The Hancock County commissioners have been left with no choice but to move forward in 2018 with plans to renovate the existing juvenile/probate court building on Dorney Plaza.
The decision was actually made by voters in November, when they rejected a 20-year, quarter-percent sales tax increase that would have, among other things, financed construction of a new county building downtown.
One of the tenants of the new building would have been the juvenile/probate court.
Had the vote been close, perhaps the commissioners would have pitched the tax issue again. But the margin was overwhelming. There’s no use beating a dead horse.
The commissioners now move to plan B, with little choice but to renovate a 150-year-old building that was originally designed as a church.
While the building appears sound from the outside, and some offices inside have been remodeled over the years, much needs to be done to make it more functional and secure as a courthouse.
Public open houses were held prior to the election so people could see just how much work the building would need if the court stayed put. Parts of the second floor have long been closed off because of being unsafe. Few people, however, bothered to tour the building.
Since the election, the commissioners have revisited court needs, and have asked architects to review previous renovation plans.
While some work has been completed since the project was bid early last year, the renovations could still cost around $1 million.
No one can blame Judge Kristen Johnson for being anxious for work to begin, now that a new court has been ruled out.
The current court building was never designed as such. It first served as a church, later was the home of Findlay Publishing Co., and more recently was the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office.
The building has two courtrooms, but both are small, making it hard to separate the parties at hearings. Security will need to be improved, and preliminary plans call for a deputy to be present whenever the court is in session.
The juvenile/probate court has been treated as second class for years, perhaps because the current location was never really considered its permanent home.
Now retired Judge Allan Davis wasn’t one to demand renovations, but maybe he should have. Johnson’s calls for improvements to the court are warranted.
Many people are partial to historic buildings and prefer they be kept and maintained. But preservation, like new construction, comes with a price.
Like the nearby Hancock County Courthouse, the juvenile/probate court building is a reminder of our past. The sales tax issue may have been too big of a bite for most voters to take, but time will tell if fixing up an old church is a better investment than building new.