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Courthouse and jail may stay downtown
Sites for facilities detailed
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Forsyth County News


Under a plan presented Wednesday, a new Forsyth County courthouse, expanded jail and parking deck could be built in downtown Cumming for about $100 million.

Officials have discussed paying for the projects with revenue from an extension of the 1-cent sales tax.

Though the current tax will not expire until 2013, a possible referendum on an extension could take place as early as November.

During a work session Wednesday afternoon, commissioners heard a presentation about the need for the facilities and a conceptual plan for their construction.

The presentation by Wakefield Beasley & Associates showed plans for a total of 335,000 square feet for the buildings, which could be located near the Cumming downtown square.

Artist renderings showed a new four-story courthouse across the street from the current facility, with an expanded parking deck behind it.
The detention center would be an expansion of the current site off Veterans Memorial Boulevard, with a connection to the courthouse across the street either underground or by way of a catwalk.

“One of the things that will make this system a lot more efficient is the ability for the inmates from the sheriff’s [office] to get to the judges,” said Doug Shaw, a representative of the firm.

“If we can get that hand-in-glove type of arrangement from a facility standpoint, you will garner a lot of efficiency from your criminal justice system.”

A study of the current efficiency of the county’s jail and courthouse showed room for improvement.

Shaw said the current courthouse was built in the 1970s, with plans that it would last until the early 1990s.

The county has grown quickly in the past decade, he said, and the court calendar has backed up without the needed amount of space to process cases.

The new courthouse proposal shows a minimum need of six rooms, with room for expansion to 10.

County courts are also spread out in five locations, which could be reduced to three with the new building. The current courthouse could continue to function for court.

Proximity to the county’s jail would also reduce costs and conflicts in transporting inmates to court.

The local jail has filled up, and the county must house inmates in other facilities, primarily in neighboring Hall County, as well as nearby Cherokee, Dawson, Gwinnett and Lumpkin counties.

Sheriff Ted Paxton has estimated such arrangements have cost the county about $14 million over the past 10 years. If nothing were to change, $66 million could be spent by 2020.

Compared to the sheriff’s estimates to house out inmates, Commission Chairman Brian Tam said the estimated cost of $50 million to expand the jail “pays for itself.”

The county’s jail is also out of date, Shaw said, due to its antiquated control panel and staff-intensive linear design to keep an eye on inmates.

A minimum of 700 beds are needed, plus room for expansion to 1,200. The jail currently has room for 226.

To build the immediate needs for the jail and courthouse would likely take about 3 to 3.5 years to complete, Shaw said.

“The design of this should be that you don’t have to close down the facilities while you begin new construction,” he said.

The $100 million budget considers all costs for the facilities, including construction, furniture, equipment, fees and land acquisition.

The county owns all of the necessary land, with the exception of a few parcels across the street from the existing courthouse.

County Attorney Ken Jarrard said the county has signed proposals from those property owners to sell the land if the 1-cent sales tax extension is approved.

In the next step toward the vote, the county plans to hold its required meeting with the city of Cumming during its May 24 work session. Officials will discuss projects that could be listed on the ballot question.

Cumming Mayor Ford Gravitt, who attended Wednesday's presentation, said he agrees the jail and courthouse are needed facilities.

“The city’s willing to participate in the jail and court to the extent we can in the [1-cent sales tax],” Gravitt said. “We want to work with the county in its efforts. I think you’ve selected a great location for it.”

He added that putting the facilities on a 1-cent sales tax vote may make the voters more receptive, since they have repeatedly rejected building one or both facilities in bond referendums.