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Money sought to build courts

County commissioners approved the idea of an expanded, expensive downtown court complex Tuesday but delayed the hard part _ deciding how to pay for it. Commissioners voted 6-0 to endorse in concept a plan by Chief Circuit Judge F. Dennis Alvarez for an $82-million court complex. Alvarez said the complex is needed to accommodate the growing judicial system through the year 2005.

Then commissioners told their staff to come up with a financing plan to pay for the court complex and the $52-million new jail they approved previously. A workshop session is scheduled for March 6.

But the county staff already has put forth its plan _ a referendum on a sales tax increase or bond sale _ and officials said it is the only viable choice.

The court proposal, which includes about $59-million in improvements during the next five years, would consolidate all court-related activities in one complex consisting of the courthouse annex on Jefferson Street and a new building.

Alvarez said the plan is the best way to ease the overcrowding that has arisen from increasing demands on the judicial system.

"Unless we start planning now, I can guarantee you we will be forced into building a structure out of desperation" that will cost more in the long run than building the major new complex, Alvarez said.

Commissioner Phyllis Busansky, who said she opposed a sales tax for jails and courts at this point, balked at the cost of Alvarez's

plan.

"We really are looking at, to me, an astronomical amount of money when I see what the other needs of the county are," she said. She asked Alvarez to try to trim the cost.

But Alvarez and county officials said they had explored many alternatives before arriving at the plan, which projects an additional 25 judges in the next 15 years.

Commissioner Haven Poe said she realizes the county's financing choices likely will come down to the half-cent, five-year sales tax increase proposed by County Administrator Larry Brown, or the sale of bonds backed by property taxes. But Poe said she is not satisfied that the administration has explored other financing alternatives fully.

Alvarez said he thinks voters will approve a referendum for court and jail construction if they are told clearly where the money is going and why it is needed. He blamed the defeat in November of a penny sales tax increase on residents' lack of knowledge about how the money would be spent.

Some commissioners wanted Alvarez to consider cheaper alternatives to the court complex.

Commission Chairman Jim Selvey suggested scrapping plans to build a jail in eastern Hillsborough and instead closing off Jefferson Street between the courthouse and the courthouse annex to build a high-rise jail. The county administration could vacate the courthouse so that the judiciary could use the space near the jail, he said.

Don Harwig, the county's facilities manager, said Jefferson Street is a vital part of the city of Tampa's transportation network for downtown, and the city would not agree to close the road.

"Those plans can be changed if the right pressure is applied at the right place," Selvey countered.

Busansky then suggested building more stories atop the courthouse annex.

But Harwig said the extra structural supports needed for such construction would make the idea impractical. He said courtrooms would have to be vacated during the construction, leaving the court nowhere to operate.

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