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Hernando commissioners consider converting old hospital into judicial center

BROOKSVILLE — The former Brooksville Regional Hospital might yet be the answer to a pressing need for the local court system, county commissioners agreed Tuesday.

The commission voted unanimously to request a formal proposal from the owners of the building outlining their concept to transform the former hospital into a judicial center. The board also agreed to solicit other ideas that fit the county's $19 million budget and the desire to keep judicial services in Brooksville.

Last fall, investors with Metro Bay Development LLC presented a plan to use the building on Ponce de Leon Boulevard for county office space, leaving the government center in Brooksville for the judiciary. But commissioners, more concerned about a brutally tight budget, shelved that idea and about a dozen others to build a judicial complex through a public-private partnership.

Metro Bay has been busy since then, president Bill Rain told commissioners Tuesday. "We went back … to see if there is something we could do to find a creative solution," he said.

The former hospital could accommodate 10 courtrooms in at least 109,000 square feet, Rain told commissioners. The courtrooms would be on the first floor and have one point of entry for better security, he said.

The plan, created with help from Chief Circuit Judge Daniel Merritt, also incorporates a prisoner holding area and a sally port, Rain said. Judicial office space could be housed in a new addition to one of the existing towers.

The building now houses an assisted living facility, the Grande, that opened in 2008 and has 40 residents, or about 60 percent capacity, Rain said. Ideally, a judicial center could exist in harmony with that facility, he said.

At least one commissioner worried about operating that business adjacent to a courthouse. Rain said the company would be willing to move the residents if officials commit to the project.

"It really comes down to what pleases the county," he said.

Commissioners voted unanimously to have County Administrator David Hamilton and county staff meet with Rain and have a recommendation to the board by April.

In the meantime, the county will hold off on a plan to convert a jury assembly room in the government center into a temporary courtroom.

"Every dollar counts, now more than ever," Hamilton said.

Hamilton said he invited Rain to speak to commissioners with the understanding that the concept meets security needs, must not surpass the $19 million budget, and efforts would be made to hire local workers.

Other groups are welcome to submit ideas with those parameters and the goal to have a free-standing building in Brooksville, Hamilton said.

"We'll be glad to hear it," he said.

Commissioners agreed Metro Bay's concept is worth a closer look.

"I think today we're moving closer to getting something started and ultimately completed than we ever have before because the sticker shock of the cost is not dangling out there in front of us," Commissioner Jeff Stabins said, and then turned to Rain. "I don't know if that's the right place, but you coming forward is getting us to start the conversation again."

Judge Merritt told commissioners he was encouraged but worried about the idea to hold off on the temporary courtroom.

"That's okay if we're not talking about a great period of time," Merritt said. "We need that additional courtroom now. Even if we commit to (a judicial center plan), there still is going to be a transition period."

Even though the county has $19 million set aside for the project, taxpayers won't be happy to hear that the county may spend it now with such a dire budget picture, community activist Janey Baldwin said.

"To even consider this project, it boggles my mind," Baldwin said.

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

In other action

Commissioners approve rezoning for Lake Hideaway

On Tuesday, the County Commission:

• Voted unanimously and without discussion to approve a rezoning petition for the Lake Hideaway project, an 885-acre development of regional impact east of U.S. 19 and north of Spring Hill. It includes up to 2,400 single-family homes, 1,300 multifamily units, and commercial and office professional areas. No residents spoke in opposition to the project. The planning board last month unanimously recommended approval.

• Voted unanimously to double the current $10 booking fee charged to inmates at the Hernando County Jail. The county has not increased the fee since adopting the policy in 1999, and $20 is comparable to what other counties are charging, purchasing director Jim Gantt told the commission. Jail officials collect what an inmate has at the time of booking and the county has three years to collect the rest. The fee can be collected by taking cash from an inmate's commissary account, Gantt said. The county collected $17,000 in fees last year and budgeted $40,000 this year.

• Voted unanimously to direct county staff to work with Sheriff Richard Nugent to develop at least 50 acres at the county's Northwest Landfill facility for a training center. The center, which would be built in phases, would eventually include a shooting range, a driving range, classrooms, facilities for canine training and an arena for the mounted patrol.

• Agreed to draft a resolution in opposition to Bright House Networks' move to increase cable service fees. Starting with March bills, the standard service will increase $3, making for a $55 monthly bill. The increase, already approved by the state Public Service Commission, is needed to cover increased costs, Bright House officials wrote in letter to the county last month. But the hike comes at a bad time for consumers strapped by the recession, commissioners agreed. "(Bright House) should just suck it up like the rest of us have," Commissioner Dave Russell said.

Hernando commissioners consider converting old hospital into judicial center 02/09/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 9, 2010 10:04pm]
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