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Nine-story tower planned to ease Lake County court space crunch

Lake County Administrator Barry Burton. | Thomas Delany Jr.~Sun-Times Media

Lake County Administrator Barry Burton. | Thomas Delany Jr.~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 16, 2013 1:56AM

The Lake County Board is expected to vote Tuesday on a proposal to build a new court building in downtown Waukegan and renovations at the Babcox Justice Center costing a total of $90.5 million.

The proposed nine-story criminal courts tower would be about 215,000 square feet and would house more than 20 courtrooms. It would be located on the southwest corner of County and Washington streets.

The new building will cost an estimated $81.5 million. The Babcox Center would get renovated and an underground tunnel connecting it to the Lake County Building would cost an estimated $9 million, according to Deputy County Administrator Amy McEwan and County Administrator Barry Burton.

“The last expansion was done almost 40 years ago. We don’t have enough courtrooms for judges — it backs up the entire criminal justice system. We need to have an efficient system,” Burton said.

Five judges will be without courtrooms effective Dec. 3, according to Chief Judge Fred Foreman. Eight of the current courtrooms do not meet Illinois Supreme Court requirements for size and accessibility, he said.

There are 13 courtrooms currently. Some judges have to hold court in conference rooms on the County Board floor due to space shortages, Foreman said.

Courtrooms are already doubled up, he said.

Another big staffing issue is transporting prisoners from the jail, located at Babcox, to courtrooms in the county building, Burton said. The underground tunnel would help meet this “growing need,” he said.

“This process will ensure us sufficient court space until the year 2030 and beyond,” Foreman said. “Our philosophy is ... we’re adding an addition to our house and when that’s finished, we’re going to remodel the rest of the house. We’re not going to buy a completely new house.”

The County Board has spent several years looking at a variety of ways to make the system more efficient, Burton said. The County Board appointed a judicial facilities committee for this purpose.

“The County Board (did) a great job of planning for our future needs,” Burton said.

The county has about one-third of the $90.5 saved up and the remaining two-thirds of the money will be bonded, he said.

“We’ve saved up and created money in our budget. We’re going to pay with existing revenues. We’ve planned and prepared for this,” Burton said.

The Babcox renovation would expand intake and booking at the jail, attach lobby space and renovate three courtrooms, according to McEwan.

If the board approves the proposal, the next step would be to hire a construction manager. That would likely be accomplished by April.

Tunnel construction under Washington Street would commence in 2013 and construction of the criminal court tower would begin in 2014, she said.

If the proposal is rejected, a new location for additional courtrooms will have to be found, Foreman said.

“We’re hoping to be able to work together to move through the planning of the new facility. The county has been very responsive. They understand what the issues are,” Foreman said.

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