Benton County officials view courtrooms in Bentonville

Posted: February 17, 2017 at 1:08 a.m.

NWA Democrat-Gazette/BEN GOFF @NWABENGOFF A view of the Benton County Courthouse on Friday, Aug. 21, 2015 on the Bentonville square.

BENTONVILLE -- Benton County's justices of the peace got a firsthand look at the circuit court facilities Thursday night.

The Committee of the Whole took a tour of the county courthouse and two nearby buildings also housing courtrooms and judicial offices.

Financial aid

Walton family interests have supported plans to keep the court and related offices in downtown Bentonville. The Walton Family Foundation made $2.8 million available to renovate the courthouse and to buy land on Northeast Second Street. Walton family has said they’ll build a parking garage on Northeast B Street, near the downtown sites, and make space available for county and courts-related parking if the courts stay downtown. The Waltons offer reduces the cost of a downtown building project by about $11 million, according to information presented by consultants on the project.

Source: Staff report

Circuit Judge Doug Schrantz and four of the other circuit judges briefed the justices of the peace on the daily problems they encounter with inadequate and ill-designed space for those who come to their courts. The judges said the age of the buildings and the makeshift nature of some of the court space present security issues and challenges in keeping those on opposing sides of the cases separate both inside and outside the courtrooms.

"It's not right," Judge Tom Smith said. "It's not right to ask people to come to a courthouse and have kids and other people under great emotional stress, for a number of reason, go through this."

Shirley Sandlin, justice of the peace for District 8, suggested the justices of the peace make arrangements to visit the courthouse during daytime hours so they can get the full effect of what they saw in a presentation Thursday night. Schrantz and the other judges agreed and some justices of the peace were making plans to do so in the future.

Barney Hayes, newly sworn in as justice of the peace for District 5, said he hadn't been to the courthouse in many years.

"Since the time I've been here the county has probably doubled or quadrupled in population and that brings more crime and more court cases," Hayes said. "I think the judges have made a good case tonight that they need better facilities. Now we need to get a plan and move forward as quickly as possible."

Smith asked the justices of the peace to remember what they've seen when they're working on plans for courthouse space and not to try to cut corners.

"We need to do it and we need to do it right for the citizens," Smith said.

Officials have discussed plans for a building to house circuit courts and offices for several years. An initial study identified three sites -- two in downtown Bentonville and one on Southwest 14th Street near the jail.

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The consultants hired by the county ranked possible building concepts for the sites on 10 criteria: the ability to meet the operational requirements of the courts and related offices; security; minimal disruption of ongoing courts operations; driving access to the site and traffic congestion; walking access to the building; walking access to amenities; contextual fit of the building with the surrounding area; expansion capabilities; constructability; and cost.

One of the concepts for Southwest 14th Street was ranked highest by consultants, with one of the Northeast Second Street options a point behind. The Option 1 plan on Southwest 14th Street carries a cost of about $37.8 million. The Option 4 program on Northeast Second Street has a cost of about $34.5 million, with about $11 million in incentives offered by Walton family interests factored in.

The consultants said in their final report, submitted in December, the next steps will be made by officials and the Quorum Court. These steps include deciding the location and size of the project; whether the old post office now used for Circuit Judge Brad Karren's court is to be demolished or sold; and the funding mechanism proposed by the county.

NW News on 02/17/2017