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Plans for judicial center in Hernando may be put on hold

BROOKSVILLE — The county is moving ahead with plans to reshuffle space in the government center for a new courtroom, but plans for a new judicial center are likely going to be put on hold.

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County commissioners agreed Tuesday to carve a courtroom out of a third-floor jury assembly area for some immediate relief, but the soured economy is stalling plans for a judicial complex.

"We just don't have the resources to move forward with the center,'' said Commission Chairman Dave Russell.

He explained that Hernando has nearly $19 million set aside for the project, but not enough to service the debt the county would have to take on to cover the rest of the $50 million facility.

Commissioners did not officially shelve the plans Tuesday. Because the process to build the center has begun, commissioners will hear more details of the proposals at an upcoming meeting.

They will then consider a recommendation from County Administrator David Hamilton to put the project on hold for six months to a year.

Commissioners agreed to set aside money earmarked for the center into a special reserve fund to be used once economic conditions improve.

Chief Circuit Judge Daniel Merritt urged the board to give the judiciary some relief.

He gave a history lesson of actions by boards and statements by county administrators over the past decade outlining the need to accommodate a growing judicial system. Each case, the project stopped just short of being built.

"This is like déjà vu all over again,'' Merritt said.

Even when Hernando was in the recent building boom and revenue was pouring in, the project didn't happen, he said.

"We've been in better economic times, but when is there going to be a good time to construct a courthouse facility?'' he asked.

Merritt noted that the issues related to space needs are becoming constitutional in nature. Not only is the commission legally obligated to provide adequate space for the judiciary, the courts were required to provide adequate access to the public.

"They don't get their day in court quickly,'' Merritt said. "And justice delayed is justice denied.''

He said judges just want adequate space to do their jobs.

"We do not want anything plush. We do not want a Taj Mahal. We want what we need to serve the citizens of this county,'' he said.

He expressed concern about seeing the county spend money on remodeling instead of a new judicial center.

"If you chase a rabbit and a squirrel at the same time, you're not likely to catch either,'' Merritt said.

The discussion questions and concerns from the public. Activist Janey Baldwin asked why courtrooms were not used on Fridays; Merritt corrected her and said courtrooms are used on Fridays.

He said staff prioritizes cases when there are more judges with cases than there are courtrooms. He likened the situation to having 74 bathrooms in the government center, but when someone is standing in line to use one, "that becomes a critical issue to you.''

Paul Douglas, whose firm Burnhardt Group LLC had one of the top three proposals for developing the judicial center, expressed concern about delaying the project.

"Now it appears the rules are changing,'' he said.

Purchasing director Jim Gantt explained that the proposals the county received were submitted as the first part of a two-part process. The first proposals were to be a concept of how to develop the facility as a public/private partnership.

The second step is to present the short list of three firms to commissioners, who will decide whether to direct the firms to prepare more detailed plans. Gantt said that step generates expenses for the firms and the county.

Hamilton said that he would bring the short list to the commissioners at an upcoming meeting, and then he could recommend that further action be suspended, possibly for six months to a year.

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

Plans for judicial center in Hernando may be put on hold 03/10/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 10, 2009 8:28pm]
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