There has been talk of building a central Pasco courthouse for decades. But now, proponents of the plan say the years of fizzled meetings are done: They have a design and hope to present it to county commissioners soon.
"This is, by far, the closest we've ever been to getting anything done," said Circuit Judge Lowell Bray.
The idea Bray and others are pitching is to build a $29 million courthouse on the grounds of the Pasco jail along U.S. 41 in Land O'Lakes. The building would have eight courtrooms and would handle all criminal and juvenile cases, leaving civil, traffic and family court cases to still be heard in the New Port Richey and Dade City courthouses. There would be an enclosed walkway between the jail and the courthouse to walk inmates back and forth. Bray said the project is needed because the New Port Richey courthouse — which underwent a $20-million expansion and renovation in 2006 — is overstuffed.
"We are out of space," Bray said.
He said building more courtrooms in New Port Richey won't work because there is no room for more parking. Public Defender Bob Dillinger and State Attorney Bernie McCabe are both in favor of the idea of a central Pasco courthouse because their offices are cramped and they would be able to consolidate; to have one office each rather than two teams on opposite sides of the county. Dillinger said it would help having all criminal cases under the same roof.
"As it is now, if one judge in Dade City happens to have three trials and there is a judge in New Port Richey that doesn't have any, nothing happens," he said, because it is too much of a hassle to move prisoners and witnesses to the other side of the county.
"It's an hour away," Dillinger said. "If they were consolidated, then you could cover because you would have all your judges in one spot."
Dillinger said his office in New Port Richey is so short on space, attorneys are doubled up in offices and using deposition rooms for office space.
"It just needs to be done," he said of the proposed courthouse.
McCabe also said it would be "beneficial."
"We can survive as we are," McCabe said. "I just think we can do better with a central location. The question is, though: 'Can Pasco County afford it?'"
And that's where the push could get dampened — as it has in years past.
The court system has $7 million set aside for construction, garnered from fees on civil traffic cases, said Thomas McGrady, chief judge of the Pinellas-Pasco County Circuit. McGrady and Bray both said they want to pledge that $7 million plus future civil traffic fee revenues to obtain a construction bond for the project. They believe they could get a bond to cover about $21 million to $22 million of the project.
But this would still leave the project short, asking the county to come up with several million.
"The county doesn't have any money," said County Administrator John Gallagher, who has heard talk of a central courthouse since he was hired in 1982.
But, he said he sees benefits from the idea. He hasn't crunched numbers yet because he's waiting for a final version of the design, which was done by Heery International Inc., an Orlando-based company hired by county officials for $300,000 last year.
"Maybe there's a way to borrow more money," Gallagher said.
But, if it isn't prudent, he said he'll tell proponents to "put it on the shelf and we'll see what happens in another couple years."
Proponents keep talking of how the courthouse would benefit the Pasco County Sheriff's Office by reducing transportation costs.
The problem is, the sheriff is against the project.
"I think we are rushing into this," said Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco.
He said he would need nine more bailiffs to staff another courthouse, and the reduced transportation costs would not be enough to cover those positions.
"I would rather have more deputies on the road and in the detention facility," Nocco said. He said he has a housing unit at the jail that is empty — even though cell space is tight and inmates are sleeping on mats on the floor — because he doesn't have enough detention deputies to staff the empty unit. He also is managing an agency that hasn't had raises in nearly six years because of the decline of the economy.
Another stakeholder in the proposal, Clerk of Court Paula O'Neil, said in a recent debate her budget is tight, having had to slash hours and staff earlier this year, and that she is already challenged staffing two courthouses.
"I'm not excited about having a third courthouse," she said.
Even though state lawmakers recently restored much of the budget cuts at Florida's clerks offices, giving O'Neil the opportunity to hire back some lost positions and lengthen hours, she said the third courthouse would be "an additional burden" and she's "not in favor of it."
The proposed courthouse will be at capacity as soon as it's built, without room to grow.
"It doesn't make sense if you are building a building for the future that is already too small for today," Nocco said.
Bray said there isn't enough money to build a courthouse larger than immediately needed.
"We would start out with that building full," he said.
Bray said it would be designed so additions could be made. He said he's trying to keep costs down to finally get the idea into reality — even if that reality is bare bones.
"No one is going to accuse us of the Taj Mahal approach," said Bray, referring to the 1st District Court of Appeal courthouse in Tallahassee, which critics said cost millions more than needed because of its opulence.
"There won't be any mahogany in here unless someone brings in his own furniture," Bray said.
Bray said he was against the project until about six years ago. He said a courthouse in Land O'Lakes didn't make sense when, years ago, the main access roads — state roads 54 and 52 — were two lanes, there weren't many people or businesses in central Pasco and public transportation was scant.
"The situation has changed," Bray said.
He hopes to bring the proposal to commissioners before the end of the year to seek their blessing for land and funding for the project.
"We've known for a long time this is the way to go," he said.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6229.