COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON - St. Joseph County 3B District Court Judge Robert Pattison speaks to Three Rivers city commissioners Monday about perceived security issues with having Family Court move to the old Three Rivers Public Library building. His comments were part of a discussion about selling the building at 920 W. Michigan Ave. to the county to move Family Court and its related services, which was approved by the city 4-1.

Old library property officially sold to county

THREE RIVERS — Family court and probate court will soon be moving from Centreville to Three Rivers.

In a 4-1 vote by the Three Rivers City Commission Monday, commissioners officially approved the final sale of the old Three Rivers Public Library building at 920 W. Michigan Ave. to St. Joseph County for $175,000 to renovate the property into a building for Family Court and its related services.

A total of three bids for the building were considered by the city commission: the county’s bid, a $125,000 bid from Doug’s Barber Shop owner Carrie McBride, who wished to develop the property into a commercial and residential space, and a $125,000 bid from Second Wind Furniture owner Tonya Morgan, who wished to move her store from 265 E. Broadway to the building.

The city previously selected the county’s bid over McBride’s bid at their June 7 meeting, asking city staff to draft a resolution for the sale to the county. During their June 21 meeting, commissioners placed the sale resolution on file for 30 days per city charter, along with McBride’s and Morgan’s bids, to discuss at Monday’s meeting.

According to a letter from the county to City Manager Joe Bippus about their bid, the building would house the Juvenile Division of Family Court, as well as Probate Court, Friend of the Court and each court’s related services. Cases handled in these departments include juvenile delinquency, neglect/abuse, guardianships, adoptions, estates, mental health proceedings, and child support and custody matters. The estimated cost to the county to complete the renovation is estimated to be $4.44 million.

It's estimated that any project to renovate the old library property into a new courts building would begin toward the end of this summer or the beginning of fall.

Discussion during the meeting focused mainly on the county’s bid, with District Court Judge Robert Pattison, who also handles the Family Division of the court, speaking on some of the security concerns commissioners have had about having the court at the location, given its location near Andrews Elementary.

Pattison said since he began working at the courthouse in 1991, although he was aware of “just a couple” of incidents, specifically recalling an incident between a probationer and a security officer, he has “never witnessed any security problem” at the building. He said he understood the concerns people have about the court being there, however.

“Obviously, when people are there, they’re not there because they’re happy. Half of my docket is family law; the other half is criminal law. I know that loosely some of the discussions are that the family courts may be over here, and I think maybe that’s what generated some of the concerns, somebody maybe wondered what if you get an unhappy parent,” Pattison said.

One of the major things Pattison stressed in his comment was that the courts are required to have security at the building, including metal detectors and a sheriff deputy presence.

“Our deputies are very good at cueing in on if somebody’s maybe seems to be a little bit irritable or a problem, and that’s happened before where people are a little extra excited or upset, but it’s never boiled over,” Pattison said. “Our security is trained and they’re in a good position to make determinations. The judges are all on top of it, so we have that in place.”

Pattison also mentioned the changes to the courts post-COVID, including the advent of Zoom hearings, noting the court is waiting on permanent rules that are “on the horizon” from the Michigan Supreme Court regarding the use of Zoom in the courtroom. One of the interim rules of the court, Pattison said, talks about a “presumption” of hearings by Zoom. He said with some of the domestic cases, they “work well” over Zoom, saying for the most part, he doesn’t have too many parents show up to court in-person.

Overall, history-wise, Pattison said between the history of “one major skirmish” he knows of in the 30 years at the courthouse, the security at the courthouse already, and the amount of Zoom hearings he may have, any security concerns regarding the building were “relatively non-existent.”

“I think we’re on top of it, we’re required to be on top of it by the Supreme Court, we have to have a security committee that has to meet every 60 or 90 days, so it’s something I think any concerns you might have, I think they’d be met,” Pattison said.

Following Pattison’s comments, St. Joseph County Administrator Teresa Doehring thanked the city for their consideration of their bid.

No further extensive discussion on McBride’s or Second Wind’s bids were had by commissioners.

Three Rivers Mayor Tom Lowry said the decision on who to sell the building to was a “tough one,” given that there were two private owners who would make the property taxable. However, he said they had to “balance” those two bids against the county’s bid, noting the job creation there would be by moving Family Court to Three Rivers, as well as stressing the partnership the two entities have.

“They’ve stressed the partnership with the city; we’ve worked with the county on the sports complex, the county helped the COA make the senior living structure in the city, and it was amazing,” Lowry said. “We have this history with the county, and so the question is, is it time to do a quid pro quo and help them when they need help? And I would say yes.”

Lowry said he would go with the county bid because of how “shovel-ready” the project is, as well as the number of jobs coming to the city which he said would create “auxiliary demand,” and that it allows for the courts to possibly clear some of its caseload by being in a new building.

“The courthouse has exploded at the seams and has been for several decades, because crime hasn’t gone down and nor have divorces gone down, and nor have the deaths of a parent, so you have foster children. All those needs are just as strong as they’ve ever been,” Lowry said. “I love the fact the county has considered Three Rivers as an expansion spot.”

At-Large City Commissioner Daryl Griffith said he would much rather see the Family Court services in Three Rivers than anywhere else.

“I would much rather have them come here than have all that go to Sturgis the way our Secretary of State office went,” Griffith said. “All three proposals were great, but I think this is just the best of them because of those facts.”

Second District Commissioner Alison Haigh was the lone dissenter in the voice vote. Fourth District Commissioner Carolyn McNary and At-Large Commissioner Torrey Brown were absent for Monday’s meeting.

In other business…

  • The commission approved the sale of vacant lots at the Meadows Condo project to Westview Capital/Allen Edwin Homes to complete development of the area. The new homes are expected to be built in accordance with the project’s master deed to keep the continuity of design.
  • The commission approved the first reading of an ordinance amendment to allow different businesses, including personal service shops, specialty food stores and product/commodity sales in the city’s residential districts via the special exception use permit process. There will be a public hearing on Sept. 6 to officially adopt the ordinance.
  • The commission approved a $50,000 grant match commitment for the City of Three Rivers’ Housing Opportunities Promoting Energy-Efficiency (HOPE) grant application. The grant program, similar to the city’s current neighborhood enhancement program grant, focuses on making homeowner housing improvements that promote energy efficiency and health improvements to properties.
  • The commission approved a $12,764.61 purchase of a spectrophotometer for the wastewater treatment plant.

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 22 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

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