The judges, prosecutor and public defender promise court efficiencies if Pasco County builds a new criminal court complex in Land O'Lakes, but the sheriff and circuit court clerk see the potential for budget-busting personnel costs.
Tuesday morning, county commissioners politely listened to both sides and correctly asked their own pointed questions about the viability of a proposed $29 million, three-story, eight-courtroom complex next to the county jail in central Pasco.
The plan calls for consolidating the existing criminal court activities into one site in Land O'Lakes with the civil and family courts remaining in existing courthouses in Dade City and west Pasco. It would allow the offices of Pasco-Pinellas State Attorney Bernie McCabe and Public Defender Robert Dillinger to operate in a single Pasco location, reduce prisoner transportation costs and free up more space for civil trials.
But Sheriff Chris Nocco worried a new courthouse and adjoining two-story office building would operate at capacity when opened, raising the possibility of renewed criminal court proceedings in both east and west Pasco. The additional security costs and the price of a video conference center to reduce in-person visitation to inmates could wipe out any potential savings on transportation, his staff said.
Nocco's annual budget is financed by the county general fund, so commissioners are smart to pay heed to his legitimate concerns. Likewise, Circuit Court Clerk Paul O'Neil, who has lost 85 positions from her payroll over the past four years, said operating a third courthouse could exacerbate her office payroll already strained by cuts mandated in Tallahassee.
Just as importantly, O'Neil questioned the wisdom of building a criminal courthouse in an area not served by mass transit. The lack of bus service will hurt public access to the courts. It also should renew public safety concerns considering a 50-year-old pedestrian was killed last year as he tried to cross U.S. 41 on his walk home, just two hours after his release from the jail.
Commissioners clearly weren't sold on the idea as proposed in light of the push back from Nocco and O'Neil and their own financial questions. If the county commits its future half-cent sales tax revenue to a 20-year bond issue, what other county projects might be delayed or scrapped? And, if the courthouse will open at capacity, as projected, why not add more space initially instead of paying for a later expansion?
That would boost the price tag, but the county should have additional construction dollars available for a public safety project in light of uncommitted contingencies tied to the Penny for Pasco sales tax.
Only Commissioner Pat Mulieri, whose district includes the 339-acre county campus near Connerton in Land O'Lakes, openly embraced the new courthouse. The rest of the commission is correct to reserve its enthusiasm until more concrete data on construction costs, financing and ancillary expenses to other constitutional offices are publicly available.