BATH | Steuben County officials are making progress in planning for state-mandated changes that will mean some shuffling of offices -- and some spending -- at the county offices in Bath.
Cost estimates for the project hover around the $10 million mark, though County Manager Jack Wheeler stressed that the numbers have varied widely (from $7 million to $11 million based on statements made to the Office Space Committee), and he’s not confident in the accuracy of any particular estimate just yet.
The county has contracted with LaBella Associates over the last year or more on planning of the project.
“We’re getting to a point where we have some general goalposts of where we want to get to,” Wheeler said.
The next step is for LaBella to turn the committee’s decisions into detailed plans that can go out for bid.
Wheeler said they’re hopeful to get the project to bid in early 2020. Early-year bids generally result in lower costs. The work will be spread out over three to four years.
The state Office of Court Administration (OCA) approached the county about two years ago to say that courtroom facilities were no longer adequate under current state laws and regulations, after the county has had court space there since the mid-1980s.
It’s been the work of the county’s Ad Hoc Office Space Committee, led by Legislator Robin Lattimer, to figure out how to meet those needs.
Wheeler noted that the law requires municipalities and counties to furnish space that accommodates the state court system, which operates the county and city courts among others around the state.
“[What is considered adequate space] is clearly defined by very detailed regulations, such as ‘The judge’s chambers shall be X by X,’” Wheeler said. “They have deemed our space inadequate for their needs, and [said] that reconfiguration and renovation would have to occur.
“They could force us to build a new courthouse, but they aren’t doing that. It’s not really feasible -- engineers have estimated that cost at anywhere from $25-30 million.
“They have been very reasonable -- they’re not asking for the moon. But none of it is cheap.”
One advantage the county has is that the recently completed annex building across the street from the main offices has a vacant third floor, added when bids on that project came in surprisingly low.
That space will allow for Wheeler’s office, the county Planning office and the Legislature’s facilities to move to the annex, which will create clear space in the main office building for court operations.
One of the state’s demands is to have courtrooms and court staff offices in connecting spaces, which simplifies security and thus reduces security costs, which are paid by the OCA.
An option being considered is to add a fourth courtroom in a conference room area of the main office building.
Wheeler said that would allow for expansion, so that if state officials later want to add another judge position in the county -- something the OCA has previously discussed -- there wouldn’t be another scramble to reorganize.
Under the likely plan, the District Attorney’s office, which Wheeler said state officials believe is too close to court facilities, will be moved into the county’s historic former courthouse.
Spreading out the work over a few years will allow offices to transition fairly smoothly within the buildings, without the added expense of leased space or office trailers.
The good news for residents is that the most-visited county offices -- the DMV, County Clerk’s Office, Probation Office and Department of Social Services -- will remain where they are now.
The committee and other county leaders will continue to discuss the situation as more detailed plans are developed by LaBella.