Ju­di­cial cen­ter needs space But pro­ject needs money

The Covington News - - FRONT PAGE - GABRIEL KHOULI gkhouli@cov­news.com

The New­ton County Ju­di­cial Cen­ter is short on space for em­ploy­ees and the pub­lic, but the county is short on money needed to ex­pand the build­ing.

The New­ton County Board of Com­mis­sion­ers dis­cussed op­tions at its strate­gic plan­ning re­treat Fri­day, but it’s un­clear when the county will be able to af­ford an ex­pan­sion, as com­mis­sion­ers pre­vi­ously said they would not bond out any projects placed on the 2011 SPLOST (Spe­cial Pur­pose Lo­cal Op­tion Sales Tax).

A ju­di­cial cen­ter ex­pan­sion got $7 mil­lion in the 2011 SPLOST, but the money is col­lected over a 6-year pe­riod, mean­ing

most projects won’t be started un­til they have a sub­stan­tial amount of money in their ac­counts.

How­ever, the county’s judges are con­cerned about space lim­i­ta­tions, specif­i­cally in the case of the cur­rent court­rooms’ limited pub­lic seat­ing. A fed­eral suit is pend­ing against judges, baliffs and the sher­iff in the Cordele Ju­di­cial Cir­cuit, be­cause they have, at times, pre­vented peo­ple from en­ter­ing court­rooms due to space con­cerns. Pub­lic ac­cess to crim­i­nal cases is a Con­sti­tu­tional right.

A planned ex­pan­sion in New­ton County will al­low the county to con­vert the cur­rent jury im­pan­el­ing room, which is much larger and can seat 144 peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to Su­pe­rior Court Judge Sa­muel D. Ozburn, into a court­room and build an­other jury im­pan­el­ing room else­where. By hav­ing one large court­room, the county will be able to meet the need of a crim­i­nal case with sig­nif­i­cant pub­lic in­ter­est or that in­volves many fam­ily mem­bers and friends.

The cost of the build­ing has been re­vised over time, as county of­fi­cials pushed for lower and lower costs. A pre­vi­ous floor plan was es­ti­mated to cost $9.8 mil­lion, but in De­cem­ber com­mis­sion­ers asked for a de­sign that would drop costs to the $7 mil­lion SPLOST bud­get.

That $7 mil­lion bud­get has been met, but doesn’t in­clude any fur­ni­ture or equip­ment costs, es­ti­mated to be $400,000 by the ar­chi­tec­ture firm, and does not have a con­tin­gency, which is rec­om­mended at $300,000. The re­duced cost was achieved mainly by re­duc­ing the size of the ex­pan­sion, delet­ing one el­e­va­tor and not mak­ing changes to the ju­ve­nile court­room.

County Man­ager John Mid­dle­ton said the county has col­lected $2.6 mil­lion to­ward the ju­di­cial cen­ter ex­pan­sion to date, and sales tax rev­enues are com­ing in faster than ex­pected. Orig­i­nal pro­jec­tions es­ti­mated a col­lec­tion of $1.16 mil­lion per year for the ju­di­cial cen­ter, but $1.38 mil­lion was col­lected in fis­cal year 2012, the first year of the SPLOST, and col­lec­tions are trend­ing higher in FY2013.

How­ever, even if the county were to move money from other projects that aren’t needed im­me­di­ately and won’t be started for years, like the agri­cul­tural cen­ter, the His­toric Jail ren­o­va­tion and recre­ation projects, it still would be well short of the needed $7 mil­lion. The $5 mil­lion sit­ting in the bank from the 2005 SPLOST for the civic cen­ter pro­ject could only be used for debt ser­vice.

The other is­sue is the ad­di­tional main­te­nance and op­er­at­ing costs that will be cre­ated by an ex­pan­sion. In a fol­low-up in­ter­view, Judge Ozburn said no ad­di­tional Su­pe­rior Court staff would be re­quired by the ex­pan­sion, but he said other of­fices, like the Dis­trict At­tor­ney’s of­fice, are al­ready un­der­staffed.

Mid­dle­ton said the cost of pay­ing in­ter­est on any debt taken out to pay for an ex­pan­sion could pos­si­bly be off­set by cheaper con­struc­tion costs, given a still-re­cov­er­ing econ­omy.

Com­mis­sioner Nancy Schulz. who voted on the 2011 SPLOST, said she wasn’t will­ing to bond out the pro­ject. Com­mis­sioner J.C. Hen­der­son said if one pro­ject is bonded out, all projects should be bonded out, in­clud­ing recre­ation projects for his dis­trict, which were specif­i­cally re­quested by his con­stituents.

Com­mis­sioner Le­vie Maddox ex­pressed con­cern that the planned ex­pan­sion would do noth­ing to al­le­vi­ate the space con­cerns of the Dis­trict At­tor­ney’s of­fice. The Su­pe­rior Court clerk’s of­fice would also not see any changes. How­ever, the ex­pan­sion would cre­ate a shell build­ing on the third floor, which would even­tu­ally be built out for ad­di­tional of­fices.

An­other is­sue is sim­ply the limited num­ber of court­rooms to hear cases. Based on re­cent trends, Judge Ozburn told The News there are about 1,900-2,000 non-jury civil cases and more than 5,700 non-jury crim­i­nal cases each year. As far as jury tri­als, there were around 75-100 cases heard dur­ing 26 weeks of jury tri­als in 2012.

The orig­i­nal ju­di­cial cen­ter opened in 1999, but the cir­cuit — which in- cludes New­ton and Wal­ton coun­ties — had only three judges and did not have a ded­i­cated drug, men­tal health or child sup­port court, Ozburn said, which have been added to try to help cit­i­zens and re­duce costs by re­duc­ing the num­ber of peo­ple who are in­car­cer­ated and re­duc­ing re­peat of­fend­ers.

No de­ci­sion was made, but Chair­man Keith El­lis said he wanted to try to es­ti­mate ad­di­tional main­te­nance and op­er­a­tion costs.

El­lis also said he had heard that there were some is­sues with crim­i­nal de­fen­dants re­quest­ing their con­sti­tu­tional right to a speedy trial and pos­si­bly be­ing re­leased; how­ever, Ozburn said the county has not ex­pe­ri­enced that is­sue yet. If a speedy trial is re­quested, it must be held within six months, or two terms of court (there are four terms of court each year).

“We are mov­ing th­ese cases up in line for trial ahead of other cases to avoid the dis­missal of charges, but this is caus­ing other, older cases to be de­layed,” Ozburn said.

To view ex­ist­ing and pro­posed floor plans, visit Cov­News.com.

Gabriel Khouli/the Cov­ing­ton News

Of­fi­cials plan to con­vert the New­ton County Ju­di­cial Cen­ter jury im­pan­el­ing room (top) into a big­ger court­room, un­like the cur­rent ones, which are small (above). The con­ver­sion would be ac­com­pa­nied by an over­all ex­pan­sion of the ju­di­cial cen­ter, to­talling around $7 mil­lion, us­ing SPLOST funds. For floor plans, visit www.cov­news.com.

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