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County evaluating other buildings as possible court sites

Sep 26, 2012 - By Martin Reed, Staff Writer

The Fremont County Commission is looking into using an existing building, such as the vacant High Plains Power office, as a potential location for a Riverton courthouse facility.

Three of the five commissioners who met Sept. 11 unanimously approved spending $15,000 to hire the Reilly Johnson Architecture firm to examine potential buildings in Riverton.

Reilly Johnson will provide a report that outlines conceptual floor plans, site maps and costs involving various existing buildings under consideration.

The goal is "to see if we have a good, viable fit" with any potential site, commissioner Travis Becker said in his motion to hire the Denver-based firm.

October review

Becker said the firm's report should arrive by Oct. 12 for commission review.

"It's possible they could have all of this to us by the end of this month," he said.

The move follows recent concerns raised by several officials, including Wyoming Supreme Court Chief Justice Marilyn S. Kite, about a bullet penetrating the Riverton court facility's exterior in July.

The building is the only court facility in Wyoming that bullets can penetrate, Kite said in August. An investigation has not uncovered a motive for the shooting.

Officials from the state Homeland Security department have conducted a vulnerability assessment on the Riverton facility. A committee is continuing to explore options for securing the current building and determining a long-term solution.

Sheriff Skip Hornecker told commissioners that discussions have been ongoing with Becker, Fremont County Attorney Brian Varn and Circuit Judge Wesley A. Roberts on the matter.

"We've discussed options that are available to us -- short term, long term, what is cost effective to us," Hornecker said.

No new facility

One solution not being considered is constructing a new facility.

"No one on the panel sees that as a viable option as far as new construction," the sheriff said.

The commission previously enlisted Reilly Johnson in 2009 to create a conceptual design for a new, safer Riverton court complex, but the costs seemed prohibitive.

Using the former High Plains Power office building on West Main Street or another site may be the long-term solution for the Riverton court facility.

Roberts said he did not want to comment specifically on the High Plains potential, but he said it is one option under consideration.

"Our committee has looked at that," he said. "It's not the only option that's being talked about right now. I think it's up to the commission, once they get that information, to make that decision of what is the best use of taxpayer money ... and suitable for a justice center."

Securing existing building

Officials continue to explore options for the existing building, which has three large metal cargo containers around the facility's east and north sides to protect the courtroom.

"No matter what longer-term option may work out for us, we still have to secure the current building to some extent," Hornecker said.

He expected the facility's vulnerability assessment to be available Sept. 14.

"That will give us an idea of what costs are on that building," he said. "We're looking at several options."

Options for the existing building include continuing the cargo containers around the entire facility at a cost of around $32,000 for two years, or installing material such as concrete, bullet-proof Kevlar, or rocks.

Stacking concrete blocks may cost up to $30,000, but there is "no way to know if it will sink," Becker said. Kevlar would reach up to $90,000, while the option for gabions -- rock-filled cages -- "was so high he wouldn't give us a number," Becker said about cost estimates.

"In essence, what you run into is a lot of engineering issues," he said. "At this moment in time, it seems the Conex boxes are the least expensive and still provide reasonable security."

Engineering costs would be "astronomical," Becker said, questioning significant spending on a building in line for replacement.

"It doesn't make financial sense to do something like that," Becker said.

Roberts suggested more study on the options for securing the building.

"There has to be a cost-benefit analysis of all these different options," he said.

Funding sources remain another issue. Becker said the committee is looking at a State Loan and Investment Board grant for partial funding.

"My thoughts on this would be to submit a SLIB grant for the Conex boxes for a time frame ... put it in for 24 months," Becker said.

Other commissions and Hornecker agreed with the application to the state.

"We know that something's got to get done," Becker said. "Is the Conex boxes a perfect solution? No, but there is no perfect solution to that building."

The sheriff added, "We've got to do something long-term, and we've got to do something immediate. The Conex option seems to be the most viable."

Commission vice chairman Pat Hickerson said the group needs to work to get the emergency SLIB application in to the state agency by the Sept. 20 deadline.

"Given the projected funding for next year," the commission should ask for state help, Hickerson said. "Given our projected budget, I don't think we can throw $2 (million) or $3 million at this thing and still remain viable."