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Dave Roepke, Published May 18 2009

Cass looks to expand work areas

Squeezed into a 103-year-old courthouse and a downtown Fargo campus offering little land for growth, Cass County officials have long sought more space for county workers.

That search will get more serious next month when the county board and the county’s building committee look at initial plans for two projects meant to free up more room: a third addition to the courthouse that could cost nearly $15 million and a new public safety center built onto the jail at 450 34th St. S.

The projects are separate, but both would alleviate cramped accommodations that, according to a recent study commissioned by the county, require adding more than 64,000 square feet of space to meet needs through 2030 in most departments and 2020 for courts and judge’s chambers.

For sake of comparison, the footprint of the courthouse is now just short of 78,000 square feet, according to the study.

A decision on both plans is expected later this year as the county sets its 2010 budget.

County Administrator Bonnie Johnson said the projects could be paid for out of the county building fund, which is fed by probate fees and stands at about $8.6 million. She said the county could also borrow money or put a sales-tax initiative to a vote.

What’s included in the projects and how to pay the bills will be decided during late-summer budget hearings, Johnson said.

The two projects are bound to be considered in context of one another, as well as the expected bite out of the budget that flood recovery will take, said Scott Wagner, the county commissioner who is chairman of the building committee.

“These things aren’t in a vacuum,” Wagner said.

Courthouse addition

Of the two plans, the courthouse facility is the more developed. Commissioners will see three options at a June 1 meeting, from a full build-out estimated at $14.7 million to the barest-bones plans with an

$8.5 million price tag.

All three plans for the courthouse addition call for a same-sized facility on land where the old jail stood before being razed in 2003. The cost differences reflect just how finished interior spaces would be.

Under the cheaper options, more area is left for future outfitting.

None of the cost estimates take into account remodeling costs to connect with the courthouse, though commissioners will get updated estimates June 1.

The $14.7 million plan would include three courtrooms, space for the commission and the administration, and a skywalk to span 10th Street South and link with the Cass County Annex. All versions call for an underground parking garage and areas for the maintenance, mechanical and electrical departments.

On Wednesday, the building committee backed the fully loaded model, despite the caveat that more sparse plans might be best considering budget limitations.

“You’re talking about public buildings that are going to be used for decades and decades and decades,” said East Central Judicial District Judge Douglas Herman, a member of the committee.

County Auditor Mike Montplaisir said he’d like to see more court space included in the final project, which is part of all but the cheapest option.

The holding area now used for defendants making court appearances is a chain-link cage in the basement.

“It’s commonly referred to as the dog kennel,” said Johnson.

Safety center addition

Plans for the joint public safety center aren’t as far along as those for the addition to the courthouse. The building committee will get its first cost estimates on June 11.

The North Dakota Highway Patrol has expressed interest in leasing space in the facility, Johnson said. The county has also talked with Fargo city officials about having a police substation there, although city officials would rather have a substation farther south, she said.

The idea for the facility dates back years. County officials had a public safety building in mind when the new jail was set back so far from the road, Johnson said.

“It’s not an afterthought. It’s a forethought,” she said.

The public safety project will be broken down into options of varying levels, much like the courthouse addition, except each calls for a different-sized building: one for a single floor; a second for a one-floor facility with a basement garage; and a third with two floors and underground parking.

Johnson said she expects the project will be in front of the full commission by midsummer, “which is just perfect timing for decision-making.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535