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Rethink County Court Facilities

Jefferson County Commissioner Tom Gentile confessed last week that he was “not feeling warm and fuzzy about any of the options” for renovating county court facilities in Wintersville. No wonder: The alternatives presented by an engineering/architecture company range in cost from $300,000 all the way up to $2.2 million.

But there is another way, as Gentile and Commissioners Thomas Graham and David Maple discussed during their meeting Thursday. It is to combine some or all of the county’s four courts in one or two buildings.

Currently, Jefferson County has court facilities at the Justice Center in Steubenville and in Dillonvale, Toronto and Wintersville. That may be too many.

As Gentile pointed out, the drive from either Toronto or Wintersville to Steubenville takes just 10 minutes. Courts now in those communities could be relocated to the Justice Center.

Like many other facets of local government, the cost of courts has increased steadily, despite the efforts of Jefferson County judges to hold expenses down.

Spending on most of what the courts do is beyond commissioners’ control. But saving money on buildings is not.

If commissioners want to know how consolidation might work, they can look to Belmont County. There, the Eastern, Western and Northern Division court buildings were at three locations (Bellaire, Martins Ferry and St. Clairsville) for many years. During the past few years, however, Eastern and Northern Division courts have been placed in the same Bellaire building. Western Division remains in St. Clairsville.

Belmont County officials already plan to take the next step, locating all three courts at the former Health Plan complex at St. Clairsville.

It may make sense, then, for Jefferson County commissioners to move court facilities in Toronto and Wintersville to the Justice Center in Steubenville. The county court located in Dillonvale should be left there for the convenience of those in the southern region of the county.

That certainly would be a big change. Consider this, however: Jefferson County’s population was more than 91,000 less than 40 years ago. Now, the county has just 65,767 residents, according to the current Census Bureau estimate. The time when the county could afford four separate court buildings may well have passed.

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