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Wednesday, Jul 23, 2014
Pasco Tribune

Commission puts proposed new courthouse project on hold

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LAND O' LAKES - Citing budget constraints and other concerns, Pasco County Commissioners decided late Tuesday to put the kibosh on plans for a $28 million courthouse in central Pasco - at least for this year.

A committee comprised of commissioners, judges and other court officials was scheduled to meet July 25 to review the five bids submitted earlier this year and rank the teams of architects and construction firms. But commissioners canceled the meeting.

Chairman Ted Schrader said new information had come to light since January, when the board voted to seek bids for a new courthouse connected to the Land O' Lakes jail.

"At the time, we hadn't had a budget presented to us," Schrader said. "The Legislature hadn't changed the retirement rates, and we didn't know the sheriff was going to be asking to open the third floor of the jail. So there are a lot of things that have unfolded since then."

Chief Judge Thomas McGrady has said Pasco desperately needs a criminal courthouse - that he cannot assign any new judges to the county because there is nowhere to put them. He said he plans to attend the commission's July 9 meeting to ask them to reconsider.

"I would be disappointed if (the project) were delayed," he said. "Hopefully, something can be worked out. We need a courthouse in Pasco that's truly designed for criminal proceedings."

But Schrader said he doesn't want county staff "wasting their time if we're not going to move forward on the project." Commissioners unanimously agreed to put the project on pause.

"I don't think we should move forward," Commissioner Jack Mariano said. "Until Ridge Road is built, I don't see us using that facility."

Commissioners had previously authorized then-County Administrator John Gallagher to begin the process of refinancing bonds to help pay for the building. The county also has about $7 million in cash on hand from court facility fees to go toward the project.

But the project always had detractors, namely Sheriff Chris Nocco and Clerk Paula O'Neil.

The sheriff's office doesn't like the placement of the building because it would force the county to relocate its visitor and employee parking farther from the jail entrance. Nocco released a statement Wednesday saying that he would continue to work with commissioners to make the Land O' Lakes complex - both the future courthouse and the jail - a success.

McGrady said the proposed jail expansion shouldn't impact the new courthouse. "I don't know why one necessarily has to wait for the other," he said. "It's a different funding source."

O'Neil had expressed concerns about the project and the stresses it would place on her office. She said she was surprised by the board's decision this week, but understood their reasoning. "I can see why they want to hesitate before they make that large investment," O'Neil said.

The preliminary design calls for eight courtrooms and enough office space to accommodate all of the county's criminal court judges, prosecutors and the public defender's office.

Public Defender Bob Dillenger said he was notified about the cancellation but initially he didn't realize commissioners were putting the project on hold. "That's news to me," he said.

"I hope they know they're going to have to rent me office space somewhere," Dillenger said. "I have people doubled and tripled up in offices - so does (State Attorney) Bernie McCabe. By statute, the county has to provide me with adequate office space."

McCabe could not be reached for comment.

lkinsler@tampatrib.com

(813) 371-1852

Twitter @LKinslerTBO

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