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RENOVATIONS, DEPARTMENT MOVES TO BE ADDRESSED

Many problems -- including the odor of bat guano in a grand jury room -- may lead to major building renovations and departmental moves in Niagara County buildings.

One of the most pressing problems is space for the county court system, which the County Legislature's Public Works Committee will address at a meeting Wednesday.

"For the past several years, we have had a problem with bat guano," District Attorney Matthew J. Murphy III said last week, referring to the grand jury room in his office.

"The grand jury room is virtually uninhabitable, not handicapped-accessible and has a malodorous atmosphere occasioned by animal droppings in a nearby attic," wrote Harold J. Brand Jr., executive assistant to Eighth Judicial District Administrative Judge Vincent J. Doyle, in a letter to Legislature Chairman Clyde L. Burmaster, R-Ransomville.

Burmaster said: "Their point is well-taken. I would hate to be the person being tried in there on a hot summer day with no air conditioning and the bat droppings in the next room. This is a serious issue for Niagara County."

Brand said the courts need another 12,000 square feet of space in Lockport, 5,000 square feet at the Civic Building in Niagara Falls and 1,400 square feet in North Tonawanda.

Brand reminded Burmaster that state law requires all counties to provide facilities that are "suitable and sufficient for the dignified transaction of the business of the courts."

At the courthouse, a new Family Court staffer will have a desk in a public hallway. A County Court clerk works in a courtroom, whether court is in session or not, because she has no office. There is no assembly area for jurors, meaning they could meet up with lawyers or defendants while waiting for court to convene.

Murphy said, "The state has come up with guidelines in the past few years about taking better care of jurors, both grand and (trial)."

Brand complained about "the complete absence of certain prescribed facilities such as public waiting areas, juvenile waiting rooms (and) attorney-client conference rooms."

Legislator Gerald K. Farnham, the Public Works Committee chairman, said his committee will concentrate on court issues first, before delving into the county government's own space problems.

"The court system has to be addressed now," said Farnham, R-Lockport, who promised that his committee will come up with "a logical, temporary fix."

With a public referendum expected in November on creating the position of county executive, Farnham does not want to be hemmed into any permanent commitments on office space.

The county has considered leasing space in the Golden Triangle Plaza in downtown Lockport, buying a vacant insurance office on Park Avenue next to the Philo J. Brooks County Office Building or buying part of the financially ailing Summit Park Mall in Wheatfield.

The county had $19 million in tobacco revenue available for public works projects. All but $5.5 million is now spoken for, but the courthouse space problem has not been addressed.

The Public Works Department has a rough cost estimate of $14 million for a new three-story county office building, but it is uncertain where it would be located. One site being discussed is the parking lot across Niagara Street from the courthouse, but the county would have to buy more land for parking.

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