MACHIAS, Maine — Washington County’s Board of Commissioners has authorized County Manager Betsy Fitzgerald to continue discussions with state officials on a proposed renovation and expansion of the Washington County Courthouse.
It is a conversation that has been ongoing for more than 20 years, according to Fitzgerald. At one point modernizing and expanding the 1855 granite and brick National Historic Landmark at 46 Court St. was seen by the state’s judicial officials as a priority, but other courthouses statewide with more serious structural problems were moved to the front of the renovation queue.
“There’s no question that the district court set up in the current facility is wholly inadequate,” Chris Gardner, chairman of the three-member Board of Commissioners, said Tuesday. “But what needs to be understood is that the decisions we make now about this are 100-year decisions. We can’t let any excitement about a new facility cloud our judgment about what those decisions will be putting the taxpayers through over the next 100 years.”
Even with the state pledging to foot most of the costs of such a project, once the ribbon-cutting is over, Gardner points out, the county will have endless, recurring costs ranging from janitorial services to utility bills for heating and electricity.
“We just want to make sure that, in reaching a solution to this situation, that we’ve thought through all the ramifications,” he said. “We’re not trying to be curmudgeons or to throw a wet blanket on this, but at the end of the day the commissioners are responsible to the people of this county.
“Initially, the first question that needs to be addressed is if we build, what will we build? Without answering that question we can’t answer the other questions in terms of long-term costs. We need to take a look at this, and we are invested now in the process, but we also need to remain objective.”
Fitzgerald said after a recent tour of the facility with state court officials that any expansion and renovation would be limited to the proceeds of a $12 million state bond. After expressing doubts that the state would come up with the money required, Fitzgerald said she was told by Jeff Henthorn, the state’s director of court facilities, that the project would be funded.
Meanwhile, Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith has weighed in on the courthouse overhaul project with the view that it’s not necessary.
“What we need is a full-time justice,” Smith said Monday. “One courtroom or the other is almost always vacant. Last time we had Superior Court, none of the 25 [Washington County jail] inmates I have waiting for trial saw a courtroom, which had nothing to do with the current court building, but poor court use of time.”
Smith suggests that the millions that would be spent for a courthouse renovation and expansion project would be better spent in determining why the state’s jail system is bursting at its seams in terms of capacity.
“Let’s use these funds to see why we incarcerate so many people,” Smith said. “Let’s use these funds for mental health [programs]. Far too many people are in jail — and should be — due to mental health issues gone unchecked.”
Smith said he expects the project will proceed, whatever his objections.