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Hutchinson County Courthouse project put in the spotlight

OLIVET -- For Hutchinson County residents, it's all about the money. On Tuesday night, in a meeting dominated by dollar figures, the Hutchinson County Commission outlined its tentative plan for building a new courthouse in the county. And as comm...

A crowd listens to the Hutchinson County commissioners discuss their plan for building a new courthouse during a public meeting Tuesday night at the courthouse in Olivet. (Caitlynn Peetz/Republic)
A crowd listens to the Hutchinson County commissioners discuss their plan for building a new courthouse during a public meeting Tuesday night at the courthouse in Olivet. (Caitlynn Peetz/Republic)

OLIVET - For Hutchinson County residents, it's all about the money.

On Tuesday night, in a meeting dominated by dollar figures, the Hutchinson County Commission outlined its tentative plan for building a new courthouse in the county. And as commissioners were pelted with questions, they repeatedly reminded attendees projections for the $4.5 million project are estimates.

And should bids come in too high, commissioners on Tuesday said they're prepared to back out of the project and adjust plans.

As the meeting progressed, residents tried to poke holes in the commission's plan, questioning whether the board has budgeted for the cost of demolishing the current courthouse and how thoroughly they researched the project.

Many presented possible ideas to maintain the current courthouse, rather than building new, but commissioners held their ground that a new courthouse is the best, cheapest route.

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The idea for the project was sparked by "general wear and tear" on the building, and a lack of adequate handicap accessibility, according to Hutchinson County Auditor Diane Murtha. The Hutchinson County Courthouse, built in 1881, is currently the oldest South Dakota courthouse in use. Other issues, such as mold and roofing problems, arose.

The town of Olivet and Hutchinson County each passed a resolution to exchange land for the purpose of building a new courthouse, but Olivet residents petitioned to send that resolution to a vote, so Hutchinson County rescinded the resolution. Then, recently, county voters petitioned to send the county's resolution to build a new courthouse at all to a vote, putting the entire process on hold. A vote is scheduled for April 10, when voters will decide whether to allow the county to build a new courthouse.

"If the vote fails, we basically have no choice but to start remodeling what we have," Commissioner Steve Friesen said.

Dorene Winckler, Hutchinson County clerk of courts, pleaded with the public to understand how necessary the project is, citing serious safety and capacity shortfalls in the courtroom.

A jury trial, scheduled for June, has to be held in Hanson County because the Hutchinson County Courthouse can't handle the number of people involved, Winckler said.

"There is a problem up here," Winckler said. "... I think the building committee and commission members have really looked into this and have taken their time."

One resident argued that it's admirable to have the oldest courthouse in the state, and questioned why the county would want to give up that title. Furthermore, the resident questioned why the courthouse should remain in Olivet, a town with few businesses and no restaurants to accomodate jurors.

If the county accepts a recent proposal from the city of Tripp to move the courthouse into the town's closing Good Samaritan Center, it would eliminate the need for the April 10 vote. However, it would require a vote among the county to move the county seat from Olivet to Tripp. It would take two-thirds of the county's voters voting in favor of the project for it to be approved.

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When asked if 66 percent of the voters could agree on one town, the courtroom erupted in laughter.

"I think it's a great idea, but it will take a lot of remodeling to get to the point where we can use it, and you have to do it within 30 days of the vote," Commissioner Larry Mehlhaff said.

Glen Roth, who serves as attorney for the Hutchinson County Commission, cautioned there could be negative impacts of moving the courthouse to a different community.

Because Olivet is located in the center of the county, people from multiple communities are able to commute to work at the courthouse, Roth said. Approximately 30 people work in the courthouse.

"There are people that work here who rely on its location for their livelihood," Roth said. "You have to take that into consideration when you want to move the courthouse to another community."

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