Citizens weigh pros, cons of new courthouse

If approved, Measure 20-299 would close the current county courthouse once the new facility is completed.

The Lane County electorate will have a chance to vote this month on whether or not to authorize $154 million in bonds for a new county courthouse with ballot measure 20-299.

If successful, $94 million is expected to be contributed by the State of Oregon and another $4 million from federal funding. Without the state contribution, the measure stipulates that no bond money can be collected. It is estimated the approval of the 20-year bond will cost a landowner with a median assessed property value of $187,000 approximately $50 annually. 

At a total of $252 million, it would be the largest capital project built by Lane County.

Complaints about the 60-year-old building’s condition are nothing new.

“The building itself has reached its lifespan,” said County Commissioner Heather Buch.

Proponents of the measure point out that the current courthouse has significant safety, space and operational limitations, a problem exacerbated by the fact that its population has doubled since being built.

A salient safety concern involves the sharing of corridors and an elevator by judges, court staff, jurors, victims, defendants and inmates. The environment has concerned some that those waiting to testify before a trial would feel intimidated by sharing space with those they are testifying against.

The building’s space limitations are also said to affect the length of trials, security and accessibility.

“People are stuffed in there like sardines,” Buch said.

Chronic problems with plumbing, electrical, heating and cooling systems are also cited as needing to be addressed. Some infrastructure is so bad that raw sewage has reportedly leaked through ceiling tiles onto evidence and into offices in the past.

“It’s also getting more and more expensive to operate just because of its age and the constant maintenance that it’s requiring,” said Buch.

A running argument from proponents is that the building’s full renovation will actually cost more than building a completely new courthouse.

“As a developer, I always have to make those conscious decisions,” Buch said, “and here it looks pretty obvious that it’s well past the renovation period.”

The infrastructure is also not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and parts of the building do not meet accessibility requirements. Because jury boxes are not ADA accessible, jurors in wheelchairs are forced to sit among audience members during trials.

Proponents argue that the current limitations of the courthouse are causing inefficiencies and delays, which burden the taxpayer.

The court handles a full range of cases including traffic tickets, murder cases, family law, juvenile court, car accidents and matters of personal injuries. Lane County reports that the courthouse processes about 33,000 cases per year with 15 courts.

A new courthouse, proponents say, will alleviate the burden and bring the county justice system up to date.

“When we’re talking about a courthouse bond, we’re talking about more than just a courthouse,” said Buch. “It is more of a justice center.”

Plans for the new building would put the Circuit Court, District Attorney’s Office, Lane County Sheriff’s Office and Rural Police and Search and Rescue Dispatch under one roof, a move many say will better coordinate the various agencies.

Overall, the new building is touted as being able to solve all the aforementioned issues while bringing jobs to local businesses and workers under a community benefits agreement.

“This is the first of its kind,” Buch said, “and it would be in Lane County.”

The agreement would make sure that the money invested in the justice center construction stays within the community by using local trades, labor and material vendors to complete the project.

On top of this incentive, proponents worry that if the measure does not pass this election cycle, the state’s $94 million could pass to the next counties in line like Clackamas.

While much of the conversation seems to be taking place in Eugene, Buch emphasized that this is an issue which has reaching effects outside the county’s most populated city.

“The new courthouse is the center of justice for our entire county,” she said. “This is where even some local offenders go to prosecute cases. And this is where judges make extremely important decisions that affect our entire county.”

Maintaining a reliable avenue to justice through an efficient county courthouse has appeal for smaller cities like Cottage Grove.

“The ability for the Lane County District Attorney’s Office and Lane County Sheriff’s [Office] to operate benefits this city because our municipal court only handles misdemeanors and ordinance violations and traffic stops,” said Cottage Grove Chief of Police Scott Shepherd. “The ability for them to do it and be efficient at it should be something that is a concern of our citizens.”

Because more serious offenses must be tried in Eugene, the county courthouse can be the pathway toward local accountability. 

“We try to handle as many misdemeanor cases as we can down here because the DA’s office isn’t really prepared or staffed to be able to take on misdemeanor cases …” Shepherd said. “I think there certainly is a need for our community to be able to have that avenue to hold people accountable — and that accountability comes from felony cases usually having more penalties associated with that.”

However, Shepherd noted that a new courthouse’s measurable impact on accountability was not immediately clear from the local level.

“Do I think that if they don’t get it, it will shut us down or it will have a significant impact on us?” Shepherd queried. “I don’t think so. I think the cases that have merit are cases that will still be covered by the DA’s office.”

While some cases do get sent back to Cottage Grove for various reasons, Shepherd did not feel there was a bottlenecked system.

“If it is truly an issue that I think needs to be addressed, the DA’s office has been receptive in listening to my plea to take a particular case or deal with a problem suspect from our area,” he said.

Though many agree that the courthouse’s condition is badly in need of addressing, not all agree on how the county has decided to address it.

One vocal critic of the plan has been Jim Hargreaves, who served on the Lane County Circuit Court for 18 years, four of which were as the Presiding Judge. For the past 20 years, he has been a court management consultant, working in the U.S. and other countries around the world to help develop and manage their courts.

Hargreaves’ main contention is that Lane County has asked for too much by going about the process the wrong way.

“They need a new courthouse, but not this courthouse,” he said. “They haven’t done the planning necessary to really put forth a plan for what they need as opposed to what they’d like to have.”

Hargreaves summed up the problem as stemming from a misapplied fundamental approach by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), a nonprofit court improvement organization which conducted an initial analysis of the situation. Based on this and the fact that architects simply applied their own standard playbook approach to the building rather than following NCSC advise on courtroom sizes, Hargreaves maintains that the project was tainted from the beginning.

Citing his experience as a consultant, Hargreaves outlined how most projects like this are done.

“You look at your operations,” he said.

In the case of the courthouse, this would mean major agencies like the courts, the sheriff’s office and district attorney’s office. For each operation, time must be spent analyzing how each agency would optimally operate.

“You go through your whole process like that until you really refine your operations down into what you think is most efficient and effective,” said Hargreaves.

Next, personnel must be accounted for and the best configuration for allowing them to operate can be worked out. From this analysis, the amount of space needed can finally be calculated.

Hargreaves says this was not done.

“They came up with the wrong number,” he said. “That’s essentially it. There’s no way in hell we need to spend a quarter of a billion dollars on a new courthouse.”

Hargreaves also took issue with the courthouse’s 33,000 case filings each year cited as evidence of workload and thus a need for more space.

“That’s almost meaningless,” he said. “Ninety percent of those cases the judges never touch. They get filed, the parties settle them, the parties go away.”

Analyzing where and how judges mostly do their work, he said, is a better help in figuring out how to allocate space.

Other claims for making a new courthouse he found quite reasonable.

“Certainly, their security issue is a real one,” said Hargreaves. “It’s not a good arrangement.”

All things considered, however, Hargreaves is convinced the county has arrived at the wrong numbers.

“We believe they need to go back and plan,” he said.

While support for the new courthouse seems strong among many city officials, pockets of dissent can be found among taxpayers voicing concerns on social media. Reasons range from lack of trust in the county to simply not wanting to pay any more in taxes.

Another wrinkle in the issue is the lack of an organized opposition to the measure, thus a “no” vote may not carry with it a uniform message of dissent.

Ultimately, voters will have to decide whether a new building with the current design is worth the tax increase while weighing the issues of judicial efficiency and local accountability.

“Would a more efficient system like that benefit Cottage Grove? Yeah, probably,” Shepherd said. “Would it benefit it enough to spend more money on our taxes? I think that’s the question.”

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