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Appeals judges slip into controversial new $50 million courthouse

J.W. Ouzts, a Browning Moving and Storage worker, unpacks a lamp in a judge’s suite during the move of the 1st District Court of Appeal into its new building on Friday in Tallahassee.

Photo by COLIN HACKLEY

J.W. Ouzts, a Browning Moving and Storage worker, unpacks a lamp in a judge’s suite during the move of the 1st District Court of Appeal into its new building on Friday in Tallahassee.

TALLAHASSEE — For some, the moving vans outside the 1st District Court of Appeal were reminiscent of the night the Colts moved out of Baltimore in the middle of the night on their way to Indianapolis.

On Friday, Gov. Charlie Crist said the judges at the controversial court should have waited until legislators had a chance to review the process that led to the construction of a new courthouse filled with African mahogany, granite desk and countertops and other luxuries not traditionally found in state buildings.

Sen. Mike Fasano, head of the senate committee on court funding, wrote a letter to Crist and other state officials Thursday trying to halt the move.

It was too late.

Shortly after dark Thursday the first moving van was loaded and ready to leave the downtown courthouse where the 1st DCA has been since 1981.

"What the 1st DCA is doing is no different than what the Baltimore Colts did many years ago when they left Baltimore in the middle of the night,'' Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said. "It's a continuation of the arrogance we are seeing at the court. They are trying to circumvent the whole process.''

In 1984, in the midst of a dispute between the Colts and Baltimore, the city was seeking legislative approval to take control of the NFL team, which was negotiating with officials in Indiana. The mayor of Indianapolis called on a friend who owned a moving company, and 15 vans arrived in Baltimore for a 2 a.m. move. The trucks took separate routes to avoid Maryland state police.

Later the same day Maryland legislators passed a bill allowing Baltimore to take control of the Colts, but the team was gone.

The court's move lacked such drama.

The court was closed all day Friday as moving continued. The doors will reopen Monday at a new $50-million building critics are calling the "Taj Mahal.''

Chief Judge Robert T. Benton II said Thursday night that the move had been planned for some time and was already under way when he heard about Fasano's letter to Crist from a St Petersburg Times reporter.

On Friday, Benton declined comment on what Crist and Fasano said about the move.

Crist called the new courthouse "an unbelievable building, especially in these difficult and challenging economic times.''

When the court first began considering a new building, the judges estimated the cost at $22-million, but once they secured a $33.5-million bond issue and other appropriations totaling $48-million, amenities included in the planned building escalated. The cost has since risen to $50 million, including annual rent the court must pay.

The Senate will begin calling witnesses in January to examine what happened. Legislators approved funds for the building.

When it came time to pay for the $39,000 move to the new building, the 1st DCA didn't have enough money in the appropriate account to pay for it. State court officials said the court had to work a trade with judges in the 5th DCA in Daytona Beach, using $40,000 of money in a "contracted services'' account in return for an identical amount the 1st District had in an expense account that could not legally be used for such services.

Appeals judges slip into controversial new $50 million courthouse 12/17/10 [Last modified: Friday, December 17, 2010 10:27pm]

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