Cost of Kentucky courthouses questioned by lawmakers

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By Scott Wartman

The Kentucky Enquirer

Concerns about state debt has slowed construction on courthouses around Kentucky after a decade where the state built or expanded 60 courthouses.

Since 2005, the state has completed 26 judicial centers and 14 remain under way at a cost of $590 million.

The General Assembly hasn’t funded new courthouses, however, in two years and doesn’t have any new ones funded in the proposed Senate and House two-year budgets being debated.

The courthouse construction that started under Chief Justice Joseph Lambert came under more scrutiny this session of the General Assembly during debate over a proposed debt ceiling. Senate Bill 1, which would have set Kentucky’s debt limit at six percent of the general fund, passed the Republican-controlled Senate and stalled in the Democratic-controlled House.

In a tea party-organized rally for Senate Bill 1, Congressional candidate and Lewis County Judge-executive Thomas Massie urged the state to stop building courthouses and use the money to invest in infrastructure and other needs.

“They look out of place they’re so huge,” Massie said of the new courthouses.

Sen. Joe Bowen, R-Owensboro, who authored Senate Bill 1, said he would support research into the consolidation of courthouses among counties.

“When we’re talking about state debt, particularly when we are talking about bonding used for brick and mortar projects, when we bond for brick and mortar projects, it takes away from our ability to fund programs and services,” Bowen said. “We’re obligated to fund the debt.”

These new courthouses, however, replace outdated ones that many say lacked security and space. In some rural counties, such as Pendleton and Owen, they replace courthouses that date back to before the Civil War.

The court system in Owen County will soon move from the one courtroom courthouse it has occupied since 1857 into a $12.5 million, 33,000 square-foot building with golden domes and three courtrooms.

Like with other counties, security in the old courthouse concerned judges and other workers in the courthouse. Prisoners and judges used the same elevator. Owen County’s old courthouse still doesn’t have a metal detector, said Judge-executive Carolyn Keith. Keith worked as the Owen County Circuit Clerk from 1988 to 2005.

“When I was the circuit clerk, I wanted a metal detector,” Keith said. “On days where there was judicial court, I have no doubt people were armed sitting there in the courtroom. In the 21st Century, with the anger management problems some citizens seem to have, it is quite scary.”

The size of these new judicial centers does concern Keith. With a population of about 11,000, Owen County will have a courthouse only 12,000 square feet less than adjacent Grant County, which has double the population. She said the county eliminated some of the features recommended by the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts.

Built to last for 100 years
The Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts and local project development boards plan the judicial centers and use a formula to determine the size based on caseloads and population projections, according to AOC staff.

“I do share the concern of how expensive these buildings are,” Keith said. “They will say they are building them to last for 100 years. I see their point there, too.”

Before Grant County opened its $16.6 million judicial center in 2010, District Judge Thomas Funk worked out of his car and home for a time after he was appointed in 1999. The new courthouses may be big, but they are built to last, Funk said.

“I think it is economical for the future,” Funk said. “We will need every square foot. We will grow into them really quickly. People will move down here in Grant County. The population will expand down it.”

The Administrative Office of the Courts overbuilt Pendleton County’s courthouse by about 20 percent said Henry Bertram, Pendleton County judge-executive and chairman of the project development board for the Pendleton County Courthouse. This will ensure it will last for the next century, he said. The previous Pendleton County courthouse lasted more than 150 years since it was last renovated in 1854, Bertram said.

“When the last time you upgraded a court facility was in 1854, it way outlasted the 100-year plan for it,” Bertram said. “These new facilities, hopefully it will last just as long.”

The 96,000-square-foot, $29 million addition to the Campbell County Courthouse in Newport will open in May attached to the back of the original courthouse built in 1884.

It will have eight courtrooms, compared to the five in the old building, and five elevators, compared to the one currently used by everyone. A structural engineer from California designed the building and put in a rare feature called a drag bar in the elevator and stairwells that will make the building stable during earthquakes and other cataclysms, said Matthew Grayson, construction manager for the project.

“Our staircase over here was very labor intensive” Grayson said. “We had a lot of work to do there. What caught us off guard was something called a drag bar. Our contractors have never seen it.”

A courthouse should instill pride in the community and respect for the law, Funk said.

“It is a source of county pride and represents the justice system in the community,” Funk said.

A significant piece of debt
The financial impact these massive projects have had, however, depends on who you ask. Gov. Steve Beshear’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2013 has $121 million going to pay the debt on courthouse construction.

It accounts for a significant piece of the state debt, said State Rep. Rick Rand, D-Bedford, chairman of the House Appropriations and Revenue committee. The state pays the debt through rent paid to each of the counties. Counties use the rent money to pay bonds they issued to construct the projects.

“I think since Justice John Minton has been the chief justice, he’s really slowed the process down, which I agree with, and is not authorizing as many courthouses,” Rand said. “They’re slowing down the beginning of construction as well as reducing the sizes of them.”

The House, in its proposed two-year budget next year, has only budgeted $4 million to furnish new judicial centers already under construction.

Planning has started for two new judicial centers in Henry and Nicholas counties but the construction hasn’t been funded, Rand said. The House put language in the budget to require Henry and Nicholas counties do a feasibility study to determine if a remodeling of the old courthouse would suffice, Rand said.

“I think the AOC could do a better job seeing how they could adapt current courthouses as opposed to building new structures,” Rand said