Can the historic county courthouse continue to meet Upson County’s judicial needs? That is the question the County Commissioners are trying to answer as there have been numerous problems with acoustics, security, space and parking with the current building. In May of this year, the county solicited the services of Precision Planning, Inc. to help determine what would be the best option for the court system: to renovate the current courthouse, purchasing an existing building that could be updated to suit the needs, or construct a completely new justice center facility. At a work session meeting held at the beginning of this month, the Board of Commissioners saw a presentation from Liz Hudson of Precision Planning, who gave an assessment of the needs of the courts in Upson County and offered options to meet those needs.
Hudson told the board the consulting firm had met with representatives of seven different departments who are part of the court system (Superior Court, Juvenile Court, Probate Court, Magistrate Court, Clerk of Court, District Attorney and court security) and discussed the needs of each department. Currently, those offices are spread out between the Courthouse, the County Annex, the City-County Government Complex and the Drake building.
“We met with each of these departments and we talked to them about what their current space needs are, how they function, what other departments they work with directly and asked them to project what they would need in the future,” said Hudson.
Hudson added that asking a department to predict what they would need five to 10 years from now is a reasonable request, but things can turn into more of a guessing game when you look as far ahead as 20 years. However, they would like to be able to present the board with an option for a facility that would suit the county’s needs for at least the next 20 years.
Commission Chairman Rusty Blackston agreed it was important to have a facility that could last that long.
“I think we need to look at 20-30 years,” said Blackston. “That has been our problem, just putting Band-Aids on things to get by. We need to start planning. Do this one time, one shot and be done for 30 years.”
The rest of the board agreed that long term planning would be the most beneficial way to go.
Hudson stated their assessment shows around 50,000 square feet is needed to accommodate the departments over the next two decades. That amount of space would fit all of the staff offices, support space and courtrooms for the departments. However, that does not factor in any other county offices such as the administrative offices, Board of Commission, Tax Commissioner or Planning and Development; it is strictly based on the needs of those in the court system.
During her presentation, Hudson discussed the different options the board has; the first of those being to renovate/expand the current courthouse, which she noted comes with a lot of limitations. The current courthouse has issues with space, security and functionality and does not have much room to expand to make significant changes. The building is 14,000 square foot overall, however only 10,000 of that space is useable.
Security is a big issue when it comes to the courthouse as there are multiple entrances and no constant presence of deputies to work security when court is not in session. Hudson also noted there is no dedicated path for inmates to be brought into the building and they have to share the same stairs, elevator and public space as the judges, jurors and public. There is no permanent security screening area and no protection for the offices in the courthouse, such as that of the Juvenile Court clerks. During court, juveniles have to be placed in someone’s office as there is no juvenile holding room.
“It’s a turn of the century courthouse and it does not function the way a typical modern courthouse would function,” said Hudson.
When it comes to functionality, the single, over-sized courtroom is much bigger than typically needed and has issues with the acoustics. In fact, there have been several cases that are being reopened because the defense is asking for a mistrial due to the jury not being able to hear adequately. Hudson also pointed out the files the Clerk of Court office brings to court have to be transported across the street, which presents its own set of challenges, especially during inclement weather.
“It is something we can consider, but I would caution you against putting too much money toward renovating the historic courthouse to serve as a courthouse,” said Hudson. “It might be better suited for another function.”
Commissioner Steve Hudson stated he feels it should be turned into a museum.
The preliminary cost to renovate the interior of the courthouse would be around $2 million to $4 million and that would not address the majority of the issues.
The second option the board has is to purchase an existing building (within the city limits of Thomaston per Georgia law) and renovate it into a new facility. Hudson stated the county would need to look for a building between at least 40,000-60,000 square feet with around 200 parking spaces. She noted there could be multiple levels to the facility with two courtrooms on each floor and designated entrances for the judge, jury and inmates. Also, the entire facility would not have to be built at one time; what is needed for the courts would be done first and then there would still be room to grow. She stated it is estimated to cost between $6 million and $8 million, but there are obviously some savings by not having to build the facility from the ground up.
The final option given was for the board to build a completely new facility as a justice center to meet the county’s needs which is estimated to cost between $10 million and $12 million to complete.
Chairman Blackston stated he thinks it is out of the question to build a new facility from the ground up and it is out of the question to try to fix everything needed at the current courthouse given the space issue. He suggested one building the county should look into is the old Lakeside Plant located near the city reservoir as it is a large facility with a large parking lot and one centralized entrance that even has a guard shack.
County Manager Jim Wheeless added that finding a place the county could grow would be best.
“If we can find a facility that we can put in our immediate needs and then still have the option to grow,” began Wheeless,” then eventually we could get everything in one place. That would be best in my opinion.”
The commissioners decided they would start looking at available sites within the city limits and get back with Precision Planning on the matter. The board did not discuss where the funding for the project would come from during the work session.
Ashley Biles can be reached by calling 706-647-5414 or on Twitter @AshleyBiles1