BROOKSVILLE — After more than 15 years of on and off debate, the County Commission has decided to turn the entire Hernando County Government Center over to the judicial arm of county government, providing the space judges and other judicial officials say they need.
Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to move county commission departments, including county administration and three constitutional officers, out of the Government Center — and the city of Brooksville — to the county's Pinebrook property west of the Suncoast Parkway on Cortez Boulevard.
The county will spend $14.9 million to construct a 40,000-square-foot building to house offices of the Property Appraiser, Supervisor of Elections and Tax Collector.
It will spend another $1.5 million to remodel Pinebrook Medical Center so it can house county administration. County commission and other offices will move there once remodeling is done. Doctors working there now will vacate, and within three years, the Veterans' Administration clinic will move out and into a new building.
Commission Chairman Steve Champion said he would not favor raising the tax rate to pay for the move. He hoped that, as staff has said, cost cutting and rising property values will cover annual debt payments of just under $1 million.
"There's not a lot of appetite for building new buildings'' among citizens, he said.
The county owns the Pinebrook building and the property behind it where the new construction will happen. The building is leased to Bayfront Health Brooksville, but the hospital wants to end its lease with the county. That should happen by the end of February, deputy county administrator Jeff Rogers said Tuesday.
Commissioners agreed, in the short term, to lease the second floor of the SunTrust building across the street from the Government Center for Property Appraiser John Emerson's offices. As soon as the infrastructure to run his office is in, he said, he is ready to move. County officials expect that to happen in the next four months.
Emerson's space, once vacated, will house the Public Defender's Office. Public Defender Michael Graves told commissioners that his need for more space is dire. While he needs two more attorneys, he doesn't have space for them.
"We have reached the tipping point. We're past it,'' he said. Graves reminded commissioners they are required by law to provide his office and other judicial offices appropriate space to do their jobs.
"We all love being in Brooksville,'' said Supervisor of Elections Shirley Anderson, but "the cost is prohibitive.''
Tina Faulkingham, deputy to Tax Collector Sally Daniel, said her office's need for space is so critical, she may have been forced to use money she normally returned to county coffers to lease or purchase a new building.
Commissioners rejected two other proposals.
One would have cost $44 million to keep government offices in downtown Brooksville. It required buying additional property, demolishing the records storage building at the bottom of the Government Center parking lot and building a new county building. That price tag concerned commissioners.
The other would have moved the county administration offices to Pinebrook and moved the constitutional officers to leased space at the now-empty Sears Outlet building at Broad Street and Cortez Boulevard. However, leasing property was not attractive to commissioners or county staff.
Earlier this month, Brooksville City Council agreed to formally ask the commission to keep government offices in the city, but commissioners were concerned that adding more buildings downtown would exacerbate the lack of parking spaces. During construction, Commissioner John Allocco said, "business would be destroyed,'' because of the lack of parking.
Commissioner Jeff Holcomb said the Government Center still will have plenty of people working there to support local businesses and eat at local restaurants.
"We don't want to damage the city,'' he said. "A city that's doing well benefits everybody.''
Pinebrook is attractive because it has no hills or steps for customers to climb.
"It's a blank sheet of paper where we can do what we want,'' said Commissioner Nick Nicholson.
The county's judges and other judicial officers have begged for more space for years. Judges wanted more courtrooms, although that idea has been controversial. Others asked for more appropriate spaces for filing documents and conducting sensitive, private interviews.
"There we go," Champion said after the vote. "The judges have only been waiting for 15 years for this.''
In a related development Tuesday, commissioners voted unanimously to sell their former utilities administration building on Cortez Boulevard at Mitchell Road to the Live Oak Theatre Company for $500,000.
There had been consideration of that property, the site of the old Jersey Lily and Lila Dess restaurants, as future county office space, but commissioners decided instead to sell. The county Property Appraiser valued it at just over $1 million, and a private appraiser set the value at $690,000.
Contact Barbara Behrendt at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.