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Tuesday, Apr 23, 2019
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More courtroom space in Hernando County? It's about time, judge says.

BROOKSVILLE - Facing stern direction from Fifth Judicial Circuit Judge Daniel Merritt Jr., Hernando County Commissioners on Tuesday agreed to seek qualifications from architects interested in redesigning the Hernando County Government Center to add courtrooms, judicial space and security upgrades.

Merritt stood in the footsteps of his father, former circuit Judge Daniel Merritt Sr., who made the same arguments before previous commissions for years. The younger Merritt told current commissioners that the time for delay was over.

If the county had acted sooner, he pointed out, improvements would have come at a more economical cost.

Previous coverage: Hernando commissioners consider using judicial center funds to help with budget shortfall

Some details of the judges' request are exempt from public view because they are related to courthouse security. But Merritt was specific about the need for more courtrooms, private meeting areas, waiting rooms and office space for judicial staff, the Clerk of the Circuit Court, the State Attorney's Office and the Public Defender's Office.

Judicial schedulers have trouble finding room for court proceedings, he said. And mixing defendants, victims and judges in the same common areas can lead to altercations like a recent one that resulted in several arrests, he said.

"We have safety concerns,'' he said, "and they are legitimate.''

Merritt encouraged commissioners to view the courts in the other counties of the Fifth Judicial Circuit, which he said are in much better order.

"Hernando County, for some reason, and I do not know specifically why, appears to be the only county ... that continues to have, year in and year out, budget deficit difficulties,'' Merritt said.

In the same sentence, he called the judiciary's power to force commissioners to fix the problem both "the elephant in the room" and "the 800-pound gorilla."

"The time has come,'' Merritt said, "and we're just asking that you go forward with the next step.''

Previous coverage: Judge's letter tells county it must add judicial space now

The argument for more judicial space has been active for more than 15 years, most recently over the growing number of court cases and hearings in the county. However, some members of the public and previous commissioners have suggested the courts were asking for more than they needed.

The county has court improvement funds of $1.5 million to $1.8 million for the improvements. Previous plans have included differing options of where to put new courtrooms, and a plan to add a ground-level entrance at the back of the building to eliminate the daunting stairway to the main level.

The plan doesn't address where to put other county departments and officers who might lose their space in the Brooksville building. They include the county tax collector, elections supervisor, Clerk of the Circuit Court, county administrators and commissioners.

Earlier this month, the commission rejected an unsolicited proposal from private developers to build a new government center on county acreage near the Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport.

Previous coverage: Hernando County Commission rejects private offer to build government center

Also on Tuesday, commissioners discussed how to pay for up to $50 million more in capital costs for a new government center and an upgrade to the county's emergency radio system.

Previous coverage: Talks of increasing sales tax, cutting services, on commission's list for overcoming shortfall

Commissioners discussed putting a sales tax measure on the 2020 ballot. It could help fund their capital expenditures and may be focused on public safety needs.

Commissioners have said that a sales tax increase is more fair than raising property taxes. The sales tax is paid by everyone, including people whose homes are valued so low they don't pay property taxes and by visitors to the county, who pay about 25 percent of a sales tax.

Of more immediate concern is the county's $11 million general fund budget shortfall.

To help with difficult decisions as the county assembles its 2020 spending plan, acting county administrator Jeff Rogers suggested the commission hire a financial reviewer - for $30,000 to $40,000 - to offer a perspective on the county's books. He plans to bring back a recommendation for commission consideration.

The county also is advertising for a new budget manager. The job has been filed since last year by retired budget manager George Zoettlein, who came out of retirement after the county fired budget manager Pam Lee.

The job closes on Monday and pays $88,000 to $143,000.

Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.

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