'Something has to be done' about space shortage
It was 1 p.m. on Wednesday in Olmsted County District Court — a full 30 minutes before a slate of afternoon hearings was set to begin — and people already crowded the lobby outside Courtroom 1, with some standing next to occupied seats.
The situation prompted a response that's become routine at the downtown Rochester courthouse: Those waiting were asked to move from the lobby to the courtroom to wait until the hearings started.
There's more seats in the courtroom, the reasoning goes, and people tend to be quieter there than they would be in the lobby.
The seating procedure is one example of how increasingly tight space has forced officials to adapt at Olmsted County District Court, where a study is looking at the need for additional square footage, including more courtrooms.
"This is not the kind of thing that is short-term or easy," said Helen Monsees, Olmsted County's director of facilities and building operations. "We really need to take a very thoughtful and structured approach to how do we analyze what is our need going to be."
The results of the study will likely be presented to the Olmsted County Board in December or January, and it's unclear when any possible construction resulting from the study would begin.
For years, local officials have said the Olmsted County Courthouse needs a seventh full-time judge, with state funding for the position remaining elusive. Two more judges may be needed in 10 to 15 years, as the community continues to grow.
Plans need to be made now for building additional courtrooms, said Olmsted County Attorney's Office Chief Deputy Jim Martinson, because it's possible the county won't get state funding for the judges it needs in the future because it has no place for them to go.
"I think the perception of somebody visiting once or twice may be different from those that are working in the building every day," Martinson said. "It's reaching that critical mass where I think something has to be done."
'We can't just build a courtroom'
Space shortages are nothing new for Olmsted County District Court — quarters were cramped in its former location at 515 Second Street Southwest in the early 1990s before its move to the newly constructed city-county government center in 1993.
The new courthouse has been tight on space for years, Court Administrator Chuck Kjos said, but Rochester's rapid population growth in recent years was likely hard to predict when planning for the building occurred.
"In '93, could you have anticipated this community going from 75,000 to 110,000?" Kjos said.
Today, the prospect of adding one or more courtrooms to Olmsted County District Court presents a planning challenge: Officials need space not just for the courtroom itself, but for all of the other spaces that are needed to support that courtroom.
Space for a judge's chambers is needed, for example, as well as office space for court support staff. A jury room would be needed, as would lobby space and additional conference rooms for attorneys to meet with clients and witnesses.
Then there's the impact that adding each additional courtroom would have on the rest of the criminal justice system. The county attorney's office is already "out of space," according to Martinson, and the increased caseload created by additional judges and courtrooms would create the need for more staff and therefore more office space.
"We have to address all of those related issues — we can't just build a courtroom," Monsees said.
'The ideal doesn't always happen'
Space shortages haven't hit all areas at the city-county government center equally.
Sheriff Dave Mueller said the Olmsted County Sheriff's Office could use more space to grow, for example, but Dodge-Fillmore-Olmsted Community Corrections Director Doug Lambert said that, in terms of office space, corrections workers are doing fine.
"We're pretty happy with what we have right now," Lambert said.
Lambert worries that corrections workers could be moved across the street from the city-county government center, or possibly moved to the county's campus near Rochester Community and Technical College, as part of any changes resulting from the space-needs study.
The possibility concerns Lambert, who said it would add travel time and in other ways eat into the work schedules for corrections officials to visit Olmsted County Adult Detention Center detainees and take part in court hearings.
At the same time, Lambert is wary of projections of future staffing needs. Calculations may be accurate, he said, but funding for positions isn't guaranteed, no matter how great the need.
"No matter how much activity there may be, if there's no money there to fund new positions, then who knows?" he said.
Elsewhere in the government center, Kjos said the transition to a electronic case filing system has created uncertainty about future administrative staffing needs and the amount of space court administration will need years from today.
"I don't see where we would increase great numbers, and I wouldn't commit that we would lose 25 percent of the staff with electronic efficiencies," he said.
'Something has to be done'
Monsees said that county officials are working on the study in conjunction with Klein McCarthy Architects and Dan L. Wiley and Associates, firms that specialize in working with criminal justice facilities planning.
The presentation to the Olmsted County Board in December or January will likely include an analysis of space needed for various departments, scenarios to accommodate that square footage, and an estimated cost of those options, Monsees said.
"Whether we take the route of making a recommendation, I don't know yet," she said.
Olmsted County Board Chairman Ken Brown noted that it's still unclear how much criminal justice facility renovation and expansion could cost.
"We don't have a lot of reserves to pay for it — it would probably be bonding," Brown said. "Until we know the numbers we can't even begin to speculate on what that might look like and what the money will be."