ELYRIA — Lorain County Common Pleas Judge James Burge issued an ultimatum to the county commissioners Wednesday before storming out of their meeting Wednesday.
Either the commissioners agree to build out the empty fifth floor of the Lorain County Justice Center for the county’s Adult Probation Department or Burge said he will issue a court order requiring them to fund renovations in the dilapidated old Lorain County Courthouse, where the Probation Department is now housed.
In a letter sent to the commissioners later in the day, Burge gave them until May 2 to comply.
Burge wrote that he will work with various city departments to determine what needs to be done to make the old courthouse “sanitary, structurally sound, safe” and secure and how much those repairs will cost.
“When I receive a cost estimate for the foregoing, the sum will be added to the budget request of the general division of the common pleas court,” Burge wrote. “Then, with the complete support of my colleagues, I will order you to pay it.”
There is no estimate of how much fixing the problems at the old courthouse would cost, although county Special Projects Director Karen Davis said that the last time the county looked at the issue, the cost was about $75 per square foot.
The old courthouse has 24,708 square feet, so repairs can be roughly calculated out to nearly $1.9 million, although Commissioner Tom Williams said that kind of money would only be a “Band-Aid” on the problems in the building.
Commissioner Lori Kokoski said after the meeting that she was surprised by Burge’s behavior during a discussion over whether to relocate the Probation Department to the Justice Center or to a county-owned building at 374 Broad St.`
“The way he conducted himself in the hearing room today was surprising … He was like a bully,” Kokoski said. “We need to keep discussing so we can come up with a plan.”
The county’s judges have ordered their budgets for the last several years, a move that the commissioners have complained about but have never challenged in court.
The commissioners all said they doubt Burge has the legal power to order them to make the renovations, and they will likely challenge such an order if one is issued.
“It’s up to us to determine where they’re housed, so I don’t know how he thinks he’s going to court order us,” Kokoski said.
Williams described Burge’s actions Wednesday as those of “a very passionate individual,” adding that he understands the judge’s frustration over the slow progress on the issue of finding appropriate office space for the Probation Department.
The county’s six General Division judges, who oversee the Probation Department, have complained for years about problems at the old courthouse, including break-ins and thefts from the building. They also haven’t been happy that part of the Probation Department is separately housed at the old Columbia Gas building on Third Street.
Building out the unfinished floor of the Justice Center would cost about $2.4 million, according to the judges’ proposal, although the commissioners estimated it would actually run closer to $2.8 million.
Court Administrator Tim Lubbe said that the fifth floor proposal also includes new office space for the court’s foreclosure magistrates. Including the foreclosure work in the fifth floor project would allow the court to use some of its special projects money to help fund the project, he said.
The commissioners’ proposal to renovate the Broad Street location would cost just shy of $1.3 million.
But moving the Probation Department to Broad Street would bring its own set of problems, Burge said.
“We’re going to have 100 thugs at the corner of Broad and Middle (Avenue) every day,” the judge told the commissioners.
Elyria Mayor Holly Brinda and Elyria Police Chief Duane Whitely also said they oppose moving the Probation Department to Broad Street.
Whitely said there were numerous complaints of drug use and other issues when the Lorain County Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services had an office in downtown Elyria. He said he used grant money to better police those using that agency’s services and, despite numerous arrests, the problem didn’t really go away until LCADA relocated to East Avenue.
That, coupled with a police crackdown on problem bars in the downtown area, has led to people returning downtown, Whitely said.
“The downtown is cleaned up,” he said. “We need to keep it that way.”
Kokoski and Commissioner Ted Kalo both said that the county was trying to address the judges’ desire for a new location and save taxpayer money by proposing the Broad Street building as a possible solution.
“I haven’t made any decision,” Kalo said. “I just have concerns about spending that kind of money under our current economic conditions.”
He said other county departments are also seeking funding to deal with issues ranging from leaking roofs to new cruisers being sought by county Sheriff Phil Stammitti.