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Yearlong renovations solve courthouse accessibility issues

Maybe someday the Pennington County Courthouse will reopen an in-house coffee shop. For now, the courthouse is preparing for the Tuesday reopening of its south entrance after a year of renovation work.

As promised, the entryway is wider and has been updated to accommodate people with physical disabilities. There are separate, but adjacent, doors for going in and coming out. The steps leading to the elevators are gone, replaced by a carpeted ramp for visitors on foot, paws or wheels.

Where there used to be walls, there are now two first-floor passageways to the original courthouse building. One leads to the area of Judge Robert Mandel’s courtroom; the other to the upper foyer, where the grand staircase and revolving doors are located. The new routes don’t involve navigating steps.

“The county was trying to solve accessibility issues,” explained Mike Kuhl, construction project manager in the county’s Buildings and Grounds Department.

Officials also wanted more people to use the upper foyer, which features huge windows overlooking St. Joseph Street and two gigantic oil-on-canvas paintings by American artist Charles Holloway (1859-1941). There are benches, tables and chairs dotted around the foyer, where a few people sometimes hang out. 

Kuhl said a coffee shop, run by an outside vendor, could be added to the foyer, but for now that remains a wish by the courthouse administration. Back in the ’50s or ’60s, he said, the courthouse had a coffee shop.

On Wednesday morning, a handful of workers in bright-colored T-shirts and hardhats were preparing the finishing touches on the renovated entrance. The walls were set to be repainted, handrails added to the ramp and light fixtures installed.

Once the courthouse closes on Friday, the metal detectors will be moved there from the temporary visitor entrance. That same day, the chain-link fence that was put up around the construction area will be taken down, so private cars can again take their places in the parking lot.

The renovation, which started in November of last year, carries a price tag of $2.25 million, about $40,000 over the original contract value, according to figures from the Buildings and Grounds Department.

The entrance was initially scheduled to open in October, but was delayed because of several factors, including the extra time needed to lay the new foundation.

The target date was revised to Dec. 15. This was pushed back when the entrance’s precast “outer shell” couldn’t be delivered on deadline by its Sioux Falls manufacturer, Kuhl said, and construction managers thought it was wiser to give subcontractors more time to finish their work rather than rush them.

Workers also spent time removing the drywall that covered some features of the original courthouse building. The courthouse has seen several renovations since it was built in 1922. The first floor of its annex, added in 1990, was recently remodeled with new courtrooms and office spaces.

The 1920s features, which have been uncovered, include hand-carved limestone columns. They used to be on the building exterior, but are now highlights of the south entrance. 

“We can’t build things like this anymore. They’re very expensive,” Kuhl said. “We wanted to show off these old details.”

Official opposes delay of IHS director

SIOUX FALLS | A tribal official says congressional delay in approving a new Indian Health Service director could create more problems at South Dakota hospitals that are already in dangerous condition.

It's been two months since President Donald Trump nominated Quapaw tribal member Robert Weaver to the job. But the agency hasn't had a permanent leader for nearly two years.

Oliver J. Semans Sr., a member of the Rosebud Tribal Health Board, told the Argus Leader that confirmation should be prioritized, given the persistent problems at Indian Health Service facilities in South Dakota.

"We're talking life and death, and this should be a priority," Semans said.

IHS officials have tried to resolve problems at federal hospitals across the state. But tribal members have disagreed with many of the agency's decisions, according to Semans.

He said the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and other Great Plains tribes' health officials disapproved of the agency's move to turn the Sioux San Hospital in Rapid City into a medical clinic. IHS closed the hospital's emergency and inpatient departments earlier this year.

The agency has said it will direct emergency cases to Rapid City Regional Hospital. But tribal leaders had requested to use the Sioux San facility for that purpose, according to Semans. He said the decision runs opposite to tribal leaders' demands.

"We're asking IHS to stop, let the nomination process of Rob Weaver happen and then have Mr. Weaver come talk to the tribes in the Great Plains about how to move forward," Semans said.

Security cars too much like cop cars, police say
Embattled man's company targeted by proposed ordinance

A former prosecuting attorney who is on probation for failing to collect and pay taxes has come under scrutiny for operating private security vehicles that allegedly look too much like law enforcement vehicles.

The security firm of Black Hills Patrol is associated with Ken Orrock, a former Bennett County state’s attorney. He is on probation and obligated to pay about $280,000 in restitution, in monthly installments, for willfully failing to collect and pay several years’ worth of Black Hills Patrol payroll taxes to the Internal Revenue Service.

Wednesday, the Rapid City Legal and Finance Committee discussed but postponed consideration of an ordinance that would require Black Hills Patrol and all other security companies in the city to conspicuously mark the sides and rear of their vehicles with the word “SECURITY” (every letter of the word is capitalized in the proposed ordinance).

Police Chief Karl Jegeris told the Journal that other security companies have complied with police requests regarding vehicle markings, but Black Hills Patrol has refused. Jegeris said the ordinance is an attempt to force the company into compliance and to stop Black Hills Patrol vehicles from being mistaken for police vehicles, which Jegeris said has happened.

“It’s a minor issue,” Jegeris said in a Journal interview, “but it would be negligent to not correct it.”

Since Orrock’s tax-crime conviction earlier this year, he has been disbarred from practicing law and has relinquished his individual city security license. But Jegeris said Wednesday there is nothing further the city can do to stop Orrock’s continued involvement in Black Hills Patrol, because Orrock transferred legal ownership of the business to his wife and designated a day-to-day manager.

During Wednesday’s public meeting of the Legal and Finance Committee at the City/School Administration Center, Alderman Ritchie Nordstrom, a committee member, said he had communicated with Black Hills Patrol and wished to relay parts of that communication to Jegeris. But Nordstrom said some of the information might be sensitive or confidential, so he moved to postpone the ordinance for two weeks so he could speak privately with Jegeris. The committee unanimously approved the motion.

Images of Black Hills Patrol vehicles were included in the meeting documents. The images showed vehicles dark in color with yellow "Black Hills Patrol" lettering, plus other lettering and a yellow, star-shaped emblem.

Nobody from Black Hills Patrol attended Wednesday’s meeting, and Orrock did not immediately return a phone message Wednesday from the Journal.

The Rapid City Council’s Dec. 18 minutes say the ordinance was discussed at that meeting, and both Orrock and his wife spoke publicly. According to the minutes, Orrock does not want to change the company’s vehicle markings and said the markings were submitted, as required, to previous police chief Steve Allender — who is now the mayor — and were approved at that time.

The city council approved the first reading of the ordinance Dec. 18 on a 7-2 vote. A second reading is required before a final vote. Wednesday, the Legal and Finance Committee had been scheduled to make a recommendation to the council.

The ordinance has support from the South Dakota Highway Patrol in addition to the Rapid City Police Department. Wednesday’s meeting documents included a Nov. 27 letter from Rapid City-based Highway Patrol Capt. Jason Ketterling to City Attorney Joel Landeen, and the letter appeared to indirectly reference Black Hills Patrol.

“It has come to my attention that some local security vendors are utilizing the word 'PATROL' on vehicle markings in and around Rapid City,” Ketterling's letter said. “The markings on the vehicles clearly resemble those currently used by the South Dakota Highway Patrol. In addition, the badge placement, or company logo, is in a common position currently used by our agency.”