Cass County Building Authority criticizes direction of courthouse project

Published 9:15 am Thursday, April 14, 2016

Members of the Cass County Building Authority have expressed their concerns over the lack of a concrete plan in place for the restoration of the former Cassopolis courthouse.

Several members of the five-person board delivered pointed criticisms on the current direction of the county’s ongoing efforts to renovate and possibly reopen the former county courthouse, located next to the current county office building in Cassopolis, during the authority’s meeting Wednesday.

The topic was brought up as part of the building authority’s months-long discussion as to whether or not the county should pursue reusing the 1899 courthouse, which has been closed for more than a decade, or to consider building a future extension of the county’s current courthouse, the Law and Courts Building, to house the county offices currently in place at the county annex building.

The authority had requested that members of the Cass County Board of Commissioners’ ad-hoc vintage courthouse committee, which has been leading discussions on the possible renovation and reuse of the old structure, attend the meeting to answer questions about the status of the project. None of the three members of the committee were present Wednesday, though Commissioner Roseann Marchetti wrote a letter to the board informing the members she would not be able to attend.

Building Authority Chairperson Bill Saunders spoke out against aspects of the project during the meeting. While he would like to see the courthouse preserved, he was concerned about the lack of plans for potential public or private reuse of the building as well as unanswered questions about how the county would fund the necessary renovations to update the structure’s interior to modern standards.

“They [the county] spent $250,000 of the taxpayer money to do some roof [repairs] and other things, without any kind of plan whatsoever about where it was going to go,” Saunders said. “I think those things need to be taken care of by the commissioners first. They need to come to us with some kind of plan of what they want to do.”

Member Carl Higley also criticized the direction of the project, saying the board of commissioners also needs to determine what the county should do with the current annex should the county decide to relocate to a renovated courthouse, as has been discussed during previous meetings of the vintage courthouse committee.

“We spent one hell of a lot of money on this building, and right now it looks like we’re just going to throw it away,” Higley said.

In her letter to the building authority, Marchetti explained that the courthouse committee has just recently wrapped up its five presentations to county residents about the current status of the restoration project, and will be compiling feedback received from attendees into a report and presenting that information during the next vintage courthouse meeting.

“It seems logical that we allow that committee to return their results, their findings, and to present to the full board [of commissioners] a plan on how to move forward,” said Information Systems Department Director Kerry Collins, who attended Wednesday’s meeting.

Cathy LaPointe, who has been a frequent presence at meetings of the vintage courthouse committee, also spoke in defense of the direction of the restoration project. By gathering public input about the potential reuse of the courthouse, the county could find various ways of possibly funding restorations, including grants or private donations, she said.

“Just give us a chance,” LaPointe said. “Right now we want to do it right. There is a plan, there is an intent, there are a lot of people with a lot of passion about it.”

The members of building authority agreed to write a letter in the near future to the vintage courthouse committee expressing their concerns about the project before adjourning.