CLINTON—Anderson County officials could ask for a one-year extension of the lease on the General Sessions Court, Division II, in Oak Ridge. The current lease expires at the end of the year, on December 31.
The county has an option to renew the lease for five years from January 1, 2016, through the end of 2021, but it’s not clear if officials want to do that. There are questions about whether they want to keep a courthouse in Oak Ridge, particularly if the City of Oak Ridge is not providing financial support. But if Division II court does stay in Oak Ridge, there is a question about whether it should remain at the current location at the former Oak Ridge Utility District building on Bus Terminal Road.
Officials have limited time, about 80 days, to weigh the alternatives before the lease expires, and there are holidays in the meantime, said Anderson County Commissioner Mark Alderson, who made a motion to seek a one-year lease extension during an Operations Committee meeting on Monday. The committee unanimously approved that proposal on a voice vote.
Anderson County Mayor Terry Frank told the Operations Committee that the county is paying $84,000 per year to lease the building, owned by Vintage Development, and there are other costs associated with maintaining it. The county pays insurance, property tax, and maintenance, and provides the cleaning service and life safety inspections, Frank said. If something leaks or breaks, the county has to repair it, she said.
“It adds up to a pretty significant investment for Anderson County,” Frank said.
Officials said General Sessions II was set up to ease the burden in Oak Ridge, and there was an initial agreement that it would be funded at $30,000 per year. But that agreement only coincided with the tenure of former General Sessions Court Division II Judge Ron Murch, and the county no longer receives the $30,000 city contribution, Frank said.
A 2009 lease agreement said the City of Oak Ridge had agreed to contribute $2,500 per month ($30,000 per year) to Anderson County until Murch’s term expired in 2014. (Murch lost to the new judge, Roger Miller, in the August 2014 election.)
Frank said the county may need a task force to find a long-term solution. A few options seemed to emerge during the Monday night discussion. One long-term solution could be a justice center.
There was some discussion of having the court remain convenient for police officers, including in Oak Ridge and Oliver Springs. But Frank said Anderson County District Attorney General Dave Clark has come up with a system where officers rarely have to be in court.
She raised questions about the risks and costs of transporting prisoners to Oak Ridge from the Anderson County Detention Facility in east Clinton. Other costs include having pre-trial and public defender’s employees travel to Oak Ridge. Also, having the second courthouse in Oak Ridge means there is a second clerk’s office, and moving the Oak Ridge courthouse could possibly allow Anderson County Court Clerk William Jones to downsize, Frank said.
Don Layton, General Sessions Court Division I judge in Clinton, said judicial officials will make whatever adjustments are necessary, based upon what Anderson County Commission decides. He pledged to cooperate if the Oak Ridge court is brought to the Anderson County Courthouse in Clinton.
“If General Sessions Court Division II is returned to the Courthouse, I am wiling to reconfigure my docket so we could use one courtroom for both divisions while a review of court facilities can take place,” Layton said.
He said judges are not advocating one way or the other. Instead, they are leaving that decision up to the legislative branch.
But he doesn’t think any other counties have an arrangement similar to the current one in Anderson County.
The General Sessions Court, Division II, was once located at the Oak Ridge Municipal Building, but it was moved to the former ORUD building because the city hall space was too small.
The Oak Ridge City Council approved a city manager recommendation in February 1993 to set up a General Sessions Court in Oak Ridge. The Tennessee General Assembly subsequently amended the private act that created the Anderson County General Sessions Court to add the second division for the City of Oak Ridge.
For 14 years, the Division II Court was located at the Oak Ridge Municipal Building. But in the late 2000s, the court began experiencing overcrowding and security problems, and the Anderson County Commission negotiated a lease at the former ORUD building, rather than moving the court to Clinton.
The new courthouse opened January 14, 2009, a representative said Tuesday.
Anderson County Commissioner Theresa Scott, who represents part of Oak Ridge, said it’s convenient for police officers and business owners to have the courthouse in Oak Ridge. Several thousand cases have been heard there, including for Oliver Springs and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, but the building needs “lots of repairs,” Scott said.
She suggested she would favor finding an alternative building in Oak Ridge.
A few commissioners suggested they want more information. Anderson County Commissioner Myron Iwanski, who also represents part of Oak Ridge, said he would like to hear from Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson, Police Chief Jim Akagi, and possibly Miller.
Commissioner Steve Mead, who also represents part of Oak Ridge, said he would like to know how much support the city is willing to provide.
“I don’t think the county should take the entire cost,” Mead said. “Sharing is an option, but I think paying the whole bill is unreasonable.”
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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