Viewed from the street, the Rock Island County Courthouse appears to be a solid, stately building that has, since 1896, been the seat of justice in the Illinois Quad-Cities.
The building at 1504 3rd Ave. is falling apart, however, both inside and out.
Between the chipping lead paint, crumbling plaster and chunks of limestone that have fallen from the façade, to name just a few of its problems, it is a health hazard to those who work or do business within its walls, court officials and county leaders say.
Simply put, it is time for a new courthouse, they say.
“We’ve kicked this can down the road far too long,” Rock Island County Board chairman Phil Banaszek said. “We’re at the point where we have to make some decisions.”
Recently, Circuit Judge Mark Vandewiele, who was part of a four-judge panel that issued a report on the courthouse to Jeffrey O’Connor, the chief judge of the 14th Judicial Circuit, gave a tour of the facility. The panel’s report, issued in November, was critical of the state of the building.
“We’re trying to make do with a 19th-century building in the 21st century,” Vandewiele said.
And 14th Circuit judges are threatening to sue Rock Island County if the board does not build a new courthouse.
Rock Island County State’s Attorney John McGehee was served papers for the pending litigation last month. He recommended the county board put the issue to a referendum this spring on expanding the powers of the Public Building Commission, McGehee said.
A referendum created the commission that oversaw construction of the Rock Island County Justice Center, which opened just west of the courthouse in 2001. But O’Connor said the building commission’s powers are restricted to the construction of jails.
“We’ll put an end to the lawsuit if the referendum passes,” McGehee said. “If it fails, then we have to look at other alternatives, because what will happen then is the judges will proceed with litigation. It’s unusual when judges sue the county.”
As he spoke during the tour, Vandewiele held three plastic police evidence bags containing three large chunks of limestone. One of them was nearly a foot long.
“These have fallen off the façade,” he said.
Water is getting behind the masonry work and, as ice forms, it is cracking the limestone, he added. On the west façade, about the third-floor level, it is easy to see from where the chunks fell.
Vandewiele pointed out that clerks no longer are allowed to work at basement workstations because of flooding that often occurs. Records are stored on pallets to keep them safe from water.
There is no sprinkler system throughout the courthouse, he said. The smoke alarms are not coordinated, so if one goes off, the rest of the building is contacted via telephone and email.
The plaster on the walls is crumbling, leaving dust all over the offices and files.
In his third-floor courtroom, Vandewiele points to a window that fell out of the frame during a court session in 2008.
“It nearly hit my bailiff,” he said.
In just about all of the offices and courtrooms, he said, “the windows don’t close properly, so we keep them closed using sticks.”
In the county recorder’s office on the second floor, a number of books used to research Rock Island County property records sit warped and filled with mold. They were ruined after a toilet broke on an upper floor and the water came through the second-floor ceiling.
In one of the third-floor jury lounges, a sign warns jurors not to use the coffeemaker and air conditioner at the same time.
“It blows the electrical circuit for all the rooms in this wing,” the sign reads.
Wires for telephones and computers are bundled and run along some corners into hallways. The bundles are fully exposed to people waiting for their time in court.
To top it off, there is not enough courtroom space in the old building to handle all of the civil and traffic cases that once were heard at auxiliary courtrooms in East Moline, Moline and Milan. Those courts were closed for security reasons, which added another 40,000 cases a year to the courthouse.
Banaszek said he is concerned that someone is going to get hurt and initiate a lawsuit that could result in a judgment against the county.
“Any judgment would be paid by the taxpayers and could, in this day and age, run into the millions of dollars, depending upon the injury,” he said.
Building a new courthouse has been talked about since at least 1992, when a panel of Illinois circuit judges deemed Rock Island County’s now-117-year-old structure no longer usable as a courthouse.
Banaszek said that with interest rates so low, it would make sense to take advantage of the cheap money and begin building a new courthouse before those rates began to rise.
Building a new courthouse and possibly adding a new County Administration Building to it, would be the most cost-effective move, he said.
“No one wants to raise taxes,” Banaszek said. “But this needs to get done, and now is the time to move.”
When the 25-member county board decided last month to ask voters via referendum whether to expand the authority of the Public Building Commission, clearing the way for the bonding power needed for a new courthouse, only one board member voted against it.
Brian Vyncke said he was opposed to the measure, not because he is opposed to a new courthouse, but because the wording of the referendum is too vague. Its language indicates only that the commission’s authority and power would be greater, but it makes no reference to the purpose of the expansion, nor does it cite any specific projects.
“I understand the fact we have a facility that obviously has serious issues,” he said Monday. “But this courthouse didn’t just come into disrepair, and part of my concern is that it’s not just the courthouse.”
Although he understands today’s low interest rates make the timing of major county upgrades attractive, he said too much specific information is lacking. He said the county board doesn’t yet know the scope of building and construction needs, their cost, location and what to do with the old courthouse and county buildings when new ones are built.
“We need the time to better justify this,” Vyncke said. “This is the reason there is a distrust of transparency in government. We don’t even know what we would do with the old courthouse. Can we tear it down? If not, who takes care of it?
“There are questions all over the place.”
(Times reporters Barb Ickes and Brian Wellner contributed to this story.)