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By Dan Rudy 

Court renovation nixed, lease to be renegotiated

 


Assembly members were given an update by the Alaska Court System on Tuesday about its upcoming lease renewal for courtroom facilities.

Court administrator for Southeast Neil Nesheim explained he was there to let Assembly members and the wider community know what the stance of ACS was in negotiating its lease, so to prevent any confusion.

Nesheim put it to them that ACS would like to pay less on its annual lease for the space provided. This was due to a combination of declining state revenues and diminished court activity in Wrangell since the Public Safety Building was first built in 1985. That previous year in 1984, the city’s district court processed 901 filings. Twenty years later, that had dropped to 277 filings, and again in 2014 to 198.

What the system wanted was a lower annual lease rate, reduced from around $70,000 to $61,875, or $1.65 per square foot of lease space. This would be more comparable to other similarly-sized communities’ lease arrangements, Nesheim explained, typically between $1.25 and $1.60 per square foot. Petersburg was an outlier at a rate of $3.42, but only because the space was being leased from a private entity.

Another factor in the request was the city’s failure to upkeep facilities as specified in the lease agreement. The city had agreed to periodically replace carpeting, clean windows, and other maintenance items, but failed to deliver.

“We probably should have and dropped the ball there,” Borough Manager Jeff Jabusch admitted after the meeting.

Though the problems predated his tenure as borough manager, Jabusch reasoned the oversight was likely due to tight budgets or similar considerations. As for the carpeting, that was to be replaced as part of the renovation. Still, he would make it a point to replace it before the new lease is to take effect on July 1.

Details still need to be worked out, but a final lease agreement should be before the Assembly by March. Among the other stipulations ACS would like to see is an alteration to the lease duration, down to a five-year contract with five one-year options afterward.

Nesheim also raised the matter of sharing design costs for a planned courthouse remodeling, which was scuttled after bid estimates were rejected for being too high. Wrangell had allotted funds in this year’s budget of up to $350,000 for the project, which the state promised to reimburse with interest over a period of 15 to 20 years.

The renovation was to bring Wrangell’s courtroom up to modern standards, which included making the juror box and court restroom accessible under Americans With Disabilities Act standards.

Safety concerns would also have been addressed, limiting how the judges chambers and the magistrate’s office could be accessed by the public. The projects are to consist of casework, wall paneling, doors, carpeting, plumbing, fixtures and electrical, with possible upholstery work.

Designs for the project were drawn up and when the renovation fell through, a $61,000 bill for work already done remained. Nesheim requested the city cover $15,000 of these costs, largely services billed by Public Works.

Between the re-leasing and the canceled renovation, Assembly members expressed a worry the city may eventually lose its courthouse.

Nesheim recognized that Wrangellites would likely want to keep a courthouse, and pointed out the court system had an interest in maintaining its presence in the state’s communities.

“It’s a symbiotic relationship,” Nesheim explained.

However, due to fiscal constraints he stated court employees were looking at a 4.5 percent pay cut come July, and court hours would also be reduced to limit cost. While impossible to say with any amount of certainty, the closure of Wrangell’s courtroom for efficiency is possible.

“Everything and anything could be on the table,” Jabusch commented, referring to the Legislature’s budget negotiations.

“This is what happens when you’re voted the safest community,” joked Assembly member Daniel Blake.

After Nesheim was finished, the Assembly revisited its Jan. 26 decision to approve a contract zone for light industrial use for Wrangell Cooperative Association’s prospective transportation office, storage and maintenance facility.

The seven-acre property is currently zoned single family residential, and the implementation of a contract zone was subject to several stipulations. The most contentious of these was the addition of a 50-foot greenbelt buffer around the property by the Planning and Zoning Commission in December. When the Assembly took the matter up last month it reduced this to 25 feet, and only where it bordered other residential lots.

As the member who made the motion, Stephen Prysunka used his right to reconsideration under Municipal Code section 3.05.100 C, notifying the clerk within seven days of the adjournment of the meeting.

After some procedural confusion, the Assembly approved the reconsideration. Prysunka then put forward the motion again, with the buffer specification fixed to include 25 feet around the entire property line, which was also approved. As before, the item will return to the zoning commission once WCA has its detailed site plan prepared.

The item can come back to the Assembly in the event Planning and Zoning rejects the proposal and WCA appeals the decision.

Assembly members also approved an amendment to the professional services contract for Morris Engineering Group in the amount of $9,000, adding an upgraded electrical hookup to the city dock’s electrical upgrades design.

 

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