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Judge pushes for more court space in Hernando

BROOKSVILLE — When the economy tanked, plans for a new judicial center for Hernando County stopped cold.

At that point, Circuit Judge Daniel B. Merritt Sr. was leading the charge, pleading with commissioners to find a solution to cramped conditions.

Now, Merritt's son is the county's administrative judge, and he has come forward with a list of current and future needs that would eventually double the number of courtrooms from seven to 14.

"The space issue is going to continue to come up, and we want don't anybody to be blindsided," Circuit Judge Daniel B. Merritt, Jr. told the Tampa Bay Times last week. "The judiciary is entitled to adequate space and it's the county's obligation to provide adequate space."

Merritt recently worked with court administrators to draft a document listing the judiciary's projected needs. The title: Hernando County Court Operations Three-Year Space Needs Summary.

Despite the title, Merritt he doesn't expect all the additions — which include seven new courtrooms and seven offices for judges and a general magistrate — to be built in the next three years.

"We need to plan to be large enough to accommodate our eventual growing needs without having to come back and do it piecemeal," he said. "It needs to be looked at in terms of 25 years down the road."

But the judiciary likely can't wait that long for at least one more courtroom. Merritt said officials continue the tricky process of juggling courtrooms each week. The child support hearing officer meets in the County Commission chambers.

And there may a more immediate need for some of the items in the report.

The Florida Supreme Court recently certified a need for three additional circuit judges in the Fifth Circuit, which includes Hernando and four other counties. Gov. Rick Scott's proposed budget includes funding for the judges.

Merritt said he hopes that money for all three judges will be in the state's final budget, and that one of these new judges will be assigned to Hernando to help with the workload. The family law docket and civil jury trial docket, with its large number of sinkhole cases, are of particular concern.

Hernando has also expressed interest in an expanded drug court program. This allows some nonviolent drug offenders to go through a monitored treatment program rather than prison.

No additional funding has been requested for Hernando or other counties that are interested in expanding the program.

Despite not knowing whether money will be available for the drug court or the added judge, the 5th Circuit's chief deputy court administrator, Todd Tuzzolino, recently told the county it needs to add administrative offices and a judge's chambers by July 1.

The requested judge chambers includes a private office with bathroom, a kitchen with sink and refrigerator, a private hearing room able to seat 12 people, a private work area for a judicial assistant, and a public waiting area with a service window and alarm and seating for up to 15 people.

The listed needs for the drug court area include offices for the program manager, counselor, and law clerk, and a conference room big enough for 15 people.

"It would be irresponsible if we don't begin to plan for these types of things rather than play wait-and-see and all of sudden it's on you, and then you have a problem," Merritt said.

Russ Wetherington, assistant administrator for general services, said that the county has received the request but has not yet begun to list options for accommodating it.

At the peak of the building boom in the mid-2000s, the County Commission decided to take some of the windfall of rising property taxes and set it aside in a judicial center fund.

At one point that fund held $18 million, including money generated by the courts. The Commission nixed the idea of building new courtrooms in 2011, in the midst of the housing bust and after a Times story found that courtrooms were in use less than half the time its reporters had checked.

The commission later spent its $12 million portion of the fund.

While no general fund money is now earmarked for judicial expansion, there are other funding sources, said George Zoettlein, assistant administrator for the budget.

A pool of money called the court improvement fund could be used for providing new judicial space. It currently totals $3.086 million and receives about $660,000 per year from fines and fees. Another possible source is $1 million in impact fees designated for public buildings.

Also available are $748,000 in court-related technology money. That could pay for computers but not construction, Zoettlein said.

Merritt noted that the county staffers are in need of more room, too. He said he'd already planned to raise the issue when the County Attorney's Office asked about using space that was occupied by state court administration employees.

The judge said he's confident that a "reasonable" discussion will produce consensus. He noted that there was significant opposition to the now-historic red brick courthouse.

"They voted to fund it anyway and 100 years later it's still there and in use," he said. "It's just a matter of the mechanisms of how we go about doing that."

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1431. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.

Judge pushes for more court space in Hernando 03/14/14 [Last modified: Friday, March 14, 2014 5:44pm]
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