MANSFIELD -- A "perfect storm" of COVID-19 and new state rules has helped to create a need for a fourth Richland County Common Pleas general division courtroom, according to local judges.
It appears county commissioners are finding a way to make that happen after a couple of meetings on Thursday morning with an engineering firm and Judges Brent Robinson and Phil Naumoff.
It starts with demolition to clear space on "L2" at the courthouse, once home to jail cells for the sheriff's department.
Commissioners in June signed a contract with AJB Engineering Consultants of Mansfield to examine and verify any structural concerns with the demolition project, as well as examine potential asbestos and lead paint concerns in the space, about 7,500 square feet.
Alvin J. Berger P.E., principal of AJB Engineering, along with county building superintendent Chuck Minnich, met with commissioners on Thursday and said they are ready to seek bids for the work, which they estimated would cost $486,750.
Once bids are received and approved, the two estimated the work could begin in mid to late November and would take three to four months to complete. The county would have to provide temporary heating during the project, which will require windows to be opened.
Cells in the old county jail are embedded in the concrete floors on "L2," so concrete floors and walls must be removed and new ones poured, commissioners said in December 2020 when they set aside about $250,000 to help cover costs for the project.
"We've saved money for this project," Commissioner Tony Vero said in June. "My gut tells me we're probably going to need a little more than that."
Once that work is completed and the space is remodeled, it appears commissioners are poised to move the Clerk of Courts office, currently on the third floor, down to L2.
The clerk's space would then be remodeled into a fourth courtroom, available to the two judges and the three general division magistrates.
Robinson and Naumoff made the request in May and a surge in the COVID-19 Delta variant has accelerated the need, as has a state rule requiring speedier bond hearings for incarcerated individuals.
The two judges said it's been difficult to keep court functions going during the pandemic, meeting the needs of social distancing and safety for everyone involved in the legal process.
Robinson said the court has implemented the U.S. military motto of "adapt, improvise and overcome" to maintain a busy schedule of criminal and civil hearings and trials during the pandemic, which began in March 2020.
"It's been difficult and the added space would greatly help us," Naumoff said. "We are out of room, folks."
As just one example, Naumoff said there was a jury deliberating inside his courtroom on Thursday, a panel that pre-COVID would have deliberated in a smaller jury room.
"We use the courtroom for deliberations so the jurors can spread out," Naumoff said. "The jury room is too small. So that means I can't use my courtroom today for other things."
Commissioner Tony Vero said the county plans to ask the prosecutor's office for a legal opinion on whether American Rescue Plan Act funds can be used for parts of the project.
The county will receive about $23.4 million in ARPA funds, half of it already received and the remainder coming in 2022.
"We have a (Delta) variant and we have a surge," Vero said. "COVID is going to be around for awhile. As new variants emerge, I believe it's just going to be a part of our lives for awhile.
"I believe the way ARPA guidelines are written, there is some language in there that allows for capital projects (needed) as a result of the pandemic," Vero said.
"I want to thank (judges) for keeping the justice system running in this county during the pandemic," Vero said.
Both judges offered thanks to residents who have continued to come forward for jury duty during the pandemic.
"I think that's a credit to the residents of Richland County," Robinson said. "They understand how important the jury system is to protect the rights we all hold dear. I am impressed and proud of the citizens of Richland County."
Also on Thursday, county commissioners approved a $1,000 one-time stipend for each Richland County Sheriff's Office employee, except for Sheriff Steve Sheldon.
In September 2020, commissioners set aside $2.5 million in COVID-19 CARES Act relief funds for salaries and benefits in the sheriff's department, augmenting the general fund.
The stipends for about 135 current RCSO employees is "reasonable and justified," according to Vero. He said commissioners how difficult it has been to work as a first responder, especially in the county's correctional facility.