WASHBURN When McLean County Auditor Les Korgel has a spare moment these days, he spends it transporting office records into a new building that soon will become the county's new headquarters.
After 1-1/2 years of construction, the new McLean County Courthouse is expected to fully open for business next Wednesday. Korgel said there may be a couple of hours of down time for operations to make the transition, but employees are prepared to make the shift as seamlessly as possible.
The first floor of the building opened last September to house First District Health Unit, McLean County Social Services and the North Dakota State University Extension Service. Now the remainder of county offices, including court system, will be making the move.
The new McLean County Courthouse is in partial use and could be fully open before the end of the month. Work is ongoing in front of the courthouse on a parking lot.
An open house for the public will be held in December. The county commission will be setting a date later.
Voters had approved borrowing from the Coal Severance Trust Fund to pay for the construction, now estimated at $3.6 million to $3.8 million once landscaping is completed. The county will repay the loan with income from its share of the state's coal severance tax. Although that takes revenue from general operations, Korgel said, the oil and gas taxes that the county has started to collect are making up for the decrease.
Located behind the existing courthouse, the new courthouse neighbors a law enforcement center built four years ago. Capital City Construction of Bismarck built both structures using a complementary design that ties the look of the two buildings together.
The rich wood tones of the courtroom and modern design of the office spaces add to the building's aesthetics. The new building features ground-to-roof glass windows on a portion of the front, providing light and winter warmth. Shades can be drawn in the summer to keep out the heat.
The wall of windows on each floor overlooks a parking lot that is under construction as well as provides a view of the valley below. From the top floor on clear days, visitors can see the Missouri River, Korgel said.
Each floor also has its own conference room. The ground-floor conference room will be used for commission meetings. Offices on the ground floor include auditor/treasurer, veteran's service office, assessor, land use administrator/tax director, technology director and recorder.
The second floor will serve the highway department, clerk of court, parole and probation, state's attorney and courtroom.
By better utilizing space, the new courthouse is able to replace 42,000 square feet of cramped space with 25,000 square feet of spaciousness. Public health nurse Sandy Birst, who has worked in the building since the end of September, is grateful for the amenities that come with more space.
"The privacy is what's so much nicer," she said.
In the old courthouse, the health unit office was a single room, plus a vault used for meeting with clients.
"Because the floor sagged, you couldn't get the vault door closed," Birst said. Hanging a cloth was the only way to get even a minimum of privacy.
The public health office in the new building includes two exam rooms as well as Birst's private office. What she appreciates as much as anything, though, is the plumbing in the exam rooms, which means staff no longer need to walk down the hall to find hand-washing facilities.
The new building accommodates communications systems and electrical needs in ways that the old courthouse couldn't. Korgel remembers electrical contractors having to deal with nearly foot-thick walls and electrical boxes that needed to be rewired to handle more load.
Few fixtures from the old courthouse are useful in the new courthouse, but some history will be preserved. Benches from the old courthouse will be used in lobby areas throughout the building and in the new courtroom. The courtroom includes tables from the old jury room. Some of the shelving and file cabinets also will transfer to the new building.
The building's smaller size and the ground-heat pump system will contribute to a lower energy bill, Korgel said.
"We are expecting to save anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000 a year in utility costs," he said.
Since 2010, the county has been using only the courthouse annex, built in the 1960s. The health unit, Extension Service and social services were scattered to other locations around Washburn after the closure of the original portion of the courthouse, built in 1907 and expanded in 1917.
The older portion was closed due to structural issues and to a fungal illness associated with droppings from a bat colony that infested the building. Two employees had become ill.
A group that wants to see the old courthouse restored obtained a court injunction to stop the county from demolishing the building. If a judge eventually allows demolition to proceed, the county will seek bids in late December or January, Korgel said. Asbestos removal has already started.
If the ruling goes the other way, the county likely will keep the building secured to try to avoid liability but would not invest the $4 million necessary to remediate its problems, he said. The county would not sell or give away the building without strong assurance that liability issues will be addressed, he said.
Complicating matters, though, is the county's need for parking. The county commission wants to remove the old courthouse to create a larger parking lot. Korgel said the lot now under construction next to the new courthouse will be too small for all employee vehicles and the city doesn't want vehicles parked on its streets.
The county plans to remove the portion of the 1960s annex, originally built as a civil defense shelter. The remainder will be used as cold storage and a garage.