DADE CITY — Sticker shock doesn’t even begin to describe what Pasco officials felt when they heard that building a new criminal courthouse in Land O’ Lakes could cost $95 million — more than twice the $39 million the county has budgeted for the project.
“We don’t have the money to build it, not if we want to do it the right way,” Commissioner Henry Wilson said.
And it doesn’t end there. The county’s consultants told commissioners Tuesday they need a $100 million expansion at the jail as well as a new courthouse — both in the next five years. The jail is overcapacity now, and by 2019 it will be short more than 800 beds based on current incarceration rates.
“Quite honestly, the need to put the jail first is because of potential litigation based on jail overcrowding,” said Bruce Orenstein, a planner for CGL.
In addition, Orenstein said CGL is recommending the county demolish the current sheriff’s administration building in New Port Richey and build a new, centralized headquarters building on the Land O’ Lakes campus, at a cost of $15 million to $20 million.
Commissioners were set to hire a construction company last year to build the county’s third courthouse, which would be situated in front of the jail. But commissioners put the project on hold until CGL completes a countywide facilities master plan. The final report is due next month, but Orenstein said the firm accelerated its review of the courthouse and law enforcement facilities because the courthouse question has been lingering for years.
It’s the same problem facing Hillsborough County commissioners — how to accommodate the demand for more courtrooms in limited space. Hillsborough commissioners are also planning to relocate criminal court from downtown Tampa to a new building near the county jail on Falkenberg Road.
Pasco would keep its courthouses in New Port Richey and Dade City open, but they would be used for civil, probate and family court functions. The state attorney and public defender offices would relocate to the new Land O’ Lakes courthouse.
CGL’s $95 million cost estimate was for a facility with 12 courtrooms — that’s the minimum the county will need by the year 2034. Orenstein said the building could be constructed with eight courtrooms in phase one to meet immediate needs. “That would certainly be better than what you’ve got now,” he said.
But even building a smaller courthouse might be more than the county can afford, based on construction costs of similar projects in Florida. For example, Marian County spent nearly $37 million a few year ago to add five courtrooms.
Chief Judge Thomas McGrady worries that the CGL report will cause more delays for the courthouse project. “The price, of course, is a concern,” McGrady admitted. “I hope that doesn’t stop them from proceeding. The courthouse, as originally contemplated, was very bare bones. In our early discussion, each of the stakeholders really sacrificed a lot of space to try to move it forward.”
Atlanta-based Heery International, which did the preliminary design for the criminal courthouse, said the project could be built for $28 million.
“I said a year ago — there’s no way we can build it for that amount of money,” Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said. “I knew their cost projections were way off. I’m glad we put that project on pause because we need to take another look at it. I didn’t like the layout of that building.”
But at least the county has money set aside for the new courthouse. Assistant County Administrator Heather Grimes said Pasco has no funding source for a 1,000-bed jail expansion or a new headquarters building for the sheriff. Even if the commissioners raised the property tax rate to 10 mils — the maximum allowed by state law — it wouldn’t be enough.
“The one thing we could look at are Law Enforcement Impact Fees,” she said. “Other communities have done that. It could only pay for capital projects — not staffing.”