The Finney County courthouse is in the midst of a technological and structural overhaul that will change the way trials and hearings are conducted for years to come.
The courthouse already has completed a host of repairs and tech installations that cost close to $200,000, according to Kurtis Jacobs, district court administrator. The money for the overhaul primarily came from funds left over from the 20-year, quarter-cent sales tax used to build the Law Enforcement Center. The bond was paid off in July 2014 and had $898,700 left over.
All renovations are slated for completion in July or August.
“Court has changed very rapidly over the last five to seven years with the increasing reliance on technology, both in the courtroom and in the support side of things in the clerk’s office,” Jacobs said. “We’re doing these things to make our courts more streamlined, more efficient and more effective.”
Another $100,000 for the work is coming from Finney County’s Building and Road Maintenance Program, another quarter-cent sales tax that is used for road and bridge projects and building maintenance.
County Administrator Randy Partington said in an email that the county supports the upkeep and enhancements for the courthouse to maintain a professional building, while being mindful of the taxpayers.
The renovations include improvements to courtrooms, offices and the courthouse doors.
The Ortiz courtroom in the basement of the LEC was overhauled in 2015 for about $50,000, work that included a new ceiling, LED lights, carpet, furniture and technology — namely the Mondopad, an Infocus touchscreen system used for video conferencing, whiteboarding and data sharing.
Jacobs said the Mondopad’s video conferencing capabilities can be used to call cellphones and iPads. The device also will cut costs for the courthouse by eliminating the need to transport witnesses or experts to the courtroom.
Inmates jailed or imprisoned can be escorted from their cell, down a hall and into a room with a videophone, where they can participate in court proceedings. The Mondopad replaces 25-year-old closed circuit TV technology that Jacobs said is no longer viable.
“The technology pays for itself fairly quickly in the cost savings, the mileage on the vehicles, the tires, the gas, the oil, the maintenance, the staff time to drive over there, drive back, and so on,” he said, adding that hospitalized witnesses or victims wouldn’t have to leave the hospital.
Jacobs said the courthouse will be adopting new technologies on a scale more aggressive than any other in the state. The Mondopads also can be used for translation services that might otherwise not be available due to lack of space and time. He said finding translators and paying them for their service can cost up to $1,300.
“If we’re saving $1,000 even once a week, that’s $50,000,” Jacobs said. “It pays for the project, more than pays for the project.”
The Mondopads also will be used for monthly meetings with clerks from all six counties in the 25th Judicial District. Jacobs said that instead of driving from location to location every month, meetings can be conducted via video, saving additional travel expenses.
The technology also will be used to connect with the juvenile detention center instead of transporting youth scheduled for appearances before a judge, and can be used to video conference with other facilities, such as Larned State Mental Hospital.
In Courtroom 300, known as the Hutchinson Courtroom, renovations included new LED lights; ceiling repainted; new carpet; the judge’s bench was widened; a witness stand and clerk stand were introduced; the sound system was upgraded; and new tables, chairs and microphones were added — for a little more than $40,000.
The Finney County Law Library Committee contributed $30,000 to that project. Jacobs said the committee is a stakeholder in the project, and the attorneys involved directed much of the renovation effort.
In addition, the court library was remodeled with new ceiling, carpet, plaster, electrical outlets and data ports added, as well new furniture and computers.
The main courtroom also saw improvements. The building’s original benches were completely removed, refurbished, restained and reinstalled. Water damage on the front wall still is slated for repair.
Jacobs will be working to launch a remodel of the court clerk’s office in late January. The space was last remodeled when the Finney County Attorney’s Office vacated the courthouse in 1997 and moved across the street.
According to Jacobs, the clerk’s office originally was designed to accommodate no more than 10 staff members. Currently, 15 staff members work in cubicles with overcrowded desks and boxes stacked on the floor.
“It’s gotten pretty crowded, and those women literally sit almost right on top of each other trying to work,” he said. “Additionally, the desks that they have were designed for typewriters, not computers. They have to bend at the waist, bend at the shoulders, bend at the neck.”
The clerk’s office remodel will include removing the front desk to create additional office space, and the wall where the office’s door is will be opened up, and someone will sit behind a window to help the public. Completion is expected in March.
Additional public access computers will be installed in the space where the vending machines currently are located, and those devices will be equipped with Internet capability.
Another project will involve replacing the original 1928 courthouse doors on the east and south sides of the building, which are made of metal and are in “very, very bad shape,” according to Jacobs.
Jacobs said the new doors will fit tighter, be more weather efficient, and yield long-term energy savings. They also will be equipped with panic bars and safety locks — “things that get them up to code with modern building requirements,” he said.
Local contractors are being used for all of the projects at the courthouse. Jacobs said it is his goal to update the technology in courthouses throughout the district by 2019, but he doesn’t know if that plan is entirely realistic.
“Ideally, if we had the resources, I would put this technology in every courthouse (in the judicial district) as soon as possible because I think the technology pays for itself in the long run,” he said. “But in our smaller courtrooms and our smaller courthouses in the communities with smaller populations, it takes longer to justify that expense. So it’s a little bit harder to make that case. The case is still sound. The math is still good. But instead of getting your return on investment in two to three years, you may wait six or eight.”