Residents comment on justice center project


JASPER — The Dubois County Commissioners heard public comment from several residents about the justice center project Monday morning. The commissioners ultimately decided to continue with the construction documents for the judicial center and plan to discuss bids and other details at a later date.

The project, which the commissioners said has been in the works for years, includes improvements to the Dubois County Security Center, a new jail pod and expansion and improvements to the Dubois County Community Corrections Center. The idea of a judicial center, which would include courtrooms and space for the other justice offices, was removed this summer due to cost concerns during the pandemic.

Now that the project is being considered again, the commissioners heard both approval and concern from several downtown merchants and Dubois County Senior Judge William Weikert.

Before the public comment period, Commissioner Chad Blessinger discussed why he thinks the project is a good idea. Some have approached him and asked why the project is being considered now if it’s not an absolute necessity yet. He said there will likely be at least a 3% increase in cost every year.

“The price is never gonna be cheaper than it is today,” he said.

Additionally, Blessinger said several staff members in the courthouse have complained of a lack of space. The judicial center would allow for several offices to move out of the courthouse and have more work space. This would also allow for the remaining offices to have more space.

“I just think there’s a lot of ways this would be beneficial, not just for the criminal justice system but for the other offices being left behind, as well,” Blessinger said.

Commissioner Nick Hostetter added that the new building would allow for increased public safety. Currently, when inmates are taken through the courthouse to get to the court, they sometimes use public elevators and intermingle with others in the building.

Hostetter also expressed approval of moving forward with the project despite the circumstances.

“At this point, it’d be silly for us to throw it out just because of COVID,” he said.

Previous concerns raised about the project involve funding and design. The judicial building would only include two courts, although the county may need at least three in the future, Blessinger said. Any taxes that would be used to fund the project, namely an increase in income tax, are already in place. So the county has the revenue for the project even if it is not approved.

Maureen Braun, owner of Finishing Touches, expressed her approval of the project in front of the council, emphasizing the importance of public safety on the Downtown Square. The downtown merchant has occasionally seen inmates in orange jumpsuits being transported on the Square, she said, which can be unsettling.

Joe Buehler, husband of Just Whimsy LLC Owner Donna Buehler, expressed concern that the courthouse will be too empty after the move. The Buehlers and other downtown merchants believe the courthouse is important for the Downtown Square to thrive, he said, and the area cannot afford to have many more empty buildings.

Several offices will remain in the courthouse even with the new building, the commissioners said.

“I assure you, we are not closing or abandoning the courthouse,” Hostetter said.

An attorney reading a statement on behalf of Judge Weikert said several downtown merchants have said they want the courts to stay in the courthouse. Weikert also said the project is unnecessary, his spokesman said.

“Why do we want to build a bigger jail if the current jail is not at capacity?” he asked.

For at least several months out of this year, the jail has not been at capacity, the commissioners agreed. But it has been at capacity in previous years and needs to be prepared for years to come.

“We’re not building for today,” Hostetter said. “We’re building for the future.”

In addition to deciding to move forward with the project’s construction documents, the commissioners appointed three men — Ken Schnaus, Todd Ofer and Gil Eckerle — to form a building corporation board, which will aid the project, Blessinger said.

The commissioners also:

• Approved the reimbursement of $15,369.95 to Dubois County Community Corrections. Director Megan Durlauf said the money is needed because the work-release program participants switched to electronic monitoring from their homes, which cost the program money while paying to maintain all staff members.

• Accepted a bid of $217,887.25 for an ambulance. This includes deducting the trade-in value of an existing vehicle.

• Approved an addendum to a professional property tax contract between Nexus Group and the county assessor. The addendum clarified the rate of services going forward to be $175 per hour.

• Approved custodian Scott Hopf to sell a generator that is no longer in use.

• Heard that Blessinger communicated with Memorial Hospital and Health Care Center and heard that the staff is working hard and that ICU beds are still available.

• Approved a COVID-19 employee policy for 2021. The policy will allow for employees to work remotely, if possible, while quarantining and to get paid using paid time off or workers’ compensation or take unpaid days. “This will allow for people to still get paid and get the work done that the county needs,” Hostetter said.

• Heard from Dubois County Health Department Administrative Director Shawn Werner that the department is planning a 15-minute rapid test site. The department is still determining testing requirements but will likely only allow those experiencing symptoms to receive the rapid test.

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