Jackson County has two mid-sized courtrooms. But occasionally, three courtrooms have been needed the same day, pressing the county commissioners’ meeting room down the hall into service as a venue for legal proceedings.
Finding space for a third courtroom could mean an expansion, creative remodeling or an off-loading of a couple of county departments to a satellite location to accommodate the growing court system.
But it would be premature to start guessing how the government complex might be reconfigured, said County Manager Chuck Wooten.
“Our goal at this point is to first confirm the space concerns we have heard, and then to quantify the needs for today and for the future,” Wooten said.
Jackson’s court system is housed in the same building as mapping, register of deeds, planning, finance, tax collections, board of elections and county administrative functions. The sheriff’s office and jail are also under the same big roof.
Heery International, a national architectural and construction management firm that specializes in justice centers, has been chosen to conduct a space analysis and come up with possible solutions. The firm will be paid $30,000 for their planning services. A task force of judges, attorneys, the clerk of court and key county department heads will work closely with the consultants.
“Our idea is to develop some kind of joint vision with you and the users on how we could utilize the existing facility for the future home for courts,” Doug Kleppin, a vice president with Heery, told county commissioners at a meeting this week.
The first step would be figuring out how much space the court system needs immediately and in the future.
“We would want to get our arms around how big things could be over time,” Kleppin said, cautioning, however, that it would be a “projection, not a prediction.”
“Then we could start to strategize ways to expand and how to utilize that campus for the demands of court. Who knows what those options could be?” Kleppin said.
In addition to not enough courtrooms, other cited shortcomings are cramped quarters for the district attorney’s office and lack of flexibility for small-scale hearings before a judge. Both Jackson’s courtrooms are mid-sized, but many hearings don’t need a full-blown courtroom.
Poor security is another issue. While metal detectors are parked outside the door of both courtrooms, the building itself has multiple unprotected entrances.
The county did not seek proposals from any other firms before deciding to engage Heery. County Manager Chuck Wooten said Heery is considered an expert in court functions and design.
Heery served as the planning consultant and architect for a new justice center in Haywood County more than a decade ago. Heery came with the recommendation of judges who were involved in the space analysis, Wooten said.
However, the controversial project in Haywood was a lightening rod for public criticism. Critics dubbed it the “Taj Mahal of Justice,” a jab at both its size and perceived opulence.
County leaders, as well as Heery, took heat for catering to the wishes of those in the judicial system for more space than was really needed.
But Haywood leaders at the time said it was more prudent to build for the future rather than end up with too little space down the road. Jackson County’s justice center is about 20 years old.
After conducting the analysis and coming up with recommendations, Heery would be a logical frontrunner as the architect for the project. The county would not necessarily seek proposals from other architectural firms at that juncture, Wooten said.
While construction projects must be put out to bid and awarded to the cheapest one, professional firms, such as architects and engineers, can be selected based on their expertise and merits rather than a lowest-bid criteria. The county still has the option of putting out a call for proposals but is not obligated to do so.
“If we were doing a brand new building, we would in all likelihood invite people to come in and make a proposal,” Wooten said. But this would only be a renovation project if it reaches that point, he said.