Kent County Commissioner Roger Morgan was probably the most relieved elected official last Thursday when his fellow board members agreed to terminate a lease the county had with the city of Rockford.
For Morgan, who represented Rockford on the commission, the termination agreement brought to rest a rugged journey that began ten years ago.
“I think this is where we’ve wanted to go since 2003,” he said of the termination contract.
That was the year the county began to look at consolidating the two divisions of its 63rd District Court into one location. Accomplishing that would save the county more than $200,000 annually in court costs, and the idea was to find a site for the court between Rockford and Cascade Township, where the divisions were situated. At the time, Kent owned the court building in Rockford and leased space in Cascade.
Five years later, when Morgan was commission chairman, the county bought some property for about $900,000 in Grand Rapids Township along East Beltline Avenue at Knapp Street for the new courthouse. The county also spent $625,000 to upgrade the infrastructure on those 5.3 acres.
Everyone involved agreed that the 63rd District Court should relocate to the site at 1950 East Beltline Ave. NE, and the plan was put into motion. But then one of the 63rd District judges changed his mind and said he wouldn’t move from the Rockford location when the new court opened.
Although legal papers were filed to fight the move, Morgan remained rigidly determined to get the new courthouse built and open, and he succeeded. The new $6 million courthouse opened Nov. 13, 2009. It was a Friday — a Friday the 13th to boot.
After the court began operating on East Beltline, the county turned over its old courthouse at 105 Maple St. to the city of Rockford in early January 2010. Then the county leased space in the building for some relatively minor court and law enforcement functions and spent roughly $49,000 to remodel the site. The lease was supposed to last for 75 years.
Later, though, Rockford officials asked the county to vacate the building, and Kent was willing to do so. But the county was concerned the city’s population was large enough to ask for a court presence once the county left the city. Michigan counties are responsible for implementing the state’s court system, including district courts, in their jurisdictions.
If the city asked for and was awarded one a few years ago, then Kent would have had to budget for another district court after it had moved the division from Rockford.
Public Act 236 of 1961 once gave municipalities with a population of 3,250 or more the right to ask for a limited-jurisdiction court, such as a district court. Rockford has more than 5,700 residents. However, state legislators amended the law in 2010 and now a population of at least 10,000 is needed.
Rockford City Manager Michael Young and Kent County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio spent about eight months negotiating the lease termination that Rockford officials previously approved and county commissioners ratified last week.
The contract has Rockford reimbursing the county the $49,000 for remodeling its space. The city has agreed it won’t have a court presence and the county will save $4,000 annually in lease payments.
63rd District Court Chief Judge Sara Smolenski also has given her consent to the termination agreement.