Courthouse upgrades may cost up to $1 million
A consulting firm hired by Clark County to look into solutions for its courthouse security and access issues is recommending upgrades that could cost upwards of $1 million.
County officials are looking to possibly approve an entrance remodeling plan in the next six weeks so it can be included in the 2021 budget. Kurt Berner and Henry Kropp of The Samuels Group — a Wausau-based construction firm — gave the full county board of supervisors its first look at security and access enhancement options at a Sept. 17 meeting in the Neillsville courthouse.
The concrete building — first constructed in the 1960s — was set into the side of a significant hill and various offi ces and departments are scattered over five floors. The courthouse currently has five public entrances, none of which are closely monitored for security issues. Just two of the entrances are accessible to persons with disabilities, and those entrances are located on the opposite side of the building from the main public parking areas.
The Samuels Group is trying to solve two distinct issues for the county — enhanced security to protect employees and the public from subjects with weapons, and improved accessibility for a growing population of persons with disabilities. The goal is to create a single point of entry for all courthouse users and to lock the other entrances to restrict unmonitored access.
The accessibility issue is challenging due to the courthouse’s location. It sits between 5th and 6th streets in the city of Neillsville, a block east of the main downtown area, but the slope between those streets plunges 30 feet in one block. Any single entrance has to meet federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements for slope, and should be near accessible parking.
The current ADA-accessible entrances on the south side of the courthouse are near the courtrooms and related offices, but there are only about 20 parking lot stalls there, plus some parallel-parking access on city streets. It makes more sense, Kropp said, to have a single public access on the building’s north side, where there are more than 130 parking lot stalls.
“In our society, people typically go to places based on convenience,” Kropp said, and parking is a chief consideration.
It won’t work for the accessible entrance to be on the south side with most of the parking on the north, mainly because those with disabilities would have to walk around the building and climb the 30-foot hill on the west side.
The main courthouse entrance used to be on the west side, but that has stairs and is no longer considered accessible. Kropp said the building was constructed “well before ADA was passed as a law.”
The least expensive option to provide one secure, accessible entrance would be at the current first-floor entrance near the northwest corner of the building. For $80,000-$100,000, Berner and Kropp said modifications could be made to the doorway and a new sidewalk extended westward to Court Street. However, since Court Street has the steep hill, that would not meet ADA requirements.
“Those slopes are much greater than allowed for ADA access,” Kropp said.
The second-least expensive option — at $250,000-$300,000 — also would use the current northwest corner entrance. That entrance now has a bank of exterior stairs. Those would be removed, and a ramp installed for access. However, since the slope to the north is also too steep, a series of switchback ramps would be needed to meet ADA codes.
“Ramps can be a challenge” for those with disabilities, Kropp said. “It’s really not a great user-friendly option, but it could work.”
Modifying the south court-area entrance for a single user point would cost $400,000-$450,000. It would have the advantage of being nearest the court system rooms, but there is the problem of few parking spaces. It also would require an interior lift or a long ramp as there are stairs inside.
The option recommended by Kropp and Berner is the most expensive, with an estimated cost of $950,000-$1.2 million. It would again use the northwest entrance, but with more remodeling to address both accessibility and security needs.
The plan there would be to remove the exterior steps, install retaining walls, and build a street-level entrance. Visitors would enter the building at ground level into a vestibule, and would then use either an elevator or stairs to get to the first-floor level. It would also have disabled parking spaces directly in front, and a balcony under which visitors could exit vehicles in inclement weather.
Kropp said the option would put a fully accessible entrance nearest to available parking. That’s becoming more critical, he said, as statistics show more people with disabilities. In Clark County, according to 2008 data, there were 1,712 persons with disabilities in the county, 981 of whom have mobility issues.
“These numbers are expected to rise primarily because the baby boomer generation is aging,” Kropp said.
The most expensive option would also be best for courthouse security. Inside the entrance, all visitors would be screened for possible weapons or other contraband items.
In a recent trial run of a single courthouse entrance, county attorney Jake Brunette said about 200 people per day came into the building. During the several-day trial, deputies screening visitors at the door found 32 knives, two tools and a possible firearm.
“There are items coming into this courthouse that are a safety concern,” Brunette said.
Brunette said many courthouse users are involved in some sort of problematic situation, be it with a court appearance or child support or a civil matter. That’s especially true in the fourth-floor court system area.
“You have a lot of volume and a lot of emotions,” he said.
Kropp said there have been five incidents involving security issues since June. One of them involved a person bringing a padlock and chain into the building with which they intended to bind someone.
Kropp said there are currently no checks done at the five courthouse entrances. Having a deputy screen visitors at the door would help determine if someone is angry or upset as they’re entering.
“They usually come in agitated already,” he said. Berner said the county cannot take the approach of “That’ll never happen here.” A person recently entered a courthouse in a Minnesota town of similar size to Neillsville, and shot three people.
“Security is a pretty major thing. No community is too small that you’re not going to have this sort of issue down the road,” Berner said.
Berner said the county could even use a single secured entrance to make sure employees are not carrying in any weapons. The county can assume they won’t, but “Can you guarantee that?” he said.
Kropp said the Clark County courthouse’s unique design presents challenges for a single entrance system, and no one option is perfect.
“What is the best solution for what is currently here?” he said.
Berner said the county needs to do something to improve accessibility and increase security.
“One entrance is the way you have to go, by far,” he said.
Brunette said the board’s Safety and Security Committee will review the options and come back to the full board for consideration yet this fall. The 2021 budget will be finalized in November, and he said the plan is to have an option included, so the county is not sitting back and waiting for a problem to happen.
“I prefer to be proactive,” he said.