Office Space

The county makes the case for more real estate

Lisa Royal, administrator at the Pima County Consolidated Justice Courts, gives the impression her staff is being stacked like cordwood in tight office space.

Every year, roughly 400,000 people walk through the justice court's security barrier at the Old County Courthouse, 115 N. Church Ave., making approximately 175,000 filings. The justice courts take up about 27,000 square feet on the second floor of the building, which--despite its charm--is cramped, outdated and in need of a fresh coat of paint.

Gone is the employee lunchroom, which was needed for workspace. The courts have instituted early-evening shifts for some of its staff members--particularly in the records section--so people aren't stumbling over each other.

Files are being kept in three different buildings; in one of those buildings--the Old County Courthouse--they're kept in three different places, Royal said. Stacks of boxes containing court documents line the walls of a storage area in the basement of that building.

Like the files, Royal said, her 107 staff members are spread out in three buildings downtown. "And many of them are in space that's smaller than what the county would consider to be standard size--you know, standard space," she said. "We're basically putting people on top of each other. We're just bursting at the seams."

The justice courts and other divisions primarily housed in the pink, domed courthouse are emblematic of the need most county departments have for adequate office space with up-to-date electrical, safety and telecommunications features, county officials have said.

"I have requests from all kinds of departments that we need additional space, because we're squeezed in many areas with inadequate workspace for people," said Mike Tuinstra, Pima County facilities management director.

Next door to the Old Pima County Courthouse, Pima County Superior Court Administrator Kent Batty said they're experiencing a courtroom crunch. When Judge Gus Aragon arrives at the end of the month, they'll be two rooms short.

"We will have to be juggling courtroom space," he said. "We are running out of space in this building for judges and are having to move out staff to take advantage of the planned expansion."

That expansion would see the eighth floor of the building at 110 W. Congress St. cleaned out to make courtrooms. In the longer term, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry has shown support for a criminal court to be built near the Pima County Adult Detention Center, near Silverlake and Mission roads, cutting transit time for prisoners and consolidating functions into one building.

Huckelberry's proposed budget for fiscal year 2006-2007 seeks $9 million to help county departments find additional space.

Acquisition of new space could alleviate some of the need for rented property, which is eating up a substantial amount of money every year. In one instance, Tuinstra said, the county could have bought an eastside property housing a recorder field office and health clinic with the money that has been spent on rent over time.

According to Tuinstra, Pima County is currently leasing about 500,000 square feet, or about one-eighth of all property (including non-office space, such as parking lots and treatment plants) currently being used by the county, at a cost of between $2 million and $2.5 million per year. "Ten years ago, I don't think we were leasing 20 percent of that," he said. "We're spending a tremendous amount of public resources leasing space."

The scramble for room has forced departments to spread out to different buildings.

"We have space in the Pioneer Building," Tuinstra said. "We're leasing storefront space on Congress (Street). We have lease space out on North First Avenue for clinics. We have space way out on Broadway (Boulevard). It makes it hard for management to see what's going on at all the fragmented locations."

According to Royal, there's definitely been an impact on efficiency. Files are misplaced, she said, as they make the trek from building to building. Eventually, the courts will switch to an automated file tracking system using barcodes, but for now, Royal conceded, "it's just the manual method."

Like the justice courts, parts of the assessor's office are housed in different buildings. County Assessor Bill Staples said his staff has been reorganizing office space in phases over the past year, in order to make it more functional and keep people from "tripping over each other."

A quick tour of the assessor's office in the Old Pima County Courthouse showed that the most recent reorganization appeared to produce a more efficient use of space. File cabinets were carted away, and cubicles looked less cluttered and cramped. Two employees raved about the changes.

However, areas that hadn't been reorganized were a bit more confined. Their cubicles appeared smaller; many walkways were lined with filing cabinets, and some furniture and carpeting appeared worn.

In addition to securing new spaces, Huckelberry's proposed budget seeks $3 million to renovate others. Some buildings were constructed without sprinkler systems in the era of asbestos fireproofing, according to Tunistra.

"Many of these buildings were built in a time when there weren't any computers," Tuinstra said, noting that telecommunications networks and electrical systems need updating. "We're really doing the first major renovation of the buildings basically since they were built. That really involves gutting the buildings floor by floor."

Staples emphasized how much character the Old Pima County Courthouse has, but also indicated he'd like to see improvements to heating and cooling, electrical systems and plumbing. Royal added that janitorial services need a cash injection, as the two men's and two women's restrooms in the building are small and "don't accommodate all the people who come through here."

Staples said he believes most employees are willing to put up with some inconveniences. "It's a spectacular old, historic building, but it is tired."

In the meantime, Royal is attempting to find ways to manage growth in that "tired" building.

"We've tried to do what we can to certainly preserve the inside," she said, noting that some areas were recarpeted and painted. "I really appreciate all the county has done as far as giving us funding to do that."

But Royal believes much work remains to be done.

"A lot of people don't go to county buildings and utilize county resources," she said. "This is kind of the first impression that people get of country government, so that's really one reason we've tried to make a push to improve this building--to improve the image of the court, as well as county government. You know, sometimes the conditions can be pretty deplorable."

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