Size of courthouse is still ‘looming issue’
SALT LAKE CITY – Sanpete County’s quest for a new 6th District Courthouse appears to be approaching the finish line.
State Senator Derrin Owens (R-Fountain Green) confirmed to the Sanpete Messenger on Saturday, Feb. 19, that supporters of the project secured the necessary approval for funding for the project earlier in the Utah Legislative Session.
“The gavel hasn’t fallen on the session,” Sen. Owens said. “But it’s been prioritized.”
Sen. Owens said there is one looming issue to be sorted through among lawmakers in the remaining weeks of the 2022 Utah Session: the size of the courthouse. Supporters of the new courthouse say two courtrooms are needed. However, that has drawn some sharp criticism from one lawmaker in particular.
During a hearing on the matter in the Infrastructure and General Government Subcommittee (IGG) on Feb. 4, Sen. Owens, along with Chris Talbot, state facilities officer for the state; Jared Buchanan, Sanpete County Sheriff; and Kevin Daniels, Sanpete County Attorney; pitched their idea to the committee on what they were envisioning in a new courthouse.
When they expressed a need for two courtrooms, Rep. Brady Brammer (R-Pleasant Grove) voiced his concern over the need for two courtrooms.
“There are a lot of ways to manage courtroom space,” Rep. Brammer said during the Feb. 4 hearing.
While not ideal, he suggested that it’s possible for two judges to share the same courtroom from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Daniels presented the committee with statistical information on the need for two courtrooms. According to Daniels, court calendars have increased dramatically. In the last four years, he says district court cases have gone up 24 percent, while juvenile cases have increased by 33 percent.
In November, the Sanpete Messenger reported that the 6th District Court calendar for the week of Nov. 15-19 was 32 pages long with an average of 2.5 cases per page, which equates to about 80 cases.
None of this, however, seemed to persuade Rep. Brammer to change his opinion.
“Rep. Brammer knows I am upset about it,” Sen. Owens said. “And I’m not going to give up.”
Sen. Owens says an appropriations committee will have the final say on whether the building will have one or two courtrooms.
“It’s going to happen,” Sen. Owens said of the new courthouse. “We are still trying to sort it out.”
And Sen. Owens says he is prepared for a battle.
“I know he [Rep. Brammer] is the vice chair,” he said. “But he’s not the only voice [on Capitol Hill].”
Currently, the 6th District Court is being held in the Sanpete County Courthouse. It was built in 1935 and security measures are dangerously out of date.
During the Feb. 4 hearing, Talbot told the IGG subcommittee that there are several reasons why the current site of the 6th District Court is no longer an option.
First of all, the building belongs to the county, and the county would like to have it back for its own use.
Second, the state cannot provide funds for county buildings.
Finally, the current building would require a significant remodel that would not be cost effective, according to Talbot. He says it would be more cost effective to build a new building.
Originally when plans for the new courthouse were presented to lawmakers, it came with a price tag of $20.46 million. Over the past few years, lawmakers have trimmed that cost down to $16.1 million. Of the $16.1 million, $2 million has been set aside for design costs.
The size of the building has been reduced from the original plan as well. It has gone from 30,221 square feet to 28,721 square feet. The cost per square foot has been trimmed from $712 down to $562.
With that cut in costs, safety concerns have grown. Sen. Owens says the courthouse is the worst for safety in the entire state.
Most of the safety concerns are tied to cases involving prisoners from the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison. Daniels told the committee that there has been an “exponential rise” in prison cases. According to Daniels, 90 percent of those cases are involving individuals who are serving a life sentence.
“They have nothing to lose,” Daniels said.
He said that prisoners are dropped off in the parking lot of the courthouse, where anyone could easily confront them. Additionally, Daniels also mentioned the discovery of a shank, which is essentially a homemade knife, in the courthouse parking lot. Once inside the courtroom, Daniels says there is no separation between the inmates and courthouse staff.
The new courthouse is slated to be built on 2.34 acres of land between 100 North and 100 East in Manti. The land was purchased in 2018 by the Utah Administrative Office of Courts (AOC) for $335,000. Over the course of 2018 and 2019, the AOC spent roughly $1 million clearing five buildings from the land.