Jury out on moving court to relieve overcrowding
TAMPA - Since the 1890s, a Hillsborough County courthouse has been one of the signature buildings in downtown Tampa. That may change, depending on the results of a $50,000 study commissioned by court administrators that will look at relocating criminal, juvenile and traffic courts to a new complex 10 miles east on Falkenburg Road. A move is only being studied and would take years to accomplish if approved. Still, moving such a large operation and all of its employees out of Tampa would leave a void. “If all of these courts move out of downtown, it would be a terrible blow to the downtown area,” said criminal defense attorney John Fitzgibbons.“It would be a loss of hundreds and hundreds of court personnel,” Fitzgibbons said. “It would have a huge impact on restaurants and other businesses downtown.” Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn was more sanguine, seeing the potential loss of the courts as more a bump in the road than a major setback for downtown revitalization efforts. “Having those employees here is a plus for downtown; they are part of the fabric of the downtown environment,” Buckhorn said. “But I also understand the desire of the court administrator to make coming to court more convenient for people. He’s between a rock and a hard place.” Court officials say they are seriously considering the move because the courthouse annex — three buildings adjoining the George E. Edgecomb Courthouse on Twiggs Street — is out of space, with little room to grow. “If you continue to try to expand the annex, it’s like putting lipstick on a pig,” said Mike Bridenback, court administrator for the 13th Judicial Circuit, which covers Hillsborough County. “It doesn’t accommodate the current demand, and there is no way in 20 years it will.”
Even as relocation is being studied, the county is moving ahead with up to $12 million in renovations to two towers and a connector building that make up the annex. In addition to being crowded, the buildings are leaky and rodent-infested and fall short of current county building codes, court officials say.
Gaining space would be one advantage of moving, Bridenback said. Another would be proximity to the county jail on Falkenburg Road, eliminating the need to transport prisoners 10 miles to court, as they are now.
The courthouse would be built on land owned by Hillsborough County, thus saving taxpayers’ money. Plus, the county’s resource recovery plant is nearby and could supply the courthouse with relatively inexpensive electricity, said County Administrator Mike Merrill.
“There are a number of good reasons to do it,” Merrill said.
Circuit Court Clerk Pat Frank also favors the move, especially if it would help consolidate offices she runs that are now scattered among a number of buildings downtown. The clerk’s office is the custodian of all court records and processes criminal and civil court cases.
Frank said court records and computer operations would be safer on Falkenburg Road should a hurricane make landfall downtown.
On the down side, Frank said, she sees complications with jurors, hundreds of whom are summoned downtown, usually on Mondays. If criminal court goes to Falkenburg Road and civil court stays downtown, would the jury pool be split or shuttled back and forth?
“I’m supportive of a criminal system being out at Falkenburg and consolidation,” Frank said, “but I don’t want to be in a situation where half our staff is downtown and half is on Falkenburg.”
Others who would be inconvenienced include attorneys. Many have their offices downtown or within a 10-minute ride.
Criminal defense attorney Brian Gonzalez said he is at the courthouse five days a week at 8 a.m., leaving for the lunch break at noon and returning for the afternoon court sessions at 1:30. He points out that the state attorney’s and public defender’s offices are also downtown, where employees can easily push case files to the courthouse and back.
“It would be gridlock to try to get out there in the mornings and afternoons,” Gonzalez said, referring to Falkenburg Road. “That would be the most insane thing I have ever seen for the 29 years I’ve been practicing criminal law.”
Meanwhile, renovations at the annex will get underway in the fall, after the county hires a construction manager this summer, said Bill Hand, project manager for the county. Construction should take 12 to 14 months. The courts will remain open, Hand said.
The south tower in the annex was built in 1962, the north tower in 1984. Since then, the criminal caseload has exploded, and the small courtrooms have grown cramped.
There are also security concerns: Nine judges’ chambers are on the ground floor of the two-story connector building, adjacent to inmate holding cells. Renovations will include moving the chambers to the second floor and building a new bank of holding cells on the first floor, Hand said.
An elevator will be added for the judges to separate them from the prisoners.
Other work planned for the buildings includes new roofs, hurricane-resistant windows, asbestos removal and construction of four new courtrooms — two for juveniles in the north tower and two criminal courts in the south tower. The north tower will also get a public stairwell, something it doesn’t have now.
“There are felony criminal courtrooms on the third and fifth floors and the only way for the public to get there is an elevator,” said Circuit Judge Tom Barber. “So if somebody shot and killed your wife or daughter and they’re out on bond, you can ride up in the elevator and stand right beside them.”
If anyone questions the need to spend $10 million in taxpayer money on the deteriorating courthouse, Barber is ready to whip out his cellphone video showing a mouse dragging a sticky trap across the judge’s former office.
He and his staff caught 62 mice in the office during a nine-month period in 2009-2010, Barber said.