veterans Services would move into the third floor of the courthouse, now vacated by Regional Child Support Enforcement.
The state’s attorney’s office – based on the fourth floor – is already using some space on the third floor and would receive more.
Burdick said he prefers that everyone in his office be on the same floor. However, having employees on two floors would work if teams of workers can stay together, he said.
The Building Committee has invited Burdick and other affected department heads to its August meeting to discuss relocation concerns and needs, Johnson said.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Teri Finneman at (701) 241-5560