Public gets 1st look at planned Will County courthouse

Alicia FabbreDaily Southtown

Will County Board members Thursday got their first look at what a new, and bigger, county courthouse could look like.

Architects from Wight & Co. showed off concept plans for a 10-story building at the southwest corner of Ottawa and Jefferson streets in downtown Joliet. The courthouse would be adjacent to a four-story building for court-related offices such as those of the circuit court clerk and the state’s attorney.

“I’m very excited about the possibility that we could have a courthouse that would bring us into the 21st century,” said Will County Circuit Court Chief Judge Richard Schoenstedt, who has lobbied for years for a new courthouse.

County officials agree that the existing courthouse, which has 23 courtrooms and was built in 1968, is too small for the court system and presents several safety concerns. Schoenstedt has regularly noted that inmates, judges and jurors often use the same hallways.

The elevators routinely break down, ceilings in some courtrooms are in need of repair and lines to get into the courthouse during peak times well outside the building and even down the block because of the small entrance.

The concept plans presented Thursday show a courthouse with space for up to 34 courtrooms, though only 30 would be completed initially. Plans also include dedicated hallways and holding areas for inmates on each floor.

The proposal also includes space for future expansion if needed — such as an annex to hold specialized courtrooms — on property at Ottawa and Washington streets.

The First Midwest Bank building would be torn down to make room for the courthouse. That building, owned by the county, is being used to temporarily house the Will County Sheriff’s Department until a new sheriff’s headquarters is built at the sheriff’s Laraway Road facility.

The fate of the existing courthouse remains unclear, though some County Board members suggested Thursday that it would be cheaper to tear it down than try to retrofit it for office space.

Board members also sparred Thursday over the proposed financing of the roughly $170 million courthouse project.

Member Mike Fricilone, R-Homer Glen, presented a proposal that would tap various revenue sources, but not increase the county property tax, to pay off a $225 million bond issue over 30 years that would finance the courthouse project as well as the new sheriff’s police station and a county health department building.

Under the proposal, the county would cover the debt payment with about $2.4 million from the general fund each year as well as $2.8 million in annual fees on courthouse case filings, courthouse parking and landfill operations as well as $2 million from Public Building Commission tax revenue.

Joliet also recently pledged $10 million toward the new courthouse, and Will County also would use its share of Regional Transportation Authority sales tax income to help cover the building projects.

Several Democratic members of the County Board questioned the financing plan, noting that it did not address what would be cut to allow for the use of $2.4 million from the general fund, the county’s main account for daily operations.

“I want to move (the courthouse) forward, but I want to make sure the plan we have works,” board member Don Moran, D-Romeoville, said. “Absolutely the county needs (these new buildings), but I want to make sure we’re not stepping off a cliff we can’t recover from.”

Moran and others noted they had only recently received the funding proposal and questioned why the board’s Republican majority was requesting a vote on it at the Dec. 17 meeting. Nick Palmer, chief of staff to County Executive Larry Walsh, argued that Walsh’s staff was not consulted on the proposal and had not had time to review it.

“People spend more time researching tennis shoes or TV purchases,” he said.

The board Republicans, however, argued that the topic of financing the projects was discussed at meetings of the board’s finance committee and that board members have been encouraged to provide feedback.

Board members agreed to delay a vote on the bond issue and discuss it further during a special committee meeting on Jan. 14. Palmer said Walsh’s office plans to present an alternative to the funding proposal at the January meeting.

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