MACHIAS, Maine — An on-again, off-again proposal to renovate and expand the Washington County Courthouse is on again.
“The state of Maine first had this on their radar screen about 25 years ago,” County Manager Betsy Fitzgerald said last week. “There have been meetings over the years and several committees selected, but the real impetus is coming now from the realization that court buildings need structural attention and better security.”
Built of granite and brick between 1853 and 1855 at a cost of $25,000, the courthouse at 46 Court St. was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
Fitzgerald recently hosted a walk-through tour of the building, which houses a variety of county offices and courtrooms for both district and superior court sessions. Participants in the Jan. 11 tour included Superior Court Justice Robert Murray, Superior/District Court Clerk Pam McPherson, Director of Court Facilities Jeff Henthorn and Mike Cote, director of state judicial marshals. Murray is the chairman of the committee that will make recommendations for renovation and expansion.
“The tour did not produce any surprises,” Fitzgerald said. “The existing building has some deficiencies, [accessibility] issues and the need to reconfigure traffic patterns for the judges, jurors and prisoners. Two other issues that will need to be addressed are securing the building and being able to better provide screening services.”
Fitzgerald said the effort to address those structural and operational needs has been deferred for years.
“The state of Maine some years ago surveyed all the county courthouses and created a list based on priorities and the needs of the buildings,” she said. “Then, one courthouse developed a very leaky roof and had to be pushed to the head of the list, then another. Now it is Washington County’s turn.”
While the state is now wrestling with cutting its budget and is hardly swimming in excess revenues, courthouse renovation and expansion construction costs would be the state’s responsibility, Fitzgerald said.
“Expansion and renovation [would be] limited to the bond amount of approximately $12 million,” she said. “When I expressed concern that the funding would not be made available for the project, [Jeff Henthorn] the director of court facilities told me he was confident this project would come to fruition.”
Chris Gardner, the chairman of Washington County’s three-member board of commissioners, said Sunday he hopes the state would consider the project to be a low priority, given the tsunami of fiscal problems now washing over state government and Maine’s legislature.
“I would like to think that projects like this would be put on hold,” Gardner said. “At a time when the state is talking about budget shortfalls and cutting revenue sharing to cities and towns, I think these sort of projects should have a low priority.”
Gardner said he also wants to make sure that, should renovation and expansion happen, they don’t trigger after-the-fact demands on what he sees as an already lean county budget.
“I want to make sure that this isn’t one of those ‘too good to be true’ situations,” he said. “While it appears there will be no upfront costs for the county, we will need to understand what the legacy costs are likely to be in terms of increased operational costs such as heating, electricity and janitorial services.
“It’s easy to smile for the cameras and cut a ribbon,” Gardner said. “But the board of commissioners doesn’t want to cut a ribbon. We want to keep our budget costs down.”