SPET by SPET: The case of the creaky courthouse

JACKSON, Wyo. — Teton County’s courthouse was built in 1968.

Since then, very little in or about the building has changed. That’s 51 years of life, and the last renovations were made 20 years ago.

According to studies conducted by the county and outside contractors, many of the facility’s working systems have a life expectancy of 15-20 years, which has come and gone.

Old doesn’t always mean broken, but in the case of this courthouse, the building is not meeting the basic needs of today. So Teton County is coming to voters to ask for $2 million “for the purpose of planning, designing, engineering, site preparation and preliminary construction costs for a new or renovated Teton County Courthouse. Funds may also be used for security improvements to the existing Teton County.”

What’s wrong with it?

For one, says Teton County Director of General Services Sarah Mann, it is woefully inadequate in terms of accessibility. The elevator is too small for a wheelchair to fit comfortably. “You can’t turn around, can’t reach the buttons, and you have to back out,” Mann says. That’s not a problem that can be solved within the existing space — Teton County would, at minimum, have to build an addition to the courthouse to accommodate an ADA-accessible elevator.

Neither the bathrooms nor the courtroom itself on the second floor are any better. The bathrooms are too small, and the jury box requires jurors to step up into it.

“There’s no way for someone in a wheelchair to get up in the juror box,” Mann says.

The second-story courtroom is more a historical artifact than a functional space, though it is still in use .”It’s been that way since 1968,” Mann says. The building has changed around it, but the room itself has remained unchanged.

Both the National Center for State Courts and the Facility Condition Assessment found that multiple aspects of the buildings, from restrooms to elevators to jury rooms and internal passages, fail to meet current ADA standards.

The building is also seismically dated. It would “perform as designed,” according to a study, but Mann says we don’t really know what that would look like. And since it was designed in 1968, seismic design standards have changed. The 1994 Northridge earthquake in California made sure of that.

An energy audit gave the courthouse an Energy Star rating of 34 out of 100. It performs worse than 66% of similar buildings.

The courthouse is also half as spacious as it should be, according to a space analysis by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC). The analysis shows that 64,000 square feet of space are needed to accommodate current needs. The building currently measures 31,000 square feet. Deficiencies include courtroom and hallway layouts, a lack of attorney conference rooms, and inadequate waiting areas for the public. The District Courtroom is too small to accommodate jury trials. The list goes on.

Finally, security. Certain security protocol is confidential, but Mann says there are improvements that are “immediate and crucial.” 

Solutions

 The county has three choices: remodel, expand, or scrap it and start over. The Board of County Commissioners will have to vote on the best option based on what is needed and what is economically feasible.

“I think the challenge facing commissioners is we’re going to have to be pretty decisive at some point,” says Commissioner Mark Newcomb.

But wait, if commissioners haven’t voted on what to do yet, isn’t asking $2 million for renderings and initial construction a little premature?

Maybe, Newcomb says, but approving the $2 million SPET proposition would likely help inform the commissioners’ course of action. One depends on, the other, “to some degree.”

“I think the significance of the $2 million is to some extent a bit of a gage of public awareness and commitment do doing something,” Newcomb says. “If it doesn’t pass, we’re going to have to figure out something that won’t cost as much.”

And it will cost a lot. The $2 million on the ballot is hardly a drop in the bucket of what the county will eventually have to swallow. The “full enchilada” will cost an estimated $60 million.

“There’s just no way we could fund $60 million without some sort of help,” Newcomb says. “If it passes by a large margin, then we can say that … people understand that the courthouse was built in ’68 and is just flat-out out of date.”

Early discussions about the SPET ballot asked for more money to complete more of the project, but electeds worried about “sticker shock” decided to ask for something more bite-sized on this year’s ballot. It is possible Teton County will be back in a few years, after renderings are done and the design is set, asking for more SPET money.

“We’ll [have to] do the very best we can to sell it to the public,” Newcomb says. “If it fails, then the choice is to bond for it, or scrap the idea entirely and try to make it work with resources we have. It’s rare we face a decision like this, where we could spend $2 million or $6 million to try to address everything, or go to the full $60 million price tag.”

It’s possible there’s a cheaper solution, Newcomb says. The $60 million estimate is based on a national review that lays out standards for what is expected in a modern-day courthouse. Teton County is relatively small, and may not need all of the things other courthouses do.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take it seriously, Newcomb says. Jackson is a small town with a big profile.

“We’re in the spotlight a bit,” Newcomb says. “I don’t think we should take it lightly … We want to try and meet the standards the best we can.”

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