New Justice Center is a go

Posted July 21, 2020 at 2:57 pm

The new proposed Judicial Center for Clinton County appears to be a “go” following the announcement made at the end of last week’s fiscal court meeting by Clinton County Judge/Executive Ricky Craig.

Judge Craig told the Clinton County News earlier this month that AOC (Administrative Office of the Courts) officials had first indicated that the county had not been funded for the $17.4 million project. However, about a week later, officials said that was a mistake and the county was, in fact, one of a handful of such projects that has been approved.

Clinton Fiscal Court was first notified by AOC, a branch of the state judicial system, that it was in line for a new Judicial Center back in early March of this year.

Although state legislative funding for the project here in Clinton County on the Frankfort end had apparently been ongoing for a while prior to late winter, it was something new to most county officials and the public when the announcement was first made a little over four months ago.

Danny Rhoades, Executive Director of Facilities for the AOC explained the project to the fiscal court at a special call meeting on March 3.

Magistrates had received a copy of an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) between the Judicial Branch and AOC prior to the March 3 announcement.

The AOC officials and court members fielded several questions pertinent to the project in March prior to eventually approving the Memorandum of Agreement.

AOC officials indicated the $17.4 million project would entail a 30,000 square foot facility to be chosen by a committee and would be totally funded along with upkeep by the Judicial Branch.

Although no magistrates voted in opposition to the MOU, some had reservations about the economic impact it may have on the county going forward, once judicial related offices are moved from the courthouse and the state would no long pay for rent (to the county) on that courthouse space.

The majority of the magistrates, however, felt it was a beneficial project, especially for having a secure facility which the courthouse does not have space to provide for currently.

Rhoades told the court back in March that offices now rented by the AOC in the courthouse could be rented out and a new judicial center may have a positive effect by helping bring in additional businesses.

Apparently the proposed project has been on somewhat of a “hold” mode due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its affect on the economy statewide, including the judicial system.

Another aspect of the project is that the center will be constructed inside the city limits of Albany, with the exact location to be determined as the project moves forward.

The total project scope calls for a 30,000 square foot facility at the project cost of $17,435.000. And, according to Rhoades, construction on a site would not begin until the year 2022.

In terms of the MOU project, “General Fund support of $1,661,200 is contained in the Local Facilities Fund budget in each fiscal year allowance payment (20-year period).Construction in Clinton County of a new judicial facility to accommodate the Kentucky Court of Justice functions, which include, but are not limited to, Circuit Court, Family Court, District Court, Drug Court, Pretrial Services and Juvenile Services. The current courthouse is deficient in space and is not configured for safe, effective, and efficient Court of Justice operations.”

In choosing a site for the location, Rhoades said there would be a committee formed by the county judge/executive and would include, among others, a district and circuit court judge and the circuit clerk, with a total of six persons on the committee.

He also noted that a public hearing would be required and people would be given a chance to offer property to sell, but added by state statue, could not pay above appraised market value for any property. However, if a property owner chose, they could ask for an independent appraisal and the committee would decide the fair market value.

Once property is located and secured, then begins financing and bidding the project, as well as sale of bonds for the project.

Rhoades also fielded a question from a magistrate about the AOC possibly using condemnation proceedings, which the magistrate was opposed to, with Rhoades saying that (condemnation) would be highly unlikely and only done in rare occasions.

During the late winter discussion, it was also noted the new facility would be a two-story building with the capacity of video-conferencing court proceedings, which may save some travel time and expense in transporting inmates in out-of-county facilities.

The AOC would continue using the courthouse and a couple of other buildings where judicial -related offices are located until they take occupancy of the new building.
Also during that time, they would continue to make rent payments to the county based on square foot space used for judicial purposes, which at present time is approximately $80,000 annually for that space.

Assistant County Attorney Gary Little also asked the AOC officials what the “driving force” was behind the need for a Judicial Center and whether there was funding for upgrades that could be made to the existing courthouse.

Rhoades emphasized that security for everyone that uses the courthouse, including those in the judicial system, judges and patrons, was the top priority, as well as added space for the offices that are now being used at the courthouse.

Some noted the courthouse at present is not well suited for safety, especially on court dates, and with no exit from the judges’ chambers on the west side of the courthouse, it also created a possible fire hazard as well.

Rhoades said that counties in need of a Judicial Center were based on a ranking and, in 2011, the counties were “re-ranked.” Since that time, four other counties have seen judicial centers built. He said at that time, Clinton County was in the top five on the list and indicated funding was in the state budget.

Clinton Circuit Clerk Jake Staton’s office deals directly with the judicial system daily. Staton said that although the courthouse is as safe now as it had been in his 19 years of service, “it (safety) was probably still insufficient.”

He also added that some people “are going to grumble unless they understand they are not paying for it. From the way the courthouse is designed, it is just a matter of time before something happens.”

Clinton County Sheriff Jeff Vincent also noted that when circuit court proceedings were being held, he always kept three staff in the courtroom, saying, “the courtroom is way too small for a circuit court trial.”

At last week’s meeting of the fiscal court, judge Craig told the court that the committee to oversee moving forward of the Judicial Center project were currently being put in place.

(Details of the court’s regular meeting can be found elsewhere in this week’s Clinton County News).