Judge petitions commissioners to include courts in new county building

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There was a heated discussion about the importance of including the court system in the new Oscoda County government building at the April 10 board of commissioners meeting.

Twenty-third Circuit Chief Judge Richard Vollbach approached commissioners with 23rd Circuit Judge David Riffel to persuade them to include the court system in the construction of the new building. Vollbach said he was asked to speak to the commissioners by the state Supreme Court.

“How could this be that the county building is not going to include the courts?” Vollbach said. “I am trying to kick in the door here, even though I’ve been told it’s been closed, locked and the ship has sailed. It would be shortsighted to move forward without taking this into consideration.”

The construction of the new building is slated to begin with a groundbreaking in June. The current board has worked on the plans for the new building for roughly two years. The first question asked of Vollbach by the board was why this was brought up just two months before groundbreaking.

“My first question is, where were you two years ago?” Commissioner Wayne Nutt said. “Most of the community has been p----- off because they have been waiting for two years. They have sat where you are now and specifically said they don’t want a big building.”

“I’m here now and we have to deal with the present,” Vollbach responded. “I apologize if I have to. There was an idea that it was a foregone conclusion the courts were included. This needs to be delayed as long as possible because I think you’re making the wrong decision if you don’t.”

An early draft for the building did include an area for the courts. Vollbach said roughly a year and a half ago when he took over as chief judge he was under the impression the previous judge had ensured the court was still included in the plan. After the meeting, board Chairwoman LaNita Olsen said part of the plan was scrapped because the insurance company refused to pay for facilities that were not included in the former county building when it burned down.

During the public comment period Oscoda County Prosecuting Attorney Cassie Morse-Bills said she believes the decision to remove the court from the current plan wasn’t publicized enough.

“The original plan was for an all-inclusive building,” Morse-Bills said. “I think it’s a bit of a guise that it isn’t the way we continued.”

Olsen said it’s important to note the plans for the new building were posted on the county website and open to the public.

Whether or not the court is included in the new building, the State Court Administrative Office will soon be inspecting the current court building in order to determine if it meets the state’s security guidelines.

Riffel said he has worked in a building similar to the one the county’s court system is currently housed in and said it won’t be up to the state’s guidelines.

“These buildings have never been secure, and it is something we need to look into,” Riffel said.

“Trust me when I say the state is not going to find this building up to the standards that it should be,” Vollbach said. “You have to ask yourselves, do you want to invest in this building? Or would you rather put the money into a new building?”

Security concerns weren’t the only issues with the current court building that were raised during the public comment period. Morse-Bills said the current building is facing multiple maintenance issues.

“People don’t realize how bad this building is,” Morse-Bills said. “It’s honestly an embarrassment. We have boards in the wall because the walls are caving in. People are getting stuck in the elevator. We are covering things with a sheet of paint and moving on. I think it is financially irresponsible to move forward as it is. All we are doing is passing the buck onto the future taxpayers.”

After the meeting Olsen said she is doing what she can to avoid passing the cost of the building on to taxpayers.

“This building is 100 percent paid for by insurance,” Olsen said. “I’m all for the court bringing forward a cost analysis, at their expense, to see how much it would cost. I need to know what it would cost to include the court. Would it cost less to bring the building up to the state’s security specifications or not?”

Commissioner Pat Kelly echoed Olsen’s sentiment.

“I would love to see a building that is brand spanking new that includes all of these departments, but not at the taxpayers’ expense,” Kelly said.

Olsen said she believes the taxpayers do not want to spend money expanding the building.

“I have heard people say, ‘Spend the money on what you need to have, not what you would like to have,’” Olsen said. “It is not the wants of the employees I’m concerned with, it’s the needs of the residents.”

During the public comment period, resident Dale Neff said he believes the county should not be afraid of spending money.

“The job of the commissioners is to spend the taxpayers’ money wisely,” Neff said. “The wise thing is not always popular. I think it is a waste of time to build that building without the courthouse. I think you need to pull some time and take the court into consideration.”

Also during the open comment period, one man who did not give his name defended the board’s decision.

“I would like to thank you for holding your ground,” he said. “That was quite an indictment handed down. It is a bad situation all the way around, and there is probably more to come.”

Nutt said he firmly stands by the current plan.

“I am committed to what we have and the plan we have decided,” Nutt said. “We have been working on this for two years and a lot of taxpayers are unhappy with that. I’m willing to look at numbers, but I’m committed to our plan.”

While Olsen is open to looking at numbers, she said she also believes it is important to honor the current contract.

“We’re going forward with what we have planned because I am not putting fees on the taxpayers,” Olsen said. “We are working on a timeline. The longer we wait to make a decision, the bigger risk that the taxpayers will have to foot the bill.”

The day after the meeting in a phone interview, Commissioner Larry Wilson said he would have prefered the two-story building plan commissioners had earlier in the design phase. However, now that the board is locked into a contract, he does not want to break it. He said if the build does not continue as planned, the county will permanently lose insurance funds. Wilson said the building is being built with the plan to expand when funds become available. He said the sheriff’s department and the courts will be taken into account once the county finds a way to afford it.

As of now, the board has no plans to move the court from the current building in the foreseeable future.

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