Quest for new courthouse heats up in Will County
By Cindy Wojdyla Cain email@example.com July 31, 2013 9:52PM
New legislation will provide funding to replace the 45-year-old Will County Courthouse in Joliet. | Sun-Times Media file
Updated: September 3, 2013 7:07AM
JOLIET — Will County’s judicial branch has taken a step that could ultimately force the county board to build a new courthouse.
Chief Circuit Court Judge Richard Schoenstedt and 15 other judges approved a rule change July 24 that allows for the creation of a court facilities committee to study courthouse problems. For years, chief judges have complained that the current building, 14 W. Jefferson St., which opened in the late 1960s, is overcrowded and outdated.
Once established, the committee would issue a report and suggestions for improving court facilities to county board leaders, the county executive and the state’s attorney.
If the committee’s recommendations weren’t followed, hearings would be held and the chief judge, who would preside over those hearings, could order the county board to build a courthouse — a dramatic step that has been threatened for years but never happened.
“It’s not a question of if,” Schoenstedt said of a new courthouse. “It’s a question of when. Obviously, I prefer the when to be sooner rather than later.”
Schoenstedt stressed that he would only create the committee — which would be made up of judges, attorneys and county residents — as a last resort.
“I have no intention to do so unless every other possible option has been explored,” he said. “... I think it means so much more to the citizens of the county to do this by agreement.”
County officials have debated the need for a new courthouse for years, and a plan is in the works to buy the First Midwest Bank building across Ottawa Street to make way for a courthouse. But Schoenstedt said it could take years to knock that building down and start a courthouse project.
Chief judges before Schoenstedt have warned that they could order the county to build a courthouse if need be, but none has done so.
Schoenstedt said a 30-year-old ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court allows a chief judge who follows proper procedures to issue court orders to the county board. The ruling grew out of a similar courthouse debate in DuPage County.
County board member Jim Moustis (R-Frankfort Township), chairman of the board’s Republican caucus, said a courthouse project will come down to financing. A new building could cost $200 million, according to recent county studies.
“We acknowledge that we need a new courthouse,” Moustis said. “We’re working toward it. But when you’re talking about a county of this size spending $200 million, it’s just not something you pull out of your hip pocket. If (Schoenstedt does) a court order, what if we don’t have the money?”
Schoenstedt said he doesn’t want to talk about financing details now, other than to say he is exploring all options, including a public-private partnership to build the courthouse.
“It’s a big project, and we have to find the funding without putting it on the backs of the Will County taxpayers,” the judge said. “We’re all on the same page on that.”