Commissioners approve capital improvement plan that includes new ‘justice center’ in Cook County
Joe Friedrichs

Commissioners approve capital improvement plan that includes new ‘justice center’ in Cook County

After many months of discussion, presentations, and countless public meetings where local officials discussed how to take care of buildings owned by the county, the commissioners voted to approve a Capital Improvement Plan (CIP).

The CIP passed on a 4-1 vote. Commissioner Deb White was the lone vote against the plan, which could involve spending $30 million over the next several years updating buildings and other property the county owns.

The vote took place August 22 during a meeting of the Cook County Board of Commissioners. Prior to the vote, a lengthy public hearing took place in the commissioners’ room at the courthouse. Approximately 15 people attended the public hearing, including local elected officials and an assortment of other community members. There were mixed opinions shared by the public about the proposed spending plan and the CIP. Sharing concerns about how the project could impact local taxpayers were Stephen Skeels, Diane Greeley, and Arvis Thompson, among others.

“It is going to come (with) increased taxes, which is going to increase the cost of housing, which is going to increase the cost of living, which is going to increase the cost of running a business,” Skeels said during the public hearing. “And I think the commissioners need to understand what those costs are, and that impact.”

Now approved by the county board, a significant portion of the proposed project could be a new ‘justice center’ for local law enforcement, the county attorney, and the judicial branch of local government in Cook County. A new courtroom and other facilities would be added to the current law enforcement center near County Road 7 and the bottom of the Gunflint Trail. The cost of building the new justice center is approximately $17.4 million.  However, the county applied to the state for a significant sum, some $8.7 million, that would come in the form of a grant from the office of Minnesota Management and Budget, to offset the cost of the proposed facility.

Cook County Sheriff Pat Eliasen spoke during the public hearing in support of the new justice center, referencing safety and space needs at both the law enforcement center and the current courtroom. Judge Michael Cuzzo, who also spoke during the public hearing Tuesday, echoed the sentiments shared by the sheriff.

“I have advocated for changes that are truly necessary,” Cuzzo said.

Safety concerns referenced by Cuzzo and Eliasen include more space for jurors serving in Cook County, as well as defendants entering the courthouse and courtroom. People who are accused of crimes or have other matters in the legal system often have to enter the courthouse through a public entrance, Eliasen said, occasionally walking by others involved with a criminal or civil case.

Now approved, the commissioners referred to the CIP as “a roadmap” to future spending on things like renovation, additions, new facilities, and upkeep of the buildings the county currently owns. The money spent on the project would include things like water heaters and plumbing fixtures, along with updated floors, walls, and ceilings. Other plans could include repairing or replacing windows and doors, and exterior finishes on county-owned buildings. The CIP will also include plans for addressing a shortage of workspaces for deputies, garage bay space, and space for evidence processing and storage in the law enforcement center. There will also be a plan to address a shortage of office space in the courthouse.

Meanwhile, in voting against the CIP, Commissioner White said she needed more specifics and additional alternatives to some of the proposals, including the need for a new justice center. White said she wanted the county “to think outside the box” in terms of addressing the needs that were explained by county officials, including Judge Cuzzo and Sheriff Eliasen.

“We don’t need to rush on all this stuff,” White said.

Cook County Administrator James Joerke says that the main goals in updating the CIP are to increase the reliability of building systems and to reduce long-term operating costs.

Given the extent of needed upgrades and repairs, the county expects to issue bonds to pay for the work, Joerke said during a series of open house-style meetings earlier this year and in late 2022. While interest rates have increased in recent months, the county enjoys a strong bond rating and would qualify for lower rates than a local government with more debt and a weaker cash position, according to Joerke. The county has also been putting levy dollars into a capital improvement fund, he added, the balance of which was around $592,000 at the end of 2022.

The amount the county ultimately will need to finance depends on the final scope of the CIP and the outcome of the $8.7 million request from the state.

In the audio clip below, Sheriff Pat Eliasen talks during the public hearing August 22 about the need for a safer and improved courtroom facility in Cook County.