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Judges: Expansion needed soon

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.

Comments

dennistay53 1 year, 3 months ago

As stated the courtrooms are used ONLY 170 days a year. Use them more is the answer. If the judges knew the expansion was needed sooner why did they allow the language be put in SPLOST in 2011 that they wouldn't bond or borrow? They are wanting this sped up more for luxury instead of need. If they bond or borrow they will have misled or lied to the voters on the 2011 SPLOST intentionally as there hasn't been a significant increase in population since SPLOST was passed. Hope SPLOST voters remember this on the next SPLOST. At least Commissioner Schulz cares about being honest to the voters.

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jduncan 1 year, 3 months ago

What, no quote from John Douglas? I'm shocked. He's been going around town taking credit for removing the artwork at Alcovy so surely he must have an answer for the judges dillema about lack of space. And after all the huffing and puffing he did over the pay raises. Well, I guess he's just waiting for Fox 5 to roll into town.

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Chris 1 year, 3 months ago

One might expand the hours of use of the existing facilities, which are not very old themselves. Evenings and Saturdays should not be out of the question. The rest of law enforcement operates 24-7, 365 days per year. It seems extravagant to build new office space to store files. If files are stacked to the ceiling they can be scanned into computer files. If courtrooms are too small for public access, we can install webcams. Facility expansion may be necessary at some point in the future, but not until we have optimized the use of the resources we already have available.

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Billy 1 year, 3 months ago

Had jury duty in March of last year, was not ultimately picked for that murder trial, (thank the Almighty for jury selection). Yes, the courtrooms are small. Can't they use space in the half empty county building where you buy your tag? Why do we have to soak the voters in an era where the golden goose was stomped into the ground by the ACLU, and all those ignorant people who aided and abetted this wrong path? There's no money for wasteful nonsense anymore, people. The good ole days may not return. We have to get by on less. If the judges don't like the job, I'm sure they can make mo money in private practice, defending hoods and the obviously guilty. Maybe the ACLU has an opening...

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deathtotaxes 1 year, 3 months ago

Get lean and efficient instead of creating mass. Can a second shift be created?

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mansfield 1 year, 3 months ago

$7 million is what they asked for and $7 million is what they should get. No borrowing, no more debt. Its time elected officials, even Judges who are elected, be forced to stick to their promises. What a refreshing change that would be for every politician.

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John 1 year, 3 months ago

If the need more seating capacity, why don't these judges find a suitable spot in and around the Square where the can have a Georgia first courtroom tailgate style party to handle all the needed crowd overflow - pipe in some close circuit TV, buy 3 or 4 big screen TVs at Wal-mart and they are good to go. They could rent spaces and when they collect enough money to buy the furnishings, fixtures, etc to the tune of an additional approximate $2.9 to $8 million etc.

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dennistay53 1 year, 3 months ago

What wasn't mentioned in the article is this. Henderson said he also wanted to borrow to speed up his 4th district SPLOST projects. It's disgusting to me that Ellis would even have this on a work session agenda to break the promise to SPLOST voters of no bonding and borrowing.

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HonestAbe 1 year, 3 months ago

No borrowing period. It's time for the government to do as we the taxpayers have done. Quit borrowing, cut back on spending, make sacrifices.

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Covingtonian 1 year, 3 months ago

Could the old courthouse be used in conjunction with the new administration building at least until the money to fund further expansion can be found? I think any solution would still have to be funded with monies for more deputies, furniture and office space. There was a news story on a local tv channel on Aug 28 that dealt with judges not being able to restrict people in the courtroom without just cause and judge Ozburn was quoted as saying , “We are especially concerned with the need to maintain courtrooms open to the public to avoid civil exposure to the county and the courts,” Closed circuit big screen tv's may be a viable answer, maybe there should be a work session to brainstorm some ideas. I too have been somewhat critical of the local judicial system in the past in part because of some of there rules concerning cell phones and the lack of space in the courtroom galleries. No one wants the criminals to be freed because they did not have a speedy trial, or released on a technicality because a judge erred on a ruling because he didn't have the proper amount of time to consider and consult published laws or charged a jury in such a way that a trial verdict is overturned. (my way of saying i'm against extending the judges work hours) This goes beyond splost and politics, it deals with every citizens safety and well being. Crime unfortunately is rampant in every community and law enforcement and the judicial system should be the last in which funds are with-held. We need to work together on this.

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HonestAbe 1 year, 3 months ago

With the courtrooms being used only 170 days a year- Any judge that would let a serious criminal go for lack of a speedy trial should be taken off the bench. This is only a crutch used by the judges to get what they want when they want it.

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John 1 year, 3 months ago

If the court rooms are only used 170 days per year & there are about 222 work days per year after discounting holidays and a liberal amount for vacation time, that equals 76.6% utilization. Some one LOGICALLY explain what is the urgency to spend $7 to 15 million and probably more??? or would it be much more efficent to just hire another judge or two to get close to 100% utilization of what we already have and are paying the heating & cooling bill of empty rooms. Makes sense from here.

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Covingtonian 1 year, 3 months ago

Ideas, brainstorming. One such being that all Judges be required to spend a minimum amount of hours per year or be removed from the bench. Reason for this idea, I recall an expose' on a judge in another judicial district that only worked 60 or so days the entire year. A minimum amount of time expected on the job to me would be reasonable.

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