FERNDALE, Wash. — At last night’s Ferndale City Council meeting City staff presented plans to make improvements to the City Hall Annex building at 5694 2nd Avenue in order to meet minimum Washington state safety and security court facility requirements.
Ferndale Municipal Court Judge Mark Kaiman, who was sworn in on December 2018, is reported to have told former mayor Jon Mutchler the courtroom was likely one of the worst in the state. During a council meeting in November 2019, Kaiman spoke of providing a tour of the court facility, which doubles as City Council chambers, to several Washington State Supreme Court justices. Kaiman said one told him the current space could not provide a fair hearing for anyone.
At that time, it was Kaiman’s opinion the current court room, which also serves as council chambers, was inadequate. He highlighted major safety issues and a lack of privacy for all parties. Kaiman requested a new municipal court building and asked that the city begin to set aside taxes to cover the anticipated costs.
City Administrator Jori Burnett told the council last night they will be asked to make decisions to address some of these shortcoming over the next few weeks and months.
Burnett said the first steps in the process is to accomplish interim court facility improvements this fall.
The City Annex is made up of 2 buildings separated by a narrow breezeway. Currently the Ferndale Community Service Cooperative (FCSC) is housed in the northern building and the joint council chambers and courtroom is in the southern building.
Both structures, according Whatcom County Assessor records, were built in 1955. According to Burnett, City Hall was located there in 1983 until moving to its current location on 4th Avenue and Main Street, a former Whatcom State Bank building the city purchased and remodeled in 1998.
According to documents accompanying a new commercial building permit application submitted to the city on September 9th, plans are to enclose the breezeway and open area between the 2 structures. This will enable channeling people in and out of the courtroom in a more controlled manner and provide for safer screening via X-ray and magnetometer equipment before entering the courtroom.
Currently people both enter and leave through outside doors increasing the opportunities for conflicts and screenings are conducted at a door immediate to the courtroom.
In addition to creating a security screening zone outside the courtroom, plans also include removing 1 of 2 doors on the west side of the building. The remaining door will be used as the exit from the courtroom, eliminating safety concerns with court participants entering and exiting through the same doors. This design, Burnett pointed out, not only addressed security concerns but also conforms to current COVID-19 entry/exit restrictions.
Burnett told the councilmembers these modifications are “a bare minimum” to accomplish needed security levels.
Burnett also said no changes were planned in the north structure where FCSC is located.
Public Works Director Kevin Renz said the cost estimate for making these and other improvements, including rooftop, siding, windows and HVAC, is $400,000.
Renz explained the city currently has $100,000 in reserves specifically set aside for the project but since it the cost estimate is much higher than expected they are looking at using special purpose funds including the city’s real estate excise tax (REET) fund.
The city has been awarded a grant to pay for the purchase of a magnetometer according to Renz.
Construction is hoped to be accomplished using 4 10-hour days per week which would allow for regularly scheduled Friday court to be held with minimum interruption. It is estimated, according to Renz, that construction work would last between 9 and 10 months.
Renz told the councilmembers he was expecting to bring a project construction bid award decision to them at the November 2nd regular council meeting.
There will likely be a need for the courtroom to be located at an alternate location(s) for some time during the construction according to Burnett. Viable locations according to city staff include the Pioneer Pavilion Community Center and a vacant meeting room (the former library) at the former Mountain View Elementary School campus. Part of the campus is currently being leased to the Whatcom Discovery program.
Burnett said they are currently in discussion with the Ferndale School District about the Mountain View school campus option, the favorite choice of city and court staff.
City Council meetings, once in-person meetings resume, could be held remotely as they are now in the event construction prevents holding meetings in the City Hall Annex according to Burnett.
While the presentation did not call for any decision by councilmembers, they were asked to voice any concerns they might have for the interim court improvements project as presented. None of the councilmembers appeared to oppose the plan.