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Hernando commission halts search for county judicial center space

BROOKSVILLE — County commissioners on Tuesday abandoned their search for a form to make their plans to build a judicial center a reality.

But that doesn't mean the center, for which Hernando has socked away nearly $19 million, is dead. Chief Judge Daniel Merritt made it clear Tuesday that he won't let that happen.

Bill Rain, one of the investors who bought Brooksville Regional Hospital from the county in 2007, again made a pitch to use that $19 million to move administrative offices to the old hospital and turn over the government center to the judiciary.

But commissioners didn't bite.

Instead, they formally rejected the dozen or so proposals received last year outlining various ways to build the complex through a public-private partnership.

Commissioners had suspended the process in the spring to deal with more pressing budget issues. They also agreed then to use in-house staff to build one courtroom to help ease the space crunch in an area in the government center now used as a jury assembly room.

That project was supposed to be under way months ago but with so many offices moving around in the courthouse, the new courtroom has been pushed back and now isn't expected to be done until later next year.

"We're in dire need,'' Judge Merritt said.

The recent moves in the government center have been a logistical challenge. Before the courtroom is built, a new jury assembly room needs to be constructed. But the county's code enforcement staff still occupies that space and will be there until their new quarters, at Animal Services, are finished, sometime early next year.

Merritt reminded the commission that talks about new space have stretched over the last decade and that the board has a legal responsibility to provide it.

"The point is you can't continue to ignore the 800-pound gorilla in the room,'' he said. "Sooner or later, there will be consequences.''

Commissioners turned to their administrator to find a way to make the courtroom happen sooner, even if that meant the code enforcement staff would have to move twice.

County Administrator David Hamilton assured Merritt and the commission that he plans to begin a more informal process to find a way to make the judicial center happen. He suggested holding workshops to discuss the ideas brought forward and then making a final report before the commission has to set its budget a year from now.

Merritt said he wanted to see continued action. "We need to move forward,'' he said.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

fast facts

In other business

• Commissioners unanimously approved a new contract for their attorney, Garth Coller. The only changes to the contract include a one-year perpetual renewal rather than the four-year contract with an automatic renewal in the current contract; elimination of the $300 fuel allowance; the same 10 furlough days as other county employees; and a requirement for two votes at public meetings to terminate the contract. Coller's base salary and benefits come to $175,882.

• The board voted to disband their two standing committees, the Budget and Finance Committee and the Business and Economic Development Committee. The board will hold more workshops instead. They decided the full board discussions were more efficient and noted they still expected public comments through that process.

Hernando commission halts search for county judicial center space 10/27/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 27, 2009 8:15pm]
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