courthouse

The Dent County Courthouse, built in 1870, is a stately structure and a reminder of the county’s past. But it lacks handicapped accessibility and is woefully short of space on the first floor, especially when court is in session.

And there are sharply differing views on how to address these problems.

The county commission favors construction of a new, American Disabilities Act-compliant courtroom facing Iron Street. City prosecutor William Camm Seay has long supported the addition of an elevator to serve the existing courtroom on the second floor of the courthouse.

Presiding commissioner Darrell Skiles said installing an elevator would require moving the treasurer’s office, probably to another building.

“But in the bigger picture, even if we get an elevator in here, if you’ve ever been in this courthouse when we’re trying to select a jury, it’s horrible, absolutely horrible,” he told The Salem News. “Even with an elevator it wouldn’t address the fact that people are lined up on both sides of the hallway (during jury selection), they’re out in the foyer, they’re outside on both ends. You can hardly get down the hall. It’s terrible. We need to address this thing in a bigger way to address that problem, too.”

Seay pointed out that the Missouri Supreme Court has mandated that courtrooms used for municipal court purposes must not just accommodate the accused, but their families or people who support them. The courtroom in the judicial building doesn’t meet those requirements, he said.

“So, we had to start using the courthouse,” he said. “Well it’s not handicapped accessible. I’ve seen people who have no business trying to make it up those steps come into court.”

If the county can spend millions on a new jail, “we can spend $100,000 to take care of disabled people in our courtrooms,” he says. Whenever the courthouse courtroom is used, “There are disabled people that are put at a disadvantage and literally have to be aided up those steps to accommodate them, and when they do, there’s no handicapped bathroom up there. You’ve got to go back downstairs, and they only have one of those.”

Skiles said commissioners were hoping to be able to address that as part of the jail project by including a new handicapped-accessible courtroom, “but that wasn’t quite possible at the time.”

Going forward, the commission is again looking at such a project if the payments on the jail bonds can be extended for a certain number of years.

“We want to get done with the jail and know then exactly where we’re at, that there are no surprises and we get everything firmed up on it,” Skiles said.

There have also been some discussions with property owners about possibly acquiring property near the courthouse for more space. “Perhaps we could move a couple of offices,” Skiles said. “If we moved the collector and assessor to some other office space, that would free up room to move the treasurer in and that would allow us to put an elevator in there.”

But the commission is reluctant to tear up the interior of the structure or build an elevator on an exterior wall.

“I don’t find anybody that’s very excited about us scabbing onto the side of the courthouse,” he said. “It’s a beautiful old building. It has its challenges.”

Adding an elevator outside would ruin its appearance, Skiles said. Seay said elevators can be installed indoors more easily nowadays.

“You don’t have to have equipment on three floors to accommodate two floors of elevator,” he pointed out. “The equipment can be on the side now, next to the shaft.”

Top-mounted equipment to pull it up and down is no longer needed, meaning elevators can be accommodated in more places, Seay said.

Skiles is also concerned about the structural integrity of the courthouse. A contractor who worked on the courthouse once warned him about it, he said.

“He told me you are going to regret if you ever get in that old building and try to put an elevator in there,” Skiles recalled. “He said, ‘You’ll open a can of worms, just in all the structural things you’ll get into trying to run an elevator up there.’”

Seay said the county should hire an engineer to conduct a study of the structure before making a decision. He estimated an engineering study would cost about $5,000. “Get a professional opinion,” he said.

He isn’t opposed to building a new courtroom. He just believes the accessibility issues can be resolved at a much lower cost.

“A new courtroom would be great, knock themselves out, but again, they can do it cheaper,” Seay said. The old courtroom is also unable to accommodate modern technology used in court proceedings today.

“So, could we become technology wise with a new courtroom? Absolutely,” he said. “But if they’re not going to jump on that project, spend the $200,000 for handicapped-accessible bathrooms on the first floor and an elevator.

“If they find it within their economic ability to do so…I would love to have one and I can tell you all the court personnel would love to have one that has the availability of the wiring and accessibility because you can’t do it in that old courtroom. If they let the public vote on it, I’m all the more for that. Let the people speak.”

