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updated: 8/9/2012 6:34 PM

Kane County eyes less expensive solutions to add court space

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Officials scrapped the cheapest ideas for addressing Kane County's lack of courtroom space at the judicial center Thursday as inefficient solutions. And with a $100 million expansion abandoned, officials now believe they have found a solution that's just right.

The new vision basically scales back the $100 million expansion.

There would still be a new, but smaller, wing built on the judicial center. Architects told a committee of judges, county board members, law enforcement and court personnel that a smaller addition could still create five new courtrooms to handle the county's growing population. There would also be shell space in the plan to add four courtrooms as needed. But the additional office, storage and parking space originally hoped for would be cut way back to shrink the price tag.

Exactly how much that price tag will be is unknown. The committee decided to ask the county board to approve a full breakdown of the short- and long-term costs of the smaller expansion. But rough math indicates the smaller plan might be just small enough to fit in the county's budget. Eliminating a parking garage from the plan trims about $25 million. And a building expansion half the size of the original plan could, roughly, be half the cost. That would put the price in the $35 million to $40 million range. That's just about what the county has to spend on the solution if that rough estimate proves true.

Taxpayers would foot the bill through a revival of the county's capital levy, borrowing through bonds and some of the savings in the county's capital projects account. The blow to local property tax bills is unclear. However, when the county board agreed to reduce its capital levy this fiscal year, it triggered a reduction in the overall amount of property taxes Kane County collected from the previous year for the first time in recent memory. Raising the capital portion of the county's property tax levy may have the opposite impact depending on the other portions of the county's property tax levy.

That's the part of the funding challenge that had the committee examining the lack of courtroom space examining cheaper options for several months.

Committee members in June seemed to favor a $5 million option to add more courtrooms to the circuit court clerk's building on Randall Road in St. Charles. Further study killed that option as expanding that building would leave a shortage of parking to accommodate the additional traffic. St. Charles city officials have also long wanted Kane County out of that building so it can be used for commercial space.

Night court has also been repeatedly suggested as a cheap solution. The judicial center as it currently stands is mostly empty by late afternoon. Chief Judge Robert Spence guillotined that plan Thursday with research showing it would cost about $4.37 million just in additional staff expenses to conduct night court.

Spence also surveyed local police departments on the idea. He found 4 to 10 p.m. is the busiest shift for police. Night court would reduce the manpower available at the worst possible time because more officers would be in court to testify, departments said.

Spence also used historical data from when Cook County tried to create a night court system to handle an increasing amount of drug cases in the late 1980s and early '90s. Spence said the data showed that the night courts became underused to such a great degree that Cook County abandoned the night court plan after about 10 years.

The county board must now take a vote on whether or not to explore the small expansion idea.

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