Feb 18, 2013 - By Eric Blom, Staff WriterSome details about a new Riverton justice center are more solid, but the location is once again up in the air.
Fremont County Commission vice chairman Travis Becker brought a proposal for a new building to the county board's Feb. 12 meeting. Denver architecture firm Reilley Johnson drew up the plan for a $5.3 million, 16,000 square foot new building housing the courthouse, Sheriff's Office and County Attorney's Office.
"This is not a Taj Mahal by any measure," Becker said about the size. "It's a one-level building that's going to meet the needs of those entities."
A contract to engage Reilly Johnson to draw up complete designs and do the rest of the engineering work would cost $349,000.
Becker said the architects believe construction would finish in June 2014 if it started in June 2013.
Moves to build a new facility intensified after a bullet hole was found in July on the current courthouse's exterior. Large container boxes have been placed around the building as a shield against further gunshots at a cost of $2,000 a month.
Before making decisions to agree to the proposal and sign the contract, chairman Doug Thompson urged taking a step back to decide definitively whether to remodel or build new, what entities to include in the justice center, the size of the building, how to fund it, and where to build it.
"We have the Major property and then the fairgrounds was brought up," he said. "We should decide on one of those before we engage these guys."
Becker expressed a departure from his past opinion on siting the new building.
"I firmly believe there is enough property next to the existing buildings to do this (at the fairgrounds)," Becker said. "If you do it there, your construction costs are going to be lower because you're not going to have to take the infrastructure as far."
Becker said the fairground space is just west of the existing courthouse.
Becker earlier had favored siting the facility on the big piece of agricultural land in north Riverton referred to as the Major property. The Major family sold it to the county at a discount two years ago.
Commissioner Larry Allen said that locating the justice center at the fairgrounds would put it near other county offices, but he was concerned how a new building would affect the fairgrounds.
Commissioner Keja Whiteman also said she supported building at the fairgrounds because it would have room to expand if the fair eventually moves to the Major property.
Thompson also was concerned about affecting the fairgrounds, and she seemed to lean toward the Major property because a new building there would not affect anything else, and the county could add onto the building later.
The county board decided to request that Reilly Johnson perform a cost-benefit analysis for building at both sites before deciding on a location.
The county board also returned to the question of new construction or remodeling an existing building.
Commissioner Stephanie Kessler asked if the board had looked at all remodeling options.
Becker said Reilly Johnson looked into developing options for remodeling the former High Plains Power building. He added no other suitable buildings were for sale in Riverton.
"If you remodel that to the point we need it to function, you're almost at the same price tag," Becker said.
A "bare bones" reconfiguration of the High Plains building, not including the purchase price, would cost $3 million, he said, and rehabbing the building at a "higher level" would cost the same as building new.
If any structural problems arose, the price would increase dramatically, Becker added.
The commission hopes to secure half of the money for a new Riverton justice center from the State Loan Investment Board's mineral royalty grant program. The deadline to apply for those funds is Feb. 21.
Fremont County will have to supply $2.3 million from its cash reserves, Becker said.
Thompson said "energy" at the state level could help the county secure funds.
Becker agreed, saying Wyoming Supreme Court Chief Justice Marilyn Kite will lend her support as will the U.S. Marshal's service.
Whether that support will matter is unknown.
"They have no funding," Becker said.
Those groups have agreed to speak on the county's behalf during the mineral royalty grant process, Becker said, but their verbal support might not be enough.
"I've talked to SLIB" Becker said, "There's no guarantee we're going to get a dime (from the mineral royalties grant program)."
He said he is working on the grant application, and if the commission decides on a location at the next meeting, he will have time to overnight the paperwork in time for the state's Feb. 21 deadline.
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