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County offers annex to federal courts

Tampa may someday be home to a new $84.5-million federal courthouse. But St. Petersburg may open its own federal courthouse first.

Earlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives public works committee approved the new Tampa courthouse, which will allow Congress to appropriate the $84.5-million expected to be spent on the project.

The approval dashed the hopes of many St. Petersburg lawyers and civic leaders who had been jockeying for years to obtain a federal courthouse across the bay.

But Tuesday night, the Pinellas County Commission agreed to offer the Pinellas County Courthouse Annex at 150 Fifth St. N to the federal government for use as a federal courthouse. The offer is contained in a two-page resolution passed after midnight.

"We think this is a tremendous offer for those involved in the Middle District of Florida, and the people of St. Petersburg and Pinellas County," said Jack Helinger, who is president of the St. Petersburg Bar Association.

Building the 240,000-square-foot courthouse in Tampa may solve the critical space shortage for federal courts in Tampa Bay, Helinger said, but the building is not expected to open until 1996 _ with luck. Meanwhile, judges already can hold hearings and trials in the St. Petersburg courthouse annex.

"In the best-case basis, the crisis will not be taken care of in the next couple of years," Helinger said. "This is something that could solve the immediate space-availability crisis, and get the federal courts over to St. Petersburg."

And there is another advantage as well. Bay area lawyers say they hope that having a de facto federal courthouse in Pinellas can help convince federal judges and politicians that a courthouse is a necessity _ not a luxury in St. Petersburg.

"We have reason to believe that the Middle District judges are going to be looking at St. Petersburg to determine the need and economics of putting a courthouse or courtrooms in St. Petersburg, said Anthony S. Battaglia, former president of the St. Petersburg Bar Association.

"And I'm in the hope now that with this resolution _ and with this proposal _ there can't be any argument as to the economics," Battaglia said. "What we're doing is turning over the whole building."

According to the resolution, the old courthouse annex would be used as a federal courthouse for three years. After that time, the William C. Cramer Federal Building will be available for use as a courthouse. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is expected to vacate the federal building in three years.

"Obviously, this is a very positive step toward getting a permanent courthouse in St. Petersburg," said Catherine Prats, chairwoman of the St. Petersburg Bar Association's federal courts committee. "That's part of the reason we did this."