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New government center is not a ‘courthouse annex’

Published on 10/16/2021

Our Montgomery County Administrator Tom Klein is quick to remind citizens that the new Montgomery County Government Center (currently under construction) is not simply a “courthouse annex” designed to store the overflow of records. To understand this important distinction that accompanies the relocation of many county departments, let’s take a quick glance at county government’s function.

Counties are a foundational structure of our United States governing system. Ever since the first states were founded there have been counties (geographical divisions of land within a state). Indiana has 92 counties. Since this is a country that governs by “the rule of law,” every county has a courthouse to make sure the laws are being followed and to help citizens follow those laws. Indiana counties were created by our state constitution.

Montgomery County, as we’re aware, has a striking historical courthouse that was designed by a notable 19th century architect. Indiana has six remaining George Bunting courthouses, and Montgomery County lays claim to one of them. Bunting courthouses are preserved in five other states as well. Before his architectural career (based in Indianapolis), George Bunting was a Confederate general. When our courthouse was dedicated in 1875, Montgomery County’s most famous citizen and former Union general, Lew Wallace, spoke. He noted the great pride we all should take in this building that “does the people’s business.”

Times change now as they did then. Two Civil War generals from opposing sides working together to forge a new, hopeful future just a decade after the Civil War ended: such a partnership could never have been imagined a decade earlier.

Fast forward 100 years into the middle of the 20th century when all over America populations were growing during the post-World War II boom. Changes in technology, in rural and urban populations, and in government’s and citizens’ needs began to put a strain on courthouse work even as all the historical records and archives continued to grow. Many counties’ needs swiftly outgrew the size of their courthouses.

In the 1960s and ‘70s almost all urban counties in the country began building government centers or public administration buildings apart from their courthouses to absorb some of the required offices and their workers. Marion County built theirs in 1962, for instance. By the ‘80s and ‘90s only more population-stable rural counties still kept all their departments housed in a single courthouse building. Courthouses, as the name implies, were intended to house courts (Montgomery County houses three) and all records pertinent to those courts and to conducting elections (both jobs under the direction of the County Clerk’s office).

Here in the 21st century, counties that hadn’t needed government centers earlier now do. Montgomery County is one of those. Even though we have a “spill over” county building on South Boulevard, (where the Montgomery County Commissioners and others are housed), resources were being strained. In March 2020, just as the pandemic hit, our county commissioners put out a call for a proposal to construct a “courthouse annex,” a space of at least 40,000 square feet to house no fewer than 40 offices with parking for 60 employees and 30 public spaces.

The location for the Montgomery County Government Center was established in April 2020 at the site of the former Williamsburg Nursing Care facility off of U.S. 231 north of Crawfordsville. Demolition began in March 2021. The address of the new Montgomery County Government Center will be 1580 Constitution Row.

Next week’s LWVMC column will let readers know which departments of our county government will be moving to the government center, how our historic courthouse will be used, and how this will affect you as a resident of Montgomery County.