TALLAHASSEE — Sen. Mike Fasano imagined the opulence of the new courthouse that's been branded a "Taj Mahal.'' But as over the top as he pictured it, the tour he got Monday raised even more questions.
As he moved from the domed courtrooms done in expensive African mahogany to the exercise room with the rubber floor, 60-inch TV and locker rooms, the new chairman of the Senate committee that controls the state courts' purse strings lost it.
Maybe it was the 15 kitchens, one for each judge. "Their egos are so big they have to have their own private kitchens?'' Fasano said. "Fifteen kitchens?''
None of the judges responsible for getting the new courthouse for the 1st District Court of Appeal built took Fasano on the tour. They left that unhappy duty to the court's marshal, Stephen M. Nevels, and Tom Berger, from the Department of Management Services, the agency overseeing construction.
Nobody from the court returned requests for comment, including Judge Paul M. Hawkes, the driving force behind the courthouse.
The stage was left to the Republican senator from Port Richey. It was pure theater as he led reporters and a few state officials around the building.
In an empty "activity room'' equipped only with its rubber floor and 60-inch TV, Fasano asked what equipment the court plans to put there. No one could respond.
"All of a sudden are they not putting anything in here because they got caught?'' he asked.
"It's an exercise room, it's a place to meditate, helps employees relax,'' Berger said.
The court originally planned to furnish each kitchen with a refrigerator and microwave in each judge's chambers, but those plans were scaled back after the St. Petersburg Times reported the details. Fasano asked what would go in a judicial suite room that was obviously a kitchen, with tile floors, granite countertops, a sink and mahogany cabinets.
"Just file cabinets,'' Nevels answered.
It's a courthouse where lawyers argue appeals, not where the public goes to have their cases heard, and Fasano asked how much of the 109,000-square -foot building would be open to the public. He kept asking about the accoutrements. "Why all the columns and domes?''
''It's an architectural statement,'' Berger said.
It was Sen. Victor Crist, Fasano's predecessor as chair of the Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee, who offered the amendment to an unrelated transportation bill on the last day of the 2007 session that got most of the money to build the courthouse. Fasano says his mission is to stop a repeat performance.
He took photos with a disposable camera that he said he will share with his committee when it meets today, and he plans to start hearings in January. Meantime he hopes other state court system employees can occupy some of the spacious building.
Plans call for 104 appeal court employees to work there, which would mean about 1,000 square feet of space for each; state rules say employees are supposed to have average space that does not exceed 180 square feet per person.
"There is plenty of room to be used for other people, we can save taxpayer dollars by putting others in here,'' Fasano said. "A couple of judges wanted a Taj Mahal. The only way they could get it was to get certain language put in a bill along the way. Judges formerly with the Legislature seem to have forgotten they are no longer in the Legislature.''
"It disgusts me, it's outrageous. I don't have enough fingers on my two hands to point to everyone responsible for this. We're all to blame — the Legislature, executive branch, definitely the judiciary, the DCA judges all allowed this to occur.''
Fasano said he's heard from judges around the state struggling to deal with overwhelming caseloads and foreclosures.
''They come to us saying they don't have enough resources to do work they have to do, and they see a $48 million building that 90 percent of the taxpayers will never use. They are wondering why we had to build a courthouse with columns and domes and African mahogany.''
The district court judges have said they were building a courthouse to accommodate growth, a building that could be home to 18 judges instead of the current 15. Fasano was asked how long it might be before the Legislature approves more judges for the 1st District?