A pair of judges say the 50-year-old Meade County Courthouse in Sturgis is so old and inefficient that it is impossible to uphold the "expected dignity and decorum of judicial proceedings."
Among their issues: the courthouse is not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act; the elevator works only sporadically; security measures are weak; and it has improper witnesses boxes as well as other physical inefficiencies.
Their complaints came in a statement Fourth Circuit judges Warren Johnson and Jerome Eckrich made in April when they urged Meade County Commissioners to move forward on a whole-scale plan to upgrade the courthouse.
The rebuilding plan was created in 2012 by the Spearfish firm Williams and Associates Architecture. That plan calls for a $7 million improvement and expansion plan that would also add a third courtroom and jury room.
But county commissioners, who say they want to improve the courthouse, are reluctant to the do all the proposed improvements at once. And now, the proposal to remodel the courthouse in phases rather than in one major project has become a contentious issue between judges and the commissioners.
The judges said while they understood 2012 was to be a "saving year" in the county, they were led to believe the project would proceed in 2013.
Johnson and Eckrich told the commissioners at that time that the current courthouse was inefficient for current and future court scheduling and technology.
Commissioners then told the judges that the county didn't have $7 million for the project, and offered a phased remodel over the next several years to address the most serious issues.
Commissioners have voted to include in their 2014 budget an estimated $300,000 to $400,000 two-story annex project that will house a new elevator and ADA-compliant bathrooms. Work is also planned to remodel the current community room in the basement into a third courtroom, which will include security and wiring upgrades in addition to improved furnishings and wall treatments.
Those upgrades, according to the commissioners, will make it an improvement over the current main courtroom. Judges have said the main courtroom has serious acoustic issues, making it difficult to hear.
On Sept. 5, county commissioners voted to send a letter to Eckrich, after learning from Meade County Facilities Director Kevin Forrester that the judges were disappointed in the county plans to only partly remodel the courthouse in 2014.
The county's plan to build a portable, raised dais for the third courtroom "is not a safe or adequate substitute for a proper, professionally designed public courtroom," he wrote. "While I appreciate the offer to build a portable raised dais/bench, this UJS has no intent to utilize the basement for Court proceedings until the contemplated renovation is complete."
In the letter to Eckrich, County Commission Chairman Robert Heidgerken, on behalf of the commission, wrote that planned improvements to the basement community room would provide a courtroom with security and wiring "which is as good, or better than, what currently exists in courtroom one right above it."
The letter indicated that not only would the remodel fulfill the need for an additional large courtroom as requested by the judges, it would also be a functional courtroom during a planned remodel of the current courtroom to mitigate noise, technology and other issues the judges complained of in that room.
Forrester indicated the security deficiency to which Eckrich refers could be addressed through a video intercom system similar to one that is used in the county's law center. "It could be addressed without great expense," Forrester said.
He indicated rewiring the basement for use as a courtroom was a "cheap" fix but hardware to meet the court's Unified Judicial System requirements could turn into a huge expense if the county was asked to purchase computers and other technology.
Eckrich's email referred to the significant expense associated with upgraded technology, and indicated they had previously sought state approval for about $100,000 to cover transition costs, including wiring and other expected costs during the renovation that had been authorized several years ago by previous commissions.
"We lost this money when the renovation project was halted," Eckrich wrote.
Commissioner Alan Aker said at a meeting last week that he would like to proceed with the remodel even if the judges say they won't use it, because the commission was told they needed an additional courtroom.
"I know it seems wasteful, but I don't want to say we didn't respond to the need here," said Aker.
Commissioner Galen Niederwerder said he was troubled by the tone of Eckrich's letter, since the commission has offered to build something that should be more than acceptable for the court's use.
He indicated the judge's request for a $7 million remodel and previous commissions' agreement to proceed came during a time when growth in Meade County was 10 percent, not one percent.
"It's a new day, a new commission. We're doing the best we can within the constraints of our budget," he said. "I would hope they would work with us, and hopefully get something that's a little more acceptable than what they have today."
Commissioner Linda Rausch said she believed the county needed to address ADA compliance in the facility, regardless of the other issues. "Not having an elevator that runs and not having ADA bathrooms is a problem. I think we need to have our buildings ADA accessible, so I think we ought to do it," she said.