By JOY BROWN
Findlay administrators hope to begin a multi-phase Municipal Building remodeling project this winter that will provide extra room for the municipal court, and repurpose space on all three floors.
City Council on Tuesday was asked for $20,000 in seed money for design work, but the total project is roughly estimated at $350,000. The money will come from fees collected by the municipal court, which are then deposited in a court improvement fund.
The court is the driving force behind the building changes, Service-Safety Director Paul Schmelzer said.
Municipal Court Judges Robert Fry and Jonathan Starn want to hire a magistrate to help reduce their caseloads, allowing them more time to grapple with the most serious and complicated cases. A new courtroom would be created for the magistrate.
The court’s caseload “really got out of control” around 2009, Fry said. “We could no longer manage it as effectively.”
The problem since then has only worsened.
Fry said from 2011 to 2013, the caseload increased by nearly 50 percent.
“By next month, we’ll be scheduling jury trials into January of next year,” Fry said. “We have 15 to 20 trials scheduled every Thursday. We need to get these cases resolved or addressed a lot quicker than we are.”
The crammed criminal justice atmosphere on the Municipal Building’s second floor has also resulted in compromising and uncomfortable situations as attorneys and prosecutors confer with clients in crowded rooms before hearings and trials.
The administration wants to create a third courtroom on the second floor for a magistrate, and use most of the existing Police Department administrative office space across the hall for court offices, meeting rooms and a drug-testing room. Drug testing now occurs in public restrooms.
The police dispatching center would remain where it is on the second floor. But police administration would be relocated to the first floor, next to the majority of its operations, and space would be redesigned there.
Police records would be moved to the third floor, near the Engineering Department.
Schmelzer said police personnel are agreeable to the rearranging.
“Even though they’d be sacrificing office space, there are operational benefits that they recognize,” he said.
Remodeling “is not something that’s a new idea,” Schmelzer said. “I grabbed plans that were done previously and started working with the problem. I think we now have a decent plan that helps with work flow.”
While there are cramped conditions in parts of the building, “there is a lot of wasted, unused space” in other parts, Schmelzer said.
On the first floor, it is proposed that the old city jail cells and hallway be turned into an office where police officers can complete reports and other paperwork, and that can double as a holding facility for newly-arrested people. The amount of office equipment there would be minimal because of the room’s double function.
In the first floor’s northwest corner, where there is already a secured entrance, space would be created for booking suspects.
Schmelzer said if the remodeling work happens, “the last phase would be building the court space” on the second floor.
The Municipal Building was built in 1984. Its space needs and use have been adapted and changed over time.
Schmelzer recalled a period years ago when Blanchard Valley Center operated a third-floor cafeteria.
The cost estimate for the current project is viewed by administrators as neither exorbitant nor cheap.
“The operational benefits alone will, over time, offset that really easily,” Schmelzer said.
City Council members’ approval is not required, but will be sought. Details will be provided by administrators and judges at a July 29 special council meeting that will begin at 5 p.m.