Chief judge pitches partnership for new courthouse
By Cindy Wojdyla Cain firstname.lastname@example.org July 7, 2013 4:02PM
The 45-year-old Will County Courthouse at 14 W. Jefferson St. in downtown Joliet is overcrowded and is teeming with security risks, Chief Judge Richard Schoenstedt and other chief judges before him have said. Schoenstedt has proposed a possible public-private partnership be used to build a new one on space occupied now by the First Midwest Bank building across the street. | Photo by Cindy Wojdyla Cain~Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 9, 2013 6:05AM
JOLIET — For the first time in multiyear discussions about building a new courthouse in Will County, the chief judge is proposing a possible public-private partnership.
Rather than saving money or selling bonds for major construction projects, local governments strapped for cash are increasingly looking to private companies to take on some of the risk, with a possible reward of profit.
The Illinois Department of Transportation plans to use public-private partnerships for both the Illiana Expressway, a $1.3 billion project that will link Interstates 55 and 65, and the $400 million-plus South Suburban Airport near Peotone.
Now Chief Circuit Court Judge Richard Schoenstedt has suggested that a new Will County Courthouse, estimated to cost about $200 million, could be built using the same model.
While Schoenstedt is intrigued by the possibility and believes it might get a courthouse built faster, county finance director Paul Rafac isn’t so sure.
“Even in a public-private partnership, the county still has to come up with the money to pay for this,” Rafac said. “Unless somebody is planning on building the building and letting us inhabit this building for free, there really is not an advantage to doing it that way.”
He said a private company would want to squeeze profit out of the project.
“Businesses aren’t doing this out of the goodness of their hearts,” he said. “So if I can borrow the money more cheaply, it isn’t in the taxpayers interests to do (such a partnership).”
Will County has a solid AA+ bond rating, which means it can borrow money at a low interest rate, unlike the state of Illinois, which is billions in debt and has a bad rating of A-, the worst of any state. That may be why IDOT is turning to public-private partnerships, but the county doesn’t have to, Rafac said.
Also, there are more revenue sources with a tollway and an airport than a courthouse, he said.
Schoenstedt told The Herald-News last week that he has held informal talks with a developer that he did not want to name at this preliminary stage. He’s waiting for a cost estimate before he takes his partnership plan to the county board, whose approval would be needed to pursue such an arrangement.
Schoenstedt and other recent chief judges have called for a new courthouse to be built. They believe the 142,000-square-foot building, which opened in the late 1960s, is woefully inadequate to handle the current volume of cases in Will County, which was one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation before the recession.
About 750,000 visits are made to the courthouse each year, and county judges have the second-highest caseload per judge in the state, second only to Cook County.
One of the biggest security risks at the courthouse, 14 W. Jefferson St., in downtown Joliet, is the use of narrow back hallways for shackled prisoners as well as judges, staff and jurors, Schoenstedt said.
Jurors are not supposed to see handcuffed defendants because it could influence their decisions. But as careful as sheriff’s deputies are about holding prisoners out of sight until jurors have passed, mistakes occur and juries have had to be dismissed, the judge said.
In some courtrooms, judges have to walk through the public seating area to get to their benches.
“This is a terrible building from a safety and security standpoint,” Schoenstedt said.
In addition to security risks, the building is overcrowded. Lines to get in wind down the block in the morning, and metal detectors are scrunched at one end of the lobby.
And there aren’t enough courtrooms to accommodate all of the judges that Will County is eligible for according to the 2010 Census, which would allow five more, Schoenstedt said.
The courthouse was built 50 years ago with 12 courtrooms. Seven were used initially, and the others were occupied as needed in later years. There are now 22 courtrooms in the building with six more at the courthouse annex, the former Emco building.
The chief judge has carved out a small courtroom for one new judge by converting former office space. But no jury trials can be held there so it will only handle foreclosures and other civil cases.
The courthouse has other problems, too. Jury rooms are small with bathrooms close to the table where jurors sit. And jury assembly rooms have only one bathroom for up to 125 people.
The ceiling leaks when it rains, and a chunk of ceiling fell on a jury last year.
“Whenever it rains, courtrooms drip,” Schoenstedt said.
Pushing for progress
The tentative plan is for the county to purchase the First Midwest Bank building across the street from the courthouse on the southwest corner of Ottawa and Jefferson streets. Some county offices will move in there for a while, but eventually the building will be torn down to make way for a new courthouse.
But Schoenstedt worries that the county will settle in the bank building and not much will happen toward achieving a new courthouse.
He’s also concerned that the county will spend too much money rehabbing the bank building, which he believes it did when it bought the Emco building at the northwest corner of Jefferson and Ottawa streets. That building cost $4 million but needed $6 million in renovations after asbestos was discovered in some areas.
Schoenstedt said he realizes there may be reasons why the public-private partnership won’t work for Will County, but as chief judge he has to explore every option.
“I am pushing it,” he said. “But I understand the cost is going to drive this, too.”
But he would like to see a new courthouse sooner rather than later.
“Building this courthouse is never going to get cheaper to do,” he said.