63rd District Getting New Home

April 30, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — Kent County will invest $6 million into building a new courthouse for the 63rd District Court, bringing two locations under a single roof.

The site of the new courthouse, six acres on the East Beltline near Four Mile Road, is the geographic center of the court’s service area, which stretches from Rockford south to Cascade Township. Once the facility is operational — likely fall of 2008 — the county can vacate the court’s two current sites on Maple Street in Rockford and on Kenmoor Avenue in Cascade Township. The county leases the space for the district court’s Second Division in Cascade, but owns the building in Rockford where the First Division holds court.

County Commissioner Fritz Wahlfield led a task force that found crowded conditions in the Maple Street structure and no room on the property to expand for a more suitable situation. Wahlfield said space in the 30-year-old Rockford court was so limited that witnesses and defendants were forced to sit side-by-side before trials.

“If you think that’s the right way to do business, you’re wrong,” he said.

County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio said Kent is certain to gain some efficiencies from operating both divisions in a single facility. But at this time, he said, the county doesn’t plan any staff reductions in either division, so the move won’t lower payroll. The 63rd District has 34.5 full-time employees and a payroll of $2.1 million. The court’s total budget for 2007 is $2.8 million.

Instead, major savings will come from lower utility bills, reduced security charges and elimination of rental fees for the Cascade court building. Delabbio said the county hasn’t come up with an estimate of how much the move will save.

Not every function found in the current courts will be moving to the new location, as the county will shift its traffic-violation collection offices to sheriff substations located near the present sites.

The county plans to sell its building in Rockford, and Delabbio said city officials there are interested in buying it.

Consolidation and efficiencies, though, aren’t the only reasons the county is building the new courthouse. The future also plays a role in the project. The new facility will have three courtrooms, even though only two judges, Steven Servaas and Sara Smolinski, serve the court today.

“At some point in time, and I can’t tell you when — it might be two years, five years; it might be 10 years — there will be a need for a third district court judge,” said Delabbio.

Some might say the need for a third judge exists today, as Servaas and Smolinski each regularly rule on many more cases than other District Court justices in the state.

“They are highly productive judges. They average about 21,000 cases a year each, and that compares to the state average of 14,000 cases,” said Delabbio.

“Every year that the state court administrator’s office does a study about judges and the need for judges, they recommend that we add a third judge, and the two judges said, ‘We don’t need one yet,’” he added.

The county also designed the Kent County Courthouse at Ottawa Avenue and Lyon Street in downtown Grand Rapids with room for expansion; years later, another judge was added to that court.

County Facilities Management Director Robert Mihos said the new courthouse will have 40,000 square feet of space and is being designed by Post Associates. In addition to the three courtrooms, the building will house the district’s magistrate and all court-related staff members. A total of 40 people is expected to be housed in the two-story structure, and the site will have adequate parking to accommodate employees and visitors.

“A sallyport will be designed into the building. It’s like a secure garage, essentially, where the sheriff’s department can drive in a vehicle, a door closes, a defendant gets out and is escorted in the courthouse,” said Mihos.

County commissioners approved funding for the new 63rd District Courthouse a few weeks ago. Mihos said groundbreaking will happen this summer, and the project is expected to be completed by fall 2008. The county plans to accept bids for construction of the brick- and-glass building in June.

But the county first has to close on the property it agreed to buy for $1.08 million, plus closing costs, and Mihos said that transaction would take place soon.

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