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Hernando County Government Center may be converted full to court functions

BROOKSVILLE — Every other Tuesday morning, the atrium of the Hernando County Government Center provides an interesting mixture.

On either side of the metal detectors are dozens of people, some coming to receive proclamations from the County Commission, others heading to courtrooms for legal cases.

It's a confluence that is not ideal, according to County Administrator David Hamilton.

"The building was designed to provide a mix of functions that are noncompatible and confusing,'' Hamilton said, noting that people should not have to remove their belts and get a security check if they simply want to come to visit the elections office.

The proposal Hamilton plans to develop and take to the County Commission soon would convert the government center to a courthouse that would house only court-related offices and functions.

With the County Commission's decision several weeks ago to abandon the idea of building a free-standing judicial center to accommodate the need for more court space, Hamilton said a new plan to meet the needs must be found.

The commissioners were clear that they want to accomplish what is needed within the county's existing inventory of space. Using the government center for a courthouse makes the most sense, Hamilton said.

By dedicating the two buildings, which are connected by a glass atrium, to courtrooms and court facilities, it would create a single-function building and allow for single-entrance access and proper security, he said.

The first question to answer is whether the space in the atrium would be enough to meet judicial needs, now and in the future. One possibility would be a future phase of construction that would fill the atrium with another building, he said.

The county staff is working to figure out if that space is sufficient and beginning to determine what that plan might cost.

"If that proves to be true, then we have to decide where would we move all the non-court-related functions,'' Hamilton said.

That would include administration, legal, human resources, the County Commission meeting room, the Property Appraiser's Office, the Supervisor of Elections Office and numerous others.

The other major consideration is that the building could never be shut down during construction because government functions would have to continue.

"It can be done,'' Hamilton said, noting that over the last several months the county's staff has been constructing, without tremendous disruption, a new courtroom where the jury assembly room had been.

Downsizing of county government has made it possible to find space in the government center and other government buildings for various functions.

"There are new opportunities that have opened up for space, and not all the space is used to its maximum capacity,'' he said.

Hamilton said he is confident that space for all of the departments and offices that would be displaced by the courts can be found in other county facilities.

"We just need to look at what we have and make it work,'' he said.

In Hamilton's own office, there were five staff members, including himself, and five commissioners just 2 1/2 years ago, and now there is just Hamilton and one staff member. The commissioners' offices are now scattered around the county, and several staff positions were eliminated.

"Things were designed for different purposes at different times, and so was this building,'' he said.

One of the mechanisms Hamilton hopes to use to gather input on the new court facility is an existing committee that doesn't meet often. The Public Safety Coordinating Council is involved in all the functions related to the courts, from the judges and the clerk of the circuit court to the public defender and the sheriff.

Hamilton said he hopes to pull that group together to meet this month and begin discussions about the project.

"It's a valuable existing method to provide feedback on all levels of how a court works,'' he said.

With a new Health Department facility slated to open next year on Forest Oaks Boulevard in Spring Hill, that move will free up some space. There are also ongoing discussions about consolidating utilities into the Wiscon Road facility, freeing up the utility offices on Cortez Boulevard in Brooksville.

"It's very important with every dollar to be so careful, to scrutinize what we're doing so that it's all part of a planned transition of who does what from where in Hernando County,'' Hamilton said. "I believe we can make do and make it more efficient.''

Developing such a plan will take time and input from the commissioners and others who are affected by the decisions. In addition to creating a plan, there are unanswered questions about the financial end of the project.

The county has about $18 million set aside for a judicial center, but $13 million of that can be spent on court space or any other needs because it came as an allocation from the county's general fund.

An item coming before the County Commission on Tuesday has the potential to bolster that amount. Chief Judge Daniel Merritt Sr. is asking the board to consider increasing the surcharge on some traffic and criminal citations from $15 to $30, an increase enabled by legislation in 2009.

"Due to this new legislative change … the Board of County Commissioners may wish to consider amending their county ordinance, as this would provide additional funding for reasonable and necessary court facilities,'' Merritt wrote.

Over the last fiscal year, which ended in September, the existing $15 surcharge raised $320,092.

With so many variables to consider and so much information to gather, Hamilton said he is eager to get recommendations back to the board so the project can move forward.

"We've got to start somewhere,'' he said. "We've needed to sort this out.''

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

Hernando County Government Center may be converted full to court functions 12/10/10 [Last modified: Friday, December 10, 2010 8:18pm]

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