By Scott Hammers

The Bulletin

Jefferson County has nearly finalized an application seeking $6.5 million in state funding to help replace its aging courthouse.

County Administrator Jeff Rasmussen said he expects the application to be completed this week and approved by county commissioners at their next meeting on Jan. 22.

Rasmussen said Jefferson County is likely to be near the front of the line when its application lands on the desk at the Oregon Department of Justice.

“As far as I know, and I don’t talk to everybody across the state every day obviously, but I believe we’ll be the first ones to submit that,” he said.

Rep. John Huffman, R-The Dalles, said Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Ballmer — who must OK the funding — has said Jefferson County is ready to move forward.

Huffman said Jefferson County hadn’t done quite enough preparation to make the cut in 2013, when the state offered bond-backed funding for courthouse improvements in Multnomah and Union counties. Legislators will need to authorize a new series of bonds to fund additional courthouse improvements this year, Huffman said, most likely during the legislative session that starts next month.

“I think we’re in a good position; I really do,” Huffman said.

“I think we’ll get word back in February or March, and Jeff (Rasmussen) will be able to move forward and get Jefferson County in that queue.”

Jefferson County has been putting money aside in recent years to pay for a courthouse replacement, Rasmussen said, and should have about $2.7 of its $6.5 million in matching funds banked by June.

The current courthouse, built in 1961, was deemed structurally deficient in a 2008 assessment of state court facilities, and sits in an identified flood plain. The courthouse has two courtrooms and narrow, cramped corridors, and has no secure areas to keep defendants separate from other visitors.

Early stage designs for the new courthouse call for a roughly 35,000-square-foot building expected to cost around $13 million.

Assuming the state funds come through, the county plans to build its new courthouse on a property next door to the complex housing Madras City Hall and the Madras Police Department that the city gave to the county last year. In exchange, the county helped pay for stormwater improvements and the driveway at the recently completed complex on the southwest corner of Southwest Fourth Street and E Street.

Madras Mayor Melanie Widmer said the property transfer will help keep the courthouse close to other government offices.

“We really wanted to keep kind of a civic center downtown; there’s kind of a synergy there,” she said.

Separately, in November, the county finalized a deal to purchase an existing office building just north of city hall. Rasmussen said the county paid roughly $700,000 to purchase the 9,000-square-foot building and expects to use it to house court-related functions like the parole and probation offices, as well as the district attorney’s office.

The county will likely try to sell the current courthouse, but Rasmussen said it could be difficult to find a buyer.

“It may have a useful life for someone in the private sector,” he said. “We’ll at least bring the recommendation to the commissioners to put it on the market and see if there is any interest.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0387,