County considering office space realignment

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GREENFIELD — Hancock County officials are looking to free up room on their downtown campus for two departments that lost out on new offices when the county changed course on its jail project.

The county’s prosecutor’s office, housed in a nearly 150-year-old building at 27 American Legion Place, and the probation department, located on the first floor of the Hancock County Courthouse, have both outgrown their space and have needed relief for years, said Hancock County Commissioner Marc Huber.

He’s in preliminary talks with an architect and department heads to change the layout of some of the current county offices in the courthouse and Hancock County Courthouse Annex. Huber said it won’t be a “major” construction project; officials hope to gain space “economically” by shrinking or combining offices.

“We’re just trying to make a bad situation a little better,” Huber said.

A need to reconfigure the two offices has hung over county officials’ heads over the past year after the county turned down a $55 million referendum in May 2018 that would’ve used property tax dollars to pay for a new downtown Hancock County Jail and renovations of other criminal justice departments.

The prosecutor’s office would’ve moved to the existing community corrections facility at 233 E. Main St. Community corrections was set to shift to the current jail next door at 123 E. Main St., while the probation department would’ve moved into the basement of the existing jail. But those plans fell apart when the Hancock County Council and Board of Commissioners chose to not build a new jail downtown.

The commissioners have estimated a proposed 440-bed correctional facility at a site east of downtown could cost up to $43 million, but that doesn’t include any additional criminal justice department renovations or a new sheriff’s department building. Huber, along with county commissioners John Jessup and Brad Armstrong, have repeatedly said in meetings that they did not want the jail built outside of downtown Greenfield. They said the county council pushed the idea to build the facility on county-owned farmland along U.S. 40.

Despite those disagreements, Huber said the commissioners still have to try and remedy the problem.

Huber said the prosecutor’s office is “busting at the seams” and the building is falling into disrepair. The historic two-story structure was built in 1871 as the county jail, according to Daily Reporter archives.

The office for years has been in dire need of maintenance and repairs, county prosecutor Brent Eaton said. About a year ago, part of the ceiling fell onto a lawyer’s desk, just missing her head. The building’s pipes froze in late 2017/early 2018, shutting down water for a few days, and the air conditioner broke down a couple of years ago, causing the temperature in the offices to reach upwards of 90 degrees.

Eaton said the former jail wasn’t intended to be an office building. There are no large spaces for meetings, and many of the doors, including the entrance to his office near the front door, don’t close well or have the needed privacy for lawyers, law enforcement and victims to discuss sensitive case material.

The victim advocate meets with victims in a converted cleaning closet, Eaton added, and the department keeps some of its equipment in the courthouse since there’s no storage space left in their building.

“We’ve got people in every nook and cranny,” he said. “It’s a little tough.”

The department has also been growing in staff and caseload. They added a deputy prosecutor in 2015 using grant funding, Eaton said, and the county council narrowly approved the addition of an eighth attorney in February. The office handles about 2,500 misdemeanor and felony cases a year. Eaton said the department will soon hire a new criminal investigator, bringing the number of employees to 23.

Eaton said Katie Molinder, county assessor, and Marcia Moore, county recorder, are working with him and the commissioners to try and find space in the county annex for some of the office’s employees.

“If that’s something that can kind of get us through and help us solve some of the problems, that’d be a good solution,” Eaton said. “Something is better than nothing.”

The probation department has also added several new staffers in recent years to keep up with a growing number of probationers while also expanding its rehabilitation program offerings. The county is supervising nearly 2,000 adults on probation or in treatment services, chief probation officer Josh Sipes has previously told the Daily Reporter. He has a staff of 26, including himself and 16 probation officers.

Huber said he would prefer the probation department to remain in the courthouse.