Courtroom remodel planned to boost security

A major project to remodel some courtrooms at the Anoka County Courthouse to enhance security has been given the green light by the Anoka County Board.

The board July 8 approved a resolution authorizing a consultant, Wold Architects and Engineers, St. Paul, to proceed with architectural drawings for the project.

The resolution states: “The courts building was not designed to provide security spaces for those persons being brought to the courts from the jail. In the years since this facility was originally built, the number of persons that need security has risen dramatically.”

A work group – chaired by Anoka County District Court Judge Dan O’Fallon and comprising judges, court staff, county commissioners and county staff – has been meeting for the past 18 months to two years to come up with a plan to deal with security concerns in courtrooms that handle felony arraignments, hearings and trials, particularly the high-profile ones.

O’Fallon described the courthouse structure as a “labyrinth” with not enough separation between alleged offenders, courtroom staff and others, particularly during large arraignment calendars.

For example, the Monday after the Fourth of July holiday, more than 50 cases were dealt with in four and a half hours on the arraignment calendar, O’Fallon told the county board.

“It was a sight to behold,” O’Fallon said.

O’Fallon praised the willingness of the county board to find a collaborative solution to the problem, not only by participating in the work group, but also by visiting the courtrooms to see the issues and also to travel to other counties, notably Ramsey and Washington, to see how they handle security issues, he said.

“We are so grateful that you have listened to us and are willing to address our main security concerns at the courthouse,” O’Fallon said.

A lot of options have been considered, said Anoka County Administrator Jerry Soma, who has served on the work group.

According to Andrew Dykstra, county director of facilities management and construction, Wold Architects and Engineers has been doing a condition assessment of all county buildings, and this project emanated from its study of the courthouse.

That’s why Wold is continuing with the architectural drawings and design work, which is likely to take up to 10 months, Dykstra said.

“They have done a great job and have great references,” he said.

Phase 1 work scheduled in 2015 will include constructing a new secure courtroom in currently vacant space on the third floor of the courthouse, where arraignments and other criminal case hearings can take place while existing courtrooms are being remodeled and thereafter, according to Dykstra.

In addition, the entire third floor of the courthouse, some 100,000 square feet, will have a sprinkling system installed as required by the fire marshal, Dykstra said. There is no sprinkling system on the third floor now; it wasn’t required when the floor was added to the courthouse, he said.

Phases 2-4 of the project will take place in 2016 and 2017, according to Dykstra.

The second phase includes remodeling two existing courtrooms on the second floor to meet security requirements to house felony hearings and trials, as well as constructing a secure elevator to bring prisoners who walk from the Anoka County Jail across the skyway linking the jail to the courthouse to the new courtrooms.

Phase 3 will remodel an existing courtroom on the third floor (known as Courtroom 2) to provide secure space for in-custody and arraignment hearings, including a conference room where defense attorneys can meet with their clients, Dykstra said.

In phase 4, the larger, existing courtroom on the third floor (C300, formerly Courtroom 1) will be remodeled into a secure holding area for prisoners, complete with an office for bailiffs, and linked to the second floor courtrooms by the secure elevator, he said.

According to Commissioner Scott Schulte, who together with Anoka County Board Chairperson Rhonda Sivarajah and County Commissioner Matt Look, were part of the work group, this is a safety issue and the remodeling work will be “highly functional,” not a “Taj Mahal.”

“This is mostly about safety in the courthouse,” Schulte said.

Right now there is a lot of commingling and not enough separation, not only in the corridors, but in the courtrooms themselves, where court staff are much closer to the defendant than the bailiff, he said.

Thankfully, there have not been any security incidents at the Anoka County Courthouse, but Schulte was aware of incidents in other counties and the goal is to prevent that happening in Anoka County, he said.

He, Soma and Anoka County District Court Judge Tammi Fredrickson recently visited the Ramsey County Courthouse and were very impressed by its layout, Schulte said.

“We have modeled what we are doing after Ramsey County,” he said.

This project is exciting and will create a “great work environment for staff and the public,” Schulte said.

The estimated cost of the project is in “flux” until Wold completes the drawings and design work, but Schulte expected it to be in the $7 million to $8 million range, he said.

How that will be paid for has not yet been determined, but he did not rule out issuing bonds in 2017, according to Schulte.

While the county has been paying cash for projects and not bonding for the past couple of years to get the county’s debt under control, this is a large project with a long-term life and is a “need rather than a want,” Schulte said.

Before determining whether to enter the bond market and for how much, the county board will look at the balance in its asset preservation account, which has been used to pay cash for projects, he said.

This project is “overdue and important,” said County Commissioner Jim Kordiak.

It has been talked about for the past 20 years and Kordiak is glad that the county board is stepping forward, he said.

According to Sivarajah, this project makes sense, is fiscally responsible and responds to specific needs.