Kent Courthouse chips away

Karina Arutyunova

The Kent Municipal Court building has been troubling court personnel for years because they say it is becoming a safety hazard.

“A year ago a partner of mine was working down here, and we were escorting a prisoner,” Deputy Sheriff Kevin Thorn said. “My partner was trying to help the guy down the back steps when the concrete crumbled away. He actually tore his knee out and was off work for six weeks.”

The back steps of the court are not the only things employees are complaining about. Other issues include a leaky roof, chipping ceilings and broken air-conditioning.

“The clerks will be sitting and working on a computer and a piece of ceiling will fall,” Thorn said.

Judge Barbara Oswick said one of the biggest problems is the size of the building.

“The clerks are in cramped spaces, and I think it prevents them from doing as good of a job as they could be doing, particularly when they’re dealing with the community.”

Oswick said her concern also goes out to the community members who have to squeeze into corridors and court chambers.

“What we really need is some common space for the people that come into this court, the benches are filled and people are standing around,” she said. “We don’t have any attorney/client rooms, so it’s very hard for attorneys to conduct business that should be strictly confidential.”

Oswick compared the Kent building to the Ravenna courthouse, which has recently undergone a major renovation.

In an effort to fix some of the problems in the building, Portage County Municipal Court Judges proposed to raise court fees.

“We talked to the commissioners, and they said to go ahead and increase the costs by $20 per case in Kent and Ravenna,” Oswick said.

The increase could give the court an additional $650,000 from the 35,000 cases heard each year.

Oswick said she looks forward to using the money for repairs, but is wary of the plan because the $650,000 estimation is not necessarily accurate.

“I spoke to the county auditor, Janet Esposito, and her comment was that it looks good on paper, but we have to realize that we won’t get that much money every year,” Oswick said. “The reality is that we don’t necessarily collect all of those costs right away because we have people that don’t pay on time and that may never pay no matter what we do.”

County commissioners have recognized the courthouse situation and have been examining several options to address the issue.

“Right now the question is money, and we’re trying to do some wheeling and dealing,” County Commissioner Maureen Frederick said. “And even though the budget is tight, we do have money in the general fund budget to fix the roof and air conditioning system.”

Aside from refurbishing the court, there are tentative plans to build a new courthouse.

“There is going to be some real downtown revitalizations coming up,” Frederick said. “We could possibly put the new court there.”

Frederick said the Kent City Center project might include a new municipal court building, which would house the police department and the new Kent court.

Oswick said residents would rather the city add on to the court building than rebuild, because there is room for expansion.

“I have talked to the people that were the movers and shakers in moving the court to this location, and they are really concerned about keeping the courthouse in the building,” she said. “They’re concerned that this is a historical building, and they want to continue using it as a government office.”

If the courthouse is expanded, developments would be made near the back of the building, where the county owns an unused bar.

Local architects have been looking into the needs and have estimated building and expanding costs could be nearly $3 million.

The commission has also discussed getting a bond to fund the court developments, but discussions are still underway to pick the most financially optimal plan to revamp the building.

Contact public affairs reporter Karina Arutyunova at [email protected]