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Riverton justice center plans stall in second phase

May 16, 2013 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

Progress on a new Riverton justice center stalled Tuesday after the Fremont County Commission didn't approve moving forward with the second phase of the design.

Moves to build a new facility were initiated in July after a bullet was found to have penetrated the current courthouse's exterior.

Architect Robert Johnson presented a schematic design of a facility at the county board's May 14 meeting. According to the contract, his company, Denver-based Reilly Johnson Architecture, needs commission approval to take the next step and make more detailed plans as part of "design development." That second phase would require five or six weeks and, per the contract, cost about $75,000, Johnson said. The entire project is expected to cost about $5 million.

Commissioners Larry Allen and Travis Becker voted to approve moving to the next stage, but commissioners Stephanie Kessler and Keja Whiteman voted against it. Chairman Doug Thompson was not at the meeting. With a split vote, the motion failed.

"I guess at this point we'll sit tight and see what happens," Becker said after the vote. "That's possibly a month's work that is going down the drain."

Whiteman cited concerns with funding as a reason to vote against proceeding with the project. The State Loan and Investments Board will make a decision on a $2.6 million grant for the justice center project in June. The Commission has not decided how it would pay for construction without the SLIB money.

"I can't move forward because I don't know how we'll pay for it," she said before the vote. "I'm still thinking there should be a plan B and plan C contingencies if we can't come up with $5 million. The further we go down this path, if we have to back track, we've wasted more money."

Johnson had said construction could start in the fall and finish a year later if his firm were allowed to continue working on the design. Delaying the build could add to the cost, he added, because several other large construction projects in the area are scheduled to start soon and could sop up the supply of contractors.

Safety changes

The rough plan, which included all features requested by involved entities, showed a drop in price from initial estimates. Johnson said his firm designed the building to be highly functional and inexpensive, with simple flooring, lighting and ceiling options.

According to the presented schematic design, the project would cost just under $5 million, down from the $5.3 million estimate projected three months ago. The preliminary plan is for a building on the Major Property totaling 14,900 square feet. The facility would house Riverton Circuit Court, the Fremont County Sheriff's Office, the Fremont County Attorney's Office and an area that can be used to securely move prisoners in and out of the building. The "sally port" would allow law enforcement to drive into a garage with a door on each end. Once the exterior entrances are closed, officers could move prisoners from a vehicle into a holding cell. After inmates are secured, the garage doors are opened and the vehicles are able to leave safely.

Outside, the building was designed with colored faced concrete block on lower portions, synthetic stucco above and galvanized steel accents. Johnson explained the stucco and concrete would match colors of local stone, and the plain, gray metal would mimic nearby agricultural structures.

As presented, the new courthouse facility would offer more protection than the current justice center. The design called for the lower portion of the building's walls to be built using concrete blocks filled with cement, which should stop most bullets according to Johnson, who said windows into the courtroom and judge's chambers would be made out of ballistic glass.

Johnson said 20 windows in other offices could be made to withstand bullets as well, but the cost would increase by about $80,000. The preliminary design also includes a metal detector and Sheriff's deputy station at the public entrance, key-card doors for staff and a reinforced judge's bench to protect him and the clerk.

More space

Many users would also have more space, as the new courtroom is set to be about 30 percent larger than the current Riverton Circuit Court facility. The courtroom would have 71 seats rather than 45, for example, with 54 parking spaces outside of the courthouse. Overall, Riverton Circuit Court would occupy 4,200 square feet in the design compared to the 2,700 it currently fills. The Sheriff would have 3,400 square feet up from 2,200 square feet, but the Fremont County Attorney would have 2,600 square feet down from the 3,200 square feet his office has now.

The Sheriff and Attorney would share a conference room and staff bathrooms to save money, Johnson said, so both entities would have access to more space than the number of square feet suggests.