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Newton BOC moves forward to prioritize Judicial Center expansion

COVINGTON — After much discussion and added conditions, the Newton County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution during its regular monthly meeting Tuesday to move forward on plans to expand the county’s Judicial Center, moving the project up on the county’s priority list.

According to the resolution, work on the design, renovation and expansion of the Newton County Judicial Center will be carried out by finalizing design, building plans and specifications, finalizing budget estimates and initiating requests for qualifications and/or requests for proposals.

BOC Chairman Keith Ellis explained that the expansion of the Judicial Center would be funded out of special purpose local option sales tax funds. Initially, the project was not slated to begin until the end of the six-year 2011 SPLOST, but Superior Court judges appealed to the Board of Commissioners in August to expedite the project because the expansion is needed sooner.

“We made a pledge to the citizens that we would not borrow money or bond any projects,” Ellis said. “We discussed many, many methods to do this and I think we found a way.”

In order to fund the $7 million, SPLOST collections previously earmarked for an agriculture center that was placed higher on the priority list would be shifted to the Judicial Center expansion. After that is funded, then future SPLOST collections would be dedicated to an ag center, Ellis said. It is expected that construction of the expanded Judicial Center will take about 18 to 24 months.

Commissioner John Douglas asked whether this shift in priorities ran counter to the SPLOST referendum passed by voters.

County Attorney Jenny Carter explained that the referendum stated that an estimated $57.6 million in sales tax revenue would be collected through the 2011 SPLOST that would fund certain projects. An intergovernmental agreement later delineated the amount to be allocated to each individual project, she said.

Commissioner Nancy Schulz said she would like language added to the resolution that specified that the county would fund “up to $7 million” for the judicial expansion. She also asked that the leadership of the ag center committee be formally apprised of the priority shift “so they don’t read about it in the newspaper.”

Schulz also reiterated Commissioner J.C. Henderson’s concern that funding the construction of a building was only part of the cost because the county, including the Sheriff’s Office, would incur ongoing costs for additional security.

“I would like to see as plans are being finalized some estimate of what the maintenance and operations cost will be so can put that in our strategic plans for budgeting,” Schulz said.

In the end, commissioners approved the resolution to move forward on the expansion, but with the conditions that the cost on the expansion is not to exceed $7 million; an architectural consultant be brought in; the ongoing maintenance and operations costs be assessed; and a construction supervisor be included in the project.