Note: This story was last updated at 1:50 p.m. Dec. 18.
CLINTON—With no other alternative lined up yet, the Anderson County Commission on Thursday agreed to an 18-month lease for the Anderson County General Sessions Court in Oak Ridge. That will keep the courthouse at its current home until mid-2017, giving county officials time to consider where to locate the General Sessions Court, Division II.
The courthouse is used by police officers in Oak Ridge, Oliver Springs, and Rocky Top, among other agencies and businesses.
The current seven-year lease expires at the end of the year, and officials have been trying to determine since October whether to keep the courthouse where it is now, find a new location in Oak Ridge, or move the Division II court to Clinton, where Division I is located.
County commissioners approved the 18-month lease at a rate of $5,500 per month during a Thursday evening meeting. The lease, which was approved 12-2, will not include a warehouse building used by the county at the courthouse site on Bus Terminal Road.
Under the lease expiring at the end of the year, the county had been paying $5,000 per month, plus reimbursement costs for renovations at the 5,000-square-foot courthouse. Tony Cappiello, president of Vintage Development, which owns the building, said there was $285,000 worth of renovations completed at the site, and the county reimbursed $185,000 over seven years.
To help with the lease extension, the City of Oak Ridge has offered, subject to City Council approval, a $25,000 payment in the city budget that starts July 1, 2016.
As courthouse options are considered, the city has also offered the former Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic building on Badger Road. The county could lease that building, which once housed the Oak Ridge Civic Music Association, for $1 per year for five years, City Manager Mark Watson said in a December 17 letter to Anderson County Mayor Terry Frank. The county would be responsible for renovation costs.
“I believe these options give the county some ‘breathing room’ on necessary decisions and approvals by the County Commission,” Watson said. “It also provides a low-cost/long-term option, saving the taxpayer monies needed in either lease costs or using existing rentals to invest in necessary building modifications on Badger Avenue.”
The city expects the county to make a decision on a permanent home for General Sessions Court, Division II, by March 2016, so Oak Ridge can plan its budgets and facility uses, Watson said.
“The Sessions Court is an important service to our community and greatly aids the convenience for Oak Ridge, Rocky Top, and Oliver Springs police officers,” Watson said. “It is a strong desire of the City of Oak Ridge that this facility be continued, particularly with the crowded facilities found in the Anderson County Courthouse.”
Anderson County Commissioner Myron Iwanski helped negotiate the monthly rate in the 18-month lease from $6,200 down to $5,500 per month on Thursday.
“There is a strong desire to keep it in Oak Ridge,” said Iwanski, who represents part of the city.
But he expressed some frustration that commissioners hadn’t received information about the expiration of the courthouse lease or proposals about what to do next until so late in the process.
“It’s very frustrating that we are getting this at the 11th hour, just before the lease is about to run out,” Iwanski said.
Commissioners Zach Bates and Jerry White cast the only “no” votes against the 18-month lease. Commissioners Chuck Fritts and Tracy Wandell were absent. All other commissioners voted “yes.”
Frank has said that the county has been paying $84,000 per year to lease the Bus Terminal Road 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.
General Sessions II was set up to ease the courthouse burden in Oak Ridge, and there was an initial agreement that it would be funded by Oak Ridge at $30,000 per year, or $2,500 per month. That money helped defray remodeling expenses at the Bus Terminal Road building, Watson said.
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. Murch’s term expired in August 2014, when he lost an election to the new judge, Roger Miller. No money for the courthouse was included in the city’s current budget.
The General Sessions Court, Division II, was once located at the Oak Ridge Municipal Building. But it was moved to the Bus Terminal Road building, which once housed the city’s police station and later the Oak Ridge Utility District, 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 on Bus Terminal Road opened January 14, 2009.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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