NEW PORT RICHEY — Commissioners gave a jump start Tuesday to plans for a central Pasco criminal court complex, a project that has languished for nearly four years amid budget shortfalls.
The board voted to proceed with a $600,000 agreement with design firm Heery International, the company chosen last year to develop a design package that builders can bid on at a later date.
That money comes not from property taxes but from a roughly $5 million capital improvement fund for court facilities that gets its revenue from traffic citations.
The new courthouse would be physically connected to the Land O'Lakes jail, which would end the daily necessity of transporting inmates — sometimes as many as 90 a day — back and forth to New Port Richey and Dade City for hearings.
Officials put a $26.2 million price tag on an eight-courtroom facility that would also include offices for the state attorney, public defender, clerk of the court and sheriff.
Judge Lowell Bray told commissioners Tuesday that the current facilities are so insufficient that it leaves the court "playing musical chairs," especially when they have trials that take weeks.
Though the New Port Richey courthouse was renovated a few years ago, he said the expansions still left them with three fewer courtrooms and four fewer judges' offices than they needed.
"We're totally maxed out," he said.
County officials have been reluctant to move forward with the project, which was first proposed about a decade ago, because of concerns about how to pay for the operation and maintenance costs of a new facility.
Those costs would likely amount to nearly $475,000 a year, according to a memo from assistant county administrator Dan Johnson.
Commissioners did not discuss those operating costs Tuesday.
Bray has continued to push for the new facility, and earlier this year he suggested county officials investigate the possibility of paying for the construction by issuing bonds. Those bonds would be repaid by pledging the revenues from traffic citations.
Officials say they will investigate that possibility, though they had some concerns that the traffic citation revenue could fall off. Though the Legislature increased the fees to the fund — from $15 to $33 — the tickets appear to be coming in at lower rates, said Bray.
Bray also noted that the county would save money by reducing the sheriff's transport costs — between $105,000 and $155,000 a year — and by freeing up space at the existing courthouses. That space could be used for departments — such as probation and guardian ad litem — that currently lease space elsewhere.
Commissioners emphasized Tuesday that they wanted to make sure the design firm puts together a vision for a very no-frills courthouse. Consider, they said, the recent furor over the new 1st District Court of Appeal facility outside of Tallahassee. That one has been nicknamed the Taj Mahal.
"In Pasco, we build modest, functional buildings," said Commissioner Michael Cox. "Nobody wants a repeat of the problems in Tallahassee."
Bray agreed and chuckled. "I understand my timing could not be worse," he said.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.