County would lend to itself for center

Dec 5, 2013 By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

If anyone wants to know how much more a new Riverton justice center would cost the county, Fremont County commissioner Travis Becker has an answer: $1.8 million.

At a public meeting Wednesday at Riverton City Hall, Becker said Fremont County could take a loan from itself to cover that total and repay the debt, including interest, with $205,000 a year for 10 years.

The commission has not decided to build the facility or how to pay for it.

"This is my idea," Becker said.

He broke down the costs for the 13 people in attendance Wednesday. The most recent estimate was roughly $4.9 million, Becker said, down from the original $5.2 million projection.

Becker said he expects a grant from a state court security fund will cover half the cost, or about $2.5 million, and the county would be responsible for the rest. Legislation has been drafted to create the court security fund, and according to the drafted bill, the State Lands Investment Board would have to approve a request from Fremont County as well.

Becker was bullish about Fremont County's chances, pointing out that Gov. Matt Mead included the court security fund in his budget.

If the Legislature passed the bill, Becker thought the Riverton justice center would be the first priority for the new grant program.

Still, Fremont County would be responsible for the other $2.5 million, which would be reduced by about $380,000 after the county committed money from its general fund this year to cover design costs.

An SLIB countywide consensus grant would pay for about $140,000 of the obligation, and the county could count the land's value, $100,000, toward its half as well.

Those deductions leave Fremont County owing roughly $1.8 million.

Becker suggested the commission could pay that bill with a 10-year, 2 percent interest loan from its $7.5 million cash reserve. Payments would be about $200,000 a year.

"So in 10 years, we would have paid ourselves back with interest," Becker said.

Those figures were even lower than projections Becker brought to the commission's meeting Tuesday, when he anticipated needing a $2 to $2.5 million loan and annual payments as high as $278,000.

The commission has not yet decided to build a new justice center, and Becker would not comment on when the public would know if the project would happen.

"I think we take it as we can," he said, referring to the commission. "We're not here to debate the issue tonight."

Room requests

During the meeting, public defender Devon Petersen asked if he and his staff could have a room in the building. He said he could use the space to meet with clients, do work between hearings and print off documents with an added desk and printer.

"We spend a lot of time in the Riverton building," he said. "I think it would be helpful for the public defenders to have a room that would be available to them."

Driving to and from Lander and Riverton between meetings was a waste of public defenders' time and gas and taxpayer dollars, Petersen said.

Fremont County Attorney Michael Bennett said he thinks the county might be able to fulfill the request.

"If we are anticipating money from the state, and we do have cash reserves we can pay back, could we go just a little bigger and add an office for the public defender and some room to grow?" he asked.

Adding to the building would not add much to the county's annual payments, Bennett said.

All of the groups in the facility --Fremont County Sheriff's Office, Fremont County Attorney's Office and Circuit Court clerks --have room to grow, Becker said. He pointed out how they all have space to add staff.

The current plan includes two rooms where attorneys can meet with their clients, and public defenders can use them to meet with defendants, said Riverton Circuit Court Judge Wesley Roberts. He did not think it was feasible to designate an office solely for the public defenders, however, because the building is designed to be efficient with space, and many rooms have more than one use.

"I don't see where there is any room to set aside space for the public defender's office," Roberts said. "I can see where if you got into that discussion, you might get into where other entities that are frequently in our building might like space."

Becker emphasized he could not make decisions at the public meeting, but commissioners Larry Allen and Stephanie Kessler indicated interest in looking for space for the public defenders.

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