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Lake County to spend $119M for courts, jail

The southwest corner WashingtCounty Streets Waukegan will be site new court building with renovations Babcox Justice Center left cost $90.5

The southwest corner of Washington and County Streets in Waukegan will be the site of a new court building with renovations of the Babcox Justice Center at left at a cost of $90.5 million. | Thomas Delany Jr.~Sun-Times Media

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Mayor backs courts

The county projects related to downtown Waukegan and approved Tuesday will benefit the city, according to Mayor Robert Sabonjian.

He said property used for the new Criminal Courts Tower at Washington and County streets is already owned by the county. “So they are not taking any additional property off the tax rolls,” noting at one point the county was considering property at Fountain Square.

“When you get a project this big in your community, it will create jobs. It should help some smaller contractors get on the job,” he said. “It will bring people downtown.

“And maybe it will create a little return business, too,” the mayor added. “People come, maybe go to a restaurant and they like it and they come back.” he said.

“I think this will help give the downtown a little more exposure,” he said, plus workers would buy gas, some supplies, and other offshoots like that. “It’s not a negative,” said Sabonjian, adding there will be some ripple effect, but not a building boom from the private sector.

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Updated: January 20, 2013 1:16AM

The Lake County Board unanimously voted to fund a capital improvement project to build a new Criminal Courts Tower in downtown Waukegan, juvenile court renovations and jail intake renovations.

The board voted to use up to $90 million in bond money and another $34 million in reserve cash officials have set aside during the planning stages to pay for the construction projects over a five-year period.

The nine-story tower, estimated to cost $81.5 million, will address the problem of not having enough courtroom space. Currently, five judges do not have courtrooms.

There also are nine temporary courtrooms that do not meet state standards. The tower will have 17 courtrooms and space for three future courtrooms.

The current courthouse was built in 1969 and three courtrooms were added at the Babcox Justice Center in the 1980s; six more courtrooms were added to the court annex in the 1990s.

Meanwhile, case filings have grown by 22 percent between 1995 and 2010 and is projected to grow another 29 percent by 2030, mainly due to population increases, said Amy McEwan, deputy county administrator.

At the Babcox complex, 20 S. County St., comprehensive remodeling of three courtrooms will assist the early disposition of cases. The jail intake, booking and kitchen areas will also be remodeled to support future inmate capacity.

Actual housing for inmates will not have to be increased through 2030 by utilizing the space that already exists with dormitory-style housing, officials said. Nearly 85 percent of the jail population is awaiting trial, so a more efficient court system will help keep the population low, said McEwan.

The last part of the $119.2 million five-year capital improvement includes the renovations of floors six through nine of the county administrative tower at a cost of $9.8 million for new windows, insulation and lighting, and wiring. Another $14.9 million is earmarked for the Robert W. Depke Juvenile Justice Center in Vernon Hills for courtrooms and court services.

The cost of the debt service on the bonds will be less than 1 percent of the county’s annual budget.

County Board Member Ann Maine of Lincolnshire reminded other board members that they did not want to get into a position when the county was forced by a federal judge to make renovations because of crowded conditions.

“This project has been planned in every detail. Last time, we were under a federal court order,” she said. “We could ultimately be ordered to,” again, if the courtrooms were not brought up to standards. “This way, we’re planning on doing it our own way. We’re not going to do everything right away.”

Mary Ross Cunningham of Waukegan said, “It’s in my district. We need this. We need more courtrooms. We know this plan is a great plan. I don’t think too many people will be upset over this.”

Diana O’Kelly of Mundelein said she describes herself as a fiscal conservative on the board and she was in favor because of liability and the fact that a building built in the 1960s doesn’t function in a way that is needed today. She said one courtroom she went into was close to the size of a laundry room and had pillars that blocked the judge’s view of the gallery.

“This is what we must do,” she said. “We’re giving employees space they need to do their job.”

County Administrator Barry Burton said the county will hire a construction manager who then will package the work for bid. “But this is a competitive bid process,” he said. “Obviously, this is a big project, but we need the economy of scale to keep prices down.”

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