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  • Writer's pictureRoger Sims, Publisher

Opinion: County should consider ease of access as it determines use of empty buildings

While it is an historic treasure, the Linn County Courthouse, now nearly 140 years old, presents access issues for county residents. (Journal file photo)

The opening of the Linn County Judicial Center last fall set up a chain of potential moves in the operation of county government. The most obvious change was, of course, a new space for the district court and attendant staff, the sheriff’s office, and the jail.

That left the former judicial building, the former county attorney’s office, and the former sheriff’s office/jail building vacant. The Linn County Commission is considering if and how to use those buildings.

The former jail building tested positive for mold recently, a problem that many had thought was abated. Shaun West, the county’s public works administrator had previously suggested moving his department into that building.

But the prospect of a recurring mold problem makes that option less viable. Mold can be a serious health issue, and placing office workers there could possibly spur litigation in the future should the workers develop serious health problem.

Fortunately, the old county attorney’s office, a doublewide structure, and the former judicial building don’t have that issue and could be easily pressed into service for county offices.

The Linn County Courthouse is a historical landmark and a source of pride for the county. Built in 1886, it is the second oldest operational courthouse in the state of Kansas, and because county commissions past and present have strived to maintain it, the structure is worth preserving.

However, as it approaches 140 years of service, the courthouse is also a model of how history doesn’t alway meet the needs of society.

Every path to the courthouse has its drawbacks. The sidewalk to the north is made of slabs of stone, and as attractive as that walkway might be, it is perilous even for those who are sure-footed.

The approach from the south involves steep steps that are a chore for people with any kind of leg or hip issues to climb or a wheelchair ramp that is equally steep and likely doesn't come close to having the gentle slope necessary for those who are chair-bound.

The former judicial building, on the other hand, is very accessible to visitors and has adequate space for at least three or more county offices.

There is great reluctance by some department heads to leave the courthouse. They have spent years working there, and the desire not to change is understandable. Also their concerns that if the offices leave the old courthouse, it will fall into disrepair are equally understandable.

However, customer convenience and ease of access is the name of the game for any business, including local government. County departments that have the most residents and customers walk through their doors each day should be the easiest for the public to access.

Those departments don't need to be in spaces where electrical connections require multiple extension cords and where inefficient heating and cooling systems do neither well.

West recommended that a firm be hired to render recommendations on how the newly available space can best be used by county offices. That recommendation has merit, and the commission should welcome a impartial review by a company that is accustomed to designing office space and customer flow.

The Justice Center brought the courts and county law enforcement into the 21st century. Using the now-vacant buildings to make county government more efficient is the next logical step.

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