MANATEE — Initial plans for the First District Court of Appeals’ new courthouse in Tallahassee called for a 60-inch flat screen TV for each judge, mahogany-paneled chambers and private kitchens with granite countertops.
Although some of those items were eliminated under the glare of public scrutiny, fallout over the $48 million facility — which some derisively call the Taj Mahal in the state’s capital — continues and even touches a legislator from Bradenton.
Rep. Ron Reagan, R-Bradenton, was called a “special hero” in e-mails among judges for his role in securing funding for the plush courthouse, the St. Pete Times reported Thursday.
Reagan acknowledged Thursday that he was part of the process that secured funding for the courthouse in an amendment to another bill on the last day of 2007 legislative session. But he contends he had no idea how fancy the courthouse was going to be.
“That is the one thing that upset me,” Reagan said. “I never knew how elaborate it would be.”
Reagan and fellow local legislators Rep. Bill Galvano and Sen. Mike Bennett all voted for the bill that included the courthouse.
All three say transparency in the state budget process has improved, but it would be difficult to change the budget process where a $70 billion budget negotiation often comes down to the 11th hour of the last day of the 60-day session.
Reagan was one of six council chairmen under then House Speaker Marco Rubio, who also is named a “hero” in the e-mails obtained by the Times.
Reagan said he remembers the courthouse coming up, but never saw the blueprints.
“I don’t recall doing anything to help them to be a hero,” Reagan said. “As I recall, they had gotten to a point where they were in the final phasing of their project and needed approval and that came through my committee, which was the Jobs and Entrepreneurship Council.”
Reagan said he had nothing to gain by pushing through the courthouse amendment, other than to satisfy the judges who badly needed a new facility.
This is one hero tag that Bennett said he is thankful not to get.
“I would have voted the whole thing down,” Bennett said. “When you have a public facility that costs more per square foot than the Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota, something is wrong.”
The courthouse in Tallahassee cost more than $400 per square foot, Bennett said.
“Luxury homes are right at $300,” Bennett said. “What they built is an embarrassment to the state of Florida and every taxpayer should be mad.”
Galvano said it would be very difficult to take all the politics out of the legislative process.
“What you still have is an agreement that has to occur between two chambers with 150 points of view along with the governor,” Galvano said.
“You end up in committees that occur in business hours and after-hours. It’s a $70 billion negotiation. I don’t know anything in the private world that is like it, given the time limit of 60 days.”
The controversy surrounding the new Tallahassee facility has some parallels in Bradenton.
The bill for building the Manatee County Judicial Center soared to $77. 3 million by the time it opened in May 2008, after years of delay. County commissioners originally estimated the project would cost $47 million or less.
But it does not have private kitchens or mahogany-paneled chambers for the judges.
The local Judicial Center was built with county funding and Manatee County commissioners were careful to make sure there were no excessive amenities, said Chief Judge Lee Haworth of the 12th Judicial Circuit, which includes Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties.
“We have private bathrooms in Manatee County, but not in Sarasota County,” Haworth said. “There is no granite. We have Formica. I wish we had mahogany trimming, but we have drywall.”
No one is quite sure who came up with the mahogany panels and 60-inch flat screens in the state’s capital.
Walt Smith, trial court administrator for the 12th Judicial Circuit Court, insists that it couldn’t have slipped through in Manatee County.
“We went through a 10-year planning process for the Manatee County Judicial Center, and during that process we went through three chief judges, two different building construction firms and two different planners,” Smith said. “It was a long and arduous process. Everything down to the plates on the walls were accounted for.
“We even brought our old furniture over from the old courthouse,” Smith added.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be contacted at 748-0411, ext. 6686.