It was good to hear Elkhart Mayor Rod Roberson’s proposal Monday for combining a new county courthouse with a new city public safety building. The mayor’s input on what will be a very expensive county project was the first substantive public input on a plan that has been developed within county government offices.
The Elkhart County Board of Commissioners and the Elkhart County Council have estimated a new courthouse complex to combine all county courts into one building will cost upward of $80 million. The council and commissioners have approved the selling of the initial $35 million in bonds to get the project started early in 2021. Yet, the two panels of elected officials have issued only rudimentary explanations of why the complex is needed.
THE COMMISSIONERS state that county judges believe that combining the courts will improve efficiency of the courts and personnel. And Commissioner Mike Yoder has said transportation costs for inmates to and from the courts may be reduced by $250,000 annually and court security will also be enhanced in a modern, single building.
The other important reason a new courthouse is needed, according to the commissioners, is that state security standards need to be met. Those standards are confidential under Indiana law, which require each county must adopt a security plan for its courts.
The present security measures involving the public at Elkhart County courthouses are pretty good. Each person has to pass through a metal detector before entering a single entrance. Security personnel also can keep an eye on visitors via a system of cameras placed in courtrooms, hallways and offices. Deputies also conduct patrols in and around the building.
What we see as the greatest risk to security is the way inmates are transported. Sheriff’s deputies now pull up close to the courthouse doors in Goshen to unload vans of shackled prisoners before their court appearances. The COVID-19 pandemic has reduced these inmate transportations to the courthouse for now as courts use video technology for hearings, leaving most inmates at the jail. But there will always be a risk with transporting prisoners to their trials in courtrooms. A new courthouse complex should include a secure loading area to reduce those risks to the public and officers.
We think the commissioners’ and council’s reasons for needing a new courthouse may be accurate, but we also believe the commissioners should take the extra step of holding public hearings on the project once the architecture, infrastructure and site plans are firmed up. Until then, the commissioners should only spend a portion of the $35 million to pay for the preparations of plans to present to the public.
As the commissioners heard Monday, not everyone in the county thinks their plan of building the complex in either a rural Goshen area or a retail development park on the eastern edge of Elkhart are the best of ideas.
BOTH OF THOSE proposed sites have the 10 acres or so of land needed to build the large complex, but they have the big drawback of being outside of urban areas and not being easily accessible to those walking, riding a bicycle or using public transportation. Users of the courthouse at the Elkhart location would be forced to drive there. The Goshen location has a nearby bicycle trail, but would be far from the city’s residential areas. Many defendants in our court system either do not have driver’s licenses or are under driving restrictions. So, these locations could become a barrier to equal access to basic judicial services.
And, if we think back to why we have two courthouses in the county now, it’s because the public wanted and needed courthouses in Goshen and Elkhart. As Roberson pointed out Monday, about 60% of the people utilizing the courts and county services, are from the Elkhart area. What he didn’t say though, is that the rest of the county residents may find a Goshen courthouse more convenient to access.
The commissioners should certainly continue with their planning process, but the public, as represented by the commissioners, should have the final say on where the courthouse will be built.