Chief Superior Court Judge Carl C. Brown has formed a task force and lined up experts to do a study on reusing 401 Walton Way, the former Joint Law Enforcement Center, as a juvenile justice facility.
The Augusta Commission on Tuesday voted 6-4 to allow Brown’s group to return with study results next month before the commission moves forward with hiring Cranston Engineering to do the first of a two-part study prearranged by city staff.
The vote comes ahead of a commission field trip Wednesday to Savannah to meet with Chatham County, Ga., Juvenile Justice Center judges. Chatham Juvenile Court Administrator Adam Kennedy said he expects the group to tour the juvenile courthouse, which includes three courtrooms, clerk of juvenile court offices, probation offices and a handful of holding cells.
In a letter sent to commissioners Monday, Brown said a panel of three experts has already opined it’s feasible to reuse the law enforcement center as a juvenile facility and had agreed to do the study at no charge.
The three experts, Hull Property Group owner James Hull, Alternative Construction and Environmental Solutions President Dan Troutman and architect Christopher Booker, can “prevent taxpayers from paying for another study,” Brown said.
The law enforcement center, a six-story jail of 242 cells, with courtrooms for state and superior court and the former offices of the Richmond County Sheriff and Augusta Police Department, was controversial even before it opened in 1985 at a cost of $14 million.
Prior to opening, a poorly installed gasket burst and flooded several floors. Later, persistent roof leaks were said to cause ongoing moisture problems. In 2004, Cranston documented “the 17 types of mold spores and the overall potential health risks to allergy respiratory sufferers,” the Tuesday agenda item stated.
The risks of litigation were such that a June commission discussion of the 2004 report was conducted behind closed doors, the agenda item stated. General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie said there was a risk of litigation from employees claiming the building is a health hazard.
Despite the building’s reputation, Brown said members of the Task Force for the Preservation of 401 Walton Way all support its reuse as a juvenile facility, which Brown has said will include space for youth job training. Members include Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, former superintendent of Richmond County Schools Charles Larke, businessman J.R. Riles, attorneys Jack Long and John R.B. Long, Solicitor General Omeeka Loggins, Juvenile Judge Douglas Flanagan and others.
Jack Long said the renovation is needed to “get control of our children before they begin a life of crime” and keep them in school, which saves the community money in the long run. Long said state and other funding is available to operate youth and some adult programs there, such as drug court.
The building was budgeted for $1.5 million in Sales Tax 7 for demolition, which voters approved. The remainder of the sales tax collections, which included $52.5 million for facilities, is committed to other projects, debt service or has already been spent.