Commissioners Prepare for Court Consolidation

Photo by Robert A. DeFrank Belmont County Western Division Court Judge Eric Costine, left, sits behind Clerk of Courts David Trouten and Prosecutor Dan Fry, right, during a board of commissioners meeting Wednesday.

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — The Belmont County Board of Commissioners took another step forward in the planned consolidation of county court offices Wednesday by selecting an architect to provide an estimate for renovation of two former The Health Plan buildings near St. Clairsville.

The board selected McKinley & Associates of Wheeling to provide architectural services. Plans call for some county offices and all court facilities to be moved to the single, more central location.

Commissioners J.P. Dutton and Josh Meyer were present for the vote. Commissioner Mark Thomas was absent due to being on trial in Wheeling for a matter not related to his duties as an elected official. Thomas was acquitted after two days of testimony.

Dutton said more than a dozen architects had responded to the advertisements for the project with proposals for the work.

“We ended up narrowing that list down to, I believe, a half a dozen,” Dutton said. “We had extensive interviews. … All six that we met with were very good firms with extensive experience in the type of project that we were looking at. McKinley & Associates ended up being the No. 1-ranked architect after the interviews, primarily because of their extensive experience in doing projects like ours.”

Dutton said the next step is to look at detailed designs of the two former Health Plan buildings. The commissioners will speak with each department that may relocate to the site, determine their needs and incorporate them into the plans.

“That process is going to start fairly soon, now that we’ve reached agreement,” Dutton said. “We think this is going to be a good project.”

Afterward, Meyer said the cost of the initial evaluation likely would be included in the architectural firm’s estimate.

Prosecutor Dan Fry, Clerk of Courts David Trouten and Western Division Judge Eric Costine were present and expressed enthusiasm for the upcoming move. The commissioners intend for the upper of the two buildings on the tiered site to be the home of the consolidated courts, the prosecutor and possibly the public defender.

“We think there’s some efficiencies there, having them all under one roof,” Dutton said.

He added that the lower building would hold the board of elections and title offices, which is expected to result in savings to the county.

“Both those entities right now are paying rent,” Dutton said.

Trouten confirmed that the title office pays about $40,000 yearly in rent. Dutton said the board of elections pays more than $70,000 in annual rent.

“That’s nearly $110,000 a year that we’re spending in rent, just on those two entities,” Dutton said.

The Health Plan site in St. Clairsville has been closed since its corporate headquarters moved to Wheeling earlier this year. The county purchased the buildings for $3.3 million through the Belmont County Port Authority, announcing the intention to do so in October.

The Health Plan announced in December 2015 that it would close the Ohio location in favor of building a new corporate office in downtown Wheeling. At that time, Thomas said he was pleased the managed health care organization was moving to Wheeling and not out of the Ohio Valley.

“It is vital for everyone to understand that what is good for Belmont County is also good for Ohio County and vice-versa” Thomas said in 2015.

Then-commissioners Matt Coffland and Ginny Favede expressed support for the company, but Coffland said he wished Belmont County had been given an opportunity to work with corporate officials to keep the headquarters in St. Clairsville. Favede said it is always “devastating” for the county to lose a large number of jobs from such a move. She and then-auditor Andy Sutak both expressed concern about the loss of sales tax dollars that would result from losing 300 workers.

Meanwhile on Wednesday, guests at the meeting included David Jones, a port authority board member who took exception to an ad by Pease Township Trustee Michael Bianconi in his campaign for county commissioner. Bianconi, a Democrat, had expressed opposition to the port authority’s agreement to sell almost 80 acres of land near Barnesville on the grounds that the sale was not sufficiently advertised. Jones said T.J. Jefferis purchased the property for $7,000, which totals about $560,000. Jones said Jefferis has a history of developing land and added that the land had been unused for many years.

The commissioners expressed confidence in the port authority’s decision.

“We had a piece of property in Barnesville that the county had owned for a very long time and, for whatever reason, never developed that piece of property. We did not see anything in the short term or even the long term,” Dutton said, adding that the property had been advertised for years without results. “We received an offer … for what we believe was a very fair price. We thought it was time for the county to act.”