Sunday, April 22, 2018
News Roundup

After some pushback, Pinellas rethinks its courts plan

The plan was to uproot St. Petersburg and Clearwater's family law courts and move them to mid-county, but almost from the moment it was introduced, it met with opposition.

Lawyers argued it would force families in the middle of domestic violence cases to travel too far. Clearwater officials weren't pleased at the thought of fewer downtown workers and less foot traffic.

Now, Pinellas County officials have developed a new plan.

The revised proposal would leave the family law courts where they are in St. Petersburg and Clearwater. Instead, officials will ask the County Commission for funding to build an annex attached to the Criminal Justice Center on 49th Street N in Largo.

In August, county officials estimated such an annex would cost roughly $12 million, though that figure could change, said Paul Sacco, the county's real estate director.

He plans to present the proposal to the commission in February.

Once built, the annex would be the new home for the family court currently housed on the third floor of the Criminal Justice Center. Officials also plan to move the traffic courts there from their current locations in north Pinellas and west St. Petersburg.

"We came up with a Plan B, which is still a good plan," said Chief Circuit Judge Thomas McGrady. "It still gives the county the opportunity to save some money."

Relocating traffic courts would free up space in those two buildings, potentially allowing the county to save rent money by moving in other agency staff currently working in rented commercial properties.

And moving the third floor family court also may come with benefits. McGrady said he hopes to build separate waiting rooms in the new annex for people involved in domestic violence cases. Currently, even if a woman has a restraining order against a man, they often end up waiting in the same hallway until their hearing begins.

The county's proposal also would move court administration staff out of the building at 501 First Ave. N in St. Petersburg. Some employees would move to the new annex, others would work from the city's courthouse at 545 First Ave. N, where the county plans to renovate three floors to accommodate them.

Though county officials had talked about emptying the 501 building and selling it, that is no longer part of the current plan.

"We may be able to sell 501 down the road, and that still may be a possibility as we empty that space out, but that's going down the road. That's nothing imminent," Sacco said.

More people traveling to the Criminal Justice Center in Largo means more cars in the parking lot, which already has fewer spaces than there are employees in the center, McGrady said.

To remedy this, Sacco plans to build a parking garage at an estimated cost of $12.5 million. According to McGrady, it would be built where the current employee parking lot is now. He hopes to include special parking for jurors, some of whom have had the uncomfortable experience of being accosted at their cars by the families of defendants.

Funding for the entire consolidation project — garage and annex included — would come from money collected through Penny for Pinellas, a one percent sales tax dedicated to capital construction.

The commission has scheduled a work session on Feb. 19 to discuss the plan.

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or 727-893-8779.

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