CLINTON—Several alternative locations have been proposed, including a city-owned building at A.K. Bissell Park and a county-owned building on Emory Valley Road, but for now, the Anderson County General Sessions Court in Oak Ridge could remain at a privately owned building on Bus Terminal Road.
Once housed at the Oak Ridge Municipal Building, the General Sessions, Division II, courthouse has been on Bus Terminal Road since January 2009.
But the lease expires December 31.
On Monday, November 16, the Anderson County Commission voted 15-0 on a voice vote to ask for a one-year lease extension with no penalty and to work with Oak Ridge to share courthouse costs.
“That year buys us time to look at all the options,” said County Commissioner Myron Iwanski, who represents District 8, which includes Emory Valley, Woodland, and Hendrix Creek.
One option that has been raised at a few county meetings: the two-story building that once housed the Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic and Oak Ridge Civic Music Association on Badger Road. That city-owned building, which is perched on a hillside overlooking Alvin K. Bissell Park, has been vacant for more than one year.
“It is an option that is available to the county,” Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson said last week.
In earlier meetings, county officials said they would be responsible for utilities at that location, which is across the street from Oak Ridge Associated Universities, and General Sessions Court Judge Roger Miller said it would be feasible. The city said the county courthouse could be housed there until a permanent home is found, according to County Commissioner Angeleque McNutt, who also represents District 8.
But concerns have been raised about the number of parking spaces at the Badger Road building. It has 20 parking spaces, compared to 60 at the current courthouse on Bus Terminal Road. One current courthouse worker said eight of the 20 spots could be used each day by courthouse staff, including the judge, bailiff, security, and clerks.
Watson said the discussion between city and county officials hasn’t proceeded far enough to get to a conversation about parking. But some parking concerns could be handled through the timing and scheduling of cases, he said.
One change that has already been made at the courthouse has helped alleviate parking problems: an hourly court docket. The parking lot is rarely full, the courthouse worker said. Still, the current courthouse has three times as much parking as the Badger Road facility.
Anderson County Commissioner Theresa Scott, who represents District 7 (Glenwood, Highland View, Pine Valley), has proposed that the county-owned building on Emory Valley Road also be considered. The Emory Valley Center, which now uses part of that building, has long-term plans to build a new facility across the street, and the county-owned building could be available after two years, Scott said.
The county-owned building, which also houses county offices and the Oak Ridge Senior Center, has more than 120 parking spaces in just the parking area on the west side of the building. But Watson said that building is under a purchase agreement, and besides being home to the Emory Valley Center, it’s also home to the Montessori School of Oak Ridge.
Anderson County Commissioner Jerry White said county officials first need to decide if they want to keep the courthouse in Oak Ridge. If so, why not renegotiate the lease on the current building with the owner, Vintage Development, asked White, who represents District 5, which includes Clinton High, Dutch Valley, Marlow, and Norwood. The county did a lot of work “to get that building into shape,” White said. It’s been there seven years, it’s a great location on a main road (Oak Ridge Turnpike), and everyone knows where it is, White said.
Two other options that have been proposed during county meetings: a long-term proposal to build a justice center, and moving the courthouse to Clinton, possibly to the Anderson County Courthouse. But a few county officials, including Scott, have argued against moving to Clinton, pointing out that the Oak Ridge courthouse is used by and convenient for officers, including those in Oak Ridge and Oliver Springs. Watson said there would be some management efficiencies created by moving the courthouse to Clinton, but there would also be inefficiencies for current users.
“In fairness to the taxpayers of Anderson County, that should also be looked at,” Watson said.
Scott has said the Bus Terminal Road building needs many repairs, and she has suggested finding an alternative building in Oak Ridge.
Besides Oak Ridge and Oliver Springs, other law enforcement agencies that use the Oak Ridge courthouse include Rocky Top and Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, officials said.
During one recent county meeting, Don Layton, General Sessions Court Division I judge in Clinton, 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.
Layton said he doesn’t think any other counties have an arrangement similar to the current one in Anderson County.
There have been questions about whether the county should keep the courthouse in Oak Ridge, particularly if the City of Oak Ridge is not providing financial support.
Commissioner Steve Mead, whose district includes Oak Ridge City Hall, Robertsville and West Hills, 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.”
Slowly, over time, the county has ended up paying 100 percent of the costs of the Oak Ridge courthouse, Mead said. During a discussion of other locations, he expressed reluctance to invest $100,000 or more to turn a building into a courthouse and then have the county move out after one year.
Watson, who said the Bus Terminal Road facility is another option for the courthouse, said the city previously provided money to help with remodeling that building, but that agreement was only through the term of former Division II Judge Ron Murch, who lost his re-election bid to Miller in August.
Watson said he and Anderson County Mayor Terry Frank will have to meet for more discussions on funding. The city’s obligation in the past and under a private act is to provide a facility.
“It doesn’t say that we have to provide money,” Watson said. “It just says that we have to provide a facility.”
At last week’s County Commission meeting, Frank acknowledged that there is some legal leeway in the the private act, which says the city will make space available. It’s not clear whether that means that the city has to cover costs, utilities, or remodeling, for example, Frank said.
The county has an option to renew the lease on the current Bus Terminal Road building for five years from January 1, 2016, through the end of 2021. But so far, no officials have advocated for that option.
Frank recently told the Operations Committee that the county is paying $84,000 per year to lease the Vintage Development building, 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 Murch, and the county no longer receives the $30,000 city contribution, Frank said.
Frank has 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.
The General Sessions Court, Division II, was once located at the Oak Ridge Municipal Building, but it was moved to the former Oak Ridge Utility District building on Bus Terminal Road 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 courthouse on Bus Terminal Road opened in the former ORUD building on January 14, 2009.
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