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The county is another step closer to having a new and improved Justice Center in Newton.
County commissioners approved design plans Monday for the structure and allowed planners to proceed with the project's schematic design.
Commissioners decided to move forward with four design concepts for the Justice Center, including combining two projects into one, choosing a two-wing building design instead of a front expansion, adding shelled space for future expansion and a parking deck and submitting a master plan of the project to the city of Newton.
Rodney Miller, Catawba County finance director, spoke to commissioners Monday about the project and the county's need for an expansion.
He said current courtroom space in the Justice Center isn't enough to accommodate the county's growing caseload.
The current facility is 31 years old and has had only minor interior renovations. The Justice Center's major renovation, Miller said, was the jail expansion in 2005.
The new facility is expected to maintain the Clerk of Court and Register of Deed's location on the entry level. The District Attorney's Office and courtrooms will remain on the facility's second floor.
Miller said the expansion is designed to maintain the current facility's "civic-judicial" image, as well as the facility's symmetry and balance.
The expansion also includes room for a new 911 Communications and Emergency Operations centers. The county's current Emergency Operations Center was cited by the Federal Emergency Management Association in 2006 for inadequate space, Miller said.
With the proposed expansion comes the need for additional parking space, which Miller estimated at a worst-case scenario of 500 net spaces. The shelled space and the parking deck can accommodate additional parking needs with the facility's expansion.
Additional building space will use about 100 parking spaces in the facility's current design. Miller said county staff members took account of unused parking spaces in the Justice Center at different times throughout the day and determined about 100 spaces, on average, go unused each day.
"Parking will be an issue," Miller said. "And it's something we've got to address in the next year."
Commissioners also spoke with Miller about the possibility of creating walking space for county employees to exercise.
Miller said county planners discussed the possibility of connecting the facility's property with existing walking trails in Newton.
The next step of the expansion is the commissioners' final approval of the facility's new design, which is set for December 2011.
A construction bid should be awarded in March 2012, and the expansion is expected to be completed in 2013.
Miller said the county has been saving money for the project for years. Voters approved quarter-cent sales tax in 2007, which generates $2.7 million in revenue per year and will retire $28 million in debt in 15 years.
Miller said the county will have $14.3 million in funds at the end of the 2012 fiscal year. The debt payment for the project is due in 2013.