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Tazewell County Board leaders take differing stances on Justice Center Annex project

Tazewell County Courthouse, Pekin
Joe Deacon
The Tazewell County Courthouse in Pekin.

Tazewell County is moving forward with plans for a Justice Center Annex across from the century-old courthouse in downtown Pekin.

But the exact size and scope of the annex project is still undetermined, and some county board members are withholding support until they can get more clarity.

At its Feb. 28 meeting, the Tazewell County Board voted 14-3 in support of two actions related to the annex project — hiring P.J. Hoerr, Inc. as construction manager, and contracting with Wold Architects and Engineers of Palatine for architectural services.

Board chairman Dave Zimmerman said the original concept planned for a 65,000-square-foot building includes space for six courtrooms and other county offices, such as the State’s Attorney’s office and possibly the public defender.

“We also had a dollar-per-square foot figure in mind. Now, since we've hired these firms, we’re finding out that the price per square foot is significantly higher, at least initially,” said Zimmerman. “So, that may change what kind of building we build, ultimately.

“But whatever we decide to do, if it's a smaller building, I believe it should be designed so that in the future — if we want to add additional courtrooms, or add administration buildings — that the building was designed initially to accommodate more space.”

The county projects a price tag of around $34 million for the annex project, Zimmerman said, with about $20 million coming from federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds that need to be committed by the end of 2025.

“The rest of it will come in from our reserves and we have ample reserves, so even spending $14 million of our reserves we’ll still have a healthy balance,” he said.

County board vice chair Mike Harris is one of the three members who voted against the two recent actions, but he said he agrees there is a need for some sort of new facility.

“We have a couple of buildings that are costing us a tremendous amount of money to maintain and we need to evaluate them,” said Harris. “We have courtrooms, criminal courts that need to be moved out of the courthouse, and I agree with that. The safety of transporting prisoners, it helps; and we need the space in the courthouse.

“That is the need I believe we have," he said, adding, "The board has agreed to do a study, and that's basically all. They're agreeing to build a building, but they don't know what size and who's moving, and neither do I.”

Because the projected construction costs have increased significantly over the past few years, it's critical to determine the exact need and price tag, said Harris.

“I've expressed my concerns through the whole process. I've voted against the process so far because I don't know for sure what's going in it,” he said. “We're going to find out within this year what will go in, and then I’ll determine how I vote. I know what I want, and that's how I’ll vote — and the way things are going, it could get delayed and go into next year with a new board.”

That new board may have up to six new members, including current Tazewell County Auditor Brett Grimm. Zimmerman is not running for another term as board chairman this fall, and Grimm is currently unopposed in the election to replace him.

Grimm said he doesn't think the county should be prioritizing a justice annex without knowing the costs.

“I think currently it is a great idea, a work in progress, and a mess all at the same time,” said Grimm. “We have absolutely no idea of how much money it's going to cost. We don't know what we're going to build. We don't know exactly what the footprint is going to be. But we're pretty well deciding that they're committing $34 million to the project.

“I'm against that. I don't think that we need to spend nearly that much money on something that we don't know what we're doing with. There's a lot of current issues there at the county that need to be addressed first. Once you get those taken care of, then I think we should see how much money we have left, come up with a plan and then go forth with it. But right now we already know building costs are going to come in high, and it's kind of leading to a situation of just more not knowing.”

So, what does Grimm see as a more important need?

“Quite a bit of infrastructure-type of issues,” he said. “The current buildings, different things like that. We have all kinds of problems with ventilation, roofs, concrete —just regular maintenance that's been delayed or denied for the last 5-7 years. The buildings have been deteriorating; we've got problems in those that I think that we should bring those back up to par before we start looking at spending more money.”

Pekin City Manager John Dossey said the city remains in communication about the properties Tazewell County wants to acquire for the annex project, adding the county facilities are vital to the community.

“I know the Pekin Main Street group, which is basically all the business owners, signed a petition and presented it to the council and basically let the city know that we need the county. They're a big part of their success as far as the downtown businesses go,” said Dossey.

“I will say that on the recent holiday that we had down there, it was very evident when the county building was closed. It just wasn't as busy downtown, with people coming to and from the courthouse, frequenting the restaurants and everything down there.”

The annex project cleared one hurdle when the Pekin City Council voted to vacate the 300 block of Elizabeth Street at its meeting on Feb. 26. Zimmerman said the county hopes to acquire five city-owned lots behind where the Tobin Building once stood that are needed for the project, possibly by as soon as the end of the month.

“Timing wise, we'd rather have it planned out right, rather than having it planned out fast,” said Zimmerman. “So we've kind of set a target for October-November to firm up our plans. This building has actually been delayed by almost two years now because of some of the issues in acquiring the land and street vacation. So we're already behind the curve, but that may have worked to our advantage if construction costs come down.”

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.