December 21, 2014

Elyria
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Commissioners say plan to move Probation Department too costly

 

This area inside the old courthouse, which opened in 1881, reveals damage. PHOTO PROVIDED

This area inside the old courthouse, which opened in 1881, reveals damage. PHOTO PROVIDED

ELYRIA — A compromise plan to move the Lorain County Adult Probation Department into the vacant fifth floor of the county Justice Center is dead on arrival, opponents said Wednesday.

The plan by County Commissioner Tom Williams would resolve a dispute that dates to at least 2008. County judges want to move the 36-person department to the center due to decrepit conditions in the old courthouse, which opened in 1881. The Justice Center opened in 2004.

The move would cost between $2.4 million and $2.8 million. Williams’ plan calls for county taxpayers to pay $1.2 million. The rest would be paid with court funds such as the approximately $700,000 received annually in fees paid by offenders for probationary services.

“If the board continues to do nothing in regards to the old courthouse, you will be wasting tax dollars,” the Republican Williams wrote in a Wednesday email to Democratic commissioners Ted Kalo and Lori Kokoski. “You can no longer play the waiting game.”

However, Kalo and Kokoski, who want to renovate the courthouse for between $250,000 and $300,000, said they had no interest in the compromise, contending taxpayers can’t afford it.

“Just because somebody wants something doesn’t make it the right thing,” Kalo said.

Kokoski said department workers’ health and safety isn’t at risk in the building and they are exaggerating problems. She said photos of decrepit conditions are from areas where employees aren’t supposed to be.

“They’re trying to shame us into spending $2.8 million because they want what they want,” Kokoski said.

While the $1.2 million share of the cost of the move is about 2.2 percent of the $53 million county budget, Kokoski said the county can’t afford it.

“We would have to borrow that,” she said. “We don’t have money to fix our sidewalks.”

Williams said in an interview that the $50,000 requested Tuesday by the judges to hire a Cleveland law firm to sue the Board of Commissioners is just the start of a potentially costly legal battle. He estimated it could cost $500,000 for a settlement and $750,000 to $1 million if the case is resolved in court.

Williams said even if a judge ruled the board can decide the department’s location, the judge would probably order renovations of $250,000 to $300,000 to the old courthouse, which Williams said would be a Band-Aid. While Kalo and Kokoski say the move would be too expensive, Williams noted they were willing to spend about $970,000 to move the department to a building on Broad Street by Lorain National Bank.

That idea was nixed due to concerns about felons loitering downtown. The department handles about 2,000 cases annually.

Williams, who is running for re-election, said he fought with the judges in 2011 to get them to lower their budget requests. The judges have a $5 million overall budget, including about $2.4 million in a general fund budget, said Tim Lubbe, Lorain County court administrator.

However, Williams said he’s siding with the judges this time because they’re right. Williams, who has long feuded with Kalo and Kokoski, said due to the constitutional separation of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, the board likely would lose if the case goes to court. “It’s just a shame because we’re going to be throwing away a lot of money,” Williams said.

Lubbe said workers deserve to work in a healthy and secure workplace. Lubbe said if commissioners insist they stay at the courthouse, the court will comply, but it will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to make repairs.

He said problems include water and raw sewage leaking from the third floor into second-floor rooms where employees work. Lubbe said the lobby accommodates about a dozen people, but 100 come through on a regular basis, making it unsafe.

“The law says the court can require reasonable and necessary facilities for its personnel, and that is what we intend to do,” Lubbe said.

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com.