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 includes 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.