By B.C. Manion
A proposal for a new criminal courthouse next to the Land O’ Lakes Jail has been put on hold — despite urgings from J. Thomas McGrady, the chief judge of Florida’s Sixth Judicial Circuit, to move forward toward building the structure.
Pasco County commissioners decided July 9 to refrain from proceeding with choosing who should design and build the structure.
Commissioners said they want a master facilities plan to give them a comprehensive picture of the county’s needs, before moving forward with the courthouse project.
Commission Chairman Ted Schrader said construction costs are not the only issue. He said he’s concerned about operation and maintenance costs that would arise from opening the new criminal courts building.
He urged a delay on selecting the best team to design and build the courthouse.
“What’s the point of going through the exercise if we’re not going to fund it?” Schrader said.
Commissioners decided to put off any decision on the project, at least until the fall.
That action came despite McGrady’s request to move forward.
“This is something we’ve been asking for, for many, many years. There still needs to be a new courthouse, a criminal courthouse in Land O’ Lakes,” McGrady said.
Considerable groundwork has been laid, McGrady said, noting $729,000 of courthouse improvement funds has been spent to do design work in order to put the project out for design/bid proposals.
Heery — the company that did that work — estimated it would cost $28 million for the courthouse building.
County officials said the cost is not yet clear because that would depend on the design/build team that was selected and their guarantee not-to-exceed cost.
McGrady said efforts have been made to avoid excessive costs.
“When Heery did the design work, all of us wanted more space. We all agreed, ‘We can do without this, we can do without that.’ A lot of effort, a lot of compromise went into this,” judge said.
The project is needed so the county’s criminal proceedings can be done in a central location, near the jail, instead of having inmates transported to New Port Richey and Dade City, McGrady said.
The court would also be able to clear more cases annually, McGrady said.
“We need more judges in Pasco County. There’s no question about it. But there’s no place to put them. There’s no room in Dade City. There’s no room in New Port Richey.”
Pasco County has a clearance rate of 90 percent, based on the number of cases coming in, versus the number of cases going out. That compares to a clearance rate of 108 percent in Pinellas.
The clearance rate affects the state attorney, the public defender and the jail system, as inmates wait longer to go through court.
McGrady noted that there’s $7 million available in court improvement funds that could be used for the project, with a projected $1 million a year coming in. The project can be bonded.
But County Administrator Michele Baker said the county needs to have a better grasp on all of its facility needs before going out for a bond issue. She advocates having a master facilities plan done to ensure that the county makes the most of its resources and puts together a comprehensive bond package.
A preliminary estimate for that work was $650,000.
Mulieri doesn’t support that idea. “We’re going to spend $650,000 just to tell us what we need?”
But Commissioner Kathryn Starkey countered: “We need a master facilities plan for the county. We need to know our most pressing needs.”
Baker said she believes it would cost significantly less than $650,000 for that work, based on the actual scope of the work. By having an overall view of the county’s needs, it can make better decisions about sharing sites and space, she said.
Schrader said he also thinks the criminal courthouse project might offer the opportunity to explore a public-private partnership.
State Attorney Bernie McCabe told commissioners he had been under the impression that these issues had been discussed before Heery was hired to do the extensive design work the company has completed.
Public Defender Bob Dillinger said he needs more space. His staff is falling 10 percent behind every year because he doesn’t have enough room to provide space for attorneys.
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