Cole County officials continue jail discussion

The Cole County Commission continues to wrestle with the idea of putting a large courtroom in the space available in the old county jail and sheriff’s house.

On Tuesday, Judge Jon Beetem reiterated to commissioners points he had made in a letter he sent to the commission when they asked the judges for what they think is needed in a new courtroom.

These included a courtroom that provides gallery seating for 100 to expedite jury selection for long trials. It should also have Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility for witnesses, lawyers, defendants and jurors.

Beetem said the existing large courtroom in the county courthouse can handle only 74 potential jurors with the addition of folding chairs.

He said this courtroom is used for large dockets of criminal and juvenile court cases that frequently will have 75 or more cases, which interferes with its use for jury selection.

Beetem said the judges understand the commission’s decision comes down to funding and space availability, but they believe it is more important to have the larger space in the courtroom for accessibility for witnesses, lawyers, defendants and jurors instead of a larger gallery. He said having the accessibility would allow for trials to be conducted better.

The commission had said it would like to see a 2,200-square-foot courtroom, if possible.

“It’s looking more like the old jail and sheriff’s house will not provide the space for what we’re seeing here,” said Eastern District Commissioner Jeff Hoelscher.

“The existing building in the existing footprint can’t support this,” Presiding Commissioner Marc Ellinger added.

Local resident Jerry Rosslan, who told commissioners he had done construction work in places such as the Capitol and the Governor’s Mansion, told commissioners he didn’t think keeping the old jail in place was the direction the commission should go.

“Instead of using resources to reconfigure massive jail construction, use resources to construct a building designed to be offices,” he said. “We will fight the current jail design throughout a rebuild process, slowing the job and run up the costs in change orders due to unforeseen conditions.”

Cathy Bordner with Historic City of Jefferson agreed with commissioners that the courtroom idea may not be doable in the old jail and that they look at other options.

“I don’t think you should tear it down,” she said. “You’ve gobbled up the city core with the new jail taking a block away and there’s no need to take any more.”

Commissioners are still meeting with officials from Architects Alliance about options for the old jail and sheriff’s house.

Ellinger said they started this discussion as part of the idea to develop a master plan for county office space that could cover the next 20 years.

Another goal of that plan would be to get the county out of the Carnegie Building, where the county assessor and public defender’s office is located.

“The costs to maintain that building are becoming too much and it would be good to have the assessor and collector in the same building,” he said. “We know the prosecutor’s office could be moved into space in the new jail, the law allows for that, so if that happens we could have the third floor of the courthouse annex to move those other offices into.”

Commissioners have said they would like to make a decision on what to do with the sheriff’s house and old jail by April 16.

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