By Tim Horan

The Salina Journal

The need for a new courtroom for Saline County District Court isn't new nor is it good news for Saline County commissioners.

But Todd Heitschmidt, court administrator, told commissioners Tuesday that it became more immediate because of legislation that becomes effective July 1 that is expected to result in more jury trials.

The new law allows District Magistrate Judge Mary Thrower to conduct jury trials on municipal court appeals. Currently, appeals are heard only before the judge.

Heitschmidt said there are several options for providing a courtroom, including moving files from a storage room into the former juvenile detention center and using the storage room as a courtroom, or moving the county attorney's office into the file storage area and using the county attorney's office as a courtroom.

He didn't have a cost estimate on renovation.

"Can we get by without one?" Commission Chairman Randy Duncan asked. "We don't have that in the budget."

"It's been needed to be done for a long time," Heitschmidt said.

"It's not that we don't want it. It's just not practical," Duncan said. "We are trying to do a budget with no (property tax) mill levy increase."

There was discussion about whether District Judge Jerome Hellmer could force the county commission to fund another courtroom.

Must 'adequately fund'

Heitschmidt read from a state statute that says county commissioners "have an obligation to adequately fund" court services. He also said that it has been recommended by a statewide study that the 28th Judicial District have two to three more judges. Heitschmidt said he doesn't expect that many, but one additional judge could be appointed.

There are four main courtrooms, one smaller courtroom and five judges.

"What if we say they are adequately funded?" Duncan asked.

Rita Deister, county administrator, said that a cost estimate is needed by July 7 to be included in the 2015 budget.

"First we need to decide what we're going to do with the jail over there," Commissioner John Price said.

No decision on jail

The Citizen Jail/Criminal Justice Advisory Committee recommended commissioners renovate the current jail into a three-story building that would include a 344-bed jail, sheriff's office, county attorney's office and court services. Construction cost was estimated at $43.37 million.

Duncan said he didn't favor moving court services because the county will still be responsible for paying $500,000 for the space on the third floor of the City-County Building.

At last week's meeting commissioners looked at the cost of increasing the jail from 192 to 344 beds, making minor renovations to the booking and female housing areas and adding a medical unit, at a cost of $20.4 million.

They asked for the cost of renovation without moving the court and with fewer beds.

Saline County Sheriff's Capt. Rick Hansmann said that reducing the size to 312 beds would cost just over $18 million. Making the jail large enough to accommodate 344 beds but furnishing only 312, thus having room for future expansion, would cost about $19.5 million.

(c)2014 The Salina Journal