Officials Eye Moving Criminal Courts to Central Pasco
County commissioners agreed to explore a proposal to build a $28 million courthouse tower in Land O' Lakes.
The days of those accused of crimes in Pasco County reporting to either the New Port Richey or Dade City courthouses might be numbered.
The Pasco County Commission unanimously agreed Tuesday, Jan. 22, to take a preliminary step forward on a plan to build a three-story, $28-million courthouse tower on the grounds of the Land O’ Lakes jail. The move, proponents say, will consolidate criminal courts and the jail in one central location.
Though many questions and concerns remain about the proposal, commissioners opted to instruct County Administrator John Gallagher to explore the proposal further. Gallagher will report back to the commission at a later date with more details about potential bond funding and more concrete design and construction costs.
J. Thomas McGrady, the chief judge in Florida’s Sixth Judicial Circuit, attended Tuesday’s meeting along with State Attorney Bernie McCabe and Public Defender Bob Dillinger to urge the commission to take a step forward with the plan to consolidate all Pasco criminal courts under one roof in Land O’ Lakes. All three men stated a lack of space in the Dade City and New Port Richey courthouses and the potential for greater efficiency in the system if jail and criminal courthouse activities were located on the same campus.
“(It) will allow for increased efficiency in our criminal cases,” McGrady said. “(It will put) all of our criminal judges in one location.”
Under the plan, the Sixth Judicial Circuit of Florida would move all criminal courts and judges to Land O’ Lakes. The New Port Richey and Dade City courthouses would continue to house civil and family court operations.
McGrady pointed out the proposal has been a matter of discussion for years and said that now is the time to move forward.
If constructed, the new courthouse would have a dedicated tunnel from the jail to remove the need to transport prisoners by vehicle.
The county already has a preliminary site design for the complex and a funding flow from the court system. The county also has $7 million in funding from court fees on hand to help seed the project. It would use future fees to back a bond issue to fund construction with the ½-cent sales tax as a secondary funding source. Projects currently funded by the county’s ½-cent sales tax could still continue, staff members told commissioners. That funding source would only be used as a “backup” for future bond payments.
Construction is Still a Long Way Away
While commissioners did agree to further explore the issue, it’s by no means a done deal.
Before the first shovel of dirt could be turned, funding issues need to be resolved, concerns brought to light during Tuesday’s meeting would have to be discussed and the project would have to be bid out for final design and construction.
Commissioners, the sheriff’s office and the clerk’s office all raised concerns about the proposal during Tuesday’s meeting.
Parking and staffing are big points of concern for the sheriff’s office, said Major Ed Beckman, who oversees the Land O’ Lakes jail.
With the jail already seeing between 150 and 200 visitors a day, the existing parking lot is at capacity, he said. The sheriff’s office also is concerned that once the courthouse construction is complete, it would open at capacity, forcing some criminal court hearings to still take place in Dade City and New Port Richey.
“Make it right right now,” Beckman said. “If you’re going to build it, build it out to where it’s going to accommodate those needs.”
County Clerk and Comptroller Paula O’Neil also raised concerns about staffing. She’s also worried about storage of evidence in criminal cases and transportation for those attending criminal hearings in Land O’ Lakes. The county’s bus service currently has very limited stops in the Land O’ Lakes area.
Despite lingering concerns, commissioners agreed to allow Gallagher to put together a committee to look into bond financing and for him to take the steps necessary to put together a package that would more accurately price the project and what might be included.
Gallagher estimates the county is still a year and a half to two years away from awarding a bid for construction if the project continues to move ahead.
What do you think about consolidating criminal courts outside of West Pasco? Share your thoughts in the comments section.