Alpena County courtrooms see accessibility issues

News Photo by Temi Fadayomi The 26th Judicial Circuit Court in Alpena, a multi-county circuit including Alpena and Montmorency counties, is pictured on Thursday. The lack of accessible paths to and inside the building is causing challenges for wheelchair users, leading to potential scheduling issues as some circuit court cases must be moved to the district court.

ALPENA — Alpena County is grappling with significant challenges regarding accessibility in its courtrooms, particularly for wheelchair users.

This issue gained prominence during the recent case of Thomas VanDuinen, which had to be moved to the district court building due to the circuit court’s inaccessibility for those with mobility impairments.

Alpena County Administrator Jesse Osmer and County Commissioner John Kozlowski both emphasized that budget constraints are a primary reason for the lack of necessary renovations.

“Budget issues are a major part of why we haven’t seen these types of renovations,” Osmer said. “There have been talks about expanding the courthouse because we’ve run out of space, and we’re kind of scattered between different buildings. But again, it all comes down to cost.”

“I know years ago (Alpena County Commissioners) talked about plans to build an additional wing onto the courthouse,” Kozlowski said. “I think that the biggest issue is being able to come up with the funding.”

Detailed cost estimates for the renovations were not immediately available, but both officials noted that such an addition would be incredibly expensive. Kozlowski estimated the cost could easily reach $10 million.

“This has been an issue that’s been brought up numerous times,” Osmer said. “It’s definitely on our radar, and we’d like to address it once we see the necessary revenue.”

Kozlowski echoed this sentiment, stating, “It probably isn’t the highest priority, but we do talk about it occasionally with our facilities. Right now, our country is facing a budget deficit, and we’re trying to work through that while also looking for additional revenue and grants to fund these kinds of projects.”

The lack of accessibility at the courthouse underscores a broader issue of accessibility in public buildings and the challenges municipalities face in balancing historical preservation, budget limitations, and the need to provide equitable access to all citizens.

Currently, the county handles cases requiring wheelchair accessibility by relocating them to the district court. While this workaround ensures access, it is not an ideal solution. Relocating the case can lead to scheduling issues, which could ultimately continue to push back cases waiting to be seen.

“We’re trying to make the best use of the space we have,” Kozlowski said. “Ultimately, the best fix would be to provide accessibility to the second level of the courthouse, which would require a major addition.”

Despite these limitations, VanDuinen’s attorney for his recent case, Michael Behan, was complimentary of the court staff and stated that he had no issues with the transition to the district court.

“I was thoroughly impressed with the manner upon which they tried their best to accommodate,” Behan said. “I had no qualms at all about the access that they provided in the efforts that they’ve made within the court to make everything accessible and possible for (VanDuinen) to get a fair trial.”

Temi Fadayomi can be reached at 989-358-5693 or tfadayomi@thealpenanews.com.


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