BROOKSVILLE — As they sort out the need for more office and judicial space, county commissioners agreed Tuesday to ask the owners of the downtown SunTrust Bank building and 12 acres at the old Brooksville Regional Hospital site for appraisals on their properties.
The commission stopped short of taking further action, holding off until County Administrator David Hamilton can present his space needs plan on March 8.
Commissioners also were interested in conducting a new survey of judicial space needs, possibly by a Washington, D.C.-based independent company that Commissioner John Druzbick suggested.
The board also heard from Chief Circuit Judge Daniel Merritt Sr., a frequent visitor to their meetings to press the commission for more room for the local judiciary.
Last week, Merritt and County Commissioner Jeff Stabins engaged in a heated and public war of words over the issue, including an unprecedented situation in which each man filed a public records request of the other. Merritt had termed Stabins' actions "sophomoric,'' while Stabins called the judge's response "grumpy.''
On Tuesday, both were more restrained.
"All we've really ever asked for is reasonable and necessary space,'' Merritt said, noting that was the language in the statute requiring the county to provide what the judges need. Merritt also discouraged the board from making any comparisons between this need and the palatial Tallahassee courthouse that has been dubbed the Taj Mahal.
The local need is more like "the garage Mahal … putting three vehicles into a one-car garage,'' he said.
Stabins apologized for "the tone of my rhetoric" in sharply worded e-mails that he exchanged with Merritt last week as he sought a copy of a judicial space needs study done by the county several years ago.
Merritt chided Stabins for not simply picking up the phone or visiting him rather than exchanging e-mails, portions of which were then published by the St. Petersburg Times. Each agreed to work together professionally in the future.
Merritt made a point of shaking Stabins' hand before leaving the meeting.
Merritt told the commissioners that since 2006, the board has talked about judicial space needs 16 times. He ran down more than half a dozen proposals that had been discussed and dismissed and noted that since 2006, only the one courtroom has been added at the government center.
Merritt said he understood the "fiscal realities'' the county faces. While reusing existing buildings is not a perfect solution, he said, "we need space so we'll take it however we can get it.''
Merritt also warned that several new judges have been recommended for the circuit, and that the space needs will continue to grow.
While he did not object to a new study, Merritt said the need had already been accepted and proved in the past by the words of past commissions and county administrators.
He strongly discouraged the commission from touching any of the $18 million that had been set aside for the judicial center and especially not to use it to balance the county's budget.
Stabins suggested taking the $6 million in the judicial fund raised through court fees and spending a small amount on a space needs study and the rest on any space reconfiguration shown to be needed in the existing downtown government center.
The remaining $12 million in the fund could be used for tax rebates, economic development and relief for ongoing revenue shortfalls and reserves, Stabins suggested.
Commissioner Wayne Dukes said he liked the idea of getting appraisals for the properties offered to the county and the space needs study.
"Hopefully, what we do now should last us for years and years,'' he said, noting that the government functions should stay in Brooksville, the county seat.
"We don't need buildings scattered all over the place'' to provide county services, Dukes said.
While acknowledging that the judiciary has been patient with the county, Druzbick said that building the latest courtroom "cost us substantial money" and that the county needs to get its facilities consolidated to realize some cost savings.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.