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Patrick Springer, Published September 22 2009

Cass County Courthouse addition proposal wins preliminary approval

The proposed Cass County Courthouse addition won preliminary approval Monday under a proposal that puts a new law enforcement center on hold.

A divided Cass County Commission voted 3-2 to proceed with a proposal to go ahead with a courthouse addition that includes three new courtrooms, and added security and infrastructure improvements.

The price tag could be $14.6 million for a full courthouse addition, including a skywalk link to the county annex, or $12.1 million for a building shell.

Alternative bids would be let next year, giving commissioners the flexibility to trim features to keep costs in line, said Commissioner Scott Wagner.

Wagner offered the scaled-back option as a compromise after commissioners rejected the idea of building both the courthouse addition and new law enforcement center, with a combined price tag of

$33 million including financing costs, without voter approval.

The county has $5.8 million available in a building fund. A two-mill property tax levy would begin next year for the project if it wins final approval on Oct. 19.

Wagner was joined by commissioners Darrell Vanyo and Robyn Sorum in voting for the proposal, which was opposed by Ken Pawluk and Vern Bennett.

All five commissioners agreed on the need for better courthouse security, more courtrooms and infrastructure improvements.

The split came over whether voters should approve a major building project, the reason a divided commission voted 3-2 not to proceed with the twin projects.

Bennett and Sorum traded places as swing votes. Bennett initially favored going ahead with both the jail and law enforcement center, but later decided voters should determine the issue.

Sorum decided she could support the scaled-back project, given the longstanding need for better security, more space and upgraded mechanical systems.

“We all know that we need to do something,” she said. “We have to make it more secure.”

Sheriff Paul Laney made an impassioned plea to proceed with the courthouse addition, saying he feared it was only a matter of time before a security breach resulted in a tragedy.

“You get a high-profile defendant in here – who knows what’s going to happen,” Laney said. “There is going to come the time somebody’s going to test it.”

County Administrator Bonnie Johnson also spoke of the need to move electrical and mechanical equipment to avoid a disabling accident, and to improve air-conditioning to ensure the computer systems can operate without interruption.

“We’re only one snowplow blade away from wiping out our electrical infrastructure,” she said.

If the courthouse addition wins final approval, bids could be let next spring, with construction beginning in summer, Wagner said.

In other action, commissioners unanimously approved a $60.6 million 2010 budget that does not require a property tax increase, leaving the county’s mill levy at 61 mills.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522