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Court study may be costly

Pinellas officials may pay a Virginia court consultant more than $500,000 for a study they hope will make the county's judicial system more efficient and economical. "There has never been a study of this magnitude conducted anywhere in the United States," said Gay Lancaster, assistant county administrator. "Obviously it will be expensive."

Officials said the study is necessary because of the drastic increase in the number of cases handled by the court in the last decade.

Records show that from 1979 through 1988, the case load has increased 71 percent. The number of judges handling those cases has increased 77 percent. But the procedures in use have remained virtually unchanged.

The study, which could take two years to complete, will examine staff efficiency, case management, record keeping, public service, public access, security and automation and technology.

The search for a consultant began last summer at the request of Chief Judge Philip A. Federico. The county contacted 169 prospective consultants, but only 11 were interested in bidding for the job.

An evaluation committee narrowed the list down to one - the National Center for State Courts, a non-profit corporation in Williamsburg, Virginia.

"We really wanted to have more competition," Lancaster said, but the company was the only one that could provide such a specialized service.

County Administrator Fred Marquis said it is difficult to predict how much the study will cost, but he said the scope could be reduced if the price is prohibitive.

"If it comes out to be a totally unreasonable number, then we will bring (the proposal) back before the board," Marquis said.

At a workshop Tuesday morning, county commissioners authorized staff to begin non-competitive negotiations with the company.