Pictured is an RQAW designer’s rendering of how the interior of a courtroom in the new Steuben County judicial center will appear as it was shown on a video presentation before the Steuben County Board of Commissioners on May 16. This design was brought to the table after weeks of input from the Commissioners and stakeholders of the new judicial center.

ANGOLA — In a come-to-Jesus moment on Monday that was a first for discussions about the planning for a new judicial center, Steuben Superior Court Judge William Fee told the Board of Commissioners it was time to keep the project moving and for once and for all get it done.

Before having to rush back to his courtroom in the 1868, historic Steuben County Courthouse, Fee delivered a message that commissioners needed to make sure they didn’t turn back the clock on the judicial center project that has made more progress in the past 18 months than it has in the last 10-plus years.

Fee’s comments came after Commissioner Ken Shelton talked about costs of the project — estimated at just less than $28 million — and looking at an unknown Plan B, particularly if not funded by the Steuben County Council, whose job it is to determine whether the lease-bond arrangement for the project will be approved.

This discussion came after commissioners have spent some $400,000 in planning this year and received approval last week to spend another $400,000 in design work on a judicial center plan that is literally weeks away from having its cost finalized so it could be put out for bid this summer.

The project is being pursued because the current facility does not meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, is sorely lacking in safety and is out of space for the modern judiciary.

“I understand the concerns about cost. Believe me I understand, I’ll be paying my fair share. But doing nothing for any longer is not an option. If we delay this we don’t know when there’s going to be an ADA accident, and I said before in a public setting that it’s not conscionable to have the place that is the seat of justice, following the rule of law, not be ADA compliant. That’s where we are right now. We’re not ADA compliant in our existing courthouse. That has to change ASAP,” Fee said.

As has been the case in previous meetings, Shelton questioned whether the project was moving forward, even after the commissioners have approved much of the design, tweaked the design and worked with designers RQAW, Fishers, and construction manager Weigand Construction, Fort Wayne, of getting the project to a final place where the county could move ahead with financing and eventual construction.

The dialogue

“I mean, let me ask this another way. Is the commissioners’ position that we are without exception, no matter what the price is, we’re continuing on with this project this way,” Shelton asked at one point.

Commission President Wil Howard responded, saying that the cost of building the structure will only continue to rise.

“But I also think that we keep looking at the numbers and we’re wondering, is it prudent to spend an limited number,” Shelton responded.

“It’s not an unlimited number we’ve been honing in on it for months. And I think if we do not proceed those numbers, no matter what you do, are going to continue to rise,” Commissioner Lynne Liechty responded.

“I would agree. But like I said the last time we don’t know where the (County) council is, right,” Shelton said.

So far, the council has approved all the funding requests for the design work of the project.

“I think counsel knows we’re looking at a project and it’s our job to bring that project to them,” Howard said, “and then the council determines the funding mechanism. It will have to be a number that at least two thirds of us can agree on at some point in time, I hope we agree.”

“I would like to be one of those, one of those two,” Shelton said.

“I’d like for it to be three,” Howard said. (There are three elected members of the Board of Commissioners.)

“It will be up for a vote in the end,” Liechty said.

“But I think it’s also up to us to be prudent about it and look at what’s happening and if this is the course that we’re going to stay on,” Shelton said. “And I’ve been misquoted. I’m not suggesting we’re scrapping it. I’m suggesting that we recognize that there may be an option B, whatever option B is. I mean, if this isn’t where the council is going to want to land then there would be an option B and that’s what I’m seeing,” Shelton said.

“We’ll know that once council determines whether or not we’re going to go there,” Howard said.

Howard continued, saying if the council does not agree with the spending plan, they it will be “back to the drawing board. Our decisions so far has been to stay the course and proceed with the project.”

“Well, I know how we all feel about making a good investment,” Shelton said.

After that exchange, Fee requested permission to speak.

This is a big deal

“I can see this is really similar to what what’s (been) going on. And we all know that we’ve seen this movie right? The last several years,” Fee said. “So we have passed the point where we can just say we’re not going to do anything now. We’re way past that. We all pretty much know we need to do something. And this has been the plan that has come to the top. We’ve looked at everything else at least once. This is an educated calculation of what we can do. Remembering that what we’re making here is something that is kind of a legacy project. It’s the biggest thing that will be done here and Steven County for decades, if not generations, and it’s really important that we get it right.”

Design work will be done next week

Rebecca Dixon of RQAW said the final design work will be shipped out to Weigand on Monday, May 23, so they could put final numbers to the project. That final price tag will be determined by Weigand in four weeks.

Final drawings, with all of the mechanical, electrical and more, will be completed by August.

From there, the county has three options:

• It can follow the current calendar and break ground on the project in October and start construction, with some concrete working possibly being done in the winter.

• The project could be fast tracked so concrete work can be done much sooner than late fall, early winter.

• Or the work can be delayed to spring 2023 in order to follow more hospitable construction weather.

Later in the meeting, Howard said the consensus was to fast track the project to get it moving now.

Early in the meeting, commissioners were presented a look at what the courtrooms would look like. The featured some wood paneling, traditional lighting, sconce lighting and a gallery with seating for about 80 people.

There was also discussion of being able to reuse some equipment from the old courthouse, particularly sound and recording equipment that was recently updated. There was also talk of using benches from the courthouse for possible seating. There are benches in the Steuben Circuit Court and the Magistrate Courtroom.

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