ELKO – Budget woes amid a year impacted by COVID-19 are cited as the reason for postponing the construction of a courtroom and office space for a newly elected district judge.
Elko County Commissioners this week reviewed the status of remodeling and construction plans sparked by the newly created Department 3 judicial bench and complicated by the pandemic.
All capital improvement projects are on hold until the County has a better financial picture, said County Manager Rob Stokes. But the delay could provide more time to decide how to configure offices.
In 2019, the Legislature created the third district court bench through Assembly Bill 43 to efficiently process the number of civil and criminal caseloads shared by Departments 1 and 2 in the Fourth Judicial Court.
The state pays the judge’s salary, but Elko County covers staffing and remodeling expenses.
In preparation, the County purchased the Washington Federal Bank building and property across the street from the Elko County Courthouse. Early on, it was thought that the Treasurer’s and Recorder’s offices — possibly even the County Clerk’s office — might be transferred to the bank building, freeing up space within the main courthouse and annex complexes.
Washington Federal had planned to leave the building in June and move to a new location in the Elko Junction Shopping Center, but COVID-19 also delayed their plans, Stokes said.
“I think we have an opportunity to reassess and take another look at what we want to do with the bank building,” Stokes explained to commissioners. “What it’s always going to hinge on is what we can afford to do.”
“They have a lease with us through the end of December,” he told Commissioners. “They are paying rent monthly to the County and we maintain the building for them.”
The Wright Motor Co. building is also being eyed for purchase by the County to serve as a storage facility for fire trucks and expand the County campus further on that block.
However, due to COVID-19 delays in construction, concerns over the budget and a district judge in need of a home, Commissioner Jon Karr said he wanted to initiate discussion on long-term plans. He discussed researching the options to find a strategy instead of spending money for a temporary fix.
“How do we look at this and answer some of those questions,” Karr said. “I don’t want to hire an architect for $50,000 to do a study. I’d rather we look at it.”
Commissioner Delmo Andreozzi agreed with Karr that it is necessary to have a long-term strategy to spend the taxpayers’ money productively.
“He’s making sure that any money we spend is in the spirit of moving closer to whatever the end goal might be,” Andreozzi explained. “We don’t want to spend money twice, and that to me is the best thing for us to do. Money is so precious, and it’s the taxpayers’ money. We need to be very mindful of that.”
Andreozzi suggested researching Lander County’s new judicial facilities that house county offices and the justice and district courts to get a sense of the costs involved.
Commissioner Demar Dahl expressed concern regarding the construction projects compared with population growth over the past 12 years, which Stokes estimated is now between 52,000 and 54,000 people.
“I just wonder if we’re getting ahead of the population growth very far,” Dahl said.
Andreozzi said he understood Dahl’s point. “[We want to] make sure anything we do is systematic and is appropriate for our size and time.”
After his election, district judge-elect and current Justice of the Peace Mason Simons said he expected his courtroom would be located in the County Commissioners’ conference room.
Stokes told Commissioners that staff is currently looking at where and how to locate Department 3, a decision that will involve incoming County Manager Amanda Osborne, who has participated in those discussions.
In other judicial items on the agenda, Commissioners unanimously approved a motion to authorize recruitment for a Public Defender to fill the vacancy left by district-judge elect Kriston Hill to Department 1.
Hill, who has served as Public Defender for eight years and led the department for five years, was elected to the bench on Nov. 3, replacing Judge Nancy Porter.
Candidates will be interviewed at the Commissioners meeting on Dec. 2. At that time, the board will also begin the process of appointing a new Justice of the Peace to replace Simons in Department A of the Elko Justice Court, which could take place mid-January.
Stokes said Pro Tem judges would fill in for Simons after Jan. 1 until an appointment is finalized.
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