COVINGTON — Superior Court judges have asked the county commission to expedite the expansion of the Newton County Judicial Center.
Commissioners have opted not to bond any SPLOST projects, meaning money must be collected before work can begin.
The $7 million judicial center expansion likely won’t begin until the end of the six-year SPLOST, with construction taking 18 to 24 months. But judges say the expansion is needed sooner.
So far, $2.6 million in SPLOST revenue has been collected as of June 30 for the project, County Manager John Middleton reported at the Board of Commissioners recent strategic planning retreat. Commissioners reviewed a document prepared by Superior Court Judge Samuel Ozburn justifying the need for an expedited expansion.
The discussion centered on whether SPLOST dollars collected for other projects could be shifted to the judicial center so that work could begin earlier on the expansion. But commissioners didn’t indicate whether they would be willing to do that. Commissioner Nancy Schulz said she wouldn’t go back on the decision the board made prior to passage of the 2011 SPLOST not to bond any projects.
“I’m not willing to go out and bond. I’m not willing to change that,” she said.
There was also talk of transferring funds from the civic center project, which was allocated $5 million in the 2005 SPLOST. But if the civic center is not built, that money could be used only for debt service, with voter approval, said Jenny Carter with the County Attorney’s Office. Chairman Keith Ellis said a work session will likely be called for the board to discuss the issue further.
The expansion has been trimmed from an initial approximately $15 million to $9.8 million and again to $7 million. But the current budget does not include furniture, fixtures and equipment or any contingency funds. Ellis said he’d like to know what maintenance and operations costs will be. Maintenance and operations costs cannot be funded using SPLOST revenues. Additional staffing may also be needed, including custodial staff, bailiffs and court reporters, Ellis said.
Ozburn said no additional Superior Court staff will be required, but noted that some offices, such as the clerk of court, are currently understaffed.
Due to trimming of the budget and revising the design, the District Attorney’s Office, where Commissioner Levie Maddox said he has seen “files stacked to the ceiling,” will not get expanded office space for now. The clerk’s office will also remain as is until there are additional funds to complete the planned third floor.
Five Superior Court judges currently hold court in three courtrooms, each with a capacity of 36, not including attorneys, bailiffs and other court officials. The jury assembly room has seating for approximately 144.
At least one larger courtroom is needed with higher seating capacity to comply with state and federal requirements for open courtrooms, Ozburn said.
A federal suit is pending against the judges, sheriff, bailiffs and other officials in the Cordele Circuit for allegedly barring public access to criminal court proceedings.
“We are especially concerned with the need to maintain courtrooms open to the public to avoid civil exposure to the county and the courts,” Ozburn said.
In 2012, 26 weeks of jury trials were scheduled at the Judicial Center with between 75 and 100 jury trials held.
A typical criminal hearing calendar in Newton has 60 to 70 cases, with hearings held twice a week. Criminal hearings are every Tuesday and Thursday and civil hearings are every Monday and Wednesday. In addition, bench trials, hearings and preemptory calendars are specially set by judges, Ozburn said. Also, there are now drug and mental health courts held weekly as well as a child support court. Each courtroom is used an average of 170 days per year, not including use by the grand jury, emergency hearings, paralegal and law enforcement training and school group presentations and mock trials.
The existing jury impaneling room will be converted to a fourth courtroom and a new impaneling room built as part of the expansion. More space to house and move inmates to and from court will also be added.
In 2012, almost 3,000 inmates were transported to the Judicial Center for court and that number is expected to increase this year, according to Ozburn. Inmates must be brought in shifts due to inadequacy of space in the current holding cells, he said.
“This high volume of usage and the need for flexibility due to sudden emergency hearings is hurting efficiency. Inmates awaiting trial in the county jail are a cost to the county and the inability to schedule jury trials due to the unavailability of a courtroom for enough days for a trial is a problem,” he said.
Almost 150,000 people came into the Judicial Center in 2012, creating congestion and increasing the chance of security related problems, he said.