Sunday, February 25, 2018
News Roundup

Hernando commissioners respond to judges' request

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County's judiciary has made its space needs known, but most county commissioners aren't jumping at the chance to spend large sums of money to accommodate the judges.

Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes, who has met with Circuit Judge Daniel B. Merritt, Jr. and others to talk about the issue, wants to focus on immediate needs rather than Merritt's prediction that the number of courtrooms and related spaces will have to double over the next 25 years.

To make doubling the space a reality "we'll have to find a funding source,'' Dukes said. "I don't doubt the need, but I don't know how we'll fund it.''

Instead, Dukes said, County Administrator Len Sossamon and his staff are looking at short-term options that would keep the judicial functions at the Hernando County Government Center — and maybe move some county offices to other locations.

Part of the timing of the space request is the potential addition of another judge, as well as a possible expansion of the drug court.

Todd Tuzzolino, the 5th Circuit's chief deputy court administrator, recently wrote to county officials to say that additional administrative offices and a judge's chambers are needed by July 1.

The requested judge's chambers would include a private office with a bathroom, a kitchen with a sink and a refrigerator, a private hearing room able to seat 12 people, a private work area for a judicial assistant, and a public waiting area with a service window, an alarm and seating for up to 15 people.

The listed needs for the drug court area include offices for the program manager, a counselor and a law clerk, and a conference room big enough for 15 people.

Dukes said the developing plan will keep the basic judicial services central and local. He said that in the meetings he has attended, many of the old ideas for expansion have again surfaced.

"The administrator is looking now at utilizing other county space,'' Dukes said. "But it's too soon to say this is what we're going to do.''

Commissioner Dave Russell, who has watched the judicial space discussion through several incarnations, said he is looking forward to seeing what Sossamon will come up with, since he brings a fresh set of eyes to the issue.

"I think we look within our existing facilities to see if we can find some space,'' Russell said. "I'm certain we'll be able to scrape something together.''

That approach worked several years ago, when the county shuffled offices to fill the judges' short-term request for more space. This allowed the county to take money it had set aside for a major expansion of the judicial center and instead spend it to balance budgets and to pay on a lawsuit.

There's no reason to think that expansion needs to happen now, Russell said. But if predictions about future growth start to ring true, he said, "it will be time to revisit it. If the growth happens, the courts are going to need more space.''

Russell also noted, "There are still some proposals and studies on our shelves. It's probably time to grab those and dust them off.''

County coffers still have more than $3 million in a court improvement fund and an annual influx of fees into that fund totalling $660,000.

Russell noted that those funds represent a significant and bondable revenue stream. That means the county could commit them to pay off a bond issue if a new court facility is needed. He figured the county could float a $40 million bond issue.

Commissioners Nick Nicholson and Jim Adkins were reluctant to talk about multimillion-dollar court expansion plans when they have doubts that existing courtrooms and related spaces are being used to capacity.

"I know a lot of those rooms are not utilized,'' Adkins said. "You find them vacant most of the time.''

"There's no need for any more space,'' Nicholson said, referring to an investigation conducted by the Times in 2011. Reporters regularly visited the courtrooms and discovered they were empty more than half of the time.

He said he expects Sossamon to justify the need for new judicial space.

"I don't see any reason to be spending money, especially in this economy,'' Nicholson said. "I'm not going to be wasting the taxpayers' money.''

Commissioner Diane Rowden said that when she sat on the commission before, commissioners set aside the judicial fund with the intention of providing the needed judicial space. It was not intended for day-to-day operations, she said, but it was spent when the budget needed to be balanced.

"I've agreed with the judges that we have to plan for the future,'' Rowden said. "Everyone wants the growth, the business development. But you've got to have good schools, good court systems, good government systems.

"All of those pieces have to play together if you want a good quality community.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.

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