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New Hernando County judicial center plans put on hold

BROOKSVILLE — The on-again, off-again plans for a new judicial center are off again.

Commissioners on Tuesday voted unanimously to delay the next step in building a center until October, after the painful task of cutting the county's budget is finished.

The board was to talk about a team to review the 10 proposals the county has received to develop specifications for the project, but County Administrator David Hamilton suggested a delay instead.

That concerned Chief Circuit Judge Daniel Merritt Sr., who spoke once again for the judiciary and the need to provide more space for judges.

"I understand and recognize the economic considerations that exist throughout the county,'' he said, reminding them of their "constitutional duty'' to provide needed judicial space.

"It's on ongoing problem that will not go away,'' he said.

Even the courtroom under construction in the county government center will not be enough to meet growing needs, Merritt said.

Commissioner Jeff Stabins told Merritt that he could understand building another courtroom or two, but that he was withdrawing his support for a free-standing judicial center. He said he wants to use some of the more than $18 million Hernando has set aside for the project to ease the impacts of the coming budget cuts.

Merritt said the issue was reasonable space, not a free-standing judicial center. He argued that the county shouldn't piecemeal the project because that doesn't work well for judicial services. He also warned that the judiciary and the Bar Association would be strongly opposed to seeing money in the fund be used for other purposes.

The tug-of-war over the funds for a judicial center foreshadowed tough decisions that begin in earnest today and Thursday as commissioners hold their first budget workshops to figure out where to cut $10.4 million.

The budget workshops begin at 9 a.m. today and 9 a.m. Thursday in the commission chambers.

Also Tuesday, Stabins tried to persuade fellow commissioners to take back the $3 million it recently set aside for Sheriff Richard Nugent to repair the county jail when he takes it over in August and put the money back into the county's reserves.

He argued that the recent engineering study of the jail showed that the repairs will not be as extensive as first thought. He also was not eager to spend more money on a more detailed jail review that Hamilton said he would propose to the board next month.

"I would hate to see us hire an engineer to diagnose problems that do not exist and spend money we do not have,'' Stabins said.

He also voted against a $55,000 grant expenditure for the sheriff to buy night-tracking equipment for the sheriff's helicopter saying he would rather, in this time of economic hardship, see the grant money used for something else. But no other commissioner supported him and the expenditure was approved.

Several commissioners voiced concern about a more than $6,000 expenditure by the libraries for a special technology program and training. It caught the attention of Commissioner Jim Adkins recently because the funds were paid to Walt Disney World, which is where the conference was held.

Both Stabins and Commissioner Dave Russell expressed concern that the training was not available online. "All these costs we need to keep a closer eye on,'' said Commission Chairman John Druzbick.

Commissioner Rose Rocco said she had talked to a group earlier in the week and noted that citizens aware of the county's budget situation still want to save services.

Several citizens spoke up at Tuesday's meeting in favor of keeping county parks open. Others were specifically concerned about keeping the dog park, and Russell noted that everyone he talked to about the topic was willing to pay a fee.

County employee Dan Oliver implored commissioners to work with their staff to cut costs in other ways than the recommended layoff of 47 county employees.

"We just can't have that. We can't do that to this community,'' Oliver said.

Druzbick said he liked the idea of inviting suggestions from the staff because, no matter the dollar amount, it meant that employees had buy-in.

Stabins extended a request he had made earlier of commissioners, for them to jot down on a form he created a list of what they wanted to spend less for and what they wanted to spend more for and how to raise additional revenue.

Stabins also e-mailed the form to all county employees asking for suggestions.

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

New Hernando County judicial center plans put on hold 06/22/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 22, 2010 9:13pm]

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