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Pasco commissioners lean toward postponing plans for Land O'Lakes courthouse

LAND O'LAKES — A central Pasco courthouse, long pushed for by top members of the judiciary, appears to be dead for another year.

Three county commissioners last month expressed a desire to postpone plans in the wake of what is shaping up to be another tough budget year. County staff and judicial officials were scheduled to meet July 25 to short list firms to design and build the proposed courthouse, which would be on the grounds of the Pasco County jail on U.S. 41 in Land O'Lakes.

In January, commissioners said they were willing to move ahead with the project and gave administrators the go-ahead to explore bond options and seek bids for a more detailed design of the building.

But that was before state lawmakers forced the county to chip in an extra $4 million to the state pension fund. It also happened before Pasco officials learned that the fire budget had been operating at a deficit for seven years and would require a minimum tax increase of nearly 8 percent just to stay in the black. And it was before Sheriff Chris Nocco began calling for a jail expansion. All this plus property tax revenues that went down about 1.5 percent over the prior year.

"A lot has unfolded since then," Commission Chairman Ted Schrader said. "I don't want to be wasting staff's time if we're not moving forward with this facility."

Commissioners Jack Mariano, Kathryn Starkey and Henry Wilson moved quickly at the invitation to apply the brakes.

"Until Ridge Road (extension) is built, I can't see us using that facility," Mariano said.

Wilson and Starkey agreed.

"We need to at least tell the judges, 'We're going to pause on this and take a step back,'" Schrader said.

The $28 million criminal courthouse 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.

Judicial officials this week reiterated the need for the central Pasco courthouse and plan to show up at Tuesday's County Commission meeting to make another plea.

"I am going to be there to present the continuing need for this to go forward," said Thomas McGrady, chief judge for the Sixth Judicial Circuit, which is made up of Pinellas and Pasco counties. He met on Monday with interim County Administrator Michele Baker. "I don't think it's dead, but I don't think it's going to move forward at this point."

Supporters point to efficiencies of having all criminal cases in one location, including a secure walkway for the Sheriff's Office to transport inmates to court, which could save transportation costs. The building would also include holding cells and conference rooms for lawyers and clients to privately discuss cases. Currently, many public defenders must discuss cases with their clients in the jury box at the West Pasco courthouse.

But Nocco and Clerk of Court Paula O'Neil have expressed concerns. Nocco's representatives have said they fear a new courthouse would be full as soon as it was built, and criminal cases would continue in the other two courthouses. That would negate any transportation savings. O'Neil said an expansion would stretch her already tight budget.

Judicial officials say it's time to move forward.

"The need is still there and will be there," McGrady said. "It's a good time to go forward as we have the financing and the bond interest rate is a good rate."

Except for Monroe County, "we are the only county with two full-service courthouses an hour apart," Public Defender Bob Dillinger said.

Dillinger, who joins State Attorney Bernie McCabe in supporting the project, said the current arrangement forces both offices to waste money on duplicated resources.

"We are fully staffed with receptionists at both places, with file openers and lawyers that can't cover for each other because they are an hour apart," Dillinger said.

He said the project would not rely on general revenue from property taxes but upon bonding from a half-cent sales tax already levied and money from court fines dedicated to courthouse construction. That fund now has $7 million.

"I don't know why they would be concerned," he said.

As for O'Neil's concerns about the expense of staffing a third courthouse, Dillinger said they aren't valid.

"We don't do that in Pinellas," he said, pointing out that the three courthouses there don't provide every service at every location. For example, civil pleadings might be confined to west Pasco. As for jury pools, he said the number of civil juries required is "tiny" compared with criminal cases. Judges also say that soon clerks will be operating paperless offices and need fewer file clerks.

As the county's population and case load grows, Dillinger said, the status quo is not an option.

"It's not just do nothing or build the courthouse," he said. "It's spend more money on renting space or build the courthouse."

Lisa Buie can be reached at buietimeswriter@gmail.com or (813) 909-4604.

Pasco commissioners lean toward postponing plans for Land O'Lakes courthouse 07/02/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 2, 2013 7:35pm]
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