COVINGTON -- Commissioners received an update on the proposed expansion of the Newton County Judicial Center at Tuesday's board meeting.
The board heard from Rowland Davidson of Lyman Davidson Dooley Inc. in Atlanta, architect for the project, on the multi-phase plan developed during the past year with the input of judges and staff at the Judicial Center.
SPLOST will fund the expansion; $7 million has been allocated in SPLOST revenues for the project. The construction budget is estimated at less than that, at almost $6.9 million. However, furniture, fixtures and equipment, audio and visual equipment, security systems, architectural and engineering fees and other components of the expansion could increase the budget to nearly $9 million and a recommended contingency of $900,000 would further increase it to nearly $9.9 million. The source of those additional funds has not been identified, according to County Manager John Middleton.
Phase 1 will be funded through the 2011 SPLOST and will include a lower level with a sally port and holding cells for inmates and an office for bailiffs. There will be separate holding areas for juveniles and adults.
The current Judicial Center has two separate entrances, and one has been closed due to security concerns, creating some confusion for visitors on which door to enter, said Davidson. A new main entrance will be created with the two current entryways closed off and the lobbies reassigned for a different use, he said. There will be two lines for security check-in to speed up the process.
The expansion will include a new and larger juvenile courtroom. The current courtroom will be reassigned to Magistrate Court space, Davidson said. A new, secure entrance will be provided for judges and staff.
On the second floor, a new check-in point for impaneling of jurors will be included. A new jury impaneling room will have increased capacity with 250 seats, with the current impaneling room converted into a fourth courtroom for Superior Court. Three new judges' chambers will also be added.
A third floor expansion will be put off for the future. The Clerk of Court office will eventually be expanded, the District Attorney's Office would be moved to a new space, and a grand jury room would be added, Davidson said.
All told, about 35,000 square feet is proposed to be added to the current structure, which opened in 1999. "Our goal is to say this would be a seamless addition to the project. It would match the current architecture and blend in so we would not know it was ever expanded," Davidson said.
Judge Samuel Ozburn, who was joined at the meeting by Judges Ken Wynne and Horace Johnson, asked commissioners to allow the project to move forward as soon as possible. Ozburn said more than 154,000 people have visited the Judicial Center this year. "That's 50 percent bigger than the population of this county," he said.
When the Judicial Center opened, there were three Superior Court judges; now there are five, but still only three courtrooms, he said. Judges are having to reschedule and delay jury trials, which results in an increase in cost to taxpayers, creating a backlog at the jail and increasing costs to keep inmates there, he said.
Current courtrooms are not big enough, he said, noting that sometimes there are 50 to 75 people on the calendar and not everyone can get into the courtroom.
County Attorney Tommy Craig recommended the county use a certificate of participation to fund the project, noting that commissioners agreed not to issue revenue bonds for any SPLOST project. Craig said a certificate of participation works like a mortgage. The county would borrow the $7 million from a bank or other entity, like the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, and finance construction over five years at a low interest rate. The budget for the project does not cover interest rates, he noted.
Craig said his reason is that, "Construction costs less now than it's going to a few years from now when the funds are in hand. Interest rates are exceedingly low and it may be that the savings on construction costs more than offset the cost of interest." Craig said when the project is bid, commissioners will have more of an idea of how much of the contingency is needed.
Commissioners did not take any action related to the presentation.