MACHIAS, Maine — After a two and a half hour executive session Monday, The Washington County commissioners signed a 99-year lease with the state of Maine that will allow an $8.5 million courthouse expansion and renovation to proceed.
Last week, the commissioners expressed concern over just who would control the courthouse because of language in the lease. The original proposal would have given the state control over both the expansion and any areas renovated in the original courthouse. County Manager Betsy Fitzgerald said Monday afternoon that the lease language had been clarified so the commissioners were comfortable with the state controlling the area being expanded — which the state is funding — and the county retaining control of the existing courthouse. The state also will be paying for the renovations in the old courthouse..
Fitzgerald said all three commissioners — Chairman Chris Gardner, John Crowley and Vinton Cassidy — attended the meeting, as well as Ted Glessner and Jeff Henthorn of the state’s Court Facilities Division, and the county’s attorney, Timothy Pease of Bangor. Fitzgerald said most of the changes to the lease were minor housekeeping details.
Last Thursday, Gardner made the county’s position clear to Glessner and Henthorn, telling them the commissioners didn’t trust the state because of what happened with the jail consolidation program and the commissioners’ perception that the state broke its funding promises.
“We are wary now,” Gardner said at last Thursday’s meeting. “The state has failed, in the county’s estimation, to hold up its end of the bargain. It is not the courts’ fault but you can understand that this has not gone well. We — the commissioners — are responsible for what we put on the taxpayers.”
“No one here argues that upgrades are needed,” Gardner said. His statement was backed up by Judge John Romei, who called the Washington County Courthouse “the worst facility in the state. On court days you have 100 people all using one unisex bathroom.”
Romei said people must wait in the hallway outside the undersized courtroom, and victims are forced to stand with perpetrators. “It is a horrible situation,” the judge said. “If we miss this opportunity, it may be 10 years before it comes again.”
Glessner told the commissioners that the lease needed to be signed by this Wednesday, May 15, in order for the state to issue bonds to finance the project. The expansion would include new courtrooms and offices at the rear of the existing courthouse, new parking across two bordering streets, and renovations to existing offices in the older courthouse. Construction could begin as early as this fall.