Panel says courthouse unsafe, tackles referendum questions

Originally Posted Online: March 18, 2013, 9:30 pm
Last Updated: March 18, 2013, 10:52 pm
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Stephen Elliott,

The Rock Island County courthouse is not safe for occupants or visitors, according to panelists at a Monday forum on the April 9 referendum seeking to set up a funding option for a new courthouse and, possibly, an administrative building.

The referendum will ask Rock Island County voters to support expanding the powers of the Rock Island County Public Building Commission, allowing it to finance any county building project, such as a new courthouse or county administration building.

The costs for such a project are fluid, 14th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Mark VandeWiele said. But he added the financing path the county is seeking, through the commission, provides a cost savings in the long run.

Judge VandeWiele was joined on Monday's panel at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center by Rock Island Count State's Attorney John McGehee, Sheriff Jeff Boyd, County Board Chairman Phil Banaszek, D-Moline, and Kim Callaway-Thompson, D-Rock Island, a member of the county board and its special ad hoc committee on the courthouse/administration center.

Judge VandeWiele said there are safety issues with the courthouse, particularly the third floor where domestic violence cases are heard, which he described as a "powder keg."

"We, as judges, see it every day," he said. "Emotions are running high. People are very close.

"You have five chairs there sitting at that table, and you're talking about domestic violence, about putting victims in extremely close proximity to their abusers, which is not fair to the victim, or the victim's family."

The judge said an incident on Thursday highlighted those concerns.

"I had to cover a caseload where we had two competing factions, both seeking orders of protection against each other," he said. "And, they had their families with them.

"We had to bring deputies in just to keep them all separate. At least one individual was disruptive in the hearing and had to be escorted out," he said."Finally, security just put them on different floors to keep them separated."

The courthouse does not comply with the federal American With Disabilities Act, Judge VandeWiele said, and does not meet minimum courtroom standards established by the Illinois Supreme Court. Courtrooms, he said, are undersized by 35 percent to 50 percent.

"We need to start with a clean slate to meet the code that the Supreme Court mandates," Judge VandeWiele said.

He and Mr. McGehee said windows are often opened in the winter because temperatures reach the upper 80s in offices and courtrooms. Some courtrooms, the judge said, see temperatures in the 50s.

"You've got asbestos. You've got mold, a leaky roof," he said. "Quite frankly, I was getting sick in the courthouse.

"It's not up to code on ventilation," he said."Lead paint is behind the top two or three layers. Those paint chips leak down."

The judge said people who can't afford babysitters often bring children to the courthouse.

"And they're sitting there, waiting in the hallway," Judge VandeWiele said. "And they have old lead paint chips around. That's a big concern."

Cost estimates for a courthouse, or a courthouse and administrative building, have ranged from $20 million to $50 million, Mr. Banaszek said. Annual costs per property owner for a $20 million project would range from $13 to $20, he said, depending upon final design and location.

The county board's decision to hold the April 9 referendum was prompted by pressure from circuit judges who warned they may sue the county to force it to hold the referendum.

Judge VandeWiele said the county's costs would be much higher if the courts mandate it to construct a new courthouse, rather than using the building commission. Financing would have to be limited to 10 years, he said, as opposed to 20 years under the commission.

"The payment is 70 percent higher," he said.

Some in the 35-member audience criticized county officials for letting the courthouse fall into disrepair. They voiced concerns of giving the building commission too much power, without oversight, to spend on future county projects.

Diane Oestreich, of Rock Island, said she wanted to know the financial expertise of commission members, saying she didn't understand why voters had to give the commission a "blank check."

Others questioned the true goal of the referendum.

"It sounds to me what you're trying to do is eliminate the pesky old voter from the process," said Walter Keller, of Moline. "Is that the idea?"

He said the referendum might fare better if it specifically addressed one issue, such as the courthouse.

Mr. Banaszek said voters can hold their elected officials responsible at election time.

"I'm a taxpayer just like you are," he said. "It's coming out of my pocket just as much as anyone else's."

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