New criminal courts tower coming in $16M over $100M budget

Already a year behind schedule, construction of Lake County’s nine-story criminal courts tower in Waukegan has run into another roadblock.

County officials revealed Tuesday, July 8, that revised numbers on the project have it $16 million over its $100 million budget.

The overrun, blamed on such things as faulty estimates on foundation work and the inflation of costs since the package was approved in November 2012, has members of the County Board’s Law and Judicial Committee reviewing options for scaling back the project to bring it back to the initial estimate.

“If the original budget had been this high, we wouldn’t have voted for it,” District 7 board member Steve Carlson said. “I want to know why this happened and that it won’t happen again.”

The project, eyed for a vacant lot on the southwest corner of Washington and County streets, would include 215,000 square feet of space, primarily for 17 new courtrooms and shell space for an additional three courtrooms in the future.

Concept plans also called for the addition of 45,000 square feet to the existing Babcox Justice Center on South County Street, including three courtrooms for the early disposition of cases along with intake, booking and kitchen areas to support additional Lake County Jail capacity.

Shelving most of the Babcox renovation, which comes with a $14.8 million pricetag on its own, was among the options discussed to get the project back on track. County planners told the committee they have trimmed the shortfall to $12 million through revision of items like exterior and interior finishings. Larger cost-saving options under consideration include the elimination of an entire floor ($4.9 million) and turning another floor into a future-use shell ($3 million).

Other possibilities for cuts reviewed on Tuesday included a public corridor along Washington Street ($1.1 million), one of several public elevators ($450,000) and an escalator from the first to second floor ($150,000).

Deputy County Administrator Amy McEwan told the committee that “you can slice it and dice these things in a lot of different ways” while formal recommendations and updated financial plans are formed over the next four weeks. Discussion over the options will also include input from officials in the 19th Judicial Circuit.

Several board members voiced concern about the long-term costs associated with both forging ahead as planned and cutting amenities now that might have to be added later.

“The only thing I ask of this committee is when you build this thing, do it right,” said District 8 board member Bill Durkin, “because what you don’t want to do is maybe cut out a floor, cut out the escalators and then a couple of years later you’re saying, ‘We had the votes, everybody said yes, we should have done those.’

“My suggestion is do it right, maybe hold off on the Babcox (renovation) for the time being. Once we build it, it’s not going anywhere,” Durkin added. “The problem is if you build it and cut corners, I think it’s going to come back and keep jabbing at us. It’s going to cost us more money in the long run.”

District 11 board member Steven Mandel said “you’ve got to understand — we’re at the lowest interest rates we’ve ever had” for a project that is designed to serve needs over several decades.

“When you look at that debt service and spread it out, it’s really not catastrophic,” Mandel added. “All of us would prefer for it to be $10 million less rather than $10 million more, but if the reality to take care of the needs we have and do it properly is this, I think we can handle it. (It’s) extremely unfortunate, but I think it’s in the realm of possibility for us to do it the right way the first time.”

The thought of deferring renovations at the Babcox Center drew the concern of District 9 board member Mary Ross Cunningham, who said “they’ve been on the (improvement) list for 12 years. I mean, they’re overdue. (I’ve) been on a tour there two or three times, and it’s needed.”

District 14 board member Audrey Nixon, who chairs the Law and Judicial Committee, stressed that Tuesday’s discussion was the first stage of a process that will include input from multiple parties.

“I would like to see us continue what we’re doing (and) not cut this, cut that and later on we’ve got to add, add, add,” Nixon said. “We have got to work together to get this done. All of us — the judges and the County Board.”

While noting the need for additional courtrooms to free up logjams among cases, District 15 board member Carol Calabresa pointed out that constituents won’t forward complaints to judges.

“We’re the ones who have to go out there,” she said, “and hear people say, ‘Why are you building that $100 million building?’”

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