New Pulaski County Facilities Plan Proposes Demolishing Courthouse, Expanding Justice Center

Pulaski County’s 123-year-old courthouse would be torn down and replaced by a parking lot and memorial park, under the county’s latest facilities proposal. During Monday’s joint county council and commissioners meeting, Maintenance Director Jeff Johnston publicly unveiled a four-phase plan designed to address security, ADA compliance, and a number of other concerns with the county’s government buildings.

As proposed, Circuit Court and most of the other offices that are currently in the courthouse would eventually move to an expanded Justice Center across the street. “In the end, we’re looking at cutting utility costs for the offices in the courthouse 75 percent,” Johnston said. “We’re looking at 100-percent ADA and safety and security things complete. We’re looking at cutting the Maintenance, Building and Structure budget requirements by a third, and then, we’re looking at generating a lot of money that we didn’t have opportunity to generate before.”

Johnston said the first phase involves moving several documents from various county offices into the recently-completed West Annex, formerly the Winamac Masonic Lodge. That will free up space in the basement of the Justice Center for a new work release facility. That, in turn, will open up more of the traditional jail cells to federal inmates, which could generate between $400,000 and $1 million a year in additional revenue.

At that point, a new addition would be added onto the front of the Justice Center, which would have eight new offices at 1,400 square feet each. The Prosecutor’s Office and Probation Department would move into the addition, allowing Circuit Court to relocate to their current space. “There’s many reasons why that’s a good path to go,” Johnston said. “One, you no longer take inmates across the street. Two, you have both courts and all of our legal offices in the same building. And three, it cuts down on expense, whether it’s security from taking them from one building to the other, the cost of transporting them by van.”

Meanwhile, most of the offices that are currently in the courthouse would move into the new addition. Anyone visiting one of the offices, the courts, or the jail would have to pass through a single security checkpoint.

Johnston said the new arrangement would bring the county into compliance with the latest state and federal standards for court buildings. He explained that it would have completely separate traffic patterns for staff, inmates, and the general public, something that he said would be very difficult to achieve in the existing courthouse. “In order to make it secure and give your inmates access to the court like they should, you’re looking at putting a small addition on the north side with a sally port in it to van inmates over into a secure sally port, another elevator to transport them up into a holding area, and then you have to rework some of the structure, the structural support walls of the building itself, in order to make doorways and whatnot to get them into the building.”

But beyond that, Johnston said the courthouse is experiencing structural problems that are becoming more and more expensive to repair. “One of the issues I brought to everybody’s attention a few years back was the longer you wait, the more damage you’re going to start seeing,” he said, “and at this point, we know that the stairs going to the main level are sinking. We know the walls are moving. They’re getting worse now because if you go into the west entrance to the main level in that small little breezeway, the walls are starting to crack where the walls are being pulled apart.”

Johnston estimated that it would cost $12 million to $15 million to build an addition onto the courthouse, while preliminary estimates put the cost of his plan at about $5.3 million.

Other components would include moving the courthouse’s new elevator to the Annex Building, which, along with lowering the height two service counters, would make it fully ADA-compliant. The Maintenance Department would move into the structure that up until recently housed the Pulaski County Historical Society. That would allow the Maintenance Department’s current space to become a new vocational rehabilitation center for jail inmates. Meanwhile, the Surveyor’s Office would move to the Pulaski County Highway Garage.

Commissioner Kenny Becker stressed that plans were still at a preliminary stage, and detailed architectural plans haven’t been drawn up yet. “We done this because we’ve been asked about security,” he explained. “A lot of the offices in there tell us about people coming in, and this is the best thing we’ve come up with. This is nothing set in stone. This is just something preliminary that we put together. We want public comment on it, and we want the office-holders to be involved and everything, too, so everybody’s all on the same page.”

Johnston estimated that the project could be done in as little as two years, from start to finish. Some of those in attendance Monday suggested incorporating some of the character of the existing courthouse into the new facility. Johnston also said plans call for some pieces of the courthouse to become part of the memorial park.