Master plan urged for county buildings

Studies continue to show millions needed for repairs to courthouse, sheriff’s department, jail
Kevin Passon

Shawano County Administrative Coordinator Jim Davel and Shawano County Board Chairman Tom Kautza are again urging county supervisors to create a master plan to guide maintenance and new construction for county buildings.

“The building (courthouse) is not what we need today,” Davel said at the May 22 county board meeting. “Our court system has changed dramatically. We’ve got to do better. These are some tough decisions. We don’t know the cost of what this could look like, because we haven’t formulated our plan yet.”

Davel’s comments followed a report by Kurt Berner, vice president of The Samuels Group, Wausau, which was contracted to review the county building plan studies over the past 40 years.

The Samuels Group is a management firm that helps with the pre-planning through construction phases.

“Historically what I found with counties is the same situation which you have here today,” Berner said.

He said space issues get studied, a report is created, and then it is shelved only to have the process repeated in a couple of years.

Space needs studies from 1985 to 2024 were reviewed.

Davel asked supervisors whether they wanted to continue making Band-Aid repairs or move ahead and build something new.

“When you look at the history here in Shawano County, it is absolutely ridiculous to go back and do more studies,” he said. We spent over a million dollars on studies, and nothing was ever built.”

Somerville Architects and Engineers completed the most recent study in 2023 of the courthouse, heating plant, sheriff’s department and jail.

“As you look through the suggestions in regards to what should be addressed on both of these buildings (courthouse and sheriff’s department/jail), the list is pretty significant, and the dollars add up real quick,” Berner said of the recommendations in the Somerville report.

According to the report, several million dollars in repairs and upgrades are needed.

“Based on that information, you’re at a point where you as the board will have to give some consideration as to what do you invest in your infrastructure here and what is the best way to invest in the infrastructure,” Berner said.

For the sake of his report, Berner said the work release center, located across town from the jail, was also reviewed.

Berner recommended the formation of an ad hoc committee focused solely on creating a master plan for the county.

“It’s better for you to look at something from a master plan perspective, and what I mean by that is look at all the needs that you, the county, right now have for building infrastructure, get them on the table, then start to prioritize them,” he said. “Put them in a master plan or road map that you as the board can then make decisions that are attainable, things that you can afford to be able to step to the final solution of addressing all of the needs that you have for your facilities.”

Then, he said, the county can decide whether to continue to invest in the existing buildings or put together a game plan to replace them.

“I’ve been here 12 years, and there was going to be a master plan written when I got here,” Kautza said. “That never happened. Everything just keeps happening. A new board comes in. Everything goes around in a circle, and nothing really happens. Sooner or later, something does have to happen, or the place just keeps coming apart.”

Berner acknowledged there will be challenges regardless of the decision made. There is a matter of what the county can afford. Constituents will wonder whether the decision was the right one or not. At a certain point in a remodeling project, the Americans with Disabilities Act compliance requirements will kick in and require more dollars.

He reminded supervisors to also consider the properties west of the courthouse the county purchased for possible expansion plans as well as the needs of the public library on South Sawyer Street.

The Samuels Group report also included three conceptual options, which Berner said are not recommendations. Rather, they will give officials an idea of what a master plan phasing concept would look like.

Finally, he said the county’s financial adviser would need to be consulted to discuss borrowing and tax impacts.

Supervisor Joe Miller asked whether Berner and his group had considered new buildings in a different location.

Berner said those discussions were held, pointing to conceptual plans involving the work release center. He also reminded officials that by law, the courthouse must be located in the county seat.

As a point of interest, Davel said Waushara County, with half the population of Shawano County, recently bonded for $89.5 million at 2.1% interest to build a new government center, highway shop and EMT building. The cost to taxpayers was about $83 per $100,000 of property value.

Current interest rates are 4.5% to 5%, he sad.

“Get your homework done while our rates are higher,” he said, noting that when rates drop, the county would be ready to move forward with any necessary borrowing.

He reiterated the costs in the Somerville report are only to maintain the current buildings, not making any necessary improvements.

“1956 plumbing in this building,” Davel said. “1956 wiring in this building. We still put fuses in around here.”

He said the cost to make courthouse repairs would be between $40 million and $50 million.

“That would be to maintain what we have here, but the would not get you the build to connect this building with the sheriff’s department … and that would not bring this building up to ADA code,” he said.

“We are one of eight (courthouses) in the state that is open. We don’t have security when you walk in this courthouse, and we have issues here every single week.”

With the sheriff’s department and jail across Third Street, deputies must walk inmates across the road for court appearances. Once inside, there is not private entry area, so inmates are walked down the hallway in front of visitors, employees, witnesses and victims.

Supervisor Matt Pleshek is also the city engineer in Shawano. He said it’s important the city be aware of county plans in the neighborhood.

“We’re not ignoring Third Street. We’re not ignoring Washington Street,” he said. “These were all right in the queue, but I’m not going to put in a ton of money on these streets without knowing what’s gong to happen here.”

He said the city would work with the county to ensure the project, including infrastructure, is done right without investing funds only to see them wasted if plans change in a couple of years.