LAND O' LAKES - Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe told commissioners this week that delaying the criminal courthouse project would be "penny-wise and pound-foolish," but he wasn't able to convince them to keep the $28 million project on schedule.
The new building would have a direct link to the county jail in Land O' Lakes. It would be designed for criminal proceedings, with features that are lacking at both of the county's existing courthouses.
Commissioners gave a green light to the project earlier this year, despite concerns about the project's cost and concerns by the sheriff. But as the date approached to name an architect and construction firm, they hit the pause button. Chairman Ted Schrader said he's not willing to spend $700,000 a year to operate the facility once it's completed.
Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said she doesn't believe the building can be done for $28 million. "What happens if it goes over budget? That comes from the general fund," she said.
McCabe was on vacation when he got the news that commissioners canceled the July 25 bid selection meeting. "I was shocked and disappointed because when we went through the first two steps, all these matters were debated," he said. "The commission knew what the cost was."
He said the county's annual costs for utilities and janitorial services are a small price to pay for a more efficient court system.
Chief Judge Thomas McGrady said the current setup - with criminal trials held in New Port Richey and Dade City - is so inefficient that Pasco's clearance rate is nearly 20 percent lower than in Pinellas County.
Pasco's clearance rate "is killing me," Public defender Bob Dillenger said.
"With a closure rate of 90 percent, you get 10 percent behind each year," he said. "It increases the caseload, it increases the number of people in jail and it burns out my lawyers."
Commissioners agreed not to postpone the project for a full year. Schrader offered to reschedule the bid selection for late October in order to do a countywide facilities master plan. "I would commit that we put this selection off at least until the fall," he said.
McGrady said he was disappointed with the board's decision. "I'm glad it's not dead, and there still is interest in pursing it," he said. "The news is the (commissioners) agreed the need is there. They just have to find a way to make it work."
Scott Stromer, the county's purchasing director, said he would reach out to the five construction companies and architecture firms that had submitted proposals to find out if their bids had an expiration date.
"I don't know how long I can hold these proposals in suspense," he said.
Kevin Bowan, president of Peter Brown Construction, said the delay would have minimal impact on the firm's bid for the project. Bowan's company teamed up with Dewberry architects to respond to the county's request for qualifications.
"We submitted our qualifications, but there's no numbers involved," Bowan said. "If it was a hard bid, that would be a whole different story, because construction costs could escalate over that time."