Skiles said the county hasn’t been ignoring the problem. Last week, a case involving a wheelchair-bound man was moved to the judicial building.

“The judges have been good to work with us when they see they have an issue like that and that courtroom is available,” Skiles said. “…But the whole thing is, just adding an elevator here is just like a small Bandaid to the bigger problem.”

There are space issues to address as well, including a lack of room for voting in county clerk Angie Curley’s office.

“In the big picture, a new courtroom would be better for all concerned, and I’m hopeful and optimistic we can do that,” Skiles said. “We need more office space. Angie’s office needs more room badly. We could still look at purchasing another piece of property if (the new courtroom) doesn’t work out.” Some rearranging of offices could also be done to free up some space.

Room for voting at the courthouse is already at a premium, and it’s possible more will be needed in the near future. Missouri is one of only 11 states that don’t have early voting, also called no-excuse absentee voting. County clerks across the state believe it is coming.

Curley said that will open the way for a bigger percentage of non-election day voting.

“Already 10 percent turnout of an election usually is absentee voters,” she said. “They have to have an excuse now but if you open up a new law where there’s no excuse, you’re going to have a higher number. And there are four big elections next year.”

Normal absentee voting with an excuse now begins six weeks prior.

“So that’s 24 weeks out of the year,” she said. “We have to have parking, with handicapped-accessible parking available, and privacy when they vote in a booth.”

That’s now done in the first-floor hallway.

The office has a small vault in the back that holds all the election equipment, plus file cabinets. Voting machines can only be tested two at a time and batches can only be loaded a few at a time.

“It’s a challenge,” she said. “We have the poll booths in the hallway because we have the machine we can feed the ballots through in one corner of our room. We’re just limited.”

“The thing that would help the most would be to go ahead and get an ADA compatible, jury compatible courtroom,” Skiles said. “This one is terrible.

“While the judge and lawyers are doing arguments (during jury selection), they don’t let the prospective jurors in there hearing all that, so the jurors are down here (on the first floor) scattered everywhere. Even if had enough chairs to line the hall, there’s not enough room. If they’re trying to get a jury, sometimes they’ll bring in 80-90 people.”

Curley added, “And before a November presidential election we’ll have six voters out there voting at the same time consistently that last week, week and a half, in the mix of all that and they’re trying to stand in the booth and have privacy.”

The ultimate solution will likely be some combination of rearranging offices, moving some out of the courthouse to buildings nearby and building a new courtroom at the new jail. Seay called having new courtroom facilities an “absolute plus,” but added, “How many years down the line will that be?” He estimated two years after the bonds are amended, with or without public input.

Seay says he first approached the county commission about adding an elevator for liability reasons 37 years ago when he was prosecuting attorney.

“On multiple occasions, I insisted they make arrangements to get an elevator,” he said. “Their excuse back then was we’re on the register of historic buildings. Back at that time there was an exception for that. There is no exception for that now.”

He pointed to a case in Iron County, where the courthouse was built before the Civil War. A woman who wanted to watch her son’s trial wasn’t allowed to because she was in a wheelchair. She sued under the ADA laws. She received $100,000 and there is now an elevator in that courthouse.

“You would never know there’s one in there. They did not disturb that building at all,” he said.

He suggested the third floor of the Dent County courthouse, now used for storage, could be a jury waiting room and provide additional office space, if it was accessible by elevator.

Seay had hip surgery May 21 and is unable to navigate stairs.

“I’ve griped and complained a lot since I became physically disabled, although mine is temporary,” he said. “I’m going to get off my walker and cane in the near future, but I’m sure feeling for all these poor people, whether it’s the accused or their family members, who can’t go upstairs and watch court.”

Skiles said the new courtroom could be built next to the jail with the parking lot just to the west facing Iron Street. How it would be financed remains to be determined.

The bonding agreement was written “to build the jail and, to the extent funds allow, law enforcement and courtroom facilities,” he said. “So that option is still there dependent on the total on this (jail) and what our sales tax revenues are coming in at and if it’s coming in higher as far as what they budgeted to cover everything. So, it may very well be that we could look into it and see if we can do it.”

Otherwise an election would be required.