Michigan City Courthouse

The Michigan City Courthouse under COVID-19 restrictions.

La PORTE — Employees at the Michigan City Courthouse may be finding themselves in some new digs when crews break ground on the county’s planned overhaul of the 111 year old structure this fall.

On Monday, the La Porte County Council voted 6-1 to support a proposal to temporarily relocate the courthouse staff to the former Michigan City Brown Mackie College facility later this year, when work is expected to begin on the $22.5 million renovation and expansion project. The move, projected to cost the county a net total of more than $710,000, would span the estimated length of construction of two years, said county attorney Shaw Friedman during his presentation to the council Monday.

Auditor Joie Winski and other county officials identified the former college campus, located at 325 U.S. 20, as a suitable location to move the courthouse operations to once work begins, Friedman said.

The temporary relocation would benefit the county in several ways – chiefly, mitigating a possible COVID-19 outbreak among courthouse staff and users during the construction project, the attorney said.

Given the influx of construction workers that will be present at the courthouse during building, moving employees and guests offsite would help protect them from possibly contracting the virus from contractors, who often work near one another, Friedman said.

COVID outbreaks at construction sites have not been uncommon – in May, contractors temporarily halted work on the new La Porte Hospital facility after several workers tested positive for the coronavirus.

“The more we can get separation between patrons, employees and construction personnel during construction is to everyone’s benefit,” Friedman said.

With the construction work also shutting down the courthouse’s elevator, temporarily moving to Brown Mackie would also allow those with mobility challenges to still access the facility’s services, Friedman said.

Finally, by fully relocating during the building process rather than partially occupying the courthouse as originally planned, the county will be able to shave time off the project, the attorney said.

According to current cost projections provided to The News-Dispatch, the county would spend around $490,000 to build out and prepare the college building for the relocation. This amount would be on top of the $570,000 the county is projected to pay in rent and utilities over the two-year lease, coming out to a total of more than $1.1 million.

With the county expected to save $350,000 in building costs due to the reduced construction time, however, that figure would come out to $710,000 – up to $500,000 of which could be reimbursed to the county by the state, due to the project being a COVID-19 expense, Friedman said.

With the council’s blessing, officials plan to negotiate a lease with the facility’s landlord, Friedman said.

Councilman Jeff Santana was the sole vote against the proposal.

Santana, who has voted against several other measures related to the courthouse project in the past, said he believes there are still some unknown variables with the proposed move, including whether or not the work would for sure be eligible for state reimbursement, he said.

Also on Monday, the council approved a pair of enabling ordinances related to financing the courthouse project, following a second reading.

The council passed both by 6-1 votes, with Councilman Michael Rosenbaum opposing both measures. Rosenbaum, who also voted against the ordinances during their first reading earlier this month, said that while he supports the courthouse project, he is opposed to how some parts of the process are being handled.

The project, which is expected to break ground in September, will add a new 43,000-square-foot expansion to the Michigan City Courthouse, located at 300 Washington St., as well as overhaul the interior of the existing structure.

The work is intended to modernize the 1909 facility, making it safer and more accessible. The additional space will also allow the county to transfer its offices at its other Michigan City building on Eighth Street to the courthouse.

The county intends to pay for the work through both a general obligation bond issue and a $3.5 million appropriation from its emergency and Major Moves funds.

Also on Monday, the council:

Approved a motion to affirm that the county would not be contributing any additional funding to the Transit Triangle public transportation system. The council chose not to recommit to the program – which provides low-fare transit between Michigan City, La Porte and Purdue University Northwest’s Westville campus – after its previous funding agreement expired this spring. The city of La Porte, another previous funding partner, has also ended its agreement with Transit Triangle, as of early June. In response, the city of Michigan City announced last month that it intended to fund the program through dollars given to the city under the federal coronavirus relief bill.

Approved a request from the sheriff’s department to spend $664,000 from the county’s general fund for pension payments.

Approved a request from emergency management to spend $5,900 from the general fund for additional maintenance work to its radio towers in Kingsbury and Rolling Prairie.

Approved a request from voter registration to spend $5,400 from the general fund for replacement computers.

Approved a request from the county auditor to appropriate an additional $100,000 from the county’s emergency fund for additional COVID-related expenses.

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