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Judicial Center expansion gets go-ahead
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Newton County commissioners have decided expanding an overcrowded judicial center, at a cost of $7 million, should take precedence over most of the other projects approved under the 2011 SPLOST.

The Newton County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to move forward with finalizing the expansion’s designs and construction budget and to bid out the work. However, in order to move ahead with the work, the board decided to temporarily take SPLOST money from other projects that aren’t as pressing and move the funds to the judicial center expansion.

Finding enough money

The one project mentioned specifically Tuesday that will temporarily give up its funding is the $1.2 million agricultural center, one of the 2011 SPLOST’s more controversial projects. Chairman Keith Ellis and Commissioner Nancy Schulz said that project is years from being completed because community leaders heading up the project are still looking for a location.

The judicial center expansion has a $7 million budget, with all funds set to come from the SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax), a dedicated 1 percent sales tax for specific uses, namely capital projects, such as new buildings and equipment, or paying down debt.

Collections are ongoing, but as of mid-August, the judicial center had $2.6 million of SPLOST funds in its account.

SPLOST money is being divided up evenly over the course of six years among all the projects — 12 specific projects, as well as various recreation projects, $8.5 million to pay off debt, and around $25 million in road and transportation projects.

Commissioners and community residents promoting the SPLOST said the county would not bond out projects and would not start construction of a project until all the funding for that project has been collected.

Ellis said Tuesday there will be no borrowing or bonding. He said officials determined it will take three years for the

plans to be finalized and construction completed on the building. He said by the time construction starts, the county will be able to compile enough SPLOST money to fully fund the expansion.

 Operation costs?

One of the questions yet to be answered is how much the expansion will cost the county in additional operating costs and maintenance.

Part of the county’s vote Tuesday called for maintenance and operations costs to be estimated.

Commissioner J.C. Henderson said one key point of discussion leading up to the 2011 SPLOST was not adding much in maintenance and operation costs, and he said he thought the board wasn’t looking at the real cost of the expansion. He expressed concern that the costs of
additional bailiffs and security measures would put more pressure on the Sheriff’s Office budget, which is already stretched. He said more courtroom space could lead to more cases being tried and more convictions, which could even require a jail expansion.

Ellis said Capt. Doug Kitchens, who handles security for the judicial center, has reviewed the proposed expansion plans and has ideas to reduce the number of deputies needed for security.

Commissioner Schulz, who raised concerns over maintenance and operation costs during initial SPLOST talks, said governments get in trouble when they don’t adequately plan for future costs.

In an August interview, Superior Court Judge Samuel Ozburn said no additional Superior Court staff would be directly required by the expansion. However, he said some offices, including the District Attorney’s office, are already understaffed.

Why is the expansion needed?

The county’s superior court judges are concerned about space limitations in multiple areas, including inadequate office space, lack of courtrooms to handle all cases, and inadequate public seating.

A federal suit is pending against judges, bailiffs 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 Judge Ozburn, into a courtroom and build another jury impaneling room elsewhere. By having one large courtroom, the county will be able to meet the needs of a criminal case with significant public interest or one that involves many family members and friends. A fourth courtroom will also allow more trials to be held.

Since the judicial center opened in 1999, the county’s population has increased by more than 40,000 people; two judges have been added to the Alcovy Judicial Circuit — which is comprised of Newton and Walton counties; and dedicated drug, mental health and child support courts have been added (these seek to help citizens and reduce incarceration by promoting improvement in citizens.)

While the expansion budget has steadily been reduced over time to the current $7 million figure, that number doesn’t include any furniture or equipment costs, estimated to be $400,000 by the architecture firm, and does not have a construction 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.

In addition, the expansion would not immediately alleviate space concerns of the District Attorney’s office and the Superior Court clerk’s office. Part of the expansion will create a shell building on the third floor of the new section, which will be built out as funds were available. In the resolution the board passed Tuesday, it agreed — at the request of Commissioner Levie Maddox — to look at the needs of these groups to see if help could be provided later.

Chairman Ellis also requested that a supervisor be hired to oversee the construction. Ray McFadden, who works in the county’s engineering department, has been hired and paid a flat rate in the past to oversee the projects and could be used again in that role.