(Crystal A. Proxmire, March 6, 2017)
Hazel Park, MI – Hazel Park’s City Hall and courthouse are bigger and better than ever after recent renovations, but it’s really the place where people sit that makes the 43rd District Court and Council Chambers special.
After years of struggling with cramped space for staff, lack of accessibility for people with mobility issues, and frequent bottlenecks of cases, Judge Chuck Goedert came up with the funding plan, the design ideas, and other innovations that made a $2.2 million renovation possible.
The funding comes from bonds leveraged against ticket revenue for civil infractions. A $15 per ticket increase in fines for things like speeding, failure to wear a seat belt, littering, violation of noise ordinance, violating building codes etc are being used to pay off the bond debt. Based reviewing data from the past six years, Goedert said it will take about 17 years to pay off the renovations, without any increase of taxes to the residents.
Adding on to the building at the north and west ends means three times more space for the court employees. The staff area also has a counter with a waiting area for the public, so people in line with court business are not blocking the main walkway in City Hall.
There is also now a second courtroom where the magistrate can hear cases.
“We’re one of the busiest courts in the state and with only one courtroom we’d get bottle-necked on things like arraignments, sometimes four to five months,” Judge Goedert said. “I feel strongly that justice delayed is justice denied. With the space we had there was nothing we could do.
There is now more storage space in the basement of the building, which will reduce the need and expense for off-site storage.
A new conference room works well for jury deliberations and for meetings by the city or court staff.
There are more security features as well. Judge Goedert now has a live feed of cameras in both courtrooms as well as security cameras through the building. The area where attorneys meet with clients now has a camera feed and panic button.
“It does happen,” Judge Goedert said. “We’ve already had to use it a couple of times. People go to court and they aren’t always happy about the outcome. Sometimes people try to run. Sometimes they fight. We had one gentleman who was unhappy with what happened in court in a civil case and he started getting violent in the hallway. The people back here heard the yelling and did the right thing. They hit the button for the doors to close. They didn’t go peek and see if anyone had a gun, they closed the doors, moved people into the conference room, and waited for the deputies to give them the all clear.”
The doors are also bulletproof.
MONEY SAVING FEATURES
Looking for ways to save money was a priority for the Judge, and he personally oversaw every aspect of the project. A fresh coat of paint helped brighten the walls in the chambers. Carpet was done through negotiations. Office furniture was purchased used. And whenever possible, DPW staff was used for labor instead of outside contractors.
Perhaps the most notable savings, however, came in the acquisition of the benches for the main chambers.
“What was in here before, if you remember, were rows of chairs bolted to the floor. Well those were not in good shape and had to go. Someone came in and gave a price to replace them and I was looking at their website at the cost of those chairs and benches. Benches were a lot more expensive. But an ad on the side came up for used church pews. I hadn’t thought about that, but apparently there is a huge market for church pews as churches open and close and move to new locations,” Judge Goedert said.
“So I started to search for used church pews instead of benches and the price difference was unbelievable. I found this church down in Virginia that had solid mahogany benches for sale. They were 21 foot and 10 foot at $150 per bench. So I flew one way down to this church to check them out and rented a U-Haul to drive them back.”
He and parishioners spent the bulk of a day unbolting and carrying the pews out. “Everyone worked so hard and at the end of the day someone showed up with pizza. It was such a touching experience,” he said. “The congregation was moving to a new building, and the members seemed happy to see the benches being put to good use.”
Once he got back to Hazel Park, the work was not over. Judge Goedert converted an old kindergarten classroom into a shop where he personally cut the benches to size and re-upholstered the cushions.
“I’d spend 30-40 hours a week in the shop in addition to my normal court work. It’s so rewarding through,” he said. “The church pews were re-ordained as benches and we saved $25-$35,000 easily.” Plus he gets to see his handiwork as he oversees the cases that come before him. “The DPW was great too. They brought all the benches over and installed them. Every step of this process they’ve helped. The city has been great to work with.”
The courthouse re-opened for cases in January, though there are still a few items to be completed before the grand opening and door. In the hallway outside of the magistrate’s courtroom, spaces where the windows of the old building used to be have now been plastered in. “I’m hoping to work with the high school and see if there are students who would make a justice-themed mural there,” Judge Goedert said.
They’re also waiting on tables for the courtrooms and some repairs to the heating system.
“One we get the last things done our punch ticket list, we’ll have a grand opening and invite the public in for a tour,” he said.
To learn more about the 43rd District Court visit http://www.hazelpark.org/visitors/43rd_district_court.php.