Christian County Assessor Danny Gray would like to hire more employees, at least two and maybe more. The problem is that he has no office space where they could work.
On March 2, Gray received permission from the Christian County Commission to hire an architect to examine the feasibility of a renovation project on the third floor of the Christian County Historic Courthouse in Ozark. The architect’s job will be to decide how to turn three old jail cells into suitable office space for the Christian County Assessor’s Office.
“I just wanted to talk about it,” Gray told the commissioners. “I think there are some other variables that we need to talk about. I don’t know what your long term expansion plans are. I mean, to get those out, I have no idea, but it’s not going to be cheap.”
Phillips told Gray that the county commission is in the process of revising its long term strategic plan for county government buildings and offices.
To Gray, it’s worth spending some money from his office’s operating budget to see what is possible, and how much a conversion would cost.
“If we never do it, that’s space we’ll never be able to use for something else,” Gray said.
Christian County Building Supervisor Richard Teague gave an initial assessment to the commissioners about three of the old jail cells on the third floor.
“They are a steel, prefab box that is basically brought up there and riveted together. As far as I know, they’ve been there as long as the courthouse has been here,” Teague said.
That’s almost 100 years. The Christian County Historic Courthouse was commissioned in 1919 and completed in December 1920, according to records from the Headliner News, the Christian County Republican and from University of Missouri Extension.
“We can’t legally house prisoners in there anymore. (The cells) do not meet standards, but they put it off at the same time they were still having court in this building. I was told that was the reason, just in case something happened and they had to sit an officer in (a cell) with somebody that you might say went haywire,” Teague said.
No one ever “went haywire” enough to warrant a trip to the old cells in the modern era of circuit court cases being heard on the second floor of the Historic Courthouse, a period that ended with the opening of the Christian County Circuit Court Building in 2019.
Eastern District Commissioner Mike Robertson, also a former Christian County sheriff, wouldn’t dream of putting a jail inmate in one of the cells.
“When I moved here 27 years ago, those cells were horrid, and they just got nothing but worse. They are nasty, depleted,” Robertson said.
They aren’t officially being used for anything, but Teague said that the former jail area can turn into storage space if he doesn’t keep an eye on the cells.
“They are empty space. Right now, they have some old lights stored in them. They tend to collect clutter. We’ve cleaned them out several times in the last few years,” Teague said.
On the other side of the third floor, Christian County Clerk Kay Brown’s office staff uses another set of cells to store election equipment, kept under lock and key and only accessible to the clerk’s staff. Gray’s proposal is for the assessor’s office to pursue the removal and conversion of three old jail cells on the east side of the third floor, the assessor’s side of the building.
The cells will need to be taken apart using grinders. Due to the surrounding building materials, workers won’t be able to use torches to cut the metal of the cells. Fire prevention and suppression measures will need to be bolstered.
“We’re going to have to be meticulous with how we take this out,” Teague said. “We’re not really comfortable just throwing anybody in there to cut (the cells) out. We want them brought out properly without damaging the building, without setting fires, and everything double-checked and triple-checked.”
The cells will not be salvageable, because any metal will need to be cut into small enough pieces that it can go out an interior door, into an elevator, down two floors and out of the building.
“They’re going to be destroyed, I just want that to be very clear,” Teague said. “This isn’t going to be a short-term project. This is going to be something that we’re working on as we can over the next year.”
Once the cells are removed, Christian County Presiding Commissioner Ralph Phillips said that additional work will likely be needed to make the third floor of the courthouse suitable for more assessment employees.
“I’m not a construction guy, but one thing that popped into my mind was all of the plumbing and wiring,” Phillips said.
The original plumbing from the jail cells is still in the building, which Gray said makes for some unpleasant smells in the assessor’s office at times.
“Right now, there is a pretty good odor that comes out of there. With those open sewer lines that are still in there now, the toilets are still in there,” Gray said.
Until an architect examines the feasibility of the project, the cells will continue to sit empty as they presently do.