SPLOST would expand judicial center

Photo by Howard Reed

Photo by Howard Reed

Editor's Note: This story is part of a multi-part series on projects that will be funded if SPLOST 2011 is approved by voters in the March 15 Special Election. The SPLOST is expected to generate $57.6 million over a six-year collection period.

COVINGTON -- The Newton County Judicial Center was slated to be at full capacity in 2013, but it's already there. A $7 million expansion to be funded through SPLOST revenues will alleviate crowding at the building, which is "bursting at the seams," according to Chairman Kathy Morgan.

Judges who hold court at the Judicial Center declined to be interviewed for this article, so Morgan agreed to provide details.

The Judicial Center opened in 1998 and was expected to meet the demands of the court system for 15 years. But the building is already maxed out, with little room for staff, defendants and legal documents that must by law be stored there in hard copy format, she said.

There are three courtrooms for five judges, and the Juvenile, Magistrate and Probate courts must share a courtroom. A design has not been done for the expansion, as funds for that will also come out of SPLOST, but it will likely include the addition of at least one courtroom, Morgan said.

Commissioners have decided not to bond any SPLOST projects, meaning most of the money must be in hand before work can begin. Morgan believes construction on the building wouldn't start until at least year four of the SPLOST, possibly year six, and by that time, the need will be even more dire.

"It's not like we can just rent more space," she said, noting that there are security considerations that must be taken into account and requirements that the Probate Court judge, for example, have an office not more than 1,000 feet from the courtroom. If SPLOST is approved, a committee of judicial and county officials will be formed to work with an architect to come up with a design that will meet space and security needs, Morgan said.

As with all new or expanded facilities, maintenance and operations costs will fall to the county once complete, Morgan said. The hope is that by the time the facility is expanded, the economy will have turned around and more money will be available in the general fund to pay for M&O.

Juvenile Court is one area of the judicial system that will receive special attention if SPLOST passes. Commissioners agreed that $500,000 will be allocated for renovation of an existing facility to serve as a sort of one-stop shop for the various programs that defendants and their families must take part in as a condition of sentencing in Juvenile Court.

The facility has not been selected, but Juvenile Court Judge Sheri Capes Roberts is interested in the Cousins Center, where space was recently vacated by Troy State University, Morgan said. SPLOST dollars cannot be used to pay rent on the facility, but will pay for renovations, technological upgrades and other necessary work to consolidate the juvenile programs into one facility, she said.

Often, juveniles are required to participate in multiple programs at once, such as the after-school program and family counseling, and having those programs at different facilities throughout the county creates a logistical and staffing challenge, and makes it difficult for families, especially those with limited transportation, to be at multiple locations on the same day, Morgan said. The cost to lease one facility would not be any greater than what the county is already paying to lease multiple locations, she said.

"We're going to reach a point where it costs more to manage all the different sites than consolidate in one facility," she said.

Roberts initially asked for more than $2.5 million to purchase the Cousins Center, which also houses the Covington-Newton County 911 Communications Center, nonprofit organizations like the Newton County Community Partnership, a charter school and the Department of Drivers Services, but commissioners whittled the request down to $500,000, and favored a lease agreement over purchase of the building.