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Chief judge says circuit doesn’t have enough judges

Faced with a shortage of judges to oversee the court system’s burgeoning caseload, the Pasco County Commission is discussing ways to pay for a proposed criminal court complex in Land O’ Lakes.

Plans for a new court complex have been in the works since 2013 when the county commission solicited bids from architectural firms to build a new courthouse on county-owned property next to the Pasco County Central Detention Center at 20101 Central Blvd. in Land O’ Lakes. The complex initially would have eight courtrooms, with the ability to expand to 10.

Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge J. Thomas McGrady, before retiring last June, said a new court complex was needed to serve the fast-growing Central Pasco population and ease overcrowding at existing courthouses in New Port Richey and Dade City. He also maintained neither the Robert D. Sumner Judicial Center in Dade City nor the West Pasco Judicial Center in New Port Richey was designed to accommodate criminal cases, which typically have separate entrances for judges and defendants for better security.

But at a county commission workshop this week, current Chief Judge Anthony Rondolino told commissioners the court system has a more pressing need.

“We can build additional courtrooms but nothing’s going to happen unless we have more judges to oversee them,” he said. “We haven’t had a new judge in 10 years. Get the (state) Legislature to give us more judges.”

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The 6th Judicial Circuit, which serves Pasco and Pinellas counties, is Florida’s third-largest court system. It has 69 judges to oversee all criminal, civil, appellate, family, traffic and small claims court cases.

There are seven county court judges and 13 circuit judges assigned to handle cases at the New Port Richey and Dade City courthouses.

In 2013 — the most recent figures available — those 20 Pasco County judges handled 24,069 circuit court cases and 41,733 county court cases. And the caseload keeps growing.

“Judge (Linda) Babb said it can take a year to get a hearing on a divorce,” commission Chairwoman Kathryn Starkey said.

Rondolino agreed the wait time for a hearing is unreasonable. “It’s terrible to have citizens wait as long as they do for hearings,” he said.

In an effort to ease the burden on Pasco County judges, Rondolino opted to move one of his judicial postings from Pinellas to Pasco.

“I looked at the numbers and the greatest need for additional judicial manpower was in Dade City,” he said.

At a cost of $60,000, he has converted a snack area into an additional judge’s chamber at the Dade City courthouse and spread out judicial duties. He said the new judge will assume a portion of Babb’s civil, nonjury cases and foreclosures and some of Circuit Judge Alicia Polk’s family law cases.

“I think this is going to meet our immediate needs,” he said.

In the long term, however, he said he still needs more courtrooms in Pasco County.

Pasco County facilities management director, Erik Breitenbach, told commissioners his department looked at expanding the Dade City facility at a cost of $2 million. But Rondolino was reluctant to use funds that the 6th Judicial District has set aside for the proposed criminal complex.

“In the grand scheme, we need the complex in Land O’ Lakes before expanding the facilities in Dade City and New Port Richey,” Rondolino said.

He said the 6th Judicial District has saved $9.6 million for the new court complex.

In 2013, Atlanta-based Heery International submitted a preliminary design for the complex and estimated it would cost $28 million.

In 2014, the commission was told the facility more likely would cost $95 million, prompting commissioners to put brakes on the courthouse project.

With that in mind, Commissioner Ted Schrader questioned the wisdom of sitting on $9.6 million when the 6th Judicial District could use the money now to expand the existing courthouses.

“I think we need to look at expanding or remodeling the existing facilities now and then find another dedicated funding source for the criminal justice center,” he said.

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Rondolino said he had no problem with the county seeking another way to pay for the court complex, but reiterated his concerns about the lack of judges to fill the courtrooms if the county expands existing facilities before the Legislature has approved additional judges.

“We can expand but it will be empty,” he said. “It’s a personnel issue.”

County Administrator Michele Baker said staff members are looking at funding alternatives for the court complex.

The idea of forming a public-private partnership to fund it didn’t pan out, however.

“We looked at the potential of getting a revenue partner for concessions,” she said. “We heard this would save us time and money.”

But the county received no response when it reached out to potential revenue partners.

“The proposals didn’t come in,” Baker said. “It doesn’t seem as if there is a (financial) benefit” in a public-private partnership.

The commission discussed other possibilities for financing the new court complex, including establishment of a multiple service taxing unit, obtaining a loan to be paid back with court fees or imposing a criminal justice impact fee on new development.

Breitenbach said an MSTU would be the least likely option “since only small portions of the project can be funded via an MSTU.”

A loan must be approved by Pasco County voters and would be applied countywide.

County Commissioner Mike Moore spoke against the third option, which would require new development to pay toward the courthouse.

“I don’t have the stomach for a criminal justice impact fee,” he said.

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