The renewed push for adding courtrooms in Hernando County should also renew discussions on the need for additional revenue for public services beyond the judicial system. Discussion of a local option sales tax should be on the table amid dwindling property tax revenue and competing spending priorities.
Hernando has tried to get by without the local option half-cent sales tax for county services, which voters rejected in 2004 at the same time they approved a half-cent for schools.
But just a year later, outgoing County Administrator Gary Adams warned that the time would come to consider it again. Adams said the revenue could be used for looming big-ticket items including court space because there just wasn't room in the annual county budgets.
History appears to have proven him right. The county banked millions of dollars toward a projected $80 million judicial complex only to spend much of the reserves on other items when the recession hit. And the commission has considered and discarded other options, such as buying a SunTrust bank building in downtown Brooksville or moving around administrative functions to free up the current government center for additional court space. None of the plans moved beyond the talking stages and amid the deliberations, the Times conducted a three-week survey of the courthouse in 2011 and found the seven courtrooms sitting idle nearly 60 percent of the time.
Now discussions have begun anew after a 5th Circuit Court administrator recently wrote the county saying new space will be needed by July 1 because of the potential addition of a judge and possible expansion of the drug court. Meanwhile Circuit Judge Daniel B. Merritt Jr. predicted the number of courtrooms and ancillary space will need to double over the next 25 years.
Granted, these are projections, but the County Commission must not consider them in a vacuum. In contemplating the court request, commissioners should keep in mind their own unfunded capital spending projects including a road network shortchanged by reduced impact fees as well as the proposed construction of industrial spec buildings to help bolster economic development. Money also could be used for environmental preservation, parks, business recruitment incentives, law enforcement equipment and other needs.
The Hernando School District expects to ask voters in November to renew its 10-year half-cent sales tax to generate $78 million for school maintenance and technology upgrades. Hernando commissioners would be wise to consider piggy-backing that referendum with their own ballot question on a sales tax to improve both practical needs and quality of life enhancements around the county. Hernando County's public services need much more than just new judicial chambers.