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Building sally port

It's beginning to look a lot like a sally port. The addition to the rear of the Columbia County Courthouse, to allow the secure transport of in-custody defendants to court proceedings, is taking shape on the west side of the courthouse, 400 DeWitt St., which is vacant while it's renovated for court-related uses only. The lower level will be an enclosed area for official vehicles such as squad cars or ambulances. The upper area will be office space for judges.

An expansive parking lot may be created on West Conant Street on the site of the county’s vacant Annex, across from the under-renovation Columbia County Courthouse.

And, a dilapidated, dangerous underground parking structure next to the annex may be filled up with rubble and paved over, resulting in about 100 off-street parking spaces.

That’s what officials from Columbia County and the city of Portage are talking about. In all likelihood, that’s what’s going to happen, said Columbia County Corporation Counsel Joseph Ruf.

But negotiations are going on now, behind closed doors, over ownership and maintenance responsibilities for the prospective new lot.

A closed session on the issue was part of Thursday’s meeting of the County Board’s Ad Hoc Building Committee, and it was on the agenda for Thursday evening’s Portage Common Council meeting.

Aaron Jahncke, city engineer and public works director, said he discussed the parking proposal as part of his report at the Sept. 7 meeting of the city’s Municipal Services and Utilities Committee.

The Annex, 120 W. Conant St., was once the location for county officials such as the University of Wisconsin-Extension and Management Information Services, both of which were relocated in June to the new Administration Building, 112 E. Edgewater.

Plans called for the building to be razed, and its location turned into an open public parking lot, as part of the renovation of the courthouse, 400 DeWitt St., for court-related uses only. That renovation is going on now, and is expected to be completed in late May or early June.

The county acquired and razed three other buildings on the north side of West Conant Street, with plans to turn those sites into parking lots, too. Those lots, Ruf said, would be mostly for courthouse employees, and at least one of them would be secured with a locked gate, for judges and employees of the Columbia County District Attorney’s Office.

A lot on DeWitt Street across from the courthouse, formerly designated for county employees, would become the public lot for courthouse visitors.

The new lot, on the site of the Annex and the underground structure, would be a public lot, likely to be used by courthouse patrons and downtown Portage visitors and shoppers.

Ruf said there are, basically, three scenarios under consideration: joint-city county ownership of the new lot, city ownership or county ownership. Tied to the ownership issue is the question of which entity, the county or the city, would be responsible for maintaining the lot, including snow removal.

The fate of the underground parking ramp has been under discussion for years.

The city owns the lot, and used to charge drivers to park in the underground portion.

But the underground parking area has become a haven for vandals and vagrants, some of whom have used it as a restroom.

When the county’s Land and Water Conservation Department was housed in the Annex, some of the department’s vehicles were stored or parked in the underground lot — but damage to the vehicles occurred, not necessarily from vandalism, but from salt or corrosive automotive chemicals leaking from the vehicles parked on the porous surface lot above the underground structure.

In early 2012, city officials approached the County Board’s Property and Insurance Committee about the possibility of the county taking over ownership of the underground structure, for free or for a nominal cost. Committee members were chilly to the idea, because taking ownership would require the county to pay for security and long-delayed improvements for the structure.

Ruf said county and city officials agree that the additional off-street parking near downtown Portage would benefit both the county and the city. The question before them, he said, is which entity will own and take care of the lot.

Ruf said he expects the question to be resolved soon.

Follow Lyn Jerde on Twitter @LynJerde

Portage Daily Register Reporter