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Courthouse elevator proposal feasible - so far

April 16, 2005|by PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - On the surface, the proposal to add an elevator to the Washington County Courthouse for transporting prisoners seems feasible, but what's below the foundation of the historic building might stand in its way.

In March - a few weeks after the Washington County Commissioners president received letters expressing concern about safety under current courthouse renovation plans and a few days after a deadly shooting spree in an Atlanta courthouse - County Director of Public Works Gary Rohrer proposed a plan to add an elevator that would keep prisoners from being transported through the courthouse hallways.

He asked architectural consultants with Bushey Feight Morin Architects Inc., who performed the design work and the feasibility study for the $4.2 million renovation project, to consider his idea.

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On Wednesday, a day after Washington County Commissioners and Circuit judges toured the progress of the renovations, Rohrer said the architectural consultants "researched my solution, and my solution worked."

But, he said, "We don't know what's below the alley or below the foundation. Preliminary, it works."

Under Rohrer's plan, an elevator would be built to run off the east side of the buildings between the original courthouse and its 1962 annex. The elevator would carry prisoners from the annex basement, where new holding cells are being built, to the third floor, which is connected by a bridge to the second floor of the original courthouse. The elevator would open into an existing holding cell area.

Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook, when reached by phone Thursday, said, "We are waiting to see whether there are any utility lines or pipes underneath the road ... We need that information before we can make a decision."

He said he estimates adding an elevator would cost between $400,000 and $500,000.

"I hope I'm wrong," he said.

Snook said the entire renovation project was budgeted with a contingency, but the estimated cost to add the elevator "is above what we budgeted for."

Commissioners also would have to get permission from the City of Hagerstown to add the elevator since the original courthouse is a historic building, Snook said.

He would not say whether he feels the elevator is necessary, saying he needs information about the foundation from the consultants first.

Commissioner John C. Munson said Friday, "I do think it's needed. I think it should have been included in the original plans."

"I don't like that part of having to add cost to it, but the security personnel feel it's desperately needed, and I feel their judgment is better than mine," Munson said.

Circuit Judge John H. McDowell sent a letter to Snook, dated Feb. 28, in which he said it would be "a grave mistake" to follow through with existing renovation plans, under which Sheriff's Department deputies would have to take prisoners up an existing elevator through a common hallway to existing holding cells, exposing "victims, witnesses, jurors, clerks and other people to the dangers of inmates or may incite violent reactions by victims and their families who may see prisoners being transported through the hallway."

McDowell said later that that elevator, under the current plans, would open into an area where three judges' chambers and a courtroom exist, and those would have to be locked down when prisoners were being transported.

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