Despite reservations from the sheriff and the clerk of courts, Pasco is moving ahead with plans for a courthouse in Land O'Lakes that would be focused specifically on criminal and juvenile cases.
Two Pasco-Pinellas circuit judges, along with the public defender and state attorney, said a central Pasco courthouse would relieve acute overcrowding concerns.
"We definitely need more space," said Thomas McGrady, chief judge of the Pasco-Pinellas circuit. "We have essentially two judges working out of a closet in New Port Richey."
The $28 million courthouse would be built on the grounds of the Pasco County jail on U.S. 41 in Land O'Lakes. It would have eight courtrooms and 11 judges' chambers. Existing courthouses in Dade City and New Port Richey would be used for civil, family and probate court.
Supporters pointed to efficiencies for having all criminal cases in one location, including a secure walkway for the Sheriff's Office to transport inmates to court. The building would also include holding cells and conference rooms for lawyers and clients to discuss their case. Currently, many public defenders must discuss cases with their clients in the jury box at the West Pasco courthouse.
"I think the time was right 22 years ago," said Pasco-Pinellas State Attorney Bernie McCabe, referring to the decades-long push for a central Pasco courthouse. "It's even more right today."
County commissioners on Tuesday gave administrators the go-ahead to explore bond options and seek bids for a more detailed design of the building.
But their blessing came after an hourlong discussion in which two constitutional officers expressed their reservations.
The Pasco County Sheriff's Office is worried the Land O'Lakes courthouse would be full as soon as it's built. Instead of expanding the building, the court system might use existing courthouses in Dade City and New Port Richey for criminal trials. That would negate any transportation savings.
"The sheriff feels there's huge risk that we're going to end up doing criminal court in three courthouses rather than two courthouses," said agency lawyer Jeremiah Hawkes.
Circuit Judge Lowell Bray said there is "absolutely no intention" of doing criminal cases outside Land O'Lakes.
The building would also wipe out the jail's existing parking lot for an average of 150 visitors each day and some jail staffers.
Clerk of Courts Paula O'Neil said the idea would stretch her already-tight budget.
"From purely a budget point of view, all I see is a third courthouse for us to operate," she said.
Her employees would have to accept both criminal and civil pleadings at each location, she said. O'Neil is also worried about managing more pools of jurors and having secure storage space for evidence. Current plans call for "temporary storage," but it would have to hold sensitive items such as guns or drugs.
But county commissioners said Pasco has been waiting too long to build a centralized courthouse.
"We need to move," said Commissioner Pat Mulieri. "It's important to have a good court system and to have the proper facility so everybody gets a fair and equal trial."
County Administrator John Gallagher warned: "This is something that you really can't put off for a long time."
Early projections call for a total cost of $28 million. It would be paid for primarily using traffic fees. The court system currently has about $7 million in such fees, an amount that could grow by nearly $1 million each year. Pledging future fees toward a 30-year construction bond could yield another $21 million.
As a "back up," Gallagher said the county would pledge its half-cent sales tax revenue. The county is expected to get $300,000 in annual savings from refinancing existing bonds.
Gallagher said pledging those taxes wouldn't imperil current projects paid for with sales tax money such as park improvements, renovations to the animal shelter, new fire stations and an IT center.
The building would be designed to handle future additions — four more courtrooms and extra office space — to accommodate growth. The county would pay about $900,000 each year to maintain the building once it opens in the fall of 2016.
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.