SWEETWATER COUNTY – Officials gather at the Sweetwater County Detention Center as the county prepares to take on a monumental project.
On Wednesday, officials broke ground on the new 55,000 square foot, $20 million Sweetwater County Justice Center. The new center will house both the Rock Springs and Green River Circuit Courts, offices for both the Sweetwater County Attorney’s Office and public defender’s office as well as additions for the Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Office.
Judge John Prokos also noted during the ceremony that Sandy Henderson and Treatment Court will also now have a permanent home.
The project originated after Wyoming Chief Justice Marilyn Kite told the Sweetwater County Commission security at the courts needed to be upgraded. Sweetwater County Commission Chairman Wally Johnson said the commission started looking at the issues right away.
Johnson pointed to the current commission for several projects such as the new justice center and the Sweetwater County Health and Human Services Building. “Without these folk,” said Johnson, pointing at the commission, “These things don’t happen.”
While the focus was on the new center and those involved in getting the project to this point, he also made his feeling known about Cheyenne and current financial struggles. While the state mandated something be done, they only provided approximately $4 million in direct funding for the project. The majority will be funded from Sweetwater County budget reserves.
“We got billions of dollars in Cheyenne in rainy day reserve funds,” Johnson said. “It’s raining people. It’s raining in Wyoming.”
He pointed to the recent downturn in oil and gas as an example. He noted Sweetwater County has been hit hard with 46 percent of county royalties coming from the oil and gas industry. He asked the people to think about what a county like Sublette County is facing with 96 percent of its royalties coming from oil and gas.
Not only did Johnson thank his fellow commissioners, he also thanked the committee which was set up to help design the project. The committee consisted of local judges, attorneys and other major players involved in the project.
He also personally thanked EDA Architect Tom Brennan and Sweetwater County Engineer Chuck Radosevich for all their endless work to get the project to this point. He also thanked the Bureau of Land Management for the property the jail and the new center will be located on. He said the generosity saved the county a lot of money.
Commissioner Reid West, who co-chaired the committee with fellow commissioner John Kolb, said he is excited about the project and said it will improve the effectiveness of the departments involved in the project. Commissioner Randall Wendling said he was excited to be giving several county employees who have been crammed into small spaces a new home. He added he was also excited that the project could put residents impacted by the downturn back to work.
Commissioner Kolb thanked the state and the legislators for the direct funding they did receive for the project. He also noted the new center will make the system more effective.
“If there is one thing I have learned through this is that the justice system is a circular system. If it breaks, it slows everything down. This project should tie up those loose ends.”
Commission Don Van Matre said they are doing this project at the right time for the right reasons. He said it would benefit the county for a long time. Former County Commissioner Gary Bailiff was on the commission and was one of the commissioners who met with Chief Justice Kite. He recalled the days of meeting for court in restaurants or anywhere they could.
“We have come a long way,” – Gary Bailiff.
While not in attendance, Wyoming Chief Justice E. James Burke sent a few comments which were read by Judge Prokos. Burke applauded the Sweetwater County Commissioners for their quick action on resolving the issues. He said none of it would have been possible without the strong leadership in Sweetwater County.
Burke also thanked the residents of Sweetwater County and their support. He added he hoped citizens around the state follow the example set by Sweetwater County and invest in the local judiciary system.
Both Green River Circuit Court Judge Prokos and Rock Springs Circuit Court Judge Craig Jones thanked everyone on an exciting day for both courts. Prokos called the project a “true, Sweetwater County project.” A lawyer before a judge, Prokos has made the 15-mile journey between communities several times a day. He said with the new justice center the days of shuttling people around are over, and it is very much welcome.
While excited about the new project for their courts, he urged the commissioners to continue to work on the issues with the district court. With the Green River Circuit Court moving to the new center, the courtroom in Green River will help with overcrowding in the district court offices.