Photo by Hubble Ray Smith.
KINGMAN – Shut out of any funding for a new courthouse in the county’s 2018 budget, Judge Charles Gurtler came up with a game plan to pay for the $20 million construction of a four-story, 66,000-square-foot complex adjoining the existing historic courthouse.
Extend the quarter-cent sales tax that’s set to expire Dec. 31, 2019, the presiding judge of Mohave County Superior Court told about 50 people attending Wednesday’s Mohave Republican Forum.
That’s going to take some heavy swaying of Supervisor Buster Johnson, who swore he wouldn’t vote for the tax beyond its 20-year sunset. He’s already quashed it in four previous attempts.
The sales tax generates about $6.2 million a year, so by going just one more year, the county could complete the courthouse project and have about $2.5 million left over, enough to build a new animal shelter, county morgue or sheriff’s substation, Gurtler said.
Gurtler started working on getting a new courthouse and renovating the old one in 2006, when the cost was projected at $45 million.
That was significantly reduced to $24 million when the project went to the National Center for State Courts with an architect in Phoenix who specializes in courthouses.
The judge hears people say we don’t need a new courthouse. They drive by and see a beautiful, historic building fronted by cypress trees, but they haven’t taken a closer look at the building that’s more than 100 years old, he said.
“How many of you have never seen the courthouse?” Gurtler asked the forum audience, and nobody raised their hand. “How many of you have been inside? Okay, a number of you have.”
He showed a slide presentation of the security entrance that gets crowded and congested, the absence of signs directing you to the courts and clerks, and the second-floor hallway where criminal defendants walk past the public to be brought into the courtroom.
“Litigants, judges, clerks, attorneys all go through that hall. You could literally have a defendant in custody standing right next to a victim of the crime. That’s unacceptable,” Gurtler said.
Sewer pipes run above work stations. The Treasurer’s Office and Recorder’s Office have vaults for offices. “If you’re claustrophobic, you could go nuts in there,” he said.
Judge Lee Jantzen has a support column in the middle of his courtroom, blocking the view between the juror’s box, the judge, the defendant and his counsel. One defendant appealed his case because he couldn’t see four jurors, and fortunately it was dismissed, Gurtler noted.
The new design includes a sally port and holding cell for transporting prisoners directly into the courtroom. It’s most problematic now for officers to park on the street behind the courthouse and take prisoners in without security.
“There’ve been several incidents with high-profile cases where the sheriff has to put an officer at each end of Pine Street. They’ll tell you the greatest time for an escape is when they (prisoners) step out of the vehicle onto the street,” Gurtler said.
Will we see a new courthouse in our lifetime, someone asked?
“Absolutely,” the judge responded.
Plans for the courthouse will be done at the end of August, and Gurtler said he will take them to the Board of Supervisors to go out to bid. Construction will take about 18 months to complete, so starting the project in July 2018 would allow the county to collect the sales tax and pay as it’s built.
“Does it complete the project? No. We still need asbestos abatement and renovation. We’ll have to do it in phases,” Gurtler said.
The Board of Supervisors didn’t approve any money for the courthouse construction, but the quarter-cent sales tax was passed 18 years ago to pay for new buildings, with the courthouse as the No. 1 priority.
That never happened. Everything else on the list has been completed, including a new sheriff’s station and Public Works building